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Happy Birthday, Back in Black!

July 25, 2010

No one could have guessed the cause/effect relationship set into motion on a cold February morning in 1980.  AC/DC’s front-man Bon Scott, just 33 years old and fresh off the success of their “Highway to Hell” album (which reached the top-20 in the U.S.), died, as legendary rock-stars seem prone to do, from excessive partying.  “Pulmonary aspiration of vomit” due to “acute alcohol poisoning”; February 19th, in a car at 67 Overhill Road in East Dulwich, South London.  Scott & crew (lead-guitarist Angus Young, rhythm guitarist & backup-vocals Malcom Young – Angus’s brother – Cliff Williams on bass, and Phil Rudd on drums) had just started work on their next album, but Scott wouldn’t be a part of that success.

Or would he?  Because after his death, the band – understandably – considered parting ways.  But, as fate would have it, they decided to say “Fuck it, Bon would have wanted us to go on”, and we can feel comfortable knowing that they were probably right; he would have wanted them to go on.  So they recruited a new lead singer in one Brian Johnson, previously the frontman for “Geordie”, and set to work finishing the new album.  Five months later, on July 25th, they unleashed Back in Black; clearly a tip of the hat and a bit of gallows humor dedicated to Bon Scott, upon the world.  It’s easy to imagine Scott having a wry smile at this, especially with two of the best tracks on the album, “Hells Bells” and “Back in Black”, dedicated to his memory.

Happy birthday Back in Black!

Thirty years later, this album still kicks ass, but to fully appreciate how unbelievably awesome it is you need to rewind the clock to 1980: Olivia Newton-John’s, “Magic” 1980; Michael Jackson’s, “Rock with You” 1980; Bette Midler’s, “The Rose” 1980.  It’s fairly safe to say that aside from some notable contributions from bands like Van Halen and KISS, hard Rock in 1980 was an endangered species.  Just take a look at the top 100 songs from 1979 and 1980; as you can see, hard rock is NOT on the menu.

So forget whatever memories these songs conjure up and try to listen to them with this in mind: These guys have just lost a friend, and lead-singer, and within two months they’re in the studio drinking beer, wearing blue jeans, and trying to make music that there doesn’t appear to be a market for.  The hostages are still in Iran, Mt St. Helens is about to kick some ass in the Pacific north west, the gear is set up, the mics are on, and they start to record…

Fact: The recordings were made at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, and Electric Lady Studios in New York, where the album was also mixed.  Yes Voodoo Chile, the same “Electric Lady” of Jimi Hendrix fame.

Side one

1. “Hells Bells” – 5:10
2. “Shoot to Thrill” – 5:17
3. “What Do You Do for Money Honey” – 3:33
4. “Given the Dog a Bone” – 3:30 (also rendered as “Giving the Dog a Bone”)
5. “Let Me Put My Love into You” – 4:16

Hell’s Bells
There are but a handful of sonically perfect electric guitar tones, and the intro to “Hell’s Bells” ranks among them.  In fact, it ranks just an “E-String”’s width below the inimitable electric perfection of Eddie Van Halen’s opening A-minor arpeggio to “Ain’t Talkin ‘Bout Love”, the tonic-embodiement of the “Brown Sound”, and as close to perfection as is humanly possible.

Even now, all these years later, when Johnson starts to sing (per se), it’s as if you’ve just been shoved up against the wall and asked menacingly, “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”  Well, are you?

I’m a rolling thunder, a pouring rain
I’m comin’ on like a hurricane
My lightning’s flashing across the sky
You’re only young but you’re gonna die

I won’t take no prisoners, won’t spare no lives
Nobody’s putting up a fight
I got my bell, I’m gonna take you to hell
I’m gonna get you, satan get you

Hell’s bells
Yeah, hell’s bells
You got me ringing hell’s bells
My temperature’s high, hell’s bells

Shoot to Thrill
Was “Hell’s Bell’s” a one hit tour de force of vocal intensity?  Did they just catch lightning in a bottle for one smokin’ hot track?  Any doubts as to what this album was all about would have been put to rest about 35 seconds into “Shoot to Thrill” when Johnson flexes his pipes yet again:

All you women who want a man of the street
But you don’t know which way you wanna turn
Just keep a coming and put your hand out to me
’cause I’m the one who’s gonna make you burn

I’m gonna take you down – down, down, down
So don’t you fool around
I’m gonna pull it, pull it, pull the trigger

Shoot to thrill, play to kill
Too many women with too many pills
Shoot to thrill, play to kill
I got my gun at the ready, gonna fire at will


I’m like evil, I get under your skin
Just like a bomb that’s ready to blow
’cause I’m illegal, I got everything
That all you women might need to know

Just in case you women wanted to know.

