How AC/DC Turned Loss into Triumph with “Back in Black”

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The rock and roll world recently exploded with rumors that AC/DC was finally calling it quits. Unfortunately, those rumors included speculation that founding member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young was suffering a debilitating health problem. The band responded with some good news and bad news. The bad news was that Young was taking a break from recording due to an undisclosed health problem. But the band also affirmed its intent to stick together and make music. In fact, AC/DC has endured through hard times before. Thirty-four years ago, one of rock’s loudest, badass bands taught creative minds everywhere how to turn loss into hard-fought gain with the release of Back in Black, one of the greatest rock albums ever.

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In 1980, AC/DC was on the ropes. On the verge of achieving global superstardom, the band suffered a devastating loss when lead singer Bon Scott died after a night of heavy drinking. Losing a lead singer would be a crisis for any band, and especially given the circumstances, AC/DC considered breaking up. Not only was Scott’s loss tragic, but his throat-shredding vocals had helped define the band’s raw, head-banging sound and appeal.  But the band, consisting of brothers Malcolm and Angus Young (who was quickly establishing a reputation as a scorching lead guitarist), drummer Phil Rudd, and bassist Cliff Williams, decided to carry on. And then AC/DC made two decisions that would change its fortunes: finding front man Brian Johnson and deciding to release a tribute album to Scott.

As a British rock singer, Johnson was an outsider to the tight-knit Australian band. And yet, he was a natural fit who had been suggested by producer John “Mutt” Lange as well as an enthusiastic fan from Cleveland. His rough-and-tumble vocal style was remarkably similar to Scott’s, and he also possessed a tough swagger that would be essential to succeeding in a band like AC/DC, whose previous albums featured in-your-face material like “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “Highway to Hell.” This was not a band for shrinking violets.

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After auditioning against singers such as Slade vocalist Noddy Holder, Johnson was chosen to inherit the mantel from Scott. He was immediately put to work on Back in Black, which the band had started writing with Scott. According to the Back in Black 30th Anniversary website, making the album was not always easy. Recording in Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas threw the band off balance (they disliked the isolation and hot Caribbean climate), and no one knew yet whether Johnson would succeed as a member. But the band persevered. Johnson focused on lyrics. Angus and Malcolm Young wrote the music. And the uncertain conditions probably added an element of tension that sharpened the sound of the album soon to be unleashed upon the world.

As it would turn out, Johnson wrote lyrics that perfectly fit AC/DC’s brand of randy and unabashedly loud youthful rebellion. No one outside AC/DC knew it yet, but Johnson was penning words that every high school kid would soon be mouthing at parties everywhere (if you were alive in 1980 and 1981, you’d soon become familiar with lines like “She was a fast machine/she kept her motor clean/she was the best damn woman that I’d ever seen”). And the Young brothers were creating some of the most memorable guitar hooks in rock history, including the thunderous sound of “Back in Black” and “Shoot to Thrill,” as well as the opening riff to “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

Released in the summer of 1980, Back and Black was all at once unnerving, startling, and appealing. This was no earnest and sensitive tribute to a fallen brother. From the opening song “Hells Bells,” Back and Black made it clear that AC/DC was not going to back away from dark themes and lyrics. Drawing on the stormy weather the band had experienced in the Bahamas, Johnson wrote an opening lyric that seemingly taunted Scott in the grave:

I’m a rolling thunder, pourin’ rain. I’m comin’ down like a hurricane. My lightning’s flashing across the sky. You’re only young but you’re gonna die.”

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From there, the grinding guitars of the Young brothers, Williams’s heavy bass, the crackling drum work of Rudd, and Johnson’s gritty singing took listeners on a raucous journey that covered topics such as the joys of sex (“Let Me Put My Love into You”), drugs (“Have a Drink on Me”) and rock and roll (“Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”). The song “Back in Black” celebrated Scott’s memory by looking death square in the face and laughing. “Forget the hearse ’cause I never die,” snarled Johnson. “I got nine lives, cat’s eyes, abusing every one of them and running wild.” The title of “Have a Drink on Me” came across like a crass joke given the manner of Scott’s death, as did lyrics such as “I’m dizzy drunk and fighting/On tequila white lightning.”

Here was an act of sheer chutzpah: an album that not only affirmed AC/DC’s will to succeed against the odds but reveled in the very circumstances that nearly caused its demise. The band did not mourn Scott; AC/DC carried his memory into unexpected places, including songs that made you want to dance — especially “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which created a powerful mix of guitar and rhythm worthy of the Rolling Stones’s “Honky Tonk Women.”

With its raw energy and undeniably well crafted hooks, Back in Black also filled a void left by the rapid demise of punk and the last gasp of Led Zeppelin, which had only months before released an album (In through the Out Door) that sacrificed guitar for smooth synth. Audiences rewarded the band richly. Back in Black reached Number 4 on the U.S. charts and would go on to sell 50 million copies. The lead single would be covered and sampled by many other musicians, and used in movies as unlikely as The Muppets and Lilo & Stitch, thus introducing the band to a decidedly younger crowd decades later.

Back in Black would also achieve critical acclaim enjoyed by no other AC/DC album since. Rolling Stone ranked the album Number 77 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list in 2003, and music journalist Chris Smith included it in 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music. “. . . the album was the first heavy-metal release in years to find wide acceptance, helping to fuel the genre to massive success in the 1980s,” Williams wrote. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who gave the album a five-star rating (the highest possible) for Allmusic.com, wrote: “Song for song, they deliver not just mammoth riffs but songs that are anthems, from the greasy “Shoot to Thrill” to the pummeling “Back in Black,” which pales only next to “You Shook Me All Night Long,” the greatest one-night-stand anthem in rock history. That tawdry celebration of sex is what made AC/DC different from all other metal bands — there was no sword & sorcery, no darkness, just a rowdy party, and they never held a bigger, better party than they did on Back in Black.”

The band would claim a Number 1 album with its follow-up to Back in Black, For Those About to Rock, We Salute You. Several albums and massively successful tours later, AC/DC would remain an enduring symbol of carnality and hard rock. Its 15th and most recent album, Black Ice, debuted at Number 1 in album charts in 29 countries and was the second-best selling album around the world in 2008.

And now, AC/DC finds itself in crisis mode — perhaps not as dire as losing Bon Scott in 1980, but pretty close. Malcolm Young is a founding member who celebrated his 40th year with the band in 2013. Although not as visible as his brother Angus, Malcolm Young is considered essential to the band’s sound, as evidenced by the memorable chords he’s written with Angus and his sinewy style that complements his brother’s flashy riffs. He leaves a hole not easily filled.

So what’s a band to do? Regroup — as it did 34 years ago. As AC/DC stated bluntly on its website, “The band will continue to make music.”

If the example of Back in Black is any indication, expect AC/DC to make powerful music at that.

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