Atlantic Records ■ SD 19244
Released August 3, 1979
Produced by Robert John Lange
Engineered by Kevin Dallimore [Assistant], Tony Platt [Mixing], Mark Dearn[l]ey [Recording]
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Already I find myself forced to eat my own words. I chose not to pull out an item like the 1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die one, not because I couldn’t do it, nor because it would force me through music I don’t know or maybe don’t like, but because I didn’t want to be too stuck into writing about an album everyone and their mother has written about already. Instead, I decided to go through my own collection alphabetically.
Well, here I’ve stuck my foot in it.
If I were smart, I would have discussed If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, the live album that precedes this one in the AC/DC catalog, but I decided the easiest way to sort out which album by an artist to discuss was to skip EPs and live albums (thus my choice of 86’s Provocation over their Minutes in a Day EP). This does mean that I’m stuck trying to talk about one of the most classic of classic hard rock albums in all of music history. Well, there are worse things to talk about, and certainly albums that could make me look much dumber.
If you aren’t a music person, or are and somehow don’t at least know of AC/DC or what they sound like, they, like many bands of the 1980s, have a reputation that precedes them for outsiders. This may sound strange coming from someone who just reviewed his copy of an experimental black metal album, but I spent my youth in a household that didn’t much go in for hard rock, metal or rap as these primary sorts of genres tended to arrive after the primary congealing of taste for my father, who dominated musical discussions and in-house taste in those days. That preceding reputation, then, carried over a bit to me. I had a friend introduce me to AC/DC by way of their follow-up to this, Back in Black with all kinds of both emphatic enthusiasm and a description of either Ronnie James Dio (of Dio, Rainbow and Black Sabbath, primarily) or a confusion of him and perhaps Bon Scott–or, even more likely, a confusion of my own memory as to what I was told. Still, there was an aura of forbidden mystique about “metal” and “hard rock” that left me with strange notions about Iron Maiden and AC/DC even as I heard the first track I can remember: “Hell’s Bells.” On some level, I remember finding it to be not nearly so scary as I thought, but also reflexively designating it “not my cup of tea,” as that was the attitude I understood followed it.
In high school, though, I started to actually begin pursuing music in various avenues, and AC/DC was a band I quickly latched onto (much like Thin Lizzy, VH1’s Behind the Music was actually a strong inspiration for this–seeing the human element behind music is helpful to me in grounding the sound against actual people, blasphemous though the notion may be to some). During my brief stint with “learning” the guitar, I finagled the acquisition of Highway to Hell, Back in Black, and 1990’s The Razor’s Edge for the alleged purposes of learning them. Instead, they mostly served as endless soundtrack to a cross-country roadtrip, to the chagrin of my family. I didn’t mind hearing the three albums over and over and over, but I was rather alone in this. Still, the music was foreign, as I’ve noted, to the household, so it had a newness, even as plenty of the singles had leaked in over the years through the radio (“Moneytalks” having been the driver behind my acquiring The Razor’s Edge in particular).
I picked up this LP some years back for about $2.50 (if the sticker on it is to be believed) during a phase that amounted to, “things I think I should have on vinyl, as I try to figure out what it is that makes me want vinyl, as well as things assured not to double my father’s own collection.” The album was ingrained by this time, and I’ve certainly not spent a lot of time since then listening to it–at the least, not listening to my vinyl copy of it.
I’ve gotten a bit lost here, but let’s get back to the point: AC/DC are pure hard rock. That means riff-based guitars, steady backbeats, guitar solos, up-beat tempos and crunchy distortion on said guitars. Riffs, if I need to go deeper, are usually guitar parts that are played as chords rather than single-picked notes, meaning that the guitarist strums at least a few strings at once, often using what are called “power chords,” so-called for their sense of, well, power and derived from their general simplicity: usually the index finger, ring finger, and pinkie occupy the top three strings in order, with about an inch (a fret, the place between the vertical bars on a guitar neck) between index and ring finger. Usually these chords are slid up and down the neck of the guitar or jump around between strings without changing shape. It allows for easy learning, quick chord changes, and a lot of volume without near as much effort as you might need otherwise.
The band hails from Australia originally, though most of the members do not, making them oddly reminiscent of the Bee Gees, another primarily-UK-born group that achieved fame through life in Australia. The rhythm section, Cliff Williams on bass and Phil Rudd on drums, has been near consistent since about 1977 (though Rudd left briefly in the 1980s), but is often left to do their job behind the vocalists and lead guitarist Angus Young. Carried along by blood is his brother Malcolm, the band’s rhythm guitarist who is far less showy but rocksteady and heavily involved in the songwriting. I say vocalists because, of course, shortly after this album’s release, vocalist Bon Scott died through “misadventure,” as they say (officially, even), related to the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle”–specifically, heavy drinking. This, then, was his last studio appearance with the band.