What Do You Do for Money Honey
God I love this intro! Em, G, D-D-D-A….Em, G, D-D-D-A….

This is such an insanely addictive beat and Johnson’s vocals…well…the man is on your chest at this point.  Seriously, is it just me, or does this stuff take your breath away too?  This is just plain ‘ol solid, stand-up rock-n-roll.  What do you do for money, honey?

You’re working in bars
Riding in cars
Never gonna give it for free
Your apartment with a view
On the finest avenue
Looking at your beat on the street
You’re always pushing, shoving
Satisfied with nothing
You bitch, you must be getting old

So stop your love on the road
All your digging for gold
You make me wonder
Yes I wonder, I wonder

Honey, whaddya do for money?
Honey, whaddya do for money?
Where you get your kicks?

Given the dog a Bone

Write a song about fellatio, make it safe enough so that it can still be played on the radio, and make it so good that it’s still a classic thirty years later.  Too hard?  Brian Johnson (B.J.) Blow Job (B.J.) Bring on the double entendre’s!

She take you down easy
Going down to her knees
Going down to the devil
Down down to ninety degrees
Oh, she’s blowing me crazy
Till my ammunition is dry

Oh, she’s using her head again
She’s using her head
Oh, she’s using her head again

I’m just a givin’ the dog a bone

Let me put my love into you
The set list here seems to be a page right out of the “Porno 101” playbook; first the fellatio, and then bump-n-grind.  Is it as sophmorish as it sounds?  Yes.  Does it still rock in a way that would make Jack Black proud?  You betcha.

Flying on a free flight
Driving all night
With my machinery
’cause i, I got the power
Any hour
To show the man in me
I got reputations
Blown to pieces
With my artillery
Whoa ho
I’ll be guided in
We’ll be ridin’
Given what you got to me

Don’t you struggle
Don’t you fight
Don’t you worry
’cause it’s your turn tonight

Let me put my love into you, babe
Let me put my love on the line
Let me put my love into you, babe
Let me cut your cake with my knife

Fact: The album has sold an estimated 49 million copies to date worldwide, making it the second highest selling album of all time, and the best selling hard rock or heavy metal album, as well as the best selling album ever released by a band. On 13 December 2007, the RIAA certified it 22× Multi Platinum, recognising sales of 22 million in the United States.

Wow!  There’s a good chance you wiped the sweat from your forehead and debated as to whether you’d flip the record* over to side #2.

*Note* Back in Black predates the compact disc.  Back in the day (which in this case is the summer of 1980), there’s a really good chance you were listening to this album when albums were still albums, on a machine historians refer to as a phonograph.

And just before side #2 started, you probably thought to yourself, “Damn, if side #2 is half as good as side #1…um…I’m gonna like it.”

You were not disappointed.  Not then, and not today.

Side two

1. “Back in Black” – 4:14
2. “You Shook Me All Night Long” – 3:30
3. “Have a Drink on Me” – 3:57
4. “Shake a Leg” – 4:06
5. “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” – 4:15

Back in Black
Less than a minute into this song and you’re thinking, “Dear god, can it be possible?  Was side #1 just a warm up for side #2?”

Em, D, A = Pure, unadulterated awesomeness.  Who’s with me on this becoming the new National Anthem?

“Back in Black” is a legitimate contender for the “single greatest guitar song ever written.”  It’s been copied and covered countless times, and has been the inspiration for a thousand garage bands you’ve never heard, and never will hear.  To include, “Dirty Dean and the Thunder Chiefs”*  One of my personal favorites is this one, from “Hayseed Dixie” (a Hillbilly tribute to AC/DC.  Get it…Hayseed Dixie kinda-sorta rhymes with AC/DC?)

And for all you guitar players out there who don’t already know how to play it, “Guitar Teacher” shows you how in this clip

Back in black
I hit the sack
I’ve been too long I’m glad to be back [i bet you know i’m...]
Yes, I’m let loose
From the noose
That’s kept me hanging about
I’ve been looking at the sky
’cause it’s gettin’ me high
Forget the hearse ’cause I never die
I got nine lives
Cat’s eyes
Abusin’ every one of them and running wild

’cause I’m back
Yes, I’m back
Well, I’m back
Yes, I’m back
Well, I’m back, back
(well) I’m back in black
Yes, I’m back in black

According to Johnson,

“…when the band asked him to write a lyric for this song, “they said, ‘it can’t be morbid-it has to be for Bon and it has to be a celebration.’” He added: “I thought, ‘Well no pressure there, then‘ (laughs). I just wrote what came into my head, which at the time seemed like mumbo, jumbo. ‘Nine lives. Cats eyes. Abusing every one of them and running wild.’ The boys got it though. They saw Bon’s life in that lyric.”

You shook me all night long

Shit.  Sorry, wrong clip.  Try this one.

