Death has cast a long shadow over rock and roll. Many famous bands disbanded for years or permanently after an iconic member passed away. Some reunited but rarely if ever recorded new music. Following the death of their exuberant frontman Bon Scott in early 1980, the shocked and saddened members of AC/DC were unsure of where their future lay. The situation looked grim. But the high voltage rock n’ roll powering their lives would not let them rest, and they channeled their grief and anxiety into one of the biggest selling albums of all time.
Things had been looking up for the raucous Australian band, who had recently come off of their Highway to Hell world tour. That album had been certified gold in America for sales of half a million copies and had gone Top 10 in the UK, with “Touch Too Much” cracking the Top 30 singles. AC/DC had opened for The Who at the start of that worldwide trek, then headlined many more shows with support from the likes of Molly Hatchet, Pat Travers, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, and Diamond Head. Scott and his guitar-slinging bandmates, Malcolm and Angus Young, had started working on material for AC/DC’s next album when he went out drinking with some mates on the night of February 18, 1980. It was the last time anyone would see him alive.
The hard-partying singer had been drinking heavily at the Music Machine in Camden, London, then was driven to a friend’s apartment in East Dulwich. But because his companion couldn’t wake him, Scott was left sleeping in the back of his car. By the following morning, he had died from acute alcohol poisoning and choking on his own vomit, which an official inquest called “death by misadventure”.
The band was stunned, distraught, and unsure of what lay ahead. But soon after his funeral, the Young brothers started jamming again to exorcise their grief. They got the blessing from Scott’s father to move forward, and soon, along with bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, they auditioned new singers, including one-time Rick Wakeman singer Gary Pickford Hopkins, Noddy Holder (Slade), Stevie Wright (Easybeats), and Allan Fryer (Fat Lip).
Also in the running, and the group’s first choice, was former Geordie frontman Brian Johnson. The singer’s time with his group had ended four years earlier, and he was running his own auto repair shop when he got the call about the gig. Supposedly, he began wearing his trademark cabbie hat during that time to pull attention away from the fact that a former rocker was back in the 9-to-5 world.
For his audition, Johnson sang both “Whole Lotta Rosie” and the Ike and Tina Turner song “Nutbush City Limits,” which was a refreshing change of pace for the group from the other audition song choices. The band did not want someone to mimic Scott’s bluesy howl, and the Geordie singer’s screeching rock style, which had a wider vocal range, was different and also fit the band. Funnily enough, not only had producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange suggested tracking down Johnson, which was no easy feat as he had dropped off the radar, but Scott had seen Geordie in 1973 and later told his bandmates about what a great performance Johnson had put on. (Not knowing that the latter was suffering from appendicitis that night, which temporarily made his stage movements that much more dramatic!)
Although they auditioned him twice, AC/DC knew he was their man from the get-go. However, Johnson was initially wary of the situation because he had done three albums with Geordie and had a Top 10 UK hit early on (“All Because Of You”) along with a Top 20 and two more Top 40 UK singles, but the momentum slowed and he departed in 1976. He had little to show for that time financially. AC/DC reportedly started him out with a six-month contract that would be re-evaluated once that initial trial was up, but it did not take long for Johnson to fit in with the band. During April and May of 1980, they recorded their seventh and biggest-selling album, Back in Black, with Lange at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. It was mixed right after at Electric Lady Studios in New York City.
“There was a massive amount of pressure on Brian’s shoulders, but everyone was very sympathetic and supportive of him,” Back In Black recording engineer Tony Platt told Sound on Sound in 2014. “We were all completely in awe of what he was doing and there were lots of positive vibes. So, whenever he had a moment of ‘I’m not sure I can do this,’ there were plenty of people around to tell him quite clearly that he could. Recording a band like AC/DC, the main thing I had to do was avoid screwing up. They were constantly providing the goods and I, therefore, had to be there to catch them at the right moment. Well, that was even more important with regard to Brian, because if I didn’t capture some of his performances the first time around it would have been a really steep climb for him to get back to that same place. Those vocals were absolutely incredible and what he achieved was quite extraordinary. He and Bon were totally different types of singer. Whereas Bon’s voice was extremely quirky, Brian’s was sheer power.”
