How AC/DC’s Back In Black Changed Rock Music Forever
2005. It’s a clement February afternoon in Studio One at Olympic Studios in South West London. The room itself has hosted its fair share of internationally famous musicians, with everyone from The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin through to U2, Oasis and Hole having recorded there. Strangely, however, today’s visitors haven’t – despite having spent time living in London for a number of years.
Malcolm and Angus Young walk into the room with their customary lack of fanfare. No security, no irritating personal assistants or fluffers, no airs or graces – just a clutch of Benson & Hedges cigarettes each, and their self-deprecating sense of humour.
The brothers are here to conduct a filmed interview to promote their DVD set, Family Jewels, which traces AC/DC’s history back to their first televised appearances in Australia in 1975. The most memorable of these includes a super-charged version of Big Joe Williams’ Baby, Please Don’t Go on weekly TV show Countdown.
In that same year, AC/DC released their debut album, High Voltage, having recruited Bon Scott as their singer in October ’74. Bon would have a catalytic influence on the group, his personality helping to define their direction.
“They thought we’d be a good pop-rock type band, play a bit of rock’n’roll and a bit of pop. That’s how we started but, then, when Bon came into the picture six months later, we had the key to go straight to rock’n’roll because he could deliver it, and he had his own style,” begins Malcolm, as the cameras start to roll for what is an interview that lasts close to two hours and traverses AC/DC’s entire career.
“Bon influenced the band to go more into the rock’n’roll thing, which we’d always liked anyway,” he continues. “But when you’re kids, you’ll do whatever it takes to get signed up and get on the road. We were really happy at the thought of just working in clubs for the rest of our lives because it was better than having day jobs, and you could travel. We thought, ‘If we could accomplish that, then we’ve got a life.’ Everything else became a bonus after that.”
Bon Scott did indeed spur AC/DC on to loftier ambitions, and he remains core to their success – the pinnacle of which is Back In Black, the band’s tribute to their late frontman which was released 40 years ago this week.
Like the Young brothers, Bon was born in Scotland prior to his family’s decision to emigrate to Australia. He was 28 when he joined AC/DC, seven and nine years older than Malcolm and Angus respectively, and he’d already fronted a number of bands (The Spektors and The Valentines) without ever genuinely tasting major-league success.
His next band, Fraternity, were what Malcolm refers to as “a hippy-dippy band” whose whimsical musical style was at odds with what he describes as Bon’s “sock-it-to-’em attitude”. The frontman had also toured the UK with Fraternity, but the band had failed to find an audience there, forcing him to return to Australia. Back home, he secured a job at a fertiliser plant and joined the country-rock act The Mount Lofty Rangers, only to leave during a heated argument during a rehearsal.
Initially, Bon was reluctant to join AC/DC due to the age difference between him and the rest of the band, thinking his day job presented him a greater sense of security. But, having watched them play shows, he was also acutely aware of the chemistry that existed between the brothers. Hit by a moment of realisation, he understood that AC/DC offered him one last shot at a career in music, and when the brothers and Bon moved into a communal band house in Lansdowne Road, Melbourne, he ensured they knuckled down to work.
“Bon would be the first one up in the morning, no matter what state he went to bed in,” says Malcolm. “You’d get a cup of coffee by your bed. ‘Come on, time to get up and get into practice.’ He was driving us on a lot.”
“When it came to rock’n’roll, he was always deadly serious. He’d be the first to tell you, ‘No, that’s not working,’ or, ‘Go away and write something,’” adds Angus. “Sometimes he’d get stuck and he’d go down to a club for the night and get wasted but, as Mal said, he was there first thing in the morning, putting these lyrics together.”
Bon’s enthusiasm was evident as the fledgling band – completed by drummer Phil Rudd and bass player Mark Evans, who also both joined in late ’75 to stabilise the line-up – sought to carve out their own niche and create a sound that could see them break out of Australia in a way that fellow local hard rock heroes like the Coloured Balls and Billy Thorpe And The Aztecs had failed to do.
It was this sense of ambition that would drive them on and which Malcolm in particular would adhere to, instilling a constant sense of discipline into the ’DC setup that was a tight as the rigour he displayed as the band’s rhythm guitar player.
