Category: Highway to Hell


The game Rock Band 2 has a feature at the end of some songs called the Big Rock Ending. That’s where the band members, for the last several seconds of a song, can just go nuts with their notes and rhythms, and the number of points you get from the Big Rock Ending will depend on how many notes and beats you manage to squeeze into the 10 or 15 seconds of the ending. One other thing, too: you only get the points if all the band members also hit the last note with perfect timing and pitch. Otherwise, you get zero.

The only AC/DC song in the standard package of Rock Band 2 is “Let There Be Rock,” the title track from their 1977 album. Not only does the track feature the longest guitar solo – and the greatest number of them – in the entire game, it also has the longest, loudest and most bombastic Big Rock Ending in Rock Band 2. The first time I played it in the game (which was also the first time I heard “Let There Be Rock”), I was simply blown away by the utter hugeness of both the guitar solos and the ending.

I guess the Big Rock Ending is very symbolic of AC/DC’s entire musical ethos. You play your heart out, give everything you’ve got, then give more than you’ve got, until you finally explode in a brilliantly loud apex of rock and roll greatness. You burn hard and burn fast, then you burn out. That may be AC/DC’s general musical philosophy, but it’s also the trajectory that Bon Scott’s life took.

classy, Bon, real classy...

classy, Bon, real classy…

Few characters in rock history are more fascinating to me than Bon Scott. His very existence is a cautionary tale, his life a story that grizzled, washed-up rock stars tell young hotshots of their craft. “Don’t take it from me, son… take it from Bon,” they say with a wagging finger. The younger generation just rolls their eyes, not wanting to give up a life of drugs and sex and decadence. The story of Bon would seem too clichéd, too perfectly tailored to that grizzled rock star’s sermon, if it weren’t true.

Like the Young brothers, Bon was a Scottish transplant to Australia. He took over as lead singer of AC/DC in 1974, shortly before the recording and release of their first album, High Voltage. Their popularity and reputation grew steadily, and they became known as heavy rockers, heavy partiers, and heavy drinkers. This was especially true of Bon. His long streak of partying ended in February of 1980; he died after passing out in a drunken stupor and choking on his own vomit.

Bon’s songwriting style shows that he saw things as simple – one thing leads to another, like a mathematical equation. In “Highway to Hell,” the narrator is melting two candles together so he can burn it at three ends. All along, he – and we can easily infer that it’s Bon himself talking – knows that all this destructive behavior will earn him nothing but damnation; one thing leads to another. But what separates him from a southern Baptist preacher spinning a cautionary tale is that Bon’s entire inflection when talking about fast living and hell is one of a salesman trying to get someone to buy a potato peeler.

Why? I think the reason is he thought hell would be fun. As far as he had heard, hell was where all the drunkards, thieves, womanizers, and kids with spray paint cans would go. In the inverse, heaven would be a boring place where everybody sat on a cloud with a harp all day long. According to what Bon must have thought, hell was where all the cool people would be. In his own words, “hell ain’t a bad place to be!”

gag

gag

I cannot tell you how much this attitude frustrates me. When I hear people talk about how they’re atheists because they think the Christian heaven sounds incredibly dull, it almost makes me wretch. Where did anyone get the idea that we’d all be wearing white robes and sitting on clouds when we got to heaven? Where does that iconography come from? It doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. It’s described as a house (John 14:2) and a city (Hebrews 11:16), but I really don’t understand this crap about clouds and harps. It might be because of the inadequacies of the English language – the Bible, when translated into English, sometimes uses the word “heaven” or “the heavens” to talk about the sky. Kindergarten logic says if we’re in “heaven” than we must be in the sky, right? That means clouds. Brilliant! Let’s make it church doctrine!

Bear in mind that I’m NOWHERE NEAR being a Biblical scholar, so you should probably take my statements about heaven with a pickup-truck-sized grain of salt.

Bon’s direct and simple approach to songwriting takes another form, too, and that’s when he’s telling a narrative. “Shot Down In Flames” is a straight-up account of a horny male being soundly rejected by two different females. I can totally imagine Bon simply smiling and shrugging when he sings the chorus, as if to say, “Them’s the breaks, huh?” And “Touch Too Much” tells the story of a man who has stumbled into a sexual relationship where the woman’s appetite greatly eclipses his own. The one place Bon uses metaphor instead of directness in his storytelling is “Night Prowler,” where he perceives that what he’s actually talking about is taboo. What’s his solution, then? Use something that’s even less socially acceptable! What could go wrong?

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Also, songs like “Touch Too Much,” “Girl’s Got Rhythm” and “Love Hungry Man” show that Bon sees nearly everything through a sexual lens. Here’s where I can really empathize with him. To Bon, life is just one big search for a better feeling – there’s always something better over the next horizon. As hot and gorgeous as the last girl you slept with was, and as good as she made you feel, there’s somebody that will make you feel better. While that logic is flawed, it makes a lot of sense in the moment. While Bon’s methods were ultimately destructive to himself and the world around him, I can completely understand his philosophy of trying to feel good always and feel bad never.