Lange was a taskmaster and made sure that everything sounded great, and that he got the best possible performances out of everyone particularly Johnson, even if he meant extra takes. But Lange has always wanted to get the best possible sound on the albums he has recorded, and the results speak for themselves. This album, along with Foreigner’s 4, would be the calling cards that led the producer to help transform Def Leppard into ’80s arena rock stars and his future ex-wife, Shania Twain, into a ’90s country-pop queen. He also knew that with these Aussie rockers, he needed to keep things simple but enhance the overall sound.
“With AC/DC, you’d just have Malcolm Young’s guitar on one side and Angus’ on the other,” Lange told David Fricke in a 1987 interview. “I always thought the guys in AC/DC were masters of slow rock. They could play in half-time and sound so much more powerful.”
While Back in Black built on the formula established by Highway to Hell and previous AC/DC efforts, there were some definite changes that came about. Lange’s production was definitely a notch higher, giving the band a thicker, larger-than-life sound. There were distinct differences between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson. Both had strong but different rock voices, as noted. Scott came off as more of a wild man with a mischievous stage presence, revelling in his outlaw image and excesses. His sarcastic sense of humor and insights provided deeper subtext into songs like “Big Balls” and “Ride On” (“Got another empty bottle/And another empty bed/Ain’t too young to admit it/And I’m not too old to lie/I’m just another empty head.”) While cheeky in his own way, Johnson as a lyricist was more direct. He had his own kind of swagger on stage. He was a more melodic singer, and his words also flowed well with Malcolm’s blistering riffs and Angus’ scorching solos.
AC/DC recorded the album in about six weeks – keeping their heads down, working hard, and not overanalyzing things.
“There was hardly time to think,” Johnson told Jon Wiederhorn for his book, Louder Than Hell: the Definitive Oral History of Metal. “I’d just go with one idea after another, and any time I got stuck the guys were really patient and supportive. I’d say, ‘No, I just can’t think of anything else. I can’t do it.’ And they’d go, ‘Sure, you can. You’re doing great. Just get some tea then keep going.’ And somehow that always worked.”
“We just started writing and everything poured out of us,” Angus told Wiederhorn. “I don’t even remember specifics for a lot of the songs. We had almost nothing in front of us one day, and then the next there they were with a finished record.”
The album featured AC/DC’s trademark, hard-edged, no-frills sound, but it felt more urgent than before. The combination of the group’s burgeoning popularity and the tragic loss of their famed frontman had them charged up. While the tunes fell within the scope of what the band loved to discuss – rock, women, and wild times – tunes like the title track and “Have A Drink On Me” were inspired by Bon’s memory. Tracks like the faster-paced “Shoot To Thrill” and mid-tempo “You Shook Me All Night Long” felt fresh and energized. On that latter track, in particular, one could hear Johnson’s classic rock and soul influences coming through in his vocal melodies. The quintet did set out to reinvent the wheel but they certainly gave it a cooler cover. Repeated tropical storms during the recording sessions even inspired lyrics for the opening track “Hell’s Bells,” a hard-rocking eulogy for the band’s late frontman.
The final song recorded for the album was for “Hell’s Bells.” The group had ordered a 2,000-pound bronze bell for the tour, and it was being manufactured by John Taylor Bellfounders in the town of Loughborough in Leicestershire in the UK. Tony Platt utilized Ronnie Laine’s mobile recording studio to capture the ominous sound of it tolling right after it had been completed. That album intro set a dark mood, but the group did not obsess on the morbid. While the nearly all-black album cover reflected their state of mourning for Scott, they wanted the record to be powerful and life-affirming.