AC/DC’s work ethic and unique chemistry propelled them ever forward, as they earned their stripes by playing endless shows in clubs, pubs and bars, as well as venues that other artists ignored – high schools included, where Angus’s evolving schoolboy image went down a storm.
“We used to do these high school matinees for lunchtime kids,” recalls Malcolm, “And they were great; kids would respond. It was a little bit pantomime when you look back, but kids loved it.”
The trio of Malcolm, Angus and Bon also developed a fearsome songwriting partnership, with the vocalist’s mischievous personality and deep love of rock’n’roll informing his lyrics on a cache of classic material that graced a string of hard-hitting albums – at least one per year, in fact, which saw them hit a hot streak of T.N.T (1975), Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976, which remained unreleased in the U.S. until 1981), Let There Be Rock (1977) and Powerage (1978). Each of these albums sounded more accomplished than the last and sold more than its predecessor, their chart positions around the world proving as much.
From 1976 onwards, AC/DC’s roadwork also intensified as they began to tour outside of Australia, garnering attention in the UK in particular, where they found allies in the press (famed weekly paper Sounds was a particular staunch supporter). As a result, the band moved to England in that very same year, arriving just as punk rock had begun to strip away the affectation and indulgence associated with the increasingly bloated ’70s rock scene.
Malcolm and Angus have always been clear that their heroes consist of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll – Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and especially Chuck Berry (“We used to jump around to him as kids,” smiles Malcolm) – and they had little truck with punk rock or the attitudes associated with it.
“As Mal said, we liked Chuck Berry. And Berry sang about cars, women and party time. That to us was rock’n’roll,” nods Angus. “[Punks] were locked into selling anarchy, like a political thing. To be honest with you, the first time I heard the word ‘anarchy’, I had to get a dictionary to look up the fucker! I’m limited – meaning a limited education – so that wasn’t communicating anything to me.”
“We would get punks showing up [at shows] and spitting, and when anyone [in the band] got hit by gob, we’d be in the audience punching the shit out of them,” adds Malcolm. “It wasn’t like we were punk, but the reputation of the band was there.”
Despite their ideological and musical differences, punk’s re-stating of rock’n’roll’s primitive impulses suited AC/DC down to the ground, echoing their own often deceptively simple approach to songwriting and the direct impact of their frenetic live show.
“We were sitting on three chords, mainly,” explains Malcolm detailing the band’s musical outlook. “If there was a fourth chord, it was a bonus. But it was down to how you broke it up and arranged things, and with Bon’s lyrics working within that. Within a couple of days in the studio we pretty much had our thing locked in, and we all knew what we were doing. We kept everything simple. Most of the best songs ever written are three chords. That’s the reality of it. We’d just go for the throat. That’s what our whole thing was.”
THERE ARE those that will argue that AC/DC’s approach to songwriting has never actually changed. That in itself is a falsehood. Powerage – released in May 1978, and the first album to feature new bass player Cliff Williams – captures the band at their most hooligan on tracks like Rock’n’Roll Damnation, Sin City and the sheer battery of Riff Raff. In contrast, Powerage’s successor, Highway To Hell, is infinitely more polished.
Released 14 months later in July 1979 – with the band’s live tour-de-force, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, sandwiched in-between – Highway To Hell boasts an altogether more anthemic musical direction. The title-track is a case in point, as are tunes like Girls Got Rhythm, Shot Down In Flames and the cautionary tale of Touch Too Much (a song title they’d used previously, but which was re-worked entirely for AC/DC’s sixth studio album).
Play both albums back-to-back and the songwriting development on the album is evident. The choruses are bigger, the guitars sharper and Bon’s vocals sound richer. The band’s more accessible sound was, in many respects, down to the arrival of their new producer, Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange. Born in Zambia, Mutt had moved to South Africa before ending up in London, where he switched from being a musician and began his career as a producer in ’76. The first artists he worked with included pop rock-cum-new wave acts City Boy, The Motors, Graham Parker And The Rumour and The Boomtown Rats, all of whom enjoyed critical acclaim and hits in the UK.
His association with AC/DC, however, began by default. Despite the band’s continued rise in the space of four years, their label, Atlantic Records, was adamant that they needed to make a more radio-friendly album in order to reach beyond their ardent fan-base. The label’s initial choice of producer was the veteran Eddie Kramer, renown for his engineering work with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin and, more recently, as the man who’d produced KISS’ breakthrough albums.
For AC/DC, it was the first album they’d recorded without the trusted production team of their brother George Young and his partner Harry Vanda at the helm. They’d begun writing the album back in Australia, but Eddie wanted them to record at Criteria Studios in Miami, which was unfamiliar territory. The result proved to be combustible.
“He was more of a distraction than an aid, and we’d had enough of working with him after a couple of weeks,” states Angus.
Malcolm spoke to their management and label and demanded a new producer. It was Jerry Greenberg, the president of Atlantic Records and the band’s staunch ally, who suggested Mutt who, in turn, asked AC/DC to send him a tape of the material they were working on before agreeing to produce them. The band, who were still in the studio with Eddie at the time, acquiesced to Mutt’s demands.
“We said we were taking the weekend off. We lied, and went in to knock down [the songs] on tape and we sent them off. Lange heard them and said, ‘Sounds good, I’ll work with you,’ so we left Miami,” confirms Angus.
Repairing to the Roundhouse Studios in Chalk Farm, the quintet began working with Mutt and forged an instant relationship with the 30-year-old producer.
“He had good ears for sound, and he was meticulous about getting the guitars and drums right,” says Angus. “He would zero in [on things] and he was brilliant with that. He was good on the vocal side, too. Even Bon was impressed. Normally, when Bon was singing, we’d go ‘That’s good enough for rock’n’roll’ but Mutt would say things like, ‘Spread it a bit.’ He brought that [precision] to things.”
Mutt’s painstaking attitude to sound was matched by his own affection for the music AC/DC were making, as he harnessed their power and added even more discipline to their already well-drilled approach.
“He liked the simplicity of the band,” says Malcolm, “We were always minimalist. We felt it was the best way to be and it was easier to reproduce that onstage and, some nights, make things even better than the record. He’d say, ‘Do you want to throw some more harmonies on and dub them on?’ and we’d say, ‘If we can’t do it onstage, we don’t want to go down that road.’ He made sure all the tracks were solid and he could hear if a snare was just off. No-one else could hear it, but he’d hear it. He’d go, ‘Hang on a minute, we’ve got to fix this. You guys want to have another shot? Get the vibe and do your own thing to make it better?’ After two days in the studio he said, ‘This is the best band I’ve ever worked with.’ It was because we were all pliable, ready to listen and do what was required, while keeping our freedom too.”
“He had a good sense of humour too,” adds Angus. “He kept you going in that way. A good giggle.”
Mutt, it appeared, was the sounding board AC/DC needed in order to make a record that could crossover beyond their rabid live fanbase. As well as a new producer, the band had hired new heavy-duty management in the form of U.S.-based firm Leber And Krebs, whose clients also included acts like Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and Mahogany Rush. The firm’s rising star Peter Mensch, then an ambitious 26-year-old, was assigned with transforming them from a cult band into a genuine world-beating outfit.
The first fruits of this new set-up saw the band head to Oakland to play the Day On The Green festival with the rest of their managerial stable mates a week before the release of Highway To Hell, their show-stealing set being captured for posterity by a film crew.
While Highway To Hell failed to spawn a bona fide hit single (the title-track merely dented the U.S. Top 50), it was AC/DC’s first album to enter the Billboard Top 100 upon release, climbing to Number 17 as the band snaked their way through concert halls and arenas from early September onwards. In the UK, the album hit the Top 10, peaking at Number 8, their British tour – where they were supported by emerging Sheffield hard rockers Def Leppard – acting as a lap of honour, evinced by a four-night stand at London’s legendary Hammersmith Odeon. A remarkable feat when you consider that just over three years earlier, in April ’76, they’d played a free show at the 100-capacity Red Lion pub down the road…
As 1979 came to an end, everything seemed in place for AC/DC’s relentless march to continue apace. Highway To Hell had been certified gold in the U.S. and plans were in place for more touring as the band began work on their next album. Everything, however, came to a shuddering halt in the early hours of February 19, 1980, when Bon Scott died following a night of excessive drinking.
DISCUSSING BON Scott’s passing is still not something that his bandmates have ever been comfortable with. Understandably so. Bon’s influence on AC/DC and Malcolm and Angus in particular – both personally and professionally – was huge. His death at the age of 33 was a cruel and sudden blow that came with a number of unanswered questions.
On February 18, after a night of heavy drinking at the Music Machine in North London, rather than return to his own apartment in Victoria Bon was driven to a friend’s flat in East Dulwich. Unable to rouse the singer, his friend left him in the back of his Renault 5 to sleep the booze off. The following day Bon was found in the vehicle, an official inquest declaring he had died of acute alcohol poisoning and recording a verdict of death by misadventure. The circumstances of his death remain a source of conjecture, certain discrepancies concerning the time of his death and the shadowy company he kept on that night leading to a host of conspiracy theories.
“Stories get taller and taller as the years go by, and they become bigger. As it grows, more have conspiracy this and that,” says Malcolm. “They look at the coroner’s report, they look at, ‘This piece is missing.’ To us at the time, we were just in a very low period. Nobody knew what was going to happen from there on. But with all of that, when all this rubbish started coming out, that got us angry again because we knew what happened. We weren’t there, but we knew exactly what went on there.
“Bon was let down that night by a friend. He was a big drinker, so that night he went a little bit further. The reality is that it became a bigger story. What most people read was right in the beginning. He didn’t go to drink himself to death. He had too much to live for.”
Just four days prior to his death, Bon had visited Malcolm and Angus in the band’s rehearsal room at E-Zee Hire Studios and they had started writing new material.
“He came down and got behind the drum kit,” confirms Angus. “He was telling us what he’d been up to. He’d been out a couple of nights and seen a few bands. He said, ‘When do you want me to come in [next]? I’ve got a whole heap of ideas.’ He was going to come down again in the next week, putting lyrics together and stuff.”
As the band grieved, arrangements were made for Bon’s body to be flown home to Australia where his ashes were laid to rest at Fremantle Cemetery on February 29. Following the service, the Young brothers flew back to London, but did they ever think that their singer’s death marked the end of AC/DC?
“Yeah, pretty much,” nods Angus.
“On the plane back the management was going, ‘All right you guys, we’ve got some singers.’ We were like, ‘His body isn’t even cold yet, you bastards!’” adds Malcolm. “We didn’t know what we were going to do. We were still really low. It took us about six weeks to get the band back together again. Me and Angus would ring each other every day, and we weren’t snapping out of it. So I said to him, ‘We’re going down to E-Zee Hire, the two of us. Just for therapy, pick up the guitars; maybe that’s the way to get through this.’”
For the brothers, playing again did indeed appear therapeutic. “We put down quite a few little ideas but, to be honest, we trashed them in the end anyway,” says Malcolm. Spurred on by the suggestion of Bon’s father that they should keep AC/DC together, they began to field calls from singers. How, though, could they replace someone whose very presence made him seem irreplaceable?
“We knew he was unique and we couldn’t find another Bon,” says Malcolm. “We had to go somewhere different.”
“We weren’t looking for a clone or a copy. You’ve got to get someone that’s got their own character,” adds Angus.
One of the names mentioned was that of Brian Johnson, the 32-year-old frontman of Newcastle-based rockers Geordie. Ironically, Bon had played with the latter band during his first visit to the UK, and had relayed his admiration for the singer to the brothers previously comparing his delivery to that of Little Richard.
Like Bon, Brian had flirted with success in previous bands, Geordie scoring a Top 10 hit in the UK with the neo-glam-pop stomp of All Because Of You in February 1973 before adopting a heavier direction. But by 1978, his band had splintered and Brian was aware that he was facing a now-or-never situation. Equally, he was aware of Bon’s reputation among ’DC fans, and he hesitated when he got the call to travel to London for an audition.
“He just looked like a cabaret bloke and the band he was in was rotten,” says Malcolm, bluntly. “But when he came in, he was completely different from what you saw in Geordie’s world of those pop tunes. We got him in and played [a version of Ike And Tina Turner’s 1973 hit] Nutbush City Limits. We wanted to check how powerful he was. Could he get above the band? He was first singer we heard for real; you could actually hear him. We thought, ‘He’s got the tools, big chest.’”
“He was also pretty normal and down to earth, like the rest of us,” adds Angus.
Brian’s first audition also saw him run through a version of Angus’s signature tune Whole Lotta Rosie, his performance further confirming that he possessed his own singing style as well as the ability to perform the band’s classic material. “We popped that at him and he handled it well,” says Malcolm, explaining their decision to move to a second audition.
“On Grand National Day [March 29, 1980] we were sitting in E-Zee with the band and we said, ‘What should we do?’” remembers Malcolm. “They said, ‘Let’s get the Geordie lad in again, we’ll see how he does.’ So we got him down and it kicked off from there.”
Brian’s appointment was officially announced on April 1, 1980, as AC/DC prepared to resume work in earnest on their next album. So was Brian daunted in any way by the situation?
“I suppose [Bon’s were] big shoes, you’ve got to fill them, you’ve got that side of it,” nods Angus. “And then, again, there’s a different character, different style for your songs. Whereas Bon sings the lyric side of things, the difference with Brian was that it was more of a high screaming kind of style, so you had to kind of change and you’d be experimenting with the best way to get him into where everyone felt comfortable with it.”
“Brian was pretty pliable as far as trying things differently,” says Malcolm. “He was always looking for input. ‘How am I doing?’ Like any new guy coming into a band, you want to make sure you’re on the right track. So when he needed it, everyone gave him a pat on the back. We’d all cheer him on if he sang well.”
As well acclimatising himself to his new bandmates, Brian also had to deal with being further away from home when an eleventh hour decision was made to record the album at Compass Point Studios in Nassau in the Bahamas. As exotic as that sounds, the band arrived just in time to find the region being hit by a series of devastating storms. Despite this unsettling situation, Mutt Lange once again provided key support to the still-grieving band and their new singer.
“Mutt liked to work with Brian alone on the vocal side,” recalls Malcolm. “That’s the way he prefers to work. He’d call you in afterwards and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve got today.’ You’d hear it and he’d say, ‘How does that sound?’ ‘It sounds great.’ Mutt could sing as high as Brian so if Brian couldn’t – ‘It’s too fucking high for me’ – Mutt would go and hit the high note and go, ‘That’s the one.’ So [Brian] had to work hard. He was put through the mill there, but he was getting plenty of pats on the back. He needed them to be honest because [he would say], ‘I’ll be the scapegoat if this all goes wrong.’ We said, ‘No, it’s the band. This is a band, it’s not Brian Johnson, it’s the band here. We’re all in that boat together, you’re not on your own. You’ve just got to do your best, mate.’ Which is what he’d done.”
Years later, Brian would confirm that the Compass Point sessions had stretched him to breaking point as well as admitting that the six week recording process had been one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life. In all honesty, he was not the only member of AC/DC to suffer from self-doubt during those sessions.
“We really didn’t know what was going to happen either,” says Angus. “We had ideas, even tunes. Back In Black, Mal had that idea then, and I had a couple of ideas. When Brian came in a lot of stuff we had worked on was ready to go, so it was a case of you were going to finish what you had. And that was really the game. You might as well go and finish what you’d started, and we’d see. We didn’t know how it would go. It could’ve gone down either way. It could’ve gone down the gurgler.”
As the sessions began in April, the sense of loss felt by Youngs, Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd felt for Bon was still evident. So did the period of mourning affect the album itself?
“It was all there [on the album],” nods Angus. “We knew what we were going to call the album because it was our thing for Bon – Back In Black. We all knew that. And we wanted [the sleeve] in black. You try convincing the record company when the front guy’s passed away that you want an album called Back In Black with a black sleeve…”
“…And the record company sent you a pink jacket for it,” adds an incredulous Malcolm. “We’d sent the album cover back six times each week, and [we said], ‘When it comes back black, it’ll be right.’ Black, with nothing on it. We want it embossed so you don’t need white lines on it. All without pictures. We settled in the end for a slight grey liner, so we managed to get virtually what we wanted.”
