AC/DC: FLY ON THE WALL (1985)
For a band that much busy with promoting a dumb image, AC/DC certainly raise quite a few complicated issues. For instance — we all know that AC/DC are generally as good as their riffs, but what is it, exactly, that makes an AC/DC riff, or, in fact, a hard rock riff in general, so utterly great for the body and soul? And what is it that makes an AC/DC riff boring and generic? And why would most — not all, but most — people agree on the greatness of the riffage in 'Hells Bells' or 'Whole Lotta Rosie', while at the same time failing to notice anything special about the riffage on 'Flick Of The Switch' or 'This House Is On Fire'?
Or — vice versa — some fans and critics, even those convinced that Fly On The Wall represents AC/DC's all-time lowest point, would still note that the title track, however, is sort of okay, or even «excellent». How could that happen? 'Fly On The Wall' (the song), to my ears, has always seemed the weakest start ever to an AC/DC album, a return to the power chord sludge of the 1981 album, a song that could have been slapped together in three minutes on a particularly lazy day. Does it even have a riff? Can one hum it? Can one appreciate it? If so, how and why can one appreciate it and another even fail to notice it...?
These are all interesting questions, and to discuss them is perhaps more appropriate within the review of a mediocre album than an excellent one. But since I do not even have a hypothetical answer, let us just skip the theoretical part and concentrate on the record for a while. By 1985, AC/DC were getting older, and their schtick was already illustrating the definition of «predictable» in every thesaurus, so it is no wonder that fans and critics alike were not at all happy with Fly On The Wall. Today, in retrospect, the album still stands as a fine testament to AC/DC's tenacity — coming out at the height of the hair metal boom, it was, nevertheless, firmly and frighteningly true to the band's style. Even the drums (now played by new band member Simon Wright, having replaced Phil Rudd due to the latter being sacked for non-disciplinary behaviour) have not been enhanced by any modernistic electronic effects — leaving AC/DC probably the only classic rock act of that era so steadfastly clinging to the past.
History has rewarded them with the last laugh: today, Fly On The Wall is one of the few hard rock albums of 1985-86 that does not sound ridiculously dated. If only its material stood up to the production values, we would all be sitting pretty. Alas, the songwriting has once again taken a sharp downturn, and the lack of focus on the title track is but one indication. None of the tracks at all have persisted in the band's live setlist, and some are just silly macho throwaways that are only production-wise better than the goofy hair metal crap they were supposed to contest with. 'Send For The Man'? 'First Blood'? 'Back In Business'? (The latter's title probably tries to somehow allude to 'Back In Black', but how could this unimaginative hard-funk riff, somewhat reminiscent of Rainbow's 'Man On The Silver Mountain', ever hope to compete with the genius simplicity of the bang - ba-da-bang - ba-da-bang of 'Back In Black'?) All of these songs have the required crunch and punch, but AC/DC pride themselves on being a rock'n'roll band, and this is not rock'n'roll — this is pompous heavy rock posturing, and it is boring at best and ugly at worst.
Still, some nice rock'n'roll is present: the riffs seem noticeably better on songs like 'Shake Your Foundations', 'Sink The Pink', 'Playing With Girls', and 'Hell Or High Water', and these also contain the catchiest, most likeable choruses — getting dumber with each year, as most people who have ever tried singing along to "ai-yee-yay-yay, shake your foundations!" will probably agree, but still preserving the fun quotient. Which makes Fly On The Wall very inconsistent, but certainly not a complete disaster, as was thought at the time.
One major disadvantage is that AC/DC's magic only really works when all the ingredients are equally strong; lose or weaken just one and the seams will start showing. By 1985, Brian Johnson's voice had finally begun giving in to all the strain, embarking on its transition from the most powerful high-pitched scream of 1980 to the «stuck pig hoarse rasp» of 1990. At that time, the problems were showing up more frequently onstage than in the studio; but, for some reason, the band decided that it was necessary to «mask» them all the same — so they put some kind of ugly echo or reverb effect on the vocals, for once, yielding to technological pressure.
The result is that the singing problem still remains and is well visible, but the vocals tend to simply disappear behind the guitars' wall of sound — to the point that sometimes I almost fail to notice when exactly the vocalist is supposed to come in, or, at least, when exactly his ad-libbing in the song intro finally shifts into the verse melody. This is totally frustrating, particularly on the better songs: I cannot help thinking how, with improved mixing and production, 'Playing With Girls', for instance, could have turned into a fabulous classic, well on the level with Back In Black material. (Could have, I'm not taking any chances).
Throw in the strangest album title so far — the first AC/DC album title, in fact, to completely dump their power effect — and the unimpressive album sleeve (an actual fly on the wall? imagine that!), and there is no disputing the fact that the band has, indeed, ran into deep trouble. But I still give the album a moderate thumbs up, on the strength of its strong half and the bravery of its very existence in the age of Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe.