If all you’re after is power, drive, rhythm and thrill there really isn’t much point looking beyond AC/DC. They will never be the most advanced or intellectual when it comes to rock and roll but you could easily argue that by being so straight forward they have emerged as the purest embodiment of that art form. If the question is: what is rock and roll? The answer could easily be: rock and roll is AC/DC. Some fans would lump them in with heavy metal but they’re far too lithe, light and joyous to be shackled by that label. Nor are they simply ‘rock’ because they have a certain primeval swing that takes them a notch above all that too. They have never been as accomplished or funky as The Stones nor as ambitious as Zeppelin, but such comparisons hold little sway in this arena, because in fairness no other band have used the simplicity of their music to such advantage. Have no doubt: AC/DC are premier league.
I write of them now because all of a sudden, out of the black they have just released a new studio album and everyone (well, some people, predominantly fans) has been rather taken by surprise. Consider the facts: four years ago the rhythm guitarist, Malcolm Young, was withering to dementia (he has since passed), the singer had been told that any more touring would bugger his hearing for good, and the drummer was under house arrest on suspicion of conspiracy to murder (or something like that). That’s not what you would call good luck, but AC/DC have some previous experience in digging themselves out of holes, as we shall see. Out of this seemingly end-of-the-road scenario they have suddenly popped up with a new single – ‘Shot In The Dark’ (which is such an AC/DC name for a song) – and even better it’s quite a good one. That is to say it sounds exactly like AC/DC, and in doing so sounds exactly like no one else ever, because only they can sound precisely like themselves.
The single is accompanied by a brothel lit video which features nothing less or more than five old farts having a great time being in a band and, frankly, delivering a slab of rock and roll the likes of which you just don’t hear very often any more. It is courageous and triumphant and it doesn’t matter that you can’t understand what Brian Johnson is singing about because it’ll doubtless be something to do with sex or fighting and what does it matter anyway because it all just puts a smile on your face and makes you glad your hearing is better than his. That they are all, or almost all, still here is fabulous news and I am deeply grateful I managed to see them years ago in a then virtually unspoiled, state of the art Wembley Stadium. It seems almost pointless to say that they very much ‘rocked’ and were certainly a lot sharper than most other bands of their age that are still operating on such a scale.
Of the few regrets I can muster with regards to AC/DC: one is that I didn’t get into them much earlier (though it has been 20 years or so, which isn’t bad) and the other is that Bon Scott died so young; though I imagine this is much more of a regret for him than it is for me. Poor Bon died, basically from alcohol poisoning, in the back of a car in East Dulwich in 1980 at the age of 33; a demise that was simultaneously very and not very at all ‘rock and roll’. He had led the band right up to the brink of a level of success they richly deserved and some (including me and ‘Classic Rock’ magazine (because why have regular ‘rock’ when you can have the ‘classic’ version instead?)) would rate him as one of the best frontmen the world has ever seen. The music they had released up to that point is the best they ever made but such was their tenacity that the collection of songs they concocted immediately after his death became ‘Back In Black’; the last hurrah of their golden period, a huge great charging rhino of music and the second best-selling album of all time (and much, much better than the first). Not bad for a diminutive gang of Scot/Aussie rascals that sailed through a pretty thin musical gap. Not bad at all.
You know how this works – of course there’s a list coming. Silly billy. But just before that I should briefly explain what you should expect from a garden variety AC/DC song. You won’t find any extended solos or flute quintets. No rock opera or shimmering acoustic interludes. They often start with a simple riff which gradually builds up to a swagger as both guitars dance around each other. The drums and bass with be as tight as you like and there will be no frills, no extras and no sonic tomfoolery; the music will just build into a wall of glorious tempo and then stop dead or fizz away until it’s all burnt out. The singer (depending on your era of preference) might possibly give a yowl of approval before screaming in with a sack of gravel and a promiscuous leer that you can actually see with your ears. He will sing something utterly filthy: usually something about spending time between the thighs of a woman (I never once said that AC/DC are politically correct or have managed to reach very far beyond the mind-set of a male student) and at some point, hopefully, you will realise that this is music designed to put a strut in your step and a smile on your face. It may easily offend the easily offended, but I doubt that the easily offended have ever been what the band might call their ‘core market’. No, their ‘core market’ are people like me who just want some music to make them feel better about the world, and in a world like this I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. They champion action and hasten the pulse. All hail AC/DC. All hail rock and roll. Here are 10 of their best (according to me).
