The comeback to end all comebacks, the story of Back in Black (Atlantic Records) began with tragedy but ended in triumph. While comebacks usually require some form of absence from the public eye, a few weeks would barely register as a blip on the timelines of most bands. But for AC/DC, that short space of time was literally life-changing.
After the death of talismanic frontman Bon Scott in February 1980, the band was left in the highly unenviable position of having to not only decide whether to continue but – if they did – how to choose a suitably charismatic replacement. With the help of producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, the band quickly settled on Gateshead born, Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson. With Scott’s crooned lyrics and sly wit replaced by gravelly vocals and a flat cap, production of the new album swiftly got underway.
Deciding not to use any of Scott’s existing contributions for fear that it might appear as profiteering, AC/DC paid homage to their fallen comrade instead by simply working their socks off to record some of the finest hard rock songs ever to be etched into vinyl. The funereal opening to ‘Hells Bells’, gives way to one of the most recognisable riffs in rock, while in typical English style, Johnson’s first vocal lines – “I’m a rollin’ thunder, pouring rain, I’m comin’ on like a hurricane” – were written about the weather. First single ‘Shoot to Thrill’ is a serious rock’n’roll bruiser which has only grown in popularity over the years, while sleaze and innuendo follow with ‘What Do You Do For Money Honey’, ‘Given the Dog a Bone’, and the blatantly suggestive ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’. “Let me cut your cake with my knife” indeed.
Kicking off the second side, the iconic title track – a fitting tribute to their late singer – grabs you from the first chord to the last, and at a time when AC/DC was less than fashionable, second single ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ even managed to bother both the UK and US Top 40. You can virtually smell the toilets and haze of cigarette smoke in the boozy ‘Have a Drink on Me’, while ‘Shake a Leg’ remains one of the band’s most criminally underrated tracks, and the final single to be lifted from the album, ‘Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ ends the record with a stylish bluesy crawl.
From its release in July 1980, the overwhelming praise for Back in Black has been universal. From Johnson’s vocals to the relentless rhythm section of guitarist Malcolm Young (RIP), bassist Cliff Williams and metronomic drummer Phil Rudd to the hyperactive guitar histrionics of the schoolboy uniform-clad Angus Young, the entire album drips with attitude, raw talent, and sweat.
Certified platinum twenty-five times over, the record continues to sell by the bucketload to this day. Of course, it remains a matter of debate among fans as to which stands as the best AC/DC album overall, but BIB still usually comes out on top or at least second – usually to Scott’s final album, Highway to Hell (Atlantic).
Over the years, AC/DC has gone on to become a household name with tracks from this album being used in everything from television shows and commercials to movies including several from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For myself, I didn’t get to discover the joy of Back in Black until 1985, my initial exposure to the band coming in the form of a primary school teacher who would talk about them at every given opportunity, and hearing High Voltage, If You Want Blood…, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Let There Be Rock, and Highway to Hell (all Atlantic) the previous, life-changing year. Similar to fans in 1980 though, I also had to suddenly get used to a new singer (thankfully without the trauma of losing Bon), but it didn’t really make a difference. Back in Black was still AC/DC and it was still great.