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Retro Rewind: “Back in Black” by AC/DC

Back in Black | Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The year was 1980. Australian rock band AC/DC had begun to reach through to the masses with their sixth album “Highway to Hell,” and planned on recording a follow-up album soon after its release.

However, tragedy struck the group that year. Bon Scott, their lead singer, died on Feb. 19 of that year due to alcohol poisoning. AC/DC considered breaking up due to Scott’s death, but they persevered and hired British singer Brian Johnson as Scott’s replacement. Five months later, one of the group’s finest albums made its debut: “Back in Black.”

Released on July 25, 1980, “Back in Black” contains four singles that are considered some of the band’s biggest hits: “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Hells Bells,” the titular “Back in Black” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.”

The album has sold approximately 50 million copies worldwide and was certified 25x Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in December 2019. “Back in Black” has been cited by critics as a classic album in the hard rock and metal genres, with the Guardian’s Tim Jonze describing it as a “high watermark” of heavy metal.

The band

Founded in 1973 by brothers Angus and Malcolm Young, AC/DC is one of the top selling artists of all time with sales of over 200 million albums across the globe. At the time of recording sessions for “Back in Black,” the band was fronted by Brian Johnson (formerly a member of Geordie).

Angus and Malcolm Young played lead and rhythm guitar, respectively, with bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd rounding out the group’s lineup. Currently, AC/DC is fronted by Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses.

Malcolm Young passed away due to complications from dementia in November 2017, and his nephew Stevie Young took over as rhythm guitarist.

The group has so far recorded a total of 16 studio albums together between 1975 and 2014. VH1 ranked AC/DC at number four on their list of the best artists in the hard rock genre, and music producer Rick Rubin has referred to them as “the greatest rock and roll band of all time.” They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

The tracklist

Opening “Back in Black” is the steady toll of a 2000-pound bronze bell as the song begins to descend into a heavy guitar riff. “Shoot to Thrill” follows, the inspiration for which, according to Johnson, was an article regarding narcotics sold to British housewives.

Angus Young has mentioned that the song’s breakdown, which occurs after the principal guitar solo, was inspired by the climax of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Next up on the tracklist is “What Do You Do for Money Honey,” where Johnson taunts a woman who hooks up with wealthy men in order to elude her job.

“Given the Dog a Bone” features Johnson describing a sexual encounter with a woman using a variety of double-entendres. These sexual themes continue on the song “Let Me Put My Love Into You.”

The second side of the album opens with “Back in Black” and its iconic opening guitar riff. Cited as one of the greatest metal songs ever written, the tune was a tribute to Bon Scott. After this track is “You Shook Me All Night Long,” another sexually-charged tune fueled by Rudd’s drum beat which is a staple of AC/DC’s live performances.

“Have a Drink on Me” was another way for AC/DC to honor their fallen comrade, as they share a drink in his memory. “Shake a Leg” sees a troubled juvenile turn to rock and roll to escape his disastrous path, while the album’s closer, “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” served as an ode to their genre of expertise.

The song was rooted in tidbits heard in the news. According to Malcolm Young, “we were in London at the time and there were all those problems with the old Marquee Club because it was in a built-up area and there was this whole thing about noise pollution in the news, the environmental health thing that you couldn’t have your stereo up loud after 11 at night, it all came from that.”

The production

AC/DC originally scheduled three weeks of rehearsals for “Back in Black” at E-Zee Hire Studios in London, however, they received the opportunity to record at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. These recording sessions occurred between mid-April and May of 1980, and tropical storms began to hurt the studio’s electrical supply during this interval.

The notably-horrendous weather conditions were referenced in the lyrics to “Hells Bells” (“I’m rolling thunder, pourin’ rain. I’m comin’ on like a hurricane. My lightning’s flashing across the sky. You’re only young but you’re gonna die.”)

The group completed their recording process with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, who was a perfectionist when it came to recording Johnson’s vocals. Angus Young’s guitar achieved its tone on the album by utilizing a Schaffer-Vega diversity system, a wireless guitar implement.

Meanwhile, the distinctive bell that opens the album was recorded with a mobile studio owned by Ronnie Lane and slowed to half speed to create its ominous tone. Once the recording process was complete, the band headed to New York City to mix their album at Electric Lady Studios.

The record’s cover, which is entirely black except for the outlined AC/DC logo, served as a “sign of mourning” for Bon Scott, with the grey outline being a compromise with the group’s label, Atlantic Records.

What critics thought of “Back in Black”

Reviews at its time of release were mixed for “Back in Black.” Rolling Stone’s David Fricke called it “not only the best of AC/DC’s six American albums” but also “the apex of heavy-metal art: the first LP since ‘Led Zeppelin II’ that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre.”

However, Red Starr for the music magazine Smash Hits saw the album as “yet another triumph for lowest common denominator headbanging—the new thoroughly predictable, thoroughly dreadful AC/DC album.”

Newer reviews have been more positive. Christian Hoard explained in his review for Rolling Stone that it was “the leanest and meanest record of all time—balls-out arena rock that punks could love.” Robert Christgau was less amused, finding AC/DC “primitive” and “unimaginative” in their songwriting.

Kitty Empire from The Observer mentioned that “Back in Black” was “a preposterous, drongoid record … built on casual sexism, eye-rolling double entendres, a highly questionable attitude to sexual consent, a penchant for firearms, and a crass celebration of the unthinking macho hedonism that killed the band’s original singer.”

Still, it took its place as her favorite album of all time. According to Empire, it was “the obsessive soundtrack of my adolescence, the racy middle-brow thriller that spoke to me both as a tomboy who wanted to be one of the guys, and the increasingly female ingenue who needed to work out the world of men. Plus, teenagers love death.”

Rolling Stone ranked “Back in Black” at number 26 on its list of the best albums released during the 1980s, and later placed it at number 77 in a list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Time magazine picked it in 2006 as one of the 100 best albums, and it was also included in the book “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.”

What I think of the album

AC/DC is a band that I’ve always enjoyed, and I am pleased with how the album turned out after the tragedy that was Bon Scott’s unfortunate passing. A few of the songs do sound a tad repetitive, but the instrumentals are still fabulously painted over a savage lyrical landscape filled to the brim with sex, drugs, and hard rock.

Many of the innuendos included over the album’s ten tracks are rather unsubtle, but it doesn’t take away from the power that courses through “Back in Black”’s backbone.

Mutt Lange’s production shines as each track slides into the next, precisely defining how a metal or hard rock record should sound to the listener’s ear. It’s a rousing tribute to a dear friend and the ideal way for AC/DC, as well as the listener, to celebrate his memory while headbanging to an iconic rock release.