Back in Black. AC/DC.
1980, Atlantic Records. Producer: Robert John “Mutt” Lange
Purchased ca. 1981.
IN A NUTSHELL – “Stiff-cock Riff-rock.” Big riffs, cool guitar solos, and – best of all – killer melodies are featured across ten songs about sex and drugs and rock and roll. Music that sounds like a pair of hormonal 13 year old boys were asked to write lyrics and guitar riffs for catchy pop tunes. In other words, just about perfect. Would have been higher on the list if I was still 13.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine – a bit older than me, but a huge rock music fan – asked a bunch of us assembled friends, “What was the first great rock record you ever bought?” The answers – all from friends a bit older than myself – were typical Baby Boomer favorites, albums like Blue, by Joni Mitchell; Tea for the Tillerman, by Cat Stevens; Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones. I didn’t answer immediately – I had to think.
I only bought a few records as a youngster, most at department stores, which – believe it or not, kiddies – used to have an actual Record Department! I distinctly remember the old Record Department at Hill’s Department Store, in the Hebron section of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. It was in the near right corner of the store, as you walked in the front entrance. (Or in the near left corner if you entered from the Mall that was built onto the store in the late 70s). I would look through the racks of albums while my mom did her shopping, and sometimes I was allowed to buy something.
I tried to think of the albums I’d gotten in such department stores, and I remembered trying to decide whether to buy Elvis Costello’s Trust or REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity and deciding that my folks would be worried about me if I came home with Elvis Costello, seeing as he was weird looking and seemed to be trying to make a statement with his songs, and so deciding REO was the safer choice. (I didn’t seem to notice the woman in underwear on the cover – which may have also caused concern – and I don’t know what that says about my 13-year old self!)
But my friend had asked what was the first “great” album I bought, and I couldn’t honestly say I thought Hi Infidelity was a great album.
My parents really had a big influence on my music purchases as a middle schooler, because my brain next delivered a record store memory of nearly buying Devo’s Freedom of Choice but then noticing the back cover, in which Gerald V. makes the old “in-out, in-out” sign with his fingers, and wondering if my folks would flip out if their 13 year old son brought home an album with such filth on it, so instead I bought …
“Back in Black, by AC/DC,” I said.
My friend’s face twisted into a mask of confusion.
“What are you, thirteen years old?” he asked.
Back In Black actually did come out when I was 13 years old, and I remember it caused a bit of a sensation in my school. I was in 8th grade, listening to whatever was played on WLBR, AM-1270 – pop songs by Elton John, Captain and Tennille, Seals and Crofts. I had a couple Village People cassettes, but I was never really a fan, and I no longer listened to them – they were silly artifacts of my 6th grade self!
My sisters were music fans – American Bandstand, top 40, some 70s rock, disco – and through them I knew that WLBR didn’t exactly have the hippest playlist. Friends would mention artists like Pink Floyd and Queen and Van Halen, but I had no idea where to hear music like that until a couple friends in church got me to start tuning the radio to 104.1, WTPA – a ROCK MUSIC station – when my mom wasn’t around. I liked some of the songs, but some of them were too long, and some of the lyrics were a little more unsettling than “Crocodile Rock” or “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Into this era of musical uncertainty dropped a black album that pre-dated that other famous black album, Smell the Glove.
Back in Black suddenly became the album that everyone at Cedar Crest Middle School had to have – one of the first albums I really remember as an album, in which a band went into a studio and recorded some songs. Before that I mostly thought of music in terms of singles, 45s, and figured once an act had a bunch of 45s, they probably packaged a bunch together into an album. In the case of Back in Black, it was clearly cool to buy The Album, not just a 45 or two.
However, I didn’t become an immediate fan.
I bought the album, listened a couple times, but I generally found the music too loud and screamy, and I was put off by comments from an adult near me.
In 8th grade, I had a “hip” music teacher/band director named Mr. Meyers, who closely resembled The Burger King, and made students as uncomfortable with his “coolness” as The Culps ever did. Anyway, it was early 1981, and I remember we had several lessons about rock music, and he played us what I suppose he thought were fresh, new hits – like 1972’s Frankenstein, by The Edgar Winter Group – and was disappointed that we didn’t go wild for the songs. He asked what rock music we’d rather hear, and it seemed like the entire class said “Back in Black.” He scoffed and said, “We listened to that album in the other class, and it’s the most basic, simple, uninteresting music I’ve ever heard.” He seemed like he knew music, and I’d found it a little screamy anyway, so I decided I’d put it aside and find other works.
That was probably when I bought Hi Infidelity.
Flash forward to my college years, and me at one of a million parties. I notice some really great songs playing: songs that are raucous and fun, with huge, killer riffs, but that have great, hook-y melodies with cool breakdowns and nice changes. I could tell from the screamy voice it was AC/DC, but it wasn’t until the mega-popular song “Back In Black” came on that I realized which album I was hearing. Soon after that party I pulled out my copy of Back In Black, put it on the turntable and re-discovered what I’d been missing. I’ve been a fan ever since.
The guitar is what I notice first about Back In Black. Each song on the album is built around a riff, a guitar pattern that repeats throughout the song, a hook that pulls the listener in. This pattern is established immediately (well, after 20 seconds of tolling bells) in the opening cut, “Hell’s Bells.”
But – as with any repetition in music – there is a point at which a “cool riff” turns into a “tiresome riff,” and guitarist brothers Angus and Malcolm Young know how to keep the riffs fresh. For example, in the “Hell’s Bells” video above, at about 1:17, the boys change the riff slightly to play behind singer Brian Johnson’s melody. When the chorus comes around, and the original riff returns, at about 2:01, it sounds bright and new.
And Brian Johnson sings some great melodies! Each of these songs has a catchy melody that could be hummed by your grandma, crooned by a lounge singer, or pilfered by today’s top 40 producers. These songs play on in my head because the melodies are so strong. His voice – a seemingly oxymoronic shrill growl – might have to grow on some listeners, but he uses it effectively in the band’s arrangements. It’s hard to imagine a different voice – say, Lionel Richie or Michael McDonald – singing a song like “What Do You Do For Money Honey” – and having it sound as good as it does when Johnson belts it.
This song also displays the album’s winning formula of big riff, thumping beat and melodic vocals that AC/DC nails every time. It’s a formula that sounds simple, and that was the basis for an entire genre of embarrassing music from the 80s.
But it’s proven difficult to maintain over an album’s worth of music. Part of what makes AC/DC successful with this formula is that they don’t overdo anything they do. Those hair-bands from the 80s all made careers (of sorts) out of attempting to have guitar solos with the most notes, drum fills with the most beats, singers with the most operatic trills … But listen to AC/DC and you’ll notice that neither lead guitarist Angus, drummer Phil Rudd, nor especially singer Johnson are particularly showy.
Angus – in his school-boy outfit and wielding a red Gibson SG guitar –
is one of the most recognizable Guitar Gods in rock, and he has an unmistakable sound, as well. What I like about him – apart from the awesome riffs he writes – is that his playing is never overdone. As I’ve written before, sometimes I think overdoing it is okay. But AC/DC songs don’t need it. As heard here in the song “Have a Drink on Me,” (beginning at 2:21) Angus’s guitar solos never use 10 or 20 notes when 3 or 4 will suffice.
Drummer Phil Rudd is similarly restrained. He’s not big on long fills, and he doesn’t have a set of dozens of finely-tuned toms. But he is a pounding machine, and plays difficult rhythms easily. The well known title track has a riff with a tricky rhythm to it, stuttering syncopation and a guitar pattern off the back beat, and Rudd plays along effortlessly. Also, the drums on this album really SOUND good; there’s a depth to them, and they just sound COOL.