- Rocker (from Atlantic Studios – Bonfire boxset). If AC/DC consider simplicity as a virtue, then this is as virtuous as it gets. Pure, unbridled momentum, a feral buck at full pelt. Apart from the title it’s very hard to work out any of Bon Scott’s lyrics as they flick out as rough as a cat’s tongue, but that really doesn’t matter. It’s about the attitude, and if you listen to this and don’t like it then you probably won’t like the rest.
- Go Down (from Let There Be Rock). Possibly the ‘rockest’ album title ever, it opens with this number and is, as you might have suspected, about the delicacies and benefits of fellatio. A great thundering train of a track that builds up steam, briefly rolls into a station (3:21) and then builds up even more steam than it had before. Oddly this song rarely gets a mention or outing in AC/DC world and so is technically a deep cut, which is a shame because it should be an anthem. That’s right: an anthem about fellatio.
- Let There Be Rock (from Let There Be Rock, duh). A nice lesson in tension and release and about as furious as any other of their songs I could care to mention. Comes screaming out of the gate and delivers some venomous riffing, a great solo and (from 03:56) a few seconds of vocal/guitar back and forth that could rip through a panic room door with ease.
- It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) (from High Voltage). This is the song that first got them noticed and a rare success in the usually dreadful melding of rock and bagpipes. It’s not fancy or pretentious and it seems strange now that no one had recorded anything quite like it before.
- Whole Lotta Rosie (from If You Want Blood You’ve Got It). This live version is, as they say, the bollocks. It is somehow fitting that it was recorded in Glasgow and so benefits from the kind of mob articulacy that only the average Glaswegian rock crowd can afford. The build-up is wonderful with Bon Scott’s sandpaper introduction giving way to pile-driver rhythm and plenty of smut. Great solo too, and you can almost hear the sweat dripping off everything that moves, and most of the things that don’t.
- Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation (from Powerage/If You Want Blood You’ve Got It). Both studio and live versions are pretty much as good as each other since the song is blessed with an addictive hook and a propulsive furrow that keep it well clear of anything like mediocrity. There’s live footage of this being played (also seek out the band screeching through ‘Problem Child’ at Rock Goes To College – “thank you Peter”) and it is conclusive proof that Bon Scott had something on stage few mortals are meant to have.
- Shot Down In Flames (from Highway To Hell). Worth it just for the lurid yelps of enthusiasm during the intro and a forceful “One, Two”. Here the band are having even more fun than usual and romp away with a mighty drum hump and a kick in the balls chorus. Sadly, this was on Bon Scott’s last album, but what a legacy to leave.
- Shoot To Thrill (Back In Black). The band only really recorded one world class album after Bon Scott died, and this is it. Shoot To Thrill is used a lot these days to soundtrack all kinds of heroics, but it is best to keep it in your head and gut and appreciate the dynamics plus, best of all, one of those priceless moments (a la Go Down) when the whole band slow to almost nothing (3:24) and then start to wind themselves up again – “gonna get you down on the bottom girl” etc – all very tastefully done, of course.
- Back In Black (Back In Black). A masterclass from Malcolm Young, who pins down a bonesaw rhythm (some argue he was the best pure rhythm guitarist ever; some have a point) while brother Angus whips himself up to take care of the solo and all the rest. The merging of the two (from 01:50 onwards) is nothing short of a brutal, beautiful guitar ballet and has not dated one bit.
- You Shook Me All Night Long (Back In Black). Their move to what would be a more conventional, slick, populist sounding rock unit might be best summed up with this, but while rock in general got worse as the decade progressed this doesn’t take away from the fact it’s still a great, great song. It is fist pumping, nut squeezing sex-rock with some splendidly unambiguous lyrics and a great sense of timing (whoever decided to double up the initial riff at 00:49 is a stone cold genius) and a great way to end their imperial phase. You could be critical and say they never had a new idea after this, but then AC/DC were never, ever about new ideas; instead they were just about playing a bit of rock and roll and knocking your little cotton socks off. And in terms of a rock outfit fulfilling their intentions they, more than any other band, have been an unqualified success; so successful that on occasion they sound to me like the best reason there has ever been for electricity. Do plug in.
G B Hewitt. 24.11.2020