It turns out that Prince William listens to AC/DC
The Duke of Cambridge calls Thunderstruck “The best tonic for a Monday morning…”
AC/DC’s (frankly joyless) critics have accused the Scot-Australian titans of writing the same song over and over again across their near five-decades of existence. Perhaps they’ve got a point, but when the mould is that damned good, why break it?
Formed in Sydney in 1973 by Glasgow-born brothers/guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, and galvanised by the arrival of fellow Scottish immigrant Bon Scott on vocals in 1974, they took their name from the power-input instruction on their sister’s sewing machine and proceeded to charge their own prototypical hard rock sound with the same feeling of electric power and immediacy. Breaking out in Australia with their first two locally-released albums, they would subsequently crack Europe while based in the UK before going on to conquer the wider world.
Tragedy would strike with Bon’s death in February 1980 from reported alcohol poisoning but, with the blessing of his family, the band made the brave decision to try to carry on. Somewhat fittingly, lightning struck twice, with Geordie frontman Brian Johnson helping them pick up right where they’d left off with the all-conquering Back In Black, which would go on to be the second-best-selling record of all time.
Over the years since, they’ve remained larger-than-life atop the rock tree: starring on the cover of the first-ever Kerrang! magazine 40 years ago in June; routinely crushing stadia; dropping a further 10 albums (including last year’s POWER UP) that have rarely failed to live up to fans’ expectations; hell, even turning up to Download Festival in 2010 with a stage of their own, which was substantially bigger than any of those already available.
So ubiquitous are they at this point, that even the most casual of rock fan worthy of their black T-shirt already has a nailed-on playlist of top Acca-Dacca tracks. This is ours – which is absolutely, indisputably correct. Obvz.
‘Hiding from the rent man / Oh it makes me want to cry / Sheriff knocking on my door / Ain't it funny how the time flies…’ Unthinkable as it might seem, only a few years before they would become the biggest band on the planet there was a time the members of AC/DC were trying to survive on the breadline. Bon Scott in particular, who had been playing in bands for nearly a decade before joining up – and was separating from his wife while auditioning for the band – knew the struggle of trying to live out globetrotting dreams while scrabbling to make ends meet. It’s why the fleeting snapshots of rock’n’roll poverty here – holes in shoes, struggling to feed a cat, contemplating full-time gainful employment – ring so painfully true, while the Young brothers let loose one of their most resonant shoestring riffs.
The punk rock movement was reaching full speed in the summer of 1977, and although AC/DC were famously unimpressed by their grubby, safety-pinned counterparts, the rough-edged, road-worn defiance of Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be shares much of the same up-punching DNA. Generally prefaced by Angus raising the devil horns before the band play it live, this was one of their first tracks to attract the ire of religious zealots, but the lyrics are really about embracing the trials, tribulations and romantic trysts of life in a touring band: ‘Late at night turns down the lights / Closes up on me / Opens my heart, tears it apart / Brings out the devil in me…’
Always keen to inject everyday experience with their own sense of wry bravado, the first track on side two of Highway To Hell tells the almost-certainly-autobiographical story of a bloke out on the town, trying his luck with the object of his affections and being left mercilessly high and dry. Big on self-deprecating masculinity without ever veering into misogyny, the track still feels like a potent distillation of boys-on-tour good times, while Mutt Lange’s fast-and-loose production perfectly emphasises the Friday night vibe. The rejection clearly did little to dent their confidence as all 215 seconds practically strut off the record and into your ear canals with the urgency of lads chasing another show. ‘Oh ain’t it a shame to be shot down in flames!’
The title-track and second single from 1981’s For Those About To Rock mightn’t be the best song in the AC/DC, er, canon, but it does hold a special place in fans’ hearts as their go-to set closer – normally accompanied by the Aussies’ onstage twist on a 21-gun salute. Referencing the ancient acknowledgement used by Roman prisoners to be executed in the Colosseum ‘Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant’ (‘Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute you…’), the track escalates – as Guns N’ Roses’ Paradise City would later in the decade, to equally stadium-rattling effect – from that monumental mid-paced intro into a headbanging frenzy. True to form, they shove in an all-time great double entendre, too, with Brian Johnson daring listeners to ‘Pick up your balls and load your canon…’ Artillery-strength stuff.
‘Women to the left of me / And women to the right / Ain't got no gun / Ain't got no knife / Don't you start no fight / ’Cause I'm T.N.T., I'm dynamite…’ The title-track to AC/DC’s second Australia-only release is one of those songs that was so instrumental in shaping the very template for hard rock machismo that it’s impossible to imagine the genre without it. Wound tight by spring-loaded riffs and those incessant oi-oi-ois, with Bon’s inimitable lyrics burning fast as a fuse, the track reinforced the band’s larger-than-life personas while also leaving listeners with the impression that these were genuine hard lads worth staying on the right side of. Rolling Stone magazine didn’t get that memo, infamously declaring the release an “all time low” for hard rock – an appraisal that, somewhat fittingly, blew up in their face...
It’s arguable that every track AC/DC have committed to record is custom-engineered for maximum power in the live arena, but 1978’s Riff Raff is on another level. From that 40-second lead-in, with Angus Young’s lone guitar stoking anticipation, to the detonative main riff, Cliff Williams’ propulsive bassline and Bon’s wide-eyed, footloose lyrics, it’s the sort of song beery punters simply can’t help but throw themselves behind. The live version from If You Want Blood We’ve Got It, recorded on a raucous night in Glasgow, is still definitive – a performance that many ageing locals of the city will lie of having been in attendance. Additionally, when Axl Rose temporarily took over vocal duties for AC/DC’s 2016 tour, the song was reinstated into their set list – reportedly at the mega-fan frontman’s behest.
Speaking of Axl, the Guns N’ Roses bandleader has referred to snake-hipped Highway To Hell standout Touch Too Much as his favourite-ever AC/DC recording. The dangers of excess would catch up to the band early the following year – when Bon would be found dead in a friend’s car, having passed out there after a particularly heavy night in London – but the party seemed to have spilled right into the music with this irresistible ode to booze, girls and life in the fast lane. Mutt Lange’s increasingly-influential oversight added another coat of mainstream-ready sheen, with Bon’s last-ever ‘live’ performance giving the track his lairy best on Top Of The Pops 12 days before his death.
‘Gettin' robbed / Gettin' stoned / Gettin' beat up / Broken boned / Gettin' had / Gettin' took / I tell you folks / It's harder than it looks…’ The opening track on AC/DC’s first internationally-released album (1976’s expanded High Voltage) was a no-nonsense chronicle of their rise from spit-and-sawdust back bars to the world stage. It’s a perfectly rounded rock attack, but the track belongs to Bon, with that colourful storytelling and his game bagpipe work sticking forever in fans’ memories. So much so, that Brian Johnson doesn’t play the song out of respect – though that hasn’t stopped artists like Motörhead, Dropkick Murphys and Jack Black’s School Of Rock giving it a shot.
Although Bon Scott was no choirboy, the sheer horniness of Brian Johnston’s songwriting was on another level entirely. Having been whisked from England’s north-east to the sunny Bahamas for recording of Back In Black, the story goes that he found himself faced with a bevvy of scantily-clad American beauties and allowed his imagination to run wild. Although there’s some poetic license in Brian’s comparison of women to his beloved automobiles (‘She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean’), the narrative of ‘working double time on the seduction line’ and cooling down ‘to take another round’ left little open to interpretation. It’s not lost an ounce of filthy thrust in the four decades since…
‘Plug me in, I'm alive tonight…’ One of the electrifying highlights of 1975’s Australia-only T.N.T. LP, Live Wire was never released as a single, but such was its deep groove, sparking six-string interplay and fizzling vocal hook that it’s now burned into the rock consciousness. The live version recorded for a radio promo at Atlantic Studios, New York feels like the ultimate iteration of the song, perfectly showcasing the duality of the band’s live precision and devil-may-care personality, not to mention Malcolm Young’s painfully underrated rhythm guitar mastery. AC/DC at full power.
Never the sorts to entertain a sappy power-ballad, AC/DC got a close as they likely ever would to an outright ‘love song’ with this terrific third track from 1979’s Highway To Hell. ‘Oh baby I ain't got much / Resistance to your touch,’ pleads Bon with a sense of breathless desperation. ‘Take off your high heels and let down your hair / Paradise ain't far from there…’ Exploding into a riot of clashing riffage, rampant guitar solos and uproarious gang-vocals, it delivers a fittingly, er, climactic payoff, too. ‘Do anything you want me to, baby I'm gonna walk all over you…’ If that’s not real romance, we don’t want to know what is.
If AC/DC had begun to develop a reputation as grimy ne’er-do-wells by 1976, they had no real interest in portraying a cleaner image. This title-track to their second internationally-released album – which wouldn’t hit America ’til 1981 – saw them offering up any number of red-handed services for the right price. Bizarrely, the track is actually a sort-of ode to 1960s animated kids TV show Beany And Cecil. “It was a cartoon when I was a kid,” Angus would recall for Guitar World in 2009. “There’s a character in it called Dishonest John. He used to carry this card with ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – Special Rates, Holidays’ written on it. I stored up a lot of these things in my brain…”
In that first issue of Kerrang! magazine, 40 years ago, with Angus Young on the cover, Whole Lotta Rosie was voted the ‘Ultimate Metal Track’. Genre definitions might’ve moved on since then, but the song’s full-bodied appeal endures. Based on Bon’s apparent rendezvous with a Tasmanian woman who wasn’t ‘exactly pretty’ or ‘exactly small’, it’s a twisted hymn to the powers of hard-earned experience and simple enthusiasm for ‘doin’ the thing you do’. The track was one of their first to break big outside of Australia, and has endured as a bulletproof live favourite, with their giant inflatable Rosie perhaps the greatest onstage prop in the history of rock.
