Tuesday 22 January 2013

AC/DC: Back In Black

(#235: 9 August 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Hell’s Bells/Shoot To Thrill/What Do You Do For Money Honey/Given The Dog A Bone/Let Me Put My Love Into You/Back In Black/You Shook Me All Night Long/Have A Drink On Me/Shake A Leg/Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution

It is the early spring of 1980. The four surviving members of AC/DC are waiting, rather impatiently, for Brian Johnson to show up for the audition they invited him to attend. Other highly able and experienced singers have been shortlisted for the job of replacing Bon Scott; one of them was Noddy Holder. But Johnson was an idol of Scott, who recalled seeing him, as frontman of the group Geordie, climaxing a gig by rolling about on the floor, screaming and screeching, and at the end of the performance being carted off in a wheelchair. Talk about Little Richard – although it transpired that Johnson was being carted off to hospital to treat an attack of acute appendicitis, hence his rolling around and screaming. So Johnson became the first name on AC/DC’s list.

Where is he, though? He was supposed to be here an hour ago. “Oh, HIM,” said someone else. “He’s downstairs playing pool with the roadies.” The group shrugged their shoulders and thought: oh well, at least he plays pool, and moreover he gets on with the roadies – always a good sign.

Eventually Johnson was brought upstairs to meet the musicians; he was visibly upset about Scott’s death, as upset as the rest of them were – there had been some question about whether AC/DC should carry on at all, but they agreed, goaded by the encouragement of Scott’s parents, that he would have wanted them to continue. But he was here – what you do fancy doing? “How about ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’?” Johnson suggested, “I do that on stage with Geordie.” Fair enough, and they launched into the song, realising that this guy with the flat cap was actually bloody good. Encouraged, Johnson then suggested doing “Nutbush City Limits.” Fine, the band thought – it’s a pretty straightforward rock number, we can handle that. Johnson then proceeded to bawl out the song, at times singing an octave higher than even Tina Turner managed. The startled group realised that this guy was a completely fucking awesome singer – not only did he completely fit in with what the group was doing, but he was also making them sound bigger and livelier than they’d ever done before - and they allowed themselves a smile; the first time they’d smiled since Scott died. He was in.

There was some initial disquiet amongst hard-bitten fans and parts of the music press; the guy out of Geordie??!!? You may remember that Johnson first turned up on Pure Gold On EMI singing lead on Geordie’s 1973 top ten hit “All Because Of You” sounding and looking pretty much the same as he did seven years later. But Geordie never really followed through their initial success and so by the turn of the decade were primarily a gigging concern; it is said that at the time he was called to the audition, Johnson was still living at home with his mother.

But it really doesn’t take much more than a cursory listen to Back In Black to realise that Johnson was completely the man for the job; and I find the above story extremely moving. Listening to the album, it still sounds like the new beginning it was surely meant to symbolise – the band wanted a completely black cover, but Atlantic demurred, asking for at least a grey outline of their logo so as not to confuse purchasers – and a chance to start over again when all seemed finished. I don’t need to emphasise the personal angle I have on this – read The Church Of Me to find out how I did it – but I naturally have greater empathy towards art, and people, who come out of a tunnel of darkness, even if they have to carve their way back into the light. I suspect even the embryonic New Order, up in Manchester, must have taken note of how AC/DC managed it.

I’m not sure, however, that even AC/DC thought that Back In Black would become the milestone record it did become, a record outsold in the States by just five others (even though it never made number one on Billboard). The only album by a rock band to sell more copies worldwide is Dark Side Of The Moon. In other words, the album became a titanic totem to those adolescents who had missed the sixties and seventies and wanted to rock in the present tense.

Back In Black is maybe the most straightforward album to appear in this tale so far; it knows exactly what it wants to achieve, does what it says on the tin, etc. Yet half of its ten songs refer, either directly or obliquely, to its deceased dedicatee. On “Shake A Leg,” for instance, a song about the kind of pissed-off teenage delinquent who would help form the record’s core audience over more than one generation, note should be made of the emphasis Johnson gives in each chorus to the words “Wake the dead.”

This is most evident on the opening “Hell’s Bells,” which, although it is really about a rather terrified Johnson on a dodgy flight with the rest of the group to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where they had to deal with tropical storms, near-hurricane winds and so forth (hence the references to “rolling thunder, pouring rain,” hurricanes and lightning), also works as a threnody, beginning with the solemn tolling of a single bell, soon joined by the group, deploying an uncharacteristically slow but hard tempo reminiscent of Crazy Horse; you half expect Neil Young, rather than Johnson, to come in. The song is clearly a sequel to “Highway To Hell” but Johnson seems to be exulting in the world’s apparently imminent demise (he roars “Satan get ya!” with untrammelled delight).

The group were right, though; Johnson makes AC/DC sound bigger (as does producer Mutt Lange, who realises very early on that with a group this tight – Cliff Williams’ bass is absolutely at one with the Young brothers’ twin guitars all the way through the record – all he needs to do is make sure it’s recorded right and that it’s mixed up loud enough to sound good on car stereos). Where Scott’s lower register bluesy raunch puts one in mind of a superior bar band, Johnson’s squeal – he starts where the likes of Ian Gillan leave off, and stays there; truly in his mastery of the sustained false upper register he is rock’s Gato Barbieri – seems to avail the group to the world, a voice that turns songs into anthems, will make them come across at stadium level (I wonder how many post-1980 people eagerly lapped up Back In Black thinking that it was AC/DC’s first album?). How does he succeed where Holder’s Slade failed (in the USA, at least)? He’s more direct – paradoxically, his voice is pitched so high that his words come out more clearly – while the band, although natural swingers (check the lovely breakdown and build-up in the last third of “Shoot To Thrill” for proof of their swing), are rhythmically much more direct. And there’s no evidence of a tongue in anybody’s cheek.

