AC/DC Albums From Worst To Best
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).
Live At River Plate (2012)
Totally unnecessary, this double disc captures a single concert -- December 4, 2009, at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina -- from the Black Ice tour. The band played three nights at the stadium (which holds roughly 67,000 people), selling out all three; a DVD from these shows was also released.
I saw this tour twice -- once at Madison Square Garden and once at the O2 in Dublin, Ireland (a fantastic, Thunderdome-ish venue with tiers of seats running high up the walls of its bowl-like interior). AC/DC were performing with fierce energy and delivered a set that was a great mix of classics and five songs from the then-new album. (Yes, they played "Big Jack," but the other four were all good choices and didn't do anything to sap the momentum of the set.) Still, if If You Want Blood You've Got It was the Bon Scott-fronted version of the band saying "Come to our show, we'll kick your ass," and AC/DC Live was the Brian Johnson-fronted version saying "We're the biggest hard rock band on the planet," the message of Live At River Plate is something on the order of "We're still here." None of the songs are transformed in any unprecedented way -- this is AC/DC we're talking about, after all -- and while the whole band sounds really good, particularly Johnson, there's really no compelling reason to own this album.
AC/DC didn't completely disappear between 1990's The Razors Edge and 1995's Ballbreaker; they put out a mammoth live set and recorded the non-album track "Big Gun" for the soundtrack to Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero. And apparently they really liked working with Rick Rubin on the song (which was pretty good, ridiculous video aside), because when they decided to make a whole new album, he was their pick to produce.
Unfortunately, they didn't get the Rick Rubin who'd produced Danzig's first four albums or Slayer's trilogy of classics (Reign In Blood, South Of Heaven, Seasons In The Abyss); they got the Rick Rubin who'd produced Johnny Cash's American Recordings and Tom Petty's Wildflowers. Put simply, Ballbreaker -- despite its title, and songs with names like "Hard As A Rock," "Cover You In Oil," and "Caught With Your Pants Down" -- is as close as AC/DC has ever gotten to releasing a mature, adult album. And it's as boring as that makes it sound.
It's a long album -- 11 songs in 50 minutes, with only one of them ("Love Bomb") less than four minutes long, and three ("The Honey Roll," "Burnin' Alive," and "Hail Caesar") that pass the five-minute mark -- and it feels longer. Now, in the past, when an AC/DC song got to be five or six minutes long, it was usually because they'd worked up such a head of steam, were boogieing so hard and at such relentless fury, that they just couldn't stop without letting Angus rip through one more frantic guitar solo. Here, it's because the sluggish blues grooves they're plodding through won't let them finish up in a reasonable amount of time. And it didn't have to be this way. After all, Ballbreaker was the album on which original drummer Phil Rudd returned to the lineup after 12 years away. This should have been their opportunity to let it rip, to crank it up and slam it home like 1977 all over again. But instead, they decided to slow down and groove in a head-nodding, rather than headbanging, manner. The result is as close to a bummer as any AC/DC album can be.
For Those About To Rock We Salute You (1981)
In 2012, the concept of "a New Jersey" (named for the Bon Jovi album) was discussed on the message board I Love Music. To qualify, an album must:
• be the follow-up to a huge, possibly career-defining record
• have fewer and/or smaller hits than the band's previous album or hits based more on momentum than appeal
• bring with it the feeling that the next record (if there is one) will see the bottom fall out, relatively speaking
For Those About To Rock We Salute You ticks every one of those boxes. Recorded in Paris following the success of Back In Black, it was their final album with "Mutt" Lange behind the boards, and while it has the same epic sound as its predecessor, the songs just aren't there. Do you even remember what the first single, "Let's Get It Up," sounds like without clicking over to YouTube? The title track, released as the second single in early 1982, is a classic hard rock anthem, despite being performed at a slow marching tempo. There's a reason they're still closing shows with it to this day, and it's not just because it's hard to follow cannons.
There's really not a single great -- or even very good -- song on the rest of the album. "I Put The Finger On You" is lyrically crude even for them, and melodically/rhythmically stock, with a terrible chorus; "Let's Get It Up," as implied above, is totally forgettable; "Inject The Venom" is too slow by half, coming off less menacing than tired; "Snowballed" tries, and fails, to do the fast-verse/slow-chorus thing they'd made work on "Walk All Over You," from Highway To Hell; "Evil Walks" should have been called "Evil Lies Down For A Nap"; "C.O.D" sounds like Kiss were brought in for the backing vocals; "Breaking The Rules" and "Night Of The Long Knives" are so dull I can't even come up with insults for them; and "Spellbound" trudges the whole thing to a halt. Basically, this is an album composed almost entirely of midtempo-or-slower tracks, with only two ("I Put The Finger On You" and "Snowballed") mustering any real energy. And yet, almost entirely due to momentum created by the success of Back In Black, it was AC/DC's first #1 album in America, and ultimately went quadruple platinum.
High Voltage (Australia, 1975)
AC/DC got their start on the Australian bar circuit, and when you're a bar band, you know lots of cover songs. So it's no surprise that the Australian version of High Voltage, AC/DC's debut album, kicks off with a furious take on "Baby, Please Don't Go," a blues first recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1935. Their version, unsurprisingly, is a speeded-up variation on Van Morrison and Them's 1960s cover. (It's unlikely they'd heard Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes' 1967 recording.) This song almost certainly knocked drunk Aussie audiences on their asses. But as an album opener, it's a weird, tentative choice, like the band weren't confident in their own material yet. And High Voltage is a weird, tentative album. AC/DC weren't themselves yet.
That was literally as well as figuratively true. When this album was made, the band proper only consisted of singer Bon Scott and guitarist brothers Angus and Malcolm Young. They had no rhythm section of their own, so another Young brother, George, handled bass, and some guy named Tony Currenti played the drums. Fortunately, Currenti never gets in the way of the boogie -- he knows how to set up a minimalist, rock-steady groove and just sit there for as long as necessary.
Scott's personality is the most instantly appealing element of the band's sound as represented here. Malcolm Young's rhythm guitar doesn't have the razor-wire bite it would develop on the very next record, and Angus's leads are fairly typical blues-rock, with just a little bit of noise here and there. But Scott was already who he would be for the six albums they made before his ugly, tragic death. He exhorts, he leers, he sneers, he tosses snarky asides at the end of lines. Despite not having a traditionally "good" voice (read: he wasn't a post-Robert Plant screamer, and he sounded more like a criminal than a loverman), he was one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock.
Still, even Scott can't make High Voltage a great album; it's way too erratic and patchwork, with no great songs and only two that approach the power of their later work. The six and a half minute "Soul Stripper" has all the elements of '70s AC/DC at their best -- a supple groove that's somewhere between boogie and disco, with an edge of real meanness to it; a lyric that blurs the line between lurid and vicious, with sexual attitudes that go beyond routine rock-dude boneheadedness and into genuinely creepy territory; and stinging lead guitar (by both Angus and Malcolm; for the one and only time in the band's discography, they trade lines, and it's pretty hot stuff). And speaking of creepy lyrics, give a close listen to the slow-crawling "Little Lover." You'll be sorry you did.
But the rest of the record finds them searching for their sound and heading down a number of blind alleys in the process. The chorus of "You Ain't Got A Hold On Me" has a melody the Eagles wouldn't have turned down. "Stick Around" is a plodding midtempo track any band of the time could have written in their sleep, and "Love Song" is a ballad(!) with keyboards(!!). Ultimately, the Australian version of High Voltage is for diehard fans only -- if AC/DC were ever to release an actual best-of (their Iron Man 2 soundtrack doesn't count), nothing here would make the cut.
Who Made Who (1986)
One year after 1985's Fly On The Wall, AC/DC were asked by longtime fan Stephen King to soundtrack his debut as a director, Maximum Overdrive, a not-very-good movie based on his short story "Trucks," about trucks that come to life and start running people over. The group cobbled together a collection of catalog tracks ("Hells Bells" and "You Shook Me All Night Long" from Back In Black, "Sink The Pink" and "Shake Your Foundations" from Fly On The Wall, "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)," and one Bon Scott-era song, "Ride On"), and wrote one new one -- the title track -- and two instrumentals, "D.T." and "Chase The Ace." Five more instrumentals were written and recorded for the movie, but don't appear on the album. Including all of those would have made for a much more interesting and worthwhile release. AC/DC may be the only band of their stature to never release a greatest hits or best-of; this and the Iron Man 2 soundtrack are the closest they've ever come, and neither does a great job at summing up their career. "Who Made Who" is a pretty catchy song, though. (Note for ultra-completists: the mixes of "Sink The Pink" and "Shake Your Foundations" are a little bit cleaner and poppier than the Fly On The Wall versions.)
AC/DC Live (1992)
AC/DC's second live album is very different from their first, and not just because of who was singing. (It's worth noting that by the time it was released, Brian Johnson had already fronted the band for twice as long as Bon Scott had.) Where 1978's If You Want Blood You've Got It was a snapshot of a hungry, up-and-coming band giving their all to one ferocious gig, 1992's AC/DC Live was a statement from a group that routinely sold out arenas across the globe. As such, it's just as boring as almost every other live album released after the 1970s heyday of the double (and sometimes triple) live slab.
Overdubbed almost beyond recognition, these tracks from the 1990-91 Razors Edge tour are culled from a variety of shows, rather than one amazing concert, and they're all separated, with the screams and applause fading in and out at the beginning and end of the tracks (and disappearing entirely, thanks to studio magic, while the songs are actually playing). Brian Johnson's stage banter is terse and minimal, rarely offering more than a cursory lead-in to the next song, and while he's in decent voice, the band's performances are almost all near-exact mirrors of the studio versions, with the exception of radical extensions of "Jailbreak" (14 minutes), "Let There Be Rock" (12 minutes), and "High Voltage" (10 ½ minutes). There were two versions released, a 14-track single CD and a 23-track double-disc set; neither is particularly essential, but if you're gonna go for it, go big, as bigness is this thing's whole reason for being.
Blow Up Your Video (1988)
After eight albums in as many years (High Voltage through For Those About To Rock We Salute You), AC/DC slowed down. It took two years for Flick Of The Switch to arrive, and two more passed between that one and Fly On The Wall. Writing three new songs for 1986's Who Made Who must have really taken it out of them, though, because their next full-length didn't arrive until 1988 -- almost three full years after Fly On The Wall.
Blow Up Your Video, despite sporting easily the band's worst, most nonsensical album title, is actually pretty good. It marked a reunion with their 1970s producers, Harry Vanda and George Young (Malcolm and Angus's big brother), and a return to their bluesy, hard-boogieing sound. The first thing you hear is guitar: Malcolm and Angus softly picking at a riff. Then Simon Wright shouts a count-off from the back of the room, and the first single, "Heatseeker," launches into life. Immediately, you can tell that it's a cleaner, more live-sounding album than its deliberately ugly predecessor. Brian Johnson is in terrific voice, singing more intelligibly -- and subtly -- than he's done in years; instead of the one-note, painful shrieking of previous records, he's enunciating and modulating his tone, making the screams actually mean something. (The lyrics, on the other hand, continue to mean nothing.)
Unfortunately, Blow Up Your Video is a very front-loaded album. "Heatseeker" is a great opener, and "That's The Way I Wanna Rock 'N' Roll" is a solid, hard-driving follow-up (which is why it was the second single). There's an element of funk to the next two tracks, "Meanstreak" and "Go Zone," keeping the listener's head nodding if not banging. But starting with "Kissin' Dynamite," the last song on the album's first side, energy and inspiration start to seep away, and it's all downhill from there. The first three songs on Side Two -- "Nick Of Time," "Some Sin For Nuthin'," and "Ruff Stuff" -- are fast enough, but there's nothing memorable about the riffs the Young brothers are playing, and the songs fade from memory as soon as they're over. Things really bog down with "Two's Up," which is not only the slowest song on the album but at least a minute too long at 5:20. The band tries to take things out on a high note with "This Means War," an aggressive rocker played at an almost "Riff Raff" speed, and only miss the mark because of their decision to stop dead on the choruses.
Blow Up Your Video marked something of a rarity for AC/DC, in that its two singles included non-album B-sides. "Snake Eye," the B-side of "Heatseeker," is a heavy, stomping track, significantly more aggressive than anything on the album. "Borrowed Time," the B-side of "That's The Way I Wanna Rock 'N' Roll," fits a little better with the mood of the record, but it still would have jumped the energy level up significantly.
Stiff Upper Lip (2000)
When you let five years elapse between albums, you disrupt the normal human cycle of anticipation/caring-about-your-band. If you're a band that puts out an album every year, people get excited about nine or ten months after your last record, because they know there's another one coming. You can even keep people's attention on a two-year cycle, especially if you stay on the road for most of it. But when you take five years between albums, you become one of those bands people don't actively think about. Instead, when you do put something out, they're surprised. "Hey, a new album!"
AC/DC released the disappointing Ballbreaker in 1995, toured behind it, then vanished. In autumn 1999, they regrouped at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, and as they'd done after each experimental phase in the past, they brought in Angus and Malcolm's older brother George to get them back to basics. The result? Stiff Upper Lip.
What's interesting about Stiff Upper Lip is that it's a lot better than it ought to be -- more than the sum of its parts. On the surface, it's probably the least ambitious AC/DC album, almost 100 percent coasting. The lyrics set a new bar for laziness, even by these guys' radically diminished standards. And yet, it gets over on sound alone. This is AC/DC's blues record -- basically, taking the approach they tried on Ballbreaker and doing it right this time. Just about every one of its 12 songs is built around a simple, midtempo boogie riff -- it's not until the album's final stretch that any real ferocity develops. And the structure is always the same: verse, chorus (usually consisting of one line repeated four times), verse, chorus, guitar solo, repeat chorus three or four times, and end. But with one or two exceptions, they make it work, because instrumentally, all the pieces of the puzzle are there. The guitars clang and roar, the bass throbs, and the drums thump precisely into place -- Phil Rudd's groove is as impeccable as ever. Angus's solos are deeply bluesy, closer to Billy Gibbons than any metal player. You could even use the word "tasteful," as long as you added the caveat "by AC/DC standards."
And if none of the music is great, none of it is awful, either. The only song from Stiff Upper Lip to which history has been truly unkind is "Safe In New York City," which is one of many on the album that suffer from a near-total lack of connection between verse and chorus -- the verses say nothing about city life, or anything else really. But worse than that, it just feels like a weird thing to sing ("I feel safe in New York City"). And while they certainly couldn't have known the 9/11 attacks were coming 18 months after the album's release (OR COULD THEY), it's bound to sound … off to listeners now. And yet, for some reason, it, along with the title track and the equally lyrically bizarre "Satellite Blues," was one of the three singles from the album.
The Razors Edge (1990)
"Thunderstruck" is an incredibly good song. "Mistress For Christmas" is an unbelievably bad song. These are the two poles between which AC/DC's The Razors Edge (lack of punctuation in original) slides. Its peaks are some of the best songs the band's ever recorded; its valleys are fucking dismal. But it was massively successful, selling five million copies in the US alone and hitting #2 on the Billboard charts.
During the US tour in support of 1988's Blow Up Your Video, rhythm guitarist and band co-founder Malcolm Young took time off to enter rehab for alcoholism; he was replaced by his nephew Stevie (the son of the oldest Young brother, he's only two years younger than Angus). And when all the Blow Up touring ended, drummer Simon Wright, who'd played on that album and its predecessor, 1985's Fly On The Wall, left to work with Ronnie James Dio. He was replaced by Chris Slade, who'd been a member of Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Asia, the Firm, and Uriah Heep. By the time Malcolm was back and it was time to write new songs, it was up to him and his brother, as Brian Johnson was in the throes of a divorce. It was a chaotic period, but when they all assembled in Dublin, Ireland's Windmill Lane Studios, followed by a stint at Vancouver's Little Mountain Studios, with veteran hard rock producer Bruce Fairbairn at the board, they seemed to be at creative strength once again.
It must be said that Fairbairn's production is some of the most heavy-handed ever to appear on an AC/DC album. Slade's drum sound is extremely late '80s; his kick sounds like it's the size of a refrigerator, and his snare sounds like a ping-pong paddle whacking a leather couch, or like someone getting punched in a Walter Hill movie. Johnson's vocals are blanketed in reverb and doubled at times, creating an almost choral effect when the snarling background vocals from the Young brothers come in. And there's some even weirder stuff going on. "Rock Your Heart Out," built around a disco-pop bass groove, includes a bizarre everybody-sing-falsetto interlude right at the track's midpoint that sounds yanked from an early '70s Yes album, and "Are You Ready" (which was somehow chosen as a single) has a weird singsong chant that sounds like something Cheap Trick would have done.
How does the whole package come together? Well, the first three songs -- "Thunderstruck," "Fire Your Guns" and "Moneytalks" -- are fantastic, heavy, and melodic in equal measure, with riffs that absolutely kill. The title track is surprisingly doomy, with Angus's guitar solos distorted and almost Tony Iommi-esque. But after that, things go downhill. "Mistress For Christmas," as previously mentioned, is an embarrassment. Listening to it, you feel bad for them -- and it's not like they needed to release it. Every AC/DC album to date had offered between eight and 10 tracks; The Razors Edge has 12. "Mistress For Christmas" could easily have been cut, as could "Let's Make It," which comes off like their attempt at power pop. And most of the other songs are just forgettable: a decent riff, some quality guitar soloing here and there, but nothing more.
Fly On The Wall (1985)
Fly On The Wall is the noisiest, nastiest-sounding AC/DC album. Like its predecessor, 1983's Flick Of The Switch, it was produced by the Young brothers, recorded in Montreux, Switzerland between November 1984 and February 1985. But where Flick had a thick, meaty roar to the guitars, rumbling bass, and cleanly mixed, pounding drums, Fly is much more blown-out sounding. The guitars have a harsh, shearing-metal sound, and the drums are pushed through that '80s gate that makes the snare sound like a battering ram striking a door and the cymbals crash like a shattering windshield. Cliff Williams' bass is entirely absent, blended so thoroughly with the rhythm guitar that he might as well not be there. (The change in the band's songwriting style in the post-Mutt Lange era, from aggressive but supple boogie to crashing hard rock riffs, really didn't serve Williams well.)
This was the first AC/DC album since the Australian version of High Voltage not to feature Phil Rudd on drums. His replacement, Simon Wright, was barely 20 years old and a near-total unknown when he joined the group. His playing was as rock-steady as his predecessor's, but the fluidity Rudd brought to the band was definitely missing; the drums on Fly slam where they should thwack.
Brian Johnson is even more tucked away in the mix than he was on Flick. This suits his performance well, though, because this was the first album on which his vocals started to suffer. You can only scream at full strength for so long without ripping your throat up, and from day one, Johnson was almost totally lacking in the subtlety and dynamics Bon Scott had brought to the group. Here, he's hoarse, screechy, and frequently incomprehensible, so frankly, it's a relief to hear him drowned out by the guitars.
There are several good songs on Fly On The Wall. The title track, "Sink The Pink," and "Shake Your Foundations" all have bone-crunching riffs and shout-along choruses; each allows the band to work minor variations on their post-Back In Black style that keep them in tune with contemporary metal while still sounding very much like themselves. It's more or less the same trick Ozzy Osbourne pulled on The Ultimate Sin. "Playing With Girls" is the fastest song on Fly, a high-stepping boogie-metal track. But it's balanced out by "Danger," a turgid ballad that was inexplicably the first single.
Fly On The Wall isn't great. Three albums after what they had to know was their commercial peak, they were short on ideas, they'd lost their drummer, and Johnson's voice wasn't the powerful instrument it had been in 1980. Still, they were able to sell a million copies based on past glories and raw power, and honestly, there are times when its ugly, noisy mix is just the brain-scrubbing blast that's required.
High Voltage (U.S., 1976)
AC/DC made their international debut with an album called High Voltage, but it had only two tracks in common with its Australian namesake: "Little Lover" and "She's Got Balls." The other seven songs -- "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'N' Roll)," "Rock 'N' Roll Singer," "The Jack," "Live Wire," "T.N.T.," "Can I Sit Next To You Girl" and, oddly, "High Voltage" -- were all culled from T.N.T. It sort of makes you wonder why Atlantic Records didn't just put out T.N.T. internationally; after all, "Little Lover" and "She's Got Balls" aren't exactly classics of the band's catalog. "Rocker" is better than either of them. (The cover of Chuck Berry's "School Days" that ends that album is still pretty terrible, though.)
Anyway, this is the album that most of the world believes to be AC/DC's debut, and it's a solid slab of aggressive boogie, with hints at the dark misanthropy underpinning a lot of their Bon Scott-era material. (When Brian Johnson came on board, this lyrical tendency would disappear almost entirely, something that we'll talk about when discussing Back In Black.)
Black Ice (2008)
AC/DC had been gone for eight years when Black Ice was announced. No one had any expectation of a new record; the band had seemed to be in elder statesman mode, having signed with Sony after nearly three decades on Atlantic, reissued their entire back catalog (US versions), and released the multi-DVD set Plug Me In. But then, in August 2008, the word came that there would be a new album in October. And it would be available exclusively at Walmart. Which didn't stop it from hitting #1 the week it was released -- the first time they'd topped the Billboard charts since For Those About to Rock We Salute You in 1981.
Produced by Brendan O'Brien (the band had talked to "Mutt" Lange first, but he wasn't available) and recorded in the same studio -- The Warehouse in Vancouver -- where they'd tracked 2000's Stiff Upper Lip, the album has a thick, beefy sound, moving away from the explicitly bluesy approach of Stiff and 1995's Ballbreaker and back toward the hard rock of their 1980s work. Tracks like "War Machine," "Smash 'N' Grab," and "Spoilin' For A Fight" have the muscular aggression of the classic era, while "Decibel," "She Likes Rock 'n' Roll" and "Money Made" have the funk grooves they'd long since proved were equally within their wheelhouse, and "Stormy May Day" features Angus Young playing slide guitar for the first time ever on an AC/DC record, and it sounds great, recalling Led Zeppelin's "In My Time Of Dying." And "Anything Goes" is a terrific surprise, the guitars ringing like the Young brothers had been listening to Big Country in their off time. The thing about Black Ice is, no matter what you like about AC/DC, there's something on it for you.