As well as the album’s minimalist, funereal design, AC/DC also wanted the album to start with the sound of a tolling bell as the introduction to the first track, Hells Bells. This in itself turned into something of a mission.
“We went through all these BBC records of sounds and things but of course Mutt, with his ears [wasn’t satisfied]. ‘That’s the sort of bell we want but it’s the quality, it’s not there. Tony, you’re going to have to find a church with the bell we need,’” recalls Malcolm.
And so Tony Platt, the engineer, was promptly despatched to find a bell that possessed the requisite heaviness. The band, meanwhile, had also decided they wanted to use the bell at the start of their live shows. “When we were going out on tour, we said, ‘We’ll get a real bell cast,’” smiles Angus. And so they did, commissioning John Taylor Bellfounders, a company based in Loughborough, to cast a solid bronze bell for them to use. When Tony visited the firm’s factory, the bell they’d ordered wasn’t set-up for him to record it so he elected to try and capture the sound of another bell they’d installed in a nearby church. There, he encountered a problem. “He had to get rid of the birds in it,” laughs Malcolm.
Successful at a second attempt, Tony eventually took his recordings to Electric Lady Studios in New York where Mutt was mixing the album. There, the fastidious producer slowed the speed to the recording by half in order to achieve the ominous effect he was looking for.
AC/DC’s campanological escapades, however, were far from over. When it was finally delivered in time for the tour, the bronze bell weighed 2,000 pounds – a ton, quite literally. As impressive as this was, it proved to be a logistical nightmare for the band’s crew who needed at least four stagehands to secure the gargantuan prop. Unsurprisingly, this original bell would last one tour, and was subsequently replaced with a more manageable fibreglass alternative.
AS THE opener on Back In Black, Hells Bells sets the tone perfectly for the nine tracks that follow. The deep clang of the fabled bell and Angus’s dramatic, picked introduction appear to acknowledge Bon’s passing before Brian announces his arrival to the ’DC faithful with an opening couplet that recalls Compass Point’s torrential welcome. ‘I’m rolling thunder, a pouring rain / I’m coming on like a hurricane.’
The flat-cap wearing frontman’s lyrics move swiftly into darker territory. ‘I’ll give you black sensations up and down your spine / If you’re into evil you’re a friend of mine!’ he screeches on the second verse, evoking a moment in the studio during which he claimed he endured something close to a supernatural experience. “I don’t believe in God or heaven or hell, but something happened,” he told Q magazine in 2008 recalling a night he wrote the words to the tune and found it necessary to sleep with the lights on.
The track’s ominous atmosphere is swiftly countered by the second tune, Shoot To Thrill – a good-time romp where Brian delivers his own take on Bon’s tongue-in-cheek use of the lyrical double-entendre. What follows are three of the album’s least celebrated tracks – What Do You For The Money Honey, Given The Dog A Bone and Let Me Put My Love Into You – all of which see the singer employing his natural bonhomie set against a further backdrop of freshly polished, chrome-plated riffs underpinned by the engine room of Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams.
What defines Back In Black, though, are three key tunes on Side Two – kicking off with the swaggering title-track as well as the lascivious You Shook Me All Night Long and the defiant album closer Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution. Sandwiched in-between is Have A Drink On Me (a tune demoed by Bon at E-Zee Hire) and the humorous Shake A Leg.
As a whole, the 10 tracks on offer confirmed not only that AC/DC were back, but also that their sound had once again evolved, the accessibility of the material boasting a pop edge without losing the hard-hitting approach that had defined their previous work with Bon.
As ever with AC/DC, the material was designed to work onstage, although that didn’t stop the band from acquiescing to the label’s demand to produce a set of accompanying videos. “We were making them, but there was nowhere to play them,” shrugs Angus, outlining the limited outlets that faced most bands prior to the advent of MTV and, later on, the digital age.
As a result, AC/DC elected to spend an afternoon in a live space in Breda, Holland, to literally bang out a set of simple, no-frills performance videos for key tunes – Hells Bells, Back In Black, What Do You Do For The Money Honey and Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution among them – all of which looked exactly the same.