Much as some Christians say otherwise, feeling good is good. In fact, God made us to feel good – it’s in His design. But the stunted versions of good feeling we seek all the time don’t really compare with the full versions God can give us. Just like we’re designed to feel good, we’re also designed to feel best in God. If I have to make a choice between “good” and “best,” I’ll pick “best.” But consider this: if it’s possible, why not have “good” AND “best?” That’s a lesson I learned from Bon Scott.

Young Boys

Angus Young

Angus Young

If you have even a sliver of musical awareness, even if you always forget the names of songs, never bother to learn band or singer names, and don’t have a clue what the lyrics to your favorite songs are, chances are you probably know Angus Young. You might not know he’s named that, what band he’s in, or what kind of guitar he plays, but you’ve probably seen him at least once – once is all it takes. He’s the guitarist with the flyaway hair, the twisted sneer and the convulsive stage antics, but you undoubtedly remember him for his costume. “Oh yeah… isn’t that the guy who wears the schoolboy outfit?”

The rumor goes that when Angus and his brother Malcolm were first forming AC/DC when they were teenagers, Angus had to rush to practice directly from school, and didn’t have time to change out of his uniform. Older sister Margaret Young suggested that he wear that as his stage costume – at the time, all the members of AC/DC were playing around with the idea of costumes, and Angus had tried several. They soon abandoned the idea, as another more successful local band was already doing the same thing. Angus’s schoolboy costume stuck, though, as it has to this very day.

I won’t mince words: Angus Young is one of the best guitarists still walking the earth. I say that with full knowledge that there must be thousands of guitarists with more skill, craft, and technical excellence than Angus. Most of them are going without recognition for one simple reason: technical excellence alone doesn’t make it. In order to really capture people’s hearts, minds and sexual organs, a guitarist needs to have passion.

That’s what the whole smashing guitars thing that The Who did was all about. That’s why Slash plays his Les Paul like he’s handling his own (allegedly) monstrous manhood. And that’s why Angus Young rolls around on the floor as one possessed by the devil and has a duckwalk that makes Chuck Berry jealous. And that’s why they’re famous and you, practicing 6 hours a day to Dream Theater in your dank basement and offering daily sacrifices to the Gods of Rock, aren’t.

Malcolm Young

All this talk and adulation thrown Angus’s way is appropriate, but it must leave his older brother Malcolm feeling overshadowed. Malcolm and Angus started AC/DC together, after all; the idea for the band was a mutual thing, after seeing the success in bands of their older brothers. The two Youngs are the two youngest of eight kids, born in Scotland but living in Australia by the time Malcolm was 10 and Angus 8. They’ve both been members of AC/DC for its entire 40-year life. They even play the same instrument, even if they have different roles. Yet all along, the quite shy Malcolm has been happy to let Angus have all the glory. Instead, he handles the business end of the AC/DC machine. All I can say is that he’s a good big brother.

1979 and Highway to Hell saw the Young brothers and company in top form. Even with the over-the-top antics of Angus and the powerful stage presence of Bon Scott, Highway to Hell still features some absolutely blazing guitar work from Malcolm. The distinctive flavor of their sound that instantly lets you know you’re listening to AC/DC is almost all the creation of the two Young brothers. Malcolm drives the action and Angus brings it home. This paradigm is heard on “Girl’s Got Rhythm,” “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” and “Shot Down In Flames,” but perhaps it’s strongest on the title track. “Highway to Hell” has the entire band working towards a climax of sound and fury, coming at last at the end through Angus’s guitar and Bon’s scream of “AAAAAALL THE WAY DOWN!!!!!”

Much is made of the musical partnerships of Mick and Keith, Robert and Jimmy, Steven and Joe, even Bono and The Edge – rightly so, too. But I think you simply can’t talk about two people working together like a well-oiled machine without mentioning Angus and Malcolm.

Next: the tao of Bon.

Richard Ramirez

Richard Ramirez

In the mid-‘80s, Los Angeles was in the grip of a full-scale panic, and it was caused by a man the press and police dubbed “The Walk-In Killer” but later renamed “The Night Stalker.” His killing spree was remarkable just by itself, but it’s accompanied by numerous atrocities done to the victims. What was done to them, both when they were living and dead, is impossible to explain or understand. Some were shot in the head, some were stabbed multiple times, some were raped… it gets worse. One woman had a T-shape carved into her left breast, one woman had her eyes gouged out by hand, and another had a pentagram drawn on her thigh with lipstick.

This was all done by Richard Ramirez, a 25-year-old