It was a very different world in July 1979 when AC/DC released their sixth album, the iconic slab of tune-filled granite we have loved and revered for 40 years. Jimmy Carter was President of the United States of America; Margaret Thatcher had recently been elected as the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom. There was a Cold War. There was no internet. The Sony Walkman had been in the shops for three weeks. A very different world.
Highway to Hell, the band’s last with lead vocalist Bon Scott before his tragic death in March 1980, is the point where the band properly broke America; it was the album that could have broken the band too. The band’s label, Atlantic Records, had high hopes for the Australian outfit, underscored by successful touring of the USA in ‘77 and ‘78. With cash tills presumably ringing in their heads, they hooked the band up with famed producer Eddie Kramer. Three weeks in Miami and many rows but not many tunes later, the band retreated to Camden, London, regrouping and reflecting. Hiring Peter Mensch as manager and Robert John “Mutt” Lange as producer, they hunkered down for three months to scrape, scrap and fashion a rock record for the age. For a band used to throwing things together quickly and organically, the hard, focussed discipline of Lange was a brutal shock to the system. Constant retakes, reworkings of songs and telling Angus how to play his solos were new, if not necessarily welcome, experiences for a band who the moniker “last gang in town” was probably tattooed on each of their sleeves. But it worked. And how.
Calling your record “Highway to Hell” was not exactly the commercially expedient title that the record company had hoped for, particularly with the US market and its notoriously conservative views around anything remotely invoking the devil and all his works. Remember, this is only six years before the advent of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) and the Parental Advisory stickers of (now established) infamy. You can understand the nervousness when the artwork has the band’s lead guitarist sporting devil horns. However, far from being an ode to all things Satanic, Highway to Hell is, as most AC/DC albums are, a record about sex, lust and partying harder than everyone else.
The title track is such an established part of the rock’n’roll canon it needs no fresh reviewing here, apart from confirming that it remains one of the greatest rock anthems of all time. ‘Girls Got Rhythm’ gallops with fizz and energy; ‘Walk All Over You’ and ‘Touch Too Much’ is filled with as many single entendres as double ones. There is little doubt what, on Touch Too Much, the lyrics “she wanted it hard, wanted it fast, liked it done medium rare” are alluding to. The rock’n’roll thrashiness of ‘Beating Around the Bush’ closes the first part of the record (remember, this is the age of vinyl) and it is angsty, impatient and ballsy.
‘Shot Down in Flames’ paean to jilted, drunken men the world over remains as brilliant as it is undoubtedly daft; ‘Get It Hot’’s blues-based bar boogie is a two and a half minute ode to drinking and lust-filled imaginings; ‘If You Want Blood (You Got It)’ is perhaps the album’s most underrated song: it’s rafter packed with huge riffs, bigger choruses and an energy that most bands would give their third rate careers for. It’s known that Angus thought ‘Love Hungry Man’ was the worst song that AC/DC had recorded to date (he reportedly said: “I must have written (it) after a night of bad pizza – you can blame me for that.”) He’s wrong though: it’s silly, yes; salacious, yes and catchy as hell. ‘Night Prowler’, the album’s closing track, is probably the most notorious song on the record, mainly for its groundless association with the 1980s serial killer Richard Ramirez, the self-styled satanic Night Stalker. In 1985, in one of a number of media led “controversies” the band found themselves caught up in a frenzy of accusation that this was a song about murdering women; Scott’s utterance of “Shazbut Na-nu Na-Nu” from Robin Williams’ sitcom Mork & Mindy suggests that the band’s tongue was planted firmly in cheek and this really was a song about teenage lust rather than murderous intent.
What strikes the listener is how fresh and exciting Highway to Hell still sounds. The production on this record is meticulous: Phil Rudd’s snare drums sound like snare drums; Cliff Williams’ bass lines hum, rumble and drive songs forward; Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar is impeccable and has never sounded better; Bon Scott proves (as if proof were needed) that he could properly sing and not just holler. More though, this is a band with focus and execution in abundance. A collective determination to succeed and succeed on their own irascible and idiosyncratic terms. The album peaked on the US Billboard charts at number 17 but it has gone on to be the band’s second biggest-selling record (behind this record’s successor, Back in Black).
In the summer of 2019, with all the political and societal upheaval, it would be easy to make the allusion that Highway to Hell could readily describe our current world. However, it is not a political record. It is a record for Saturday night; it’s a record for your party. It’s a record for every party. Highway to Hell is AC/DC at their leanest and fittest. There is not an ounce of flab on its aural torso. It has boogie, groove, chutzpah. It has tunes as infectious as a winter cold in a schoolyard. It is one of the greatest rock albums ever made.