That's partly just due to quantity: The album is 15 tracks long, with a 55-minute running time, easily the bulkiest package of their career. But it's also due to the sound. O'Brien put the band in a room and recorded the music live, giving the music a power it didn't have on Ballbreaker or Stiff Upper Lip. The songwriting is also stronger -- lyrically, they're still the kings of meaninglessness, but the choruses are stronger than before, fist-pumping and singalong-worthy.
Brian Johnson reportedly sang for only one hour a day while making Black Ice, in order to keep his voice strong. And indeed, this is his best vocal performance with the band -- the high nasal screeching that had been his trademark for decades is rarely heard here, replaced with a more soulful style. He sounds both rejuvenated and transformed; at times, he attains an almost Tom Jones-ish power.
If Black Ice has a serious flaw, it's just that it's too long and has too many songs. Each one is good, and some are very good; the band wring as many variations as possible out of their core sound. But they're AC/DC. They do two, maybe three things. Ten songs is perfect; fifteen is way too many. Unfortunately, it's hard to pick which five should have been cut, with one exception: "Big Jack." "Big Jack" sucks.
Highway To Hell (1979)
Wherein AC/DC begins their ascent to their commercial peak, commencing the Great Slowing Down at the same time. Highway To Hell is the first of three albums the band would record with producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, a South African expat who'd previously worked with artists on the UK pub rock scene like Graham Parker, the Boomtown Rats, and the Motors. Recorded in two different studios -- one in Miami and one in London -- the album was the band's most polished and surprisingly eclectic to date. It was also their first album to have exactly the same tracklisting in all territories: no last-minute changes to the mix, nothing taken off or added.
The two or three songs everybody knows from Highway To Hell are its opening title track, "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)," which shares its title with their breathtaking 1978 live album, and "Night Prowler," which got them in a lot of trouble, thanks to L.A. serial killer Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramírez. More about that later.
"Highway To Hell" is the song that sets the pattern for the rest of AC/DC's career. Abandoning the fast boogie attack of earlier anthems like "Let There Be Rock," "Whole Lotta Rosie," "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," etc., it's a slow-burning, stomping track with a chorus made to be chanted in an arena, not shouted along with in a bar. The band also slows down a lot on "Walk All Over You," but only on the chorus, which is half the speed of the verses -- a weird choice, but one that serves to make the song much more memorable than it might otherwise be.
Many of the other songs on Highway To Hell are still quite fast, but they're also more experimental … kinda. "Girls Got Rhythm" is built on an almost new wave or power pop guitar riff and a hard-grooving beat; it's like late '70s Rick James crossed with the Knack. "Touch Too Much" has a gloss that prefigures Billy Squier and other early '80s AOR radio kings, while "Get It Hot" sounds like they'd been listening to the Rolling Stones' Some Girls a lot, and "Love Hungry Man" is almost … funk.
"If You Want Blood (You've Got It)" is a classic AC/DC jackhammer, with lyrics about how badass they are (using Christians thrown to the lions as a metaphor, in a way that makes you think they'd be into that) and some of Angus Young's most face-ripping guitar soloing ever. "Night Prowler," on the other hand, is one of the band's bluesiest songs, and finds Bon Scott returning to tales of crime and cruelty for the last time. His voice is harsh and hoarse; he almost sounds like Accept's Udo Dirkschneider. The song is clearly written from the point of view of a murderer -- the couplet "And you don't feel the steel / Till it's hangin' out your back" gives the game away. Years later, "Night Prowler" would link the band to serial murderer Richard Ramírez, who was a fan. At one point, police claimed Ramírez was seen wearing an AC/DC shirt, and left a hat with their logo at one of his crime scenes. This caused the band to insist, on VH1's Behind The Music, that the song was actually about a guy sneaking into his girlfriend's bedroom at night. Yeah, right.
Flick Of The Switch (1983)
As soon as the tour in support of For Those About To Rock We Salute You wound down, AC/DC headed back to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where they'd recorded Back In Black, without producer "Mutt" Lange for the first time since 1979. They were handling this one themselves, and after the (artistically if not commercially) disappointing For Those About To Rock, it was the right decision.
Their shortest album, at 37:05, and sheathed in a cover that looks like a teenaged fan might have drawn it on his notebook during a boring class, Flick Of The Switch could easily have been another letdown. But it's not. In fact, it's a collection of 10 songs that fucking rock, some of them harder than any material the band had released to date with Brian Johnson up front.
The one thing that must be acknowledged is that lyrically, the record is pretty weak, with only one real exception. Johnson wrote some great stuff on Back In Black, but inspiration had apparently run dry by this point, because half these songs are seriously meaningless -- strings of words that lead from verse to chorus without a single memorable line. The only song with any lyrical impact is "Bedlam In Belgium," for the simple reason that it actually tells a story, albeit one that actually predated Johnson's tenure with the band. The gig that turned into a riot was in Kontich, Belgium in October 1977, on the tour in support of Let There Be Rock, and you can read the full story, from someone who claims to have been there, right here.
Fortunately, the relatively weak lyrics are balanced out by some of the most ferocious riffing in the band's '80s catalog. AC/DC made a conscious effort to recapture the rawness of earlier albums here, and they pulled it off. Johnson is in the middle of the mix, on an equal plane with the Young brothers' guitars and Phil Rudd's drums (this would be his final album with the band until 1995, but it's a hell of a sendoff), and the whole thing roars and slams from front to back. Some songs ("Deep In The Hole," "Rising Power") have the funky strut of "Back In Black," while "Badlands" is stomping blues-rock, and "Landslide" and "Brain Shake" are as fast as classics like "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)" or "Whole Lotta Rosie."
One more caveat, though. While it's tough to make these kinds of accusations in the realm of blues-based hard rock, where everybody's working with the same chords and scales, "Landslide" sounds distressingly similar to Ted Nugent's "Motor City Madhouse." It's not just a similar riff; the whole fast-picking thing Angus is doing is exactly what Nugent did on his song, in 1975. It feels like straight-up thievery to me. But what the hell -- they make it their own, and the song rocks. (And in possible karmic payback, it sure seems like Whitesnake lifted the riff from "Badlands" for the chorus melody to "Slow An' Easy," from 1984's Slide It In.)
AC/DC didn't need to make a brilliant album after For Those About to Rock We Salute You, but they did need to make one that proved they could still kick ass. They did.
Let There Be Rock (1977)
Like its three predecessors, AC/DC's fourth studio album was initially released with a different tracklisting at home from internationally. In this case, the first vinyl editions were the same all over the world, but Atlantic Records changed their minds about the song "Crabsody In Blue" after the fact, removing it from later international LPs and replacing it with a slightly shortened version (edited from 5:46 to 5:24) of "Problem Child," from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. The album also started out with different cover art -- audiences outside Australia got to puzzle over the iconic performance shot, wondering whether this was a live album or what, while fans at home saw a stark black-and-white image of fingers on a guitar neck. Weirdly, those fingers didn't belong to either of the Young brothers; they were Chris Turner's, of Aussie proto-metal thugs Buffalo (who would release their final studio album, Average Rock 'N' Roller, that same year).
LTBR was pushed out with astonishing speed. Recorded in January and February 1977, it was in Australian stores on March 21. And while it comes loaded with four of AC/DC's best songs of the Scott era, the other four tracks have little to recommend them but riffs -- and, unbelievable as it may seem, sometimes a riff isn't enough.
Interestingly, each side starts off weak and gets stronger as it goes along. "Let There Be Rock" is one of the ass-kickingest songs in the band's catalog, totally living up to its title, but it doesn't launch the album, as any sane person would expect. Nope, first you've got to sit through "Go Down" and "Dog Eat Dog." The former is a decent blues-boogie jam about receiving oral sex; the second is a song about how much life sucks sometimes. Both these songs are objectively some of the best rock music ever made, just because they feature the rhythm section of Malcolm Young, Mark Evans and Phil Rudd, but they're still kinda … ordinary, by AC/DC standards.
It's not until track three that LTBR really gets cooking, but when it does, HOLY FUCKING SHIT. That riff, so dirty and loose it sounds like Malcolm's strings are going to sag down to the floor. Rudd's relentless, unstoppable, totally fill-less drumming. The pick slide that introduces Angus Young's first solo, and the feedback that ends it (1:13-1:45). Bon Scott's "hillbilly" voice on the phrase "and you could hear the fingers pickin'" (2:35). The pick slide that starts Angus's second lead break/solo (3:00-3:35). The way Bon screams "let there be rock" to introduce Angus's third solo (4:15-6:05). This is a song that will make your head explode with raw joy.
There are three other great songs on LTBR: "Bad Boy Boogie," which comes right after the title track, "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be," and "Whole Lotta Rosie." The first two are slightly slower, still slamming it to you good and hard but with a little more swing and a little less "what the hell did you cut this speed with?" But "Rosie" is one of those '70s hard rock songs (you can also find a lot of them in the catalogs of Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, and George Thorogood) that seem to render punk rock totally unnecessary. A grinding blues riff laid atop a drumbeat designed to make you want to kick a stranger to death, it gives you two and a half minutes of based-on-a-true-story appreciation for a fat girl who likes to fuck (without ever seeming to sneer at or look down on her for it), followed by a three-minute guitar solo. It's one of the greatest leave-'em-wanting-more album closers in rock history.
Let There Be Rock is too unbalanced to be one of AC/DC's best albums, but the four killer tracks make it essential listening.
T.N.T. (Australia, 1975)
This is the first real AC/DC album. With one notable exception, the stylistic experiments of High Voltage are gone, and the classic early lineup (Bon Scott singing, Angus Young on lead guitar, Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, Mark Evans on bass, Phil Rudd on drums) is in place. Released only ten months after their debut, it finds the band fully formed and cranking out a fistful of classic hard rock anthems, riding the aggressive blues groove they could drive harder than anyone on the planet.
Seven of the album's nine tracks were later included on the US/international album High Voltage, which marked AC/DC's worldwide debut. Thus, "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'N' Roll)," "Rock 'N' Roll Singer," "The Jack," "Live Wire," "T.N.T," "Can I Sit Next To You Girl" and "High Voltage" are all crucial tracks in the band's catalog, at least half of them still played in concert to this day. Of the remaining two, "Rocker" is every bit as kick-ass as the others. The album-closing cover of Chuck Berry's "School Days," on the other hand, is not just weak but inexplicable, and thankfully marks the last cover in AC/DC's discography. Their own material is so ferocious, bringing in outside songs just dilutes their power.
The album's opening track, "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'N' Roll)," famously features Bon Scott on bagpipes, an instrument he had to learn after producer George Young suggested they be included on the track. The keening sound actually works really well alongside Malcolm Young's chunking riff, not unlike exquisitely controlled guitar feedback. It's the first of two songs in a row about the life of a rock band; the second, "Rock 'N' Roll Singer," takes the opposite tack, Scott bragging about his outsider existence and angrily rejecting mainstream society's values and "all the other shit that they teach to kids in school." No wonder AC/DC were one of the few hard rock bands to connect with punk audiences when they hit the UK.
