On AC/DC‘s Back In Black, half the song titles would make badass tattoo slogans, and the other half are things you’d say to someone in a bar at 2 a.m. This alone doesn’t make the album that special (the same is more or less true for many of the band’s LPs), but considering what these guys had just been through, it’s pretty amazing, if not inspirational.
Released 35 years ago today, on July 25, 1980, the biggest-selling album by Australia’s most exalted rock ‘n’ roll gods arrived less than six months after singer Bon Scott had been found dead after a night of heavy drinking.
The remaining members could’ve called it quits, but they plugged back in and returned with 10 more songs about sex, booze, bad mojo, rock ‘n’ roll, and, in an indirect way, the irreplaceable frontman they’d somehow managed to replace.
Taking the helm was Brian Johnson, a phlegmy English shrieker with a voice similar — yet by no means identical — to Scott’s. Shortly after successfully auditioning for the gig, Johnson traveled with the band and producer Robert “Mutt” Lange — who’d overseen the previous year’s Highway to Hell, AC/DC’s first entry on the Billboard 200 — to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas.
Although everyone was feeling “a bit jittery,” as lead guitarist and band mascot Angus Young told Rolling Stone, the band got down to business, emerging from those spring 1980 sessions with a mammoth-sounding record that referenced their recent loss without dwelling on it. People look to AC/DC for hip-shaking and fist-pumping, not soul-searching; here, the group stayed true to its blunt, bluesy hard-rock steez while nudging the emotional needle just enough to acknowledge the situation.
Whether listeners picked up on this or were simply bowled over by the righteous riffs that fuel the album’s two top 40 singles — the title track and “You Shook Me All Night Long” — Back In Black left a giant red smack mark on the backside of popular culture. It reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and has gone on to sell more than 50 million copies.
According to the RIAA, it’s the sixth-highest-selling album of all time, and with the possible exception of Led Zeppelin IV, it’s the most rocking entry in the top 10. It’s also the only one that metalheads, punks, stoners, skaters, sample-happy hip-hop DJs and just about everyone else can agree on. If some fancy-pants CEO rolls into his driveway on a summer afternoon, and “Back In Black” is on the radio, there’s a good chance he’s high-fiving the landscaper.
Read on for our track-by-track take on this timeless classic — arguably the best representation of a band that detractors charge with making the same album over and over again, and that fans might reasonably defend for doing precisely that. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — especially when it’s unbreakable.
“Hells Bells”: With the opening bell tolls and moody Angus guitar intro signal mourning, this snarled-lip brooder isn’t strictly a tribute to Scott. Asserting his place in the band, Johnson wails high and raspy, like Rod Stewart‘s delinquent cousin. His lyrics are pure demonic posturing (“I’ll give you black sensations up and down your spine/ If you’re into evil, you’re a friend of mine”) — the stuff hard-rock dreams are made of.
“Shoot to Thrill”: Track two brings more Johnson bravado, only this time, he’s in cocksure lover-man mode, warning all the ladies, “I’m the one who’s gonna make you burn.” Over a classic Phil Rudd drumbeat — simple, slightly lagging, sexy as hell — guitar-wielding brothers Angus and Malcolm Young deliver hard bluesy strutting in a way that’s never overly showy.
“What Do You Do for Money Honey”: Johnson’s not saying she’s a gold digger… Actually, he is, and as the brothers Young again bring the sex-blues attack, the singer makes it clear he won’t be squeezed for his cash.
“Given the Dog a Bone”: Probably the most blatant song about oral sex ever written, this mischievous rocker would be filler if the lyrics weren’t so funny. “She’s blowing me crazy,” Johnson sings in the first verse, “’till my ammunition is dry.” Spinal Tap couldn’t have said it better.
“Let Me Put My Love Into You”: Once more, Johnson uses weaponry as a metaphor for his junk, and when he gets to that “don’t you struggle/ don’t you fight” bit just before the chorus, a worrisome aggressiveness creeps in. But he does ask permission — “Let me put my love into you, babe” — and Angus woos with his sweet, pleading guitar solo.
“Back In Black”: Years before every resurgent rapper had his or her “I’m back” anthem, AC/DC reintroduced itself with one of the finest title tracks of all time. After a five-second lead riff that rivals the ones in “Iron Man” and “Smoke on the Water” for sheer air-guitar-inducing power, Johnson laughs his ass off as the hearse rolls by. The best way to mourn Scott’s death: celebrating the holy hell out of living.
“You Shook Me All Night Long”: The band’s first top 40 hit boasts a sleazy proto-“Start Me Up” riff and the kind of gargantuan pop chorus that would become Mutt Lange’s trademark. The lyrics — which curiously change perspective, from “she…” to “you…” as the group reaches the hook — are pure sex. Angus’ solo is nasty and melodic, perfect for arenas, strip clubs, ballparks, wherever.
“Have a Drink On Me”: This bluesy thudder is a curious addition in light of Scott’s recent “death by misadventure.” Whether it’s a tribute or a joke or just a song about boozing, the implication seems to be that AC/DC isn’t finished raising hell. “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Johnson sings to wrap the first verse, in which he references five different types of alcohol. “Take it today.” The riffage is more serviceable than it is memorable, and that leaves Johnson to keep things interesting by pushing his larynx to the limit. In the closing bars, he howls like an off-brand Robert Plant, a golden god for the gutter set.
“Shake a Leg”: That slow opening is just warm-up for the Led Zeppelin heavy-blues sprint that begins in verse two and carries through the end. Rudd and the Young brothers lock into a delinquent boogie, and Johnson — again in Plant mode — fights the law and gets his rocks off at the same time.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”: When a butt-simple blues riff meets an even simpler idea — “rock ‘n’ roll is just rock ‘n’ roll” — this explosive album fizzles to a close. It’s a cool title in search of a song, though it hammers home a message AC/DC believes in vehemently enough to state over and over again, using slightly different language each time: “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t gonna die.”