Angus’s riffs are awesome, and he sounds like he’s having fun playing them – like the schoolboy who just got off the bus and cranked his amp as loud as it could go before his parents came home. There’s a raunchiness to them, and they are perfectly complemented by Brian Johnson’s equally raunchy lyrics. There is an 8th grader’s fascination with genitals, alcohol, drugs, Satan and rock music running throughout all of these songs, and while that hardly sounds like a positive aspect, the humor (and Johnson’s screech) makes them work.
I never thought much about the lyrics until, sometime in my teenage years, my sister pointed out the misogyny of the lyrics “She was a fast machine/she kept her motor clean/she was the best damn woman that I’d ever seen,” from the song “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It’s true: most (all?) of the album’s lyrics about women sound like a horny, inexperienced boy’s imaginative boasts to his gullible friends. The song “Given the Dog a Bone” describes a blowjob (several blowjobs?) with phrases that resemble graffiti (complete with misspellings) erased from a middle school text book at the end of the school year: “She’s down on her knees/… at ninety degrees/Blowing me crazy/’Til my ammunition is dry/She’s using her head again/I’m given the dog a bone.”
Clearly, even though Johnson (heh heh! Johnson! [Sorry – channeling my inner 13 year old here]) has a way with melodies, he isn’t exactly Lord Byron. Usually his double-entendres and bad puns are humorous enough, and the songs otherwise so great, that their content isn’t as off-putting as one would expect. However, on the song “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” the lyrics reach a nadir.
First of all … “Let Me Put My Love Into You”??? I suppose that’s a metaphor? Or is it a simple request? I guess it could be a pronouncement of a desire to grow spiritually closer to, and form a deep lasting attachment with a significant other, such that two become one. Probably not, though. The worst lyric of the entire album (which is, granted, filled with lyrics that are certainly in the running) is contained in this song: “Let me put my love into you, babe/Let me put my love on the line/Let me put my love into you, babe/Let me cut your cake with my knife.” Jesus H. Christ!! That’s the best he could come up with? So much is wrong with that line. Okay, I don’t want to divulge too much personal information in this blog, but I am comfortable putting out there that I, for one, don’t find knives cutting, no matter how beautiful they or a cake may be, to be particularly sexy imagery.
Secondly, a knife isn’t even a very good metaphor for the male anatomy! At least, anyway, males who haven’t suffered a significant injury or congenital birth defect. And lastly, and maybe worst of all, IT DOESN’T EVEN RHYME!! Come on, Johnson!! (heh heh). To fit with “Let me put my love on the line,” why not use “Let me drill a shaft in your mine,” or “In your shrubbery let me plant my pine,” or “Let me soak my pickle in your brine.” Or why not get rid of the stupid pretense (I mean, look at the song title!!) and just say “Let me put my penis in your va-jine.” There were so many ways to go.
Johnson’s cusp-of-manhood sentiments are better employed in songs like “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” “Shake a Leg,” and “Back in Black,” in which a defiant, us-against-the-world attitude is taken. He pushes back against the “middle men” in “fancy clothes” who sit on the fence, too scared to get off their arses and come face the band. In the title track – which lyrically and sonically sounds like a direct precursor to the Gangsta Rap hits that would follow in the next 10 years – he boasts “I’m in a bang/With a gang/They’ll have to catch me if they want me to hang.” Together with Angus’s ripping riffs and Rudd’s pounding drums, these Johnson lyrics elicit all the silly outrage and indignation that is felt at 13, back when it didn’t seem silly at all.
Back in Black at its best is exemplified by the song “Shoot to Thrill.” Great hooks, great riffs, great melody, cool drums, and boasting young teen lyrics (“I got everything/All you women might need to know”).
Back in Black is the 4th best selling non-greatest-hits album ever in the US, with 22 million units sold. It’s clearly made an impact on lots of folks. It made an impact on me because even though I’m no longer 13, sometimes it’s lots of fun to go back and visit that time.
Shoot to Thrill
What Do You Do For Money Honey
Given the Dog a Bone
Let Me Put My Love Into You
Back In Black
You Shook Me All Night Long
Have a Drink on Me
Shake a Leg
Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution