In the single greatest book ever written about rock music, 1991’s Rock And The Pop Narcotic, Joe Carducci described AC/DC thusly: “They kind of took the lumpen stomp of Slade and sort of added the blues croak of early Savoy Brown (Chris Youlden) and came up with a raw, narrowly focused, grittily compacted hard rock sound somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection of blues and metal at boogie … They became so popular by 1980, that today, if you cut open young execs, young housewives, rappers, house mixers, salsa fans, hip hopsters you’ll likely as not find that about fourteen rings back there’s a layer of molten rock sediment spewed by this Australian eruption.”
That sums up both AC/DC’s sound and their significance remarkably well. AC/DC emerged in the early ’70s, when hard rock was at its commercial peak, but rather than head in the jamming, crowd-pleasing direction of, say, Grand Funk Railroad, they stripped their music to engine and chassis and went racing down Australia’s back roads like the musical equivalent of the bikers from Mad Max. And by keeping their heads down and preserving their core sound with zero capitulation to trends, they managed to build a solid career, particularly live, and eventually become legends.
Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, Scottish immigrants to Australia, formed AC/DC in November 1973. In September 1974, they replaced original vocalist Dave Evans with Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott. By 1975, they had a fixed rhythm section: Mark Evans on bass and Phil Rudd on drums. And almost from that moment on, their sound was as Carducci describes it above. The Young brothers’ guitars had an unprecedented snarl: Angus’ leads had real sting, while Malcolm’s rhythm chords sounded like someone tearing sheet metal apart with robot claws. And everyone’s role was clearly defined — their music was the antithesis of the improvisatory, jamming rock of the 1970s. Malcolm and Mark Evans (later replaced by Cliff Williams) anchored the songs; Phil Rudd’s name proved ironic, as he didn’t ever seem to play a fill. Angus and Bon were the twin frontmen, the guitarist bouncing across the stage as though his instrument were shorting him out, the singer preening and strutting, flirting with the women in the audience, then sneering lyrics that carried a genuinely shocking hostility and menace.
For six straight studio albums and one breathtaking live disc, AC/DC cranked it up and assaulted the audience with a ferociously potent blend of blues swagger and a sonic aggression that prefigured punk, with Scott’s magnetic personality up front. But then he died, choking to death on vomit after a night of binge drinking, and everything changed.
Brian Johnson, who took over on vocals beginning with 1980’s Back In Black, has led the group to its greatest commercial heights. Their second album with him, 1981’s For Those About To Rock We Salute You, was their first to hit #1 on the Billboard charts, an achievement they wouldn’t repeat until 2008’s Black Ice. But in the process, the band has slowly and incrementally become a substantially different beast. Songs have gotten slower, lyrics cruder; some albums have been great, but others have been uninspired and even dull.
I’m not one of those AC/DC fans who believe that every Bon Scott-era album is superior to every Brian Johnson-era album, so this countdown won’t divide so easily. But I am one who believes the Australian versions of the early albums are superior to the US versions, so those are the ones you’ll find discussed here. (They’re easy enough to get hold of — you’re on the internet right now, just open a new browser tab and have at it.) The one thing you learn by going through AC/DC’s catalog album by album is that they’re definitely not all the same. Sure, they’re similar in broad-stroke ways; that’s called having a style. But within the boundaries they’ve set up for themselves, there’s surprising range, and some real peaks (and valleys).
Start the Countdown here.