Dropping just five months after the death of Bon Scott, without advance singles, everything hung on Back In Black. Audiences, understandably, were doubtful whether the Aussies’ runaway momentum could endure, having lost arguably the greatest frontman of all time. It only took seconds of the album opener – that low tolling church bell, a guitar tone emanated from the underworld, Brian Johnson’s promise that ‘You’re only young, but you’re gonna die’ – to convince fans that their favourite band might just miraculously endure. The song’s legend has only grown over the years, with the OTT ‘Hell’s Bell’ stage prop and Angus’ gloriously cathartic guitar long since having passed into rock folklore.
Rumour has it that Angus needs to practice the fantastically widdly riff that kicks off Thunderstruck two or three times a day to be able to perform the damn thing onstage. It’s time well spent, mind, as the 1990 banger is easily AC/DC’s best since Back In Black. Rubbishing speculation at the time that they were past their sell-by date, the fist-pumping percussion and unstoppable singalongs here were the fine-tuned product of a band who’d spent the last decade shaking stadia. A shout-out to the incisively dread-filled title-track from parent album The Razor’s Edge here, too: another of their most powerfully atmospheric moments.
With a cruel irony, AC/DC’s true international breakthrough album landed eight months before Bon Scott would pass away. Mutt Lange had helped polish their sound to the point where it could pass on then-contemporary pop radio, yet he had also managed to maintain the rough edges and wrong-side-of-the-tracks swagger that had galvanised their fanbase in the first place. Reckoning, again, on the ups and downs of life in a band, they condensed the experience into the simple, evocative iconography of a group on the Highway To Hell. Piling on that legendary riff (duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-dah duh-duh-dah duh-duh-dah duh-dah-dah…) and some of the most badass couplets in the genre (‘No stop signs / speed limits!’) that title-track is as recognisable to your little brother as it is to your gran.
Back In Black’s title-track served as both tribute to Bon and celebration of the band’s will to endure. From Phil Rudd’s metronomic opening beats to the juddering main riff and the defiant promises within (‘Forget the hearse ’cause I never die / I got nine lives / Cat's eyes / Abusin' every one of them and running wild…’), it was a reaffirmation that this was the best hard rock outfit there is, there was and – quite possibly – that there ever would be. A staple of guitar-shop tryouts ever since, the six-string signature has been borrowed countless times by other bands – perhaps most notably by the Beastie Boys on 1984 single Rock Hard, where the unauthorised who sampled it without permission and had to withdraw the track from sale. “They were just like, ‘Nothing against you guys, but we just don’t endorse sampling,’” explained Mike D after the fact. You can’t blame the New Yorkers for trying…
As great as they are on pure musical terms, AC/DC’s broader cultural significance was in super-charging the then-fledgling hard rock genre for the sort of lasting mainstream crossover consumption that even Black Sabbath and the soon-to-be-defunct Led Zeppelin hadn’t quite delivered. The title-track from 1977’s Let There Be Rock feels like a tribute to everything that had led up to their moment. Delivering his sermon dressed in a priest’s vestments in that infamous video filmed at the Kirk Gallery church in Surry Hills, New South Wales, Bon preaches the good word: ‘The white man had the schmaltz / The black man had the blues / No-one knew what they was gonna do / But Tchaikovsky had the news…’ A million disciples would duly fall in.
‘Blood on the rocks / Blood on the streets / Blood in the sky / Blood on the sheets…’ If you’ve got a killer concept, milk it for all it’s worth. That seemed to be the thinking with Highway To Hell’s eighth track, which landed a year after the live album of the same name. Rather than scraped-out filler, the song is arguably the ultimate blend of their early ruffian attitude and the calculated populist sound that would see them go on to conquer the music industry. The title came from a passing conversation Bon reportedly had with a film crew operator when the band were playing 1978’s Day On The Green festival in Oakland, California, in a thankless 10:30am spot. What kind of show should he expect, the cameraman wondered? “You remember when the Christians went to the lions?” Bon responded. “Well, we’re the Christians. If they want blood they’re gonna get it.”
In fairness, any number of AC/DC tracks could reasonably lay claim to being their most culturally important or down downright listenable. Back In Black has the riff. Whole Lotta Rosie dripped with the tongue-in-cheek sleaze. Highway To Hell delivered the devilish rebellion to wind-up a generation of parents still clinging to the sacrosanctity of the family bible. But for many, it’s always been about the uncanny momentum of Back In Black’s second track: a song that lifts the listener from the relatively sombre atmospherics of Hells Bells with the sort of dizzying, breathless propulsion normally reserved for those behind the controls of a fighter jet. Oddly, Shoot To Thrill wasn’t amongst Back In Black’s four officially-released singles, but such is the swagger and sheer joie de vivre that fans have elevated it to must-play status across the four decades since. ‘I'm gonna pull it, pull it, PULL THE TRIGGER!’ *Air-guitars wildly…*
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