It’s reasonable for this to be the AC/DC album I find myself saddled with, not because it’s my favourite, but because it is the pinnacle of the first era of the band, the Bon Scott era. In the days from their first LP, 1975/4’s (depending on who you ask) T.N.T, straight on through this and even the next album, the Young brothers and Bon wrote the songs together. Bon was older than the two brothers, but had a mischievous and immature sense of humour that came through clearly in all their material with the broadest of winks that somehow managed to remain just on the edge of completely obvious. I’ve often referred to AC/DC, lyrically, as “masters of the single entendre,” because there’s never any question at all what “Big Balls” is about, despite the talk of some balls being held “for charity, and some for fancy dress.” Indeed, if you see anything that resembles a euphemism, whether intended or not, it seems clear that Bon meant something sexual by it.
Highway to Hell perfects that notion by not including any songs quite so blatant as “Big Balls” without losing the sense of humour or the obvious nature of Scott’s lyrics. I can’t say he walked a tightrope, as I’ve already noted how obvious his lyrical choices were, but the album manages to catch them more firmly on the edge of at least being able to sneak past the unwary, even if only the smallest attention makes their subject matter clear. It also balances this out with songs like the title track which is more reminiscent of songs like one of their earliest hits, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll),” finding Bon declaring his “old man’s” weariness of the rock gig (though he was only 33 when he died, he was still older than the Youngs by seven and nine years) and its excesses and drudgery, even as he clearly enjoys doing it and expresses this.
Rudd and Williams have both congealed in the band, as Williams has now completed an entire album with the band (1978’s Powerage) and settled more firmly into his role. They remain the firm, steady backbone with Malcolm behind the histrionics of Angus’s guitar and Bon’s wild, devilishly-grinned vocals, both of which are in fine form. You can hear Bon’s amusement in any of his songs as he sings them, and can tell the man had fun doing this, or was at least damned good at pretending he was, while Angus makes his Gibson SG (his signature guitar) absolutely sing out in blues-inspired solos full of rock-inflected timing and flair matched to the soulful bends and tremolo arm work that comes from the more blues and rhythm-and-blues inspired rock that they all heard as kids. If there’s any doubt, they did record “Baby, Please Don’t Go” on their debut–they may not have been steeped in the blues, but they had some familiarity with it.
The opener, that title track, was a single for the band and has become a signature tune to identify the band, though it may be eclipsed by “Back in Black” in that respect. The rest of the songs trade off emphasis between Bon Scott’s full-throated, if unusually high-pitched and not-incredibly-tuneful vocals and Angus’s blistering leads, often alternating between the two throughout the song. “Mutt” Lange’s production was his first for the band, and remains one of his earliest recognizable jobs. The band echoes or responds to Bon on occasion, with shout out lines to emphasize choruses and increase the quotient of both “participation” by the listener (as it only encourages the listeners to join in) and acts as the straight man to Bon’s wild vocal stylings. “Beating Around the Bush” really allows the Youngs to shine, edging outside the usual chord-oriented structure of the album’s songs by using a rapid and rolling lick as the opening and frame for the song, though they shift back to chords to allow Bon’s vocals their own space. “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” is an excellent example of the alternated strum-mute approach the Youngs often use for songs, muting chords to keep them short and sharp for the quicker songs, taking its title from the live album they released the year before and letting their more open, powerful chords ring out only for the chorus–the same kind used for the majority of the title track that lend it power throughout.
The album closes with “Night Prowler,” which is one of my favourite AC/DC tracks of all, reminiscent in some ways of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap‘s “Ride On” and T.N.T.‘s “Little Lover,” with its simmeringly slow tempo, but acting as the culmination of all that moody, slow-burning approach as it crescendos with a wailing lead from Angus, even as the song opens, almost the howl of a wolf–which isn’t inappropriate, as the song is, of course, about sneaking into a girl’s bedroom while her parents are asleep. Bon’s vocals start at an unsually low pitch, again reminiscent of slow tracks earlier in their career, before they, too, build to the chorus, where his voice matches Angus’ guitar in its similarity to a lupine howl. There’s a menace and a sleaze to the track that never feels dirty in any sense but the completely desired way–no feeling of unpleasant voyeurism or leering, as Bon’s attitude toward sex is always open but rarely (if ever) degrading. That he ends the song (and the album) by quietly intoning, “Shazbot. Nanu, nanu,” only seals the complete feeling of comfort one has with the band and their distance from the reputation the unfamiliar can occasionally saddle them with.
This album tops a lot of “hard rock” lists, which is utterly justifiable: there’s no “fat” or “filler” on the album, and it’s bookended by two distinct but equally powerful and excellent tracks. AC/DC are cursed, condemned, congratulated and commended for their consistency, but it has always been their intention to play music like this–sleazy, dirty, but fun and catchy. This album is all of those without fault, and it is indeed one you should at least hear before you die–even if you don’t love it or even like it, give it a listen and keep your ears open, not for the unusual, but for the amusing, the comfortable, and the fun.
- Next Up: Ryan Adams – Gold