Saturday, April 4, 2009

April 4: AC/DC, "Back In Black"

Artist: AC/DC
Album: Back In Black
Year: 1980
Label: Epic

In most cases, losing a lead singer essentially spells the end of a bands' career. Though the band may find a replacement, that person usually tries too hard to emulate their predecessor, and the band never achieves the same level of success. In rare cases, the new singer will bring a new approach to the sound, yet stay true to what made the band successful in the first place. The clearest case of this phenomena appears in the history of Australia's finest rock band, AC/DC. Their 1980 release, Back In Black, marks their transition as a band, and still stands as one of the most monumental records in rock history.

The one thing that has always set AC/DC apart from their peers is their lack of stories about cliche subjects like magic, fighting authority, and anything medieval. Sticking to their consistent, universal themes of women, sex, and partying, the band remains just as popular and relevant today as they were nearly forty years ago. AC/DC had already released more than half a dozen albums with the legendary Bon Scott handling lead vocal duties. Many of the bands' largest hits can be found on these records, including "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," "T.N.T.," and "The Jack." The fact that AC/DC was already so well established internationally makes it even more amazing that, after Scott's death in early 1980, they were able to achieve similar, and even greater success with Brian Johnson handing lead vocals.

Back In Black
was released less than ten months after Scott allegedly drank himself to death, and many aspects of the record seem to pay tribute to their fallen comrade. The album cover itself is a sober black, and obviously, the title of Back In Black implies that the band had Scott in mind constantly. The albums' opening song, "Hells Bells" is preceded by a lone church bell ringing, clearly in remembrance of Scott. However, this is pretty much where any sadness and mourning end, as Back In Black itself is an amazing, upbeat rock and roll blockbuster. This fact in itself can also be seen as a tribute to Scott, the band carried on and delivered Back In Black, a fast paced, sexy rock record, which is something Scott himself clearly would have loved.

The music of AC/DC has become synonymous with one name: Angus. The man best known for taking the stage in his schoolboy uniform had already established himself as one of the premiere guitarist in rock, and his work on Back In Black helped to reinforce his skill. Back In Black continues AC/DC's success at writing songs with monster riffs that somehow always achieve the definition of "anthem." Many of the riffs and lyrics still stand today as regulars in stadiums and arenas across the globe. The soloing of Angus is consistently awe-inspiring and, more to the point, original. While many guitar virtuosos find one style in which they are superior, and simply fuse different notes into the style, Angus presents and excels in a wide range of soloing techniques, and this is part of what makes him still revered by guitarists to this day. The rhythm section of AC/DC are just as amazing as the duo of Johnson and Young. Helping to drive the song, and give it much of its sexy swing, Cliff Young's bass, Phil Rudd's steady drums, and the rhythm of Angus' brother Malcolm help to give AC/DC the "classic" rock and roll feel, yet their sound remains unduplicated.

It is amazing that AC/DC was able to find a voice and attitude so similar to that of Bon Scott in such a short period of time. Though the voice of Brian Johnson is quite akin to that of Scott, it is the way in which they approach the words that differentiates their sound. Lyrically, not much changed with the transition from Scott to Johnson. Their primary themes are common, drinking, women, rock and roll, and more women. However, where Scott's lyrics were a bit more sinister in nature, Brian Johnson takes a far more rowdy and wild approach to the subject matter. With song titles like "What Do You Do For Money Honey" and "Let Me Put My Love Into You," the songs left little to the imagination, and some of this bluntness was lampooned in the legendary film, Spinal Tap.

It goes without saying that, if there is one thing Back In Black will forever be known for, it is the duo of mega-hits, "Back In Black" and "You Shook Me All Night Long." The lead riff on "Back In Black" may very well be the most recognizable riff of the 1980's. It is simple, yet majestic and still used in sports, film, and pretty much any other situation where impact is needed. Insofar as "You Shook Me All Night Long" is concerned, the loose opening chords and the bluesy, dirty main guitar pattern remain a favorite of guitar players throughout the world. The song itself is beyond anthemic, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone on the planet who does not know the song. "You Shook Me All Night Long" defines everything that makes AC/DC the band that they are. A straightforward, slightly sleazy song, paying tribute to an amazing woman, still stands as the greatest song about a one night stand ever written.

AC/DC has been making their brand of blues-based, seamy and steamy rock for nearly forty years. Through tragedy and triumph, they have established themselves as one of the greatest bands ever to find a recording studio. Any band that has a career longer than a decade has some sort of "been to the edge and back" story. Usually, if it involves the death of a band member, the story, and the band, end. Losing a force like Bon Scott seemed as if it would end the already amazing career of AC/DC. However, luck found them, and they found the amazing Brian Johnson. Bucking the trend of struggling to find chemistry with a new band member, their first release with their new singer, 1980's Back In Black, remains one of AC/DC's finest records and it is a vital part of every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Hells Bells," "You Shook Me All Night Long," and "Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution."

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