“That was a real quick job,” nods Malcolm. “[The camera crew] were holding their ears, and they went on strike. [We were] too noisy. They all put on their airplane muffs and they were still complaining: ‘Turn it down!’ We tried to turn our amps down, but…”
If the band had little truck with making videos at that point – something which would change dramatically a few years later when they began working with director David Mallett (“He’s brilliant, just like one of the band,” smiles Malcolm) – they were keen to get back on the road. While their label, Atlantic, were convinced that AC/DC had delivered an album that was capable of breaking America, the band themselves still viewed themselves as rank outsiders.
“We toured the States for six months on Back In Black,” reflects Malcolm. “The week we left [on tour] it came in at about 189 on the charts. It would move up two places, move up three places, at a time. By the time we finished it was at around 50 in the States. And then when we got to Australia three weeks later, it was Number 4 on the charts. We were saying, ‘That must be a misprint! They’ve screwed up here!’ But it was real, so we were all astonished after that. It was like ‘We’ll find out [if that’s real] when the cheque comes in. We’re still waiting on that!”
“Any day now…” deadpans Angus.
Modesty aside, when it was released on July 25, 1980, Back In Black confirmed AC/DC’s global popularity, topping the charts in the UK, France and Australia. In the U.S. sales quickly topped the million mark and showed no sign of slowing down in the ensuing months. In the 40 years since its release, Back In Black is estimated to have sold 50 million copies worldwide, 25 million of which are in the U.S. alone.
Today, it remains the album against which all hard rock albums are measured. Its impact extends far beyond that. In many respects, Back In Black has actually become a cultural force in its own right – a record that exists outside of its genre and which sits as one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time, just behind Michael Jackson’s world-beating 1982 set, Thriller.
That said, Back In Black is also an album that helped legitimise metal as a global musical force, ushering in a golden age of hard rock that defined the ’80s and beyond. The likes of Def Leppard (themselves the benefactors of Mutt Lange’s production skills for their own globe-straddling albums, Pyromania and Hysteria), Metallica (whose self-titled 1991 album was inspired musically and visually by Back In Black) and Guns N’ Roses (whose singer Axl Rose joined AC/DC to play shows on the Rock Or Bust tour when Brian departed the band in 2016 due to hearing problems) have all acknowledged the album’s impact. And, despite its undoubted commercial edge, it remains an endless source of inspiration, highlighting the facts that rock acts can succeed on their own terms.
From a fan’s perspective, the album offers the ultimate soundtrack to endless good times. In a wider sense, its success has also helped shape genuine cultural moments – be that the band’s headline appearance at the Monsters Of Rock festival at Donington Park in August 1981 (which effectively created the blueprint for all subsequent major hard rock festivals from Hellfest to Sonic Temple), or their appearance on the cover of the very first issue of Kerrang! magazine in May of that same year (which initiated the idea that the world of hard rock could create and sustain its own dedicated media brands). The latter is something that Angus remains incredibly proud of, reflecting the importance that the band attach to the concept of loyalty.
“[Geoff Barton], the guy that put Kerrang! together, he was here when we first came here [in ’76] and he was a dedicated rock guy in music,” smiles Angus. “And Mal will tell you, around the world they’re very few and far between. There were not that many people that were real die-hard people, so it’s good for [Kerrang!] to kick off out of something like that.”
For AC/DC themselves, Back In Black remains an intensely personal record for very obvious reasons. It changed their fortunes, but not the way in which they view the world. In many respects, it vindicated the Young brothers’ puritanical approach to making music, re-stating the case for the undying power of rock’n’roll in the process.
Since my conversation with Malcolm and Angus back at Olympic Studios in 2005, much has changed in the AC/DC camp – Malcolm’s passing in November 2017 being most significant of all. As the band’s understated and yet undisputed leader, it seems fitting that the last word should belong to him and that he should be allowed to encapsulate the values that have defined AC/DC for the best part of five decades…
“We’ve never taken anything for granted. That’s something we’ve always maintained. Don’t jump ahead of yourself; you’ve got to stay with your feet planted firmly on the ground,” he concluded on that February afternoon. “Nobody in this band gets aloof. It just keeps things in place, and it just keeps you working-class people. We all have those traits and that’s kept us in the real world. You’ve got to go on and deliver every night; you’ve just got to do it, no matter what. Give it your best all the time. That’s it, really.”
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