There we go!  There’s a reason this song made honorable mention on the “Top-12 (Somewhat atypically) Sexiest Songs Ever Recorded”; it’s freakin awesome!

She was a fast machine she kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman that I ever seen
She had the sightless eyes telling me no lies
Knocking me out with those American thighs
Taking more than her share
Had me fighting for air
She told me to come but I was already there
‘Cause the walls start shaking
The earth was quaking
My mind was aching
And we were making it

And you shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me all night long

Fact: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like this song, and neither do you.  Everybody likes this song.  It’s what sex-appeal sounds like played through the humbuckers of a Gibson guitar.

From Wikipedia:

“You Shook Me All Night Long” placed at No. 10 on VH1′s list of “The 100 Greatest Songs of the 80s”. It was also No. 1 on VH1′s “Top Ten AC/DC Songs”. In the song, the lead singer Brian Johnson relates the story of a night with a beautiful woman. Guitar World placed “You Shook Me All Night Long” number 80 on their “100 Greatest Guitar Solos” list.

The song has also become a staple of AC/DC concerts, almost never being excluded from the setlist, and it has also been considered their signature song, competing with “Back in Black” and “Highway to Hell” for the title.

Have a drink on me
A fun intro to play.  It’s as fun to play as it is to listen to.  Like every other song on this album, this one doesn’t beat around the bush, which, come to think of it, sounds like a believable title for a “long lost missing track” conspiracy.  This is the song guys are clinking their glasses to, followed immediately by head-buts and grunts.  It’s a straight-up “party song”, and it just nails the vibe created by the other tracks on this album.

Whiskey, gin and brandy
With a glass I’m pretty handy
I’m trying to walk a straight line
On sour mash and cheap wine
So join me for a drink boys
We’re gonna make a big noise

So don’t worry about tomorrow
Take it today
Forget about the cheque
We’ll get hell to pay

Have a drink on me
Have a drink on me
Have a drink on me
Have a drink on me
On me

The song sounds like what this picture would sound like, if a picture could produce sound

Shake a Leg
More spectacular guitar-work from Angus on this track.  It’s not that it’s technically difficult to play (although some of the playing on this track is a bit trickier than most of the other songs), it’s that he – Angus – just has a way of making chord combinations that you or I would play sound so much better than you or I could ever play them.  It’s just raw, emotional chemistry set to music.

Idle juvenile on the street, on the street
Who is kicking everything with his feet, with his feet
Fighting on the wrong side of the law, of the law
Don’t kick, don’t fight, don’t sleep at night
It’s shake a leg, shake a leg, shake a leg, shake it yeah

Keeping out of trouble with eyes in the back of my face
Kicking ass in the class and they tell me you’re a damn disgrace
They tell me what they think but they stink and I really don’t care
Got a mind of my own, move on, get out of my hair

Shake a leg, shake your head
Shake a leg, wake the dead
Shake a leg, get stuck in
Shake a leg, shake a leg yeah

Magazines, wet dreams, dirty women on machines for me
Big licks, skin flicks, trickey dick’s are my chemistry
Goin’ against the grain, trying to keep me sane with you
So stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen for me

Does it get any better than this? “They tell me what they think but they stink and I really don’t care
Got a mind of my own, move on, get out of my hair”

Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution
One more thing I love about this album: they just completely ignored the “gotta have at least one power-ballad” track, and smoked this thing from beginning to end.

Hey there, all you middle men
Throw away your fancy clothes
And while you’re out there sittin’ on a fence
So get off your ass and come down here
’cause rock ’n’ roll ain’t no riddle man
To me it makes good, good sense

Heavy decibels are playing on my guitar
We got vibrations coming up from the floor
We’re just listening to the rock that’s giving too much noise
Are you deaf, you wanna hear some more

We’re just talkin’ about the future
Forget about the past
It’ll always be with us
It’s never gonna die, never gonna die

Rock ’n’ roll ain’t noise pollution
Rock ’n’ roll ain’t gonna die
Rock ’n’ roll ain’t no pollution
Rock ’n’ roll it will survive

I took a look inside your bedroom door
You looked so good lying on your bed
Well, I asked you if you wanted any rhythm and love
You said you wanna rock ’n’ roll instead

We’re just talkin’ about the future
Forget about the past
It’ll always be with us
It’s never gonna die, never gonna die

In hindsight maybe a little prophetic, but I agree; this album’s never gonna die.

Nicely done boys!

*Note* “Dirty Dean & The Thunder Chiefs” is the name of my fantasy AC/DC tribute band, which is more fantasy than band.  The name stems from a friend of mine who thought the lyrics to “Dirty Deeds” went “Dirty Dean (and the) Thunder Chiefs” instead of “Dirty Deeds (and they’re) done dirt cheap”.  Absolutely true.


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