Of the other five songs to appear on both T.N.T. and the US version of High Voltage, two are about sex ("The Jack," which is a labored metaphor for venereal disease, and "Can I Sit Next To You Girl," a reworked version of a very early single that featured their pre-Bon Scott singer, Dave Evans), and the remainder -- "Live Wire," "T.N.T." and "High Voltage" -- are about being a rock 'n' roll badass. But not only is the music more biting and aggressive than almost anything else around at the time, the lyrics have a cruelty and meanness, verging on nihilism, that's unprecedented, especially when filtered through Scott's disdainful delivery. And special recognition must be made of Malcolm Young's backing vocals. His voice is even more frightening than Scott's; he sounds like a goblin, or like some guy you really don't want to fuck with shouting along from the bar.
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (Australia, 1976/US, 1981)
AC/DC's third album didn't come out in the US until 1981, after Highway To Hell and Back In Black had cemented the band's commercial status. And even then, it was once again re-edited, with a different tracklisting from the original Australian edition. The original, though, might be the hardest of the Bon Scott-era albums, based solely on the songs that open and close each side.
The opening title track, obviously, is one of the band's biggest hits, built around a throbbing, relentless drumbeat, searing guitar work from the Young brothers, and some of Bon Scott's most black-hearted lyrics. His sneering, threatening delivery is matched once again by Malcolm Young's goblin-cackle backing vocals, and the chorus is purpose-built for shout-alongs. "Ain't No Fun (Waiting 'Round To Be A Millionaire)," which follows it, is also very solid from a musical standpoint, but as another in the band's continuing series of songs about being a band, it feels a little stale, despite featuring some of Scott's most perceptive lines. "There's Gonna Be Some Rockin'" is the album's first real throwaway; it's a boogie that feels half the speed of the two songs before it, and lyrically it's a nothingburger. The same can't be said of "Problem Child," though, which closes Side One. Amped-up and lyrically almost terrifying, it's another chance for Scott to inhabit one of his favorite characters, the sociopathic street kid who claims "With a flick of my knife I can change your life / There's nothing you can do," and he's utterly convincing.
The album's second side kicks off with "Squealer," maybe the nastiest song the group ever recorded. Over a slow, throbbing groove, Scott tells a story that doesn't blur the line between seduction and rape, it stomps all over it in boots stained with something you can't and probably don't want to identify. The girl in "Squealer" is a virgin, of whom Scott says, "she'd never been balled before / And I don't think she'll ever ball no more." It's an ugly, frightening song, and the musical background is like the sound of someone following you down a deserted alley at midnight.
As if to deflate the mood of cruelty and terror they've created, though, they follow "Squealer" with "Big Balls," a song that gets less and less funny as the distance between you and your 14th birthday grows. "R.I.P. (Rock In Peace)" is a bare-bones boogie number, with little to recommend it beyond the band's typically rock-solid playing. "Ride On," though, is the band's second attempt at a ballad, after "Love Song" on the Australian version of High Voltage, and it's great, a slow-burning life-on-the-road blues, with the most beautiful solo Angus Young's ever recorded. And then, the album ends with "Jailbreak," a crushing rocker that, if you listen carefully, features Phil Rudd playing actual drum fills!
This is a slightly disjointed album. The four songs that open and close each side are Bon Scott at his darkest and fiercest, but some of the ones in between shift between soft and bland. But its peaks are amazing.
The US/international tracklisting is substantially different, by the way. It runs like this: "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," "Love At First Feel" (an otherwise unreleased song), "Big Balls," "Rocker" (from Australian T.N.T.), "Problem Child," "There's Gonna Be Some Rockin'," "Ain't No Fun (Waiting 'Round To Be A Millionaire)," "Ride On," "Squealer." So yeah, the original version is way better, and can be cobbled together on iTunes with a little effort.
If You Want Blood You've Got It (1978)
AC/DC weren't breaking through the way Atlantic Records wanted them to -- they were releasing singles, but none were hits -- so in traditional '70s fashion, a live album was planned, in the hope that capturing the band's astonishing onstage energy would win them the audience they deserved.
Recorded on April 30, 1978 at the Apollo Theatre in Glasgow, Scotland, If You Want Blood blasts you in the face with 10 tracks spanning their second through fifth studio albums (T.N.T., Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Let There Be Rock and Powerage, itself released only six months earlier). With the exception of the slow-burning blues "The Jack," it's one fast and furious barrage after another: "Riff Raff," "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be," "Bad Boy Boogie," "Problem Child," "Whole Lotta Rosie," "Rock 'N' Roll Damnation," "High Voltage," "Let There Be Rock," and finally, "Rocker." This is the kind of setlist and performance that leaves audiences sweaty, exhausted, and wondering exactly what make and model of tank just ran over them. And in contrast with some other classic '70s live albums, the band sounds genuinely alive, particularly Scott, whose voice is shredded by the end of the show. On "Rocker," he's gasping and jabbering out the lyrics, half out of breath, just keeping the show going until Angus's next guitar eruption. I have no idea how Phil Rudd manages to sustain his energy and precision, but he's an absolute machine.
Live albums are rarely truly necessary unless they offer something unique. If You Want Blood You've Got It fails that test -- the live versions of AC/DC songs are basically identical to their studio counterparts, just maybe a little more jacked-up and furious -- but it's such a relentless experience, it's actually an essential part of the band's catalog. As live albums go, it's on a par with the Ramones' It's Alive, Black Flag's Live '84, or James Brown's Love Power Peace: Live At The Olympia, Paris, 1971: it's a document of a truly killer band at the peak of their powers, giving everything they've got to an audience, without mercy.
(Note: "Whole Lotta Rosie" is not actually live; it's the version from Let There Be Rock, sped up slightly and with new vocals and a new guitar solo pasted in. This bit of cheating does absolutely nothing to sap the album's incredible energy.)
