The apex of heavy-metal art: AC/DC’s heavy rock classic “Back in Black” goes “Under Review”

By on November 20, 2017

This past weekend, we noted with heavy hearts the passing of AC/DC‘s rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, whose patented rock riffs were at least partly responsible for carrying the best-selling heavy rock band of all time to the top of the LP charts (here’s where we’ll note “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll”).

As we mentioned, Joe Bonomo, author of the 33 1/3 series title AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, described Malcolm Young in his music blog this way:

“The greatest AC/DC songs were perpetual motion machines, and Malcolm was the one who set them in motion.”

Nowhere is that more evident than AC/DC’s 1980 magnum opus Back in Black, their first album to be released some five months after the first major death blow dealt to the band (lead singer Bon Scott died in February of 1980), and so we invite you to have a look at Back in Black: A Classic Album Under Review, a critical analysis of AC/DCs most influential and successful album, now streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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Back in Black: A Classic Album Under Review includes rare footage, live performance clips and vintage interviews with AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus Young, Brian Johnson, Dave Evans, and the late Bon Scott.

This nearly two-hour documentary also features an esteemed panel of experts who revisit and reassess the album’s astonishing creation, from conception to completion, dissecting it track-by-track.

We hear from Tony Platt, engineer for the Back In Black and Highway To Hell sessions; Total Rock FM DJ and AC/DC expert Malcolm Dome; Bon Scott biographer Clinton Walker; AC/DC biographer Paul Stenning; Classic Rock and Metal Hammer rock journo and AC/DC expert Jerry Ewing; and BBC6 Music DJ Jane Gazzo.

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We also hear interviews with members of Dirty DC, an AC/DC tribute band, who talk about the guitar chording and interplay between the Youngs (Angus and Malcolm).

Read more about Back in Black: A Classic Album Under Review and AC/DC below.

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AC/DC with Bon Scott (right)

At the start of the 1980s, AC/DC were poised for worldwide breakthrough success when tragedy struck.

On the morning of February 20, 1980, Bon Scott, just 33, was found dead of acute alcohol poisoning after a night of heavy drinking with friends in northern London.

It was declared a “death by misadventure” in the coroner’s report, the same thing they’d also said about Brian Jones when he died in 1969.

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When Brian Johnson — born in Dunston, Gateshead, in North East England — was asked to come to London to audition to be AC/DC’s lead singer, he was already 32 years old, a balding, be-capped blue collar bloke back living with his parents after separating from his wife.

Johnson had fronted glam-rockers Geordie in the ’70s, who had a Top Ten UK hit in 1973 with “All Because of You,” but they’d broken up in 1978.

Johnson, who’d just formed Geordie II — they covered AC/DC’s rousing “Whole Lotta Rosie” — was paying his bills by fixing windshields and putting vinyl roofs on fancy sports cars.

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Johnson passed the audition with flying colors, as they say, even singing “Whole Lotta Rosie” and matching Bon Scott’s guttural yowl with one of his one.

AC/DC soon realized they weren’t going to miss a step having Johnson as their new vocalist, and began writing songs together.

By late April of 1980, along with their producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, they were flying off to record a new album at Compass Point studios in Nassau, Bahamas.

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The first of their new songs — Johnson penned their lyrics and melodies, while guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young composed the riffs the songs were built around — was the anthemic “Back in Black,” intended as a salute to their fallen leader.

Lyrically, the band wanted to signal that even though Scott was no longer alive, he’d live on forever through their music (“Forget the hearse, ’cause I never die”).

Another song they recorded during their seven week recording sessions in Nassau was the heavy metal rocker “Hells Bells,” which kicks off with lyrics inspired by one of the many tropical storms the band endured (“I’m a rolling thunder, a pouring rain/I’m coming on like a hurricane”).

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AC/DC decided to start the track with bellowing chimes from a tolling church bell, and used a mobile recording truck to go to a church in Leicestershire, England, to record it (Tony Platt’s re-telling of the story behind the recording of “Hells Bells” is one of the documentary’s highlights).

It proved to be the perfect track to kick off the new album, Back in Black, released on July 21, 1980, by Atlantic Records, exactly five months and one day after Bon Scott had died.

The album’s monolithic memorial all-black cover was designed as a “sign of mourning” for Bon Scott.

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Back in Black then began an incredible 13-month residency in the Top Ten of the Billboard US album charts, transforming formerly washed-up lead howler Brian Johnson from has-been to hero almost overnight.

The album would go on to sell an estimated fifty million copies worldwide (26.1 million verified), becoming the second-highest-selling album in history (bested only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, released in 1982).

In November of 1980, Rolling Stone magazine’s review praised Back in Black, calling it “… not only the best of AC/DC’s six albums, it’s the apex of heavy-metal art: the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre. In other words, Back in Black kicks like a mutha.”

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Check out our previous blog post on AC/DC: Highway To Hell, A Classic Album Under Review, and watch both of these AC/DC-related titles in our Under Review category, as well as other great music documentaries, over on our Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.