Upon its release on June 25, 1980, Back In Black immediately made waves. It became a No. 1 album in France, the UK, Canada, and their native Australia (although the Young brothers were childhood Scottish immigrants). The album hit No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 in December and has spent 420 weeks on that chart over time. The title track and “You Shook Me All Night Long” both became Top 40 tracks on the Billboard Hot 100.
On the subsequent headlining world tour, which lasted from June 29, 1980, to February 1981 and encompassed venues from clubs to arenas, the band played at least five of the 10 songs from Back in Black in concert every night. Many of these songs became AC/DC classics including the title track, “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and “Shoot To Thrill.” During the first show in Namur, Belgium, Johnson was nervous and recalls that he sang the same set of lyrics to two different songs and that the initial reaction to the song “Back In Black” felt muted. But the fans did not know that song well. Yet.
Those were minor hurdles. And needless to say, Johnson’s contract was extended. The tour was very successful, and while the album took time to build in America, it grew in stature as they crisscrossed the country. Topping off the most successful comeback album in rock history and its subsequent tour, the group appeared on the first issue of legendary British rock magazine Kerrang! (dated June 1, 1981) and headlined the second annual Monsters of Rock festival in England on August 22, 1981. They had arrived at the big time.
Back in Black quickly became a platinum smash for AC/DC, certified so on October 13, but it grew into something much larger. By 1984, it had cumulatively sold 5 million copies in America; by 1990, 10 million; and by December 2019, a whopping 25 million. It has allegedly sold an additional 25 million worldwide, and it is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It is also one of the group’s best albums; some will argue, the best.
There are those who would argue that the Bon Scott years are better than the Brian Johnson years, and that Highway to Hell, Scott’s final album, is better than Back In Black or anything that the band has done since. Funnily enough, when I interviewed Angus and Malcolm Young back in 2003, Malcolm admitted to me, “If you talk to him [Mutt Lange], he’ll say that Highway to Hell is his favorite album. Not Back in Black. Highway to Hell.”
Regardless of that debate, the fact remains that the classic Back in Black featured a very revved up band producing some of the best music of their career, and they rebounded quickly from a tragic situation to become one of the biggest bands in rock history. The album turned around Johnson’s waning career as well. It was a win-win.
Some might say that after the follow up to Back in Black, the equally hard-rocking For Those About to Rock, that AC/DC’s output was never quite the same, wavering in quality and in sales since then. Like Motörhead, they have never veered from their prime directive. That said, 1985’s Fly on the Wall had its moments, their Who Made Who soundtrack to Stephen King’s film Maximum Overdrive (1986) was a quasi-greatest hits with a catchy title track and two cool instrumentals, and 1990’s The Razor’s Edge was a damn impressive comeback album that returned them to classic form. That latter epic is definitely the second best album of the Brian Johnson era, with sales surpassing 5 million in the U.S. alone. They surprised people again in 2008 when their Walmart-promoted fifteenth album, Black Ice, became their first No. 1 album, went double platinum, and the song “War Machine” won Best Hard Rock Performance at the Grammys in 2009.
An interesting side note: “You Shook Me All Night Long” was revived in 1986 for Who Made Who. The video featured Johnson as a goofy everyman heading off to a rendezvous with one of the hottest women seen in an ’80s rock video. The eye-popping clip also included leather-clad women riding mechanical bulls and exercise bikes.
In the end, AC/DC have never wavered that much in their formula of raunchy rock anthems with occasional songs venturing into other territory. As Angus Young has been quoted as saying, “We’ve been accused of making the same album over and over 12 times. But it’s a dirty lie. The truth is, we’ve made the same album over and over 15 times.”
The legendary group has defined a sound that others have tried to replicate but never equaled in terms of its intensity. When you hear an AC/DC album or song, you instantly know it’s them. In the case of Back in Black, you can identify which album the tune is from. They’ve unleashed riffs and melodies that transcend time and trend and have stayed stuck in our consciousness. That’s certainly a mark of greatness.