No, when they do songs like “Given The Dog A Bone” (I know some sources give the title as “Giving” or “Givin’,” but that’s what it says on the original issue, on both sleeve and label) and “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” they mean it (even if “it” invariably turns out to be the one thing), they give us lyrics which at times make Sid the Sexist sound like Gloria Steinem but which are so comically overdrawn that they are impossible to take seriously; Angus Young’s schoolboy gear is the clue – AC/DC are, essentially, thirteen years old, designed primarily to appeal to disgruntled young teenage males who maybe don’t yet have any idea of what the opposite sex are like. The point where kids just want to tell their parents to go screw themselves but have no notion of what that might involve.

But, dammit, they can rock. The penthouse hooker scenario of “What Do You Do For Money Honey” knocks Rod Stewart back into the dog kennel; “Let Me Put My Love Into You” shows that Stones who might be boss. Everything is pared down, economical, with neat, abrupt endings to songs; only the first two tracks exceed five minutes. Angus and Malcolm Young have the greatest symbiotic understanding of any lead guitar pairing this side of the Stones; it doesn’t matter who’s soloing, they are not exhibitionists, they feed off each other and enhance the whole.

But side two is where The Hits are. I can’t even begin to think of the nascent hip hop generations inspired to rustle up their own dope beats because of the monolithic title track; how long had it been since Zeppelin sounded this alive? Charged with writing a tribute lyric to Bon which avoided the mawkish and sentimental, Johnson came up with something Scott would have been proud to sing, defiant and relevant (“I got nine lives, cat’s eyes,” “Getting loose from the noose,” “Forget the hearse, ‘cause I’ll never die”). The central riff is brilliant and the triple across-the-beat elisions are more than worthy of Zep.

“You Shook Me All Night Long” sees Johnson getting more than satisfied; I just recall how any dancefloor would be flooded, mainly by women, when this song came on, whether student disco or office party – the song is not just first-class rock, but damn near perfect pop, with everybody working and striving to make the song strut and resonate. “Have A Drink On Me” was controversial at the time, and not considered in the best of taste, but it’s clear that Johnson’s attitude to alcohol-induced oblivion is ambiguous; on one hand he is clearly enjoying how the pub or club is making him feel, while on the other he is mindful of what happened to Scott after a similar night at the Music Machine club, so his drunken euphoria is guarded (“Forget about the cheque, we’ll get Hell to pay”).

“Shake A Leg” is flawless hard rock for a generation missing Aerosmith and how things used to be; I incidentally note (although it was Lena who actually noted it) that the protagonists of this song and “What Do You Do For Money Honey” could be interchangeable, thinking of a young girl growing up at the time, not far from where Johnson came, who might have started as the subject of “Shake A Leg” but eventually came to be regarded by some as the subject of “Money Honey,” and whose favourite group was…AC/DC. But if you were a pissed-off kid in 1980 whose parents and teachers just dragged you down with their endless cajoling and admonitions, wouldn’t you want to lock yourself in your bedroom and play this record very loudly indeed?

The record ends with the poignant “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” which was popular enough to become a Top 20 single in the UK. Poignant not just because Johnson gives the finger to middle men and fence-sitters, but also because the song – played mid-tempo, with drummer Phil Rudd doing his best Bonham epic soundscaping (and how ironic that Bonham probably lived just long enough to hear Back In Black) – is a reclamation of something that seemed, in 1980, to have become forgotten; the power of rock ‘n’ roll, the spirit of Chuck Berry that powers all of these songs. And, of course, the memory of Bon Scott, which I feel is being heavily called upon here – Johnson sings, more than once, “We’re just talking about the future/Forget about the past,” while being careful to take with him the elements of the past that are worth preserving. “It’ll always be with us,” he says, “It’s never gonna die,” and he does so with such unapologetic fervour that you’re not quite sure whether he’s singing about rock ‘n’ roll, or Bon Scott, or both. What he is saying, though, and what the record says as a whole, is that nothing ever finishes, or at least shouldn’t be cut off before it is allowed to finish. “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t gonna die…/Rock ‘n’ rolling will survive”; they saw an end, but also a way out, and a way out that also proved to be a point of entrance for so many people – it’s impossible to count (Frank Black? Bob Mould? Rick Rubin? KRS-One? INXS, another Australian-based rock band but containing no less than three brothers?) but the total number of people inspired by this record to get a guitar and embrace rock music over the ensuing decades probably runs into millions.

“Rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ roll,” muses/proclaims Johnson, right at the end of the record, “Is just rock ‘n’ roll.” And that’s what makes it – and Back In Black - rock ‘n’ roll; the best straight-down-the-line rock record in this tale since Led Zeppelin II, worthy of placing beside the first Elvis album and Never Mind The Bollocks. It is one of the best reasons for not committing suicide, or curtailing a blog, that I know.

Next: Wiry vapours.