Back In Black (1980)
Bon Scott died on February 19, 1980. Back In Black was released on July 25 of that year, with new vocalist Brian Johnson, formerly of the UK glam rock band Geordie, up front. Scott was actually a fan of Johnson's, and had praised him to Angus Young, so while he wasn't their first choice -- they auditioned two or three other candidates before calling him -- he did come recommended. And indeed, with Johnson, the band has achieved truly monumental commercial success. Back In Black has sold over 22 million copies in the US, over 50 million worldwide.
The differences between Bon Scott-era AC/DC and Brian Johnson-era AC/DC aren't vast, but they're obvious. First of all, their vocal styles are completely different. Scott was a subtle, multifaceted performer capable of slyly winking at the listener, or conveying creepy menace, or leaning in for a boozy attempt at seduction. Johnson is a pliers-to-the-nuts screamer, harsh and hoarse, very similar in sound to Dan McCafferty of Scottish hard rockers Nazareth.
Secondly, AC/DC are slower, and less of a straightforward boogie band, with Johnson singing, particularly on their singles. This was actually more due to the influence of producer "Mutt" Lange, who worked on their final Scott-era album, Highway To Hell. The title track was the one of the slowest non-ballad songs the band had ever released; indeed, Lange slowed it down himself in order to give it greater impact. As producer on Back In Black and its 1981 follow-up, For Those About To Rock We Salute You, he likely had more impact on their sound -- for good and ill -- than anyone since Harry Vanda and George Young.
For a transitional album recorded in what now must seem like an astonishingly short time (the band spent April and early May recording in Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, under tropical storm conditions that inspired the lyrics to "Hells Bells," then moved to New York's Electric Lady to mix), Back In Black is an incredible achievement. Not only are many of the songs qualitatively different from anything they'd done before, but it sounds a million miles beyond any previous AC/DC album.
Let's talk about the drums. They sound amazing. They don't sound like any drum kit I've ever heard in my life, but neither do they sound like a machine, or a giant steel door slamming, like they would had, say, Hugh Padgham produced the album. Lange gives them a kind of hyperreal quality, just reverbed enough to fill the entire middle of the mix, with the guitars positioned on either side and the bass somewhere underneath. Every instrument here gets similarly plush treatment; Back In Black is basically the Platonic ideal of a hard rock album, sonically speaking.
The songs are better, too. Sure, there are routine boogie tracks ("Shoot To Thrill," "What Do You Do For Money Honey," "Shake A Leg"), and songs that have a good chorus and little more ("Given The Dog A Bone," "Let Me Put My Love Into You"), but "Back In Black" and "You Shook Me All Night Long" are absolute high-water marks for the Young brothers as songwriters -- and Brian Johnson as a lyricist. Both tracks are packed with surprisingly witty lines and clever wordplay, but it's their structure that makes them the classics they've become. That stuttering, funk-metal riff to "Back In Black" is totally unlike anything AC/DC had recorded to that point, and "You Shook Me All Night Long" has one of the biggest, catchiest choruses they've ever recorded and a brilliant main riff. Whether the Young brothers came up with this stuff on their own or were pushed in this direction by Lange, they absolutely graduated to the big leagues with these two songs.
Is Back In Black a perfect album? No; Side One should have been Side Two, and vice versa, and "Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" is the definition of filler. But its peaks are fucking incredible, and as a comeback from a potentially band-destroying tragedy, it's amazing.
AC/DC's fifth studio album was their first to be released in all territories at almost the same time, and with the same cover art. As with every prior album, though, there were differences in the tracklisting. The European LP included a song, "Cold Hearted Man," that disappeared from later versions, and "Rock 'N' Roll Damnation," which wasn't finished when the first masters were sent to the plant, was omitted from some pressings. These versions of the album also used early, rawer mixes of the songs (for example, the bluesy coda of "Down Payment Blues" was omitted), but eventually they were all replaced with the version everyone else in the world is familiar with.
This would be the last AC/DC studio album to be produced by the team of Harry Vanda and George Young, who'd handled all their records to date, until 1988's Blow Up Your Video. It's also the first to feature Cliff Williams on bass, though there's some controversy about that. Original bassist Mark Evans claims he played on a few tracks, which were recorded during the Let There Be Rock sessions, but the book The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC claims that George Young is the bassist on the entire album.
Here's the thing about Powerage: It's only got two certified AC/DC classics on it, "Riff Raff" and "Sin City," but a) those two tracks are so brain-punchingly awesome they make the record a must-own anyway, and b) pretty much all the other songs on it are every bit as stomping and furious, they're just not as well-known. "Riff Raff" probably should have opened the album. It begins with a fanfare-like unaccompanied guitar riff from Angus, eventually bolstered by a rumbling as the rest of the band comes in, and then the same riff basically doubles in speed, Phil Rudd starts jackhammering, and we are fucking off. The song rips along at basically a punk-rock tempo, and Bon Scott is on another one of his tirades about being a sneering badass … oh, wait, no he's not. The lyrics on this song are kinda weird, actually; he seems to be telling us that life's a bitch, so you might as well laugh and have some fun. Indeed, AC/DC seem to be "maturing" quite a bit, lyrically speaking, throughout Powerage. A lot of the songs are about actual relationships, rather than sexual conquests, and the dark tales of criminality are entirely gone.
Powerage is one of AC/DC's "dark horse" albums, one of the ones that a lot of diehard fans (including Keith Richards, btw) will cite as their favorite, as people who only know the big hits pull a face and say, "Really? I don't think I've ever heard that one …" But once you become a serious fan, it'll grow and grow in your estimation, as it has in mine, until one day you realize that this was the album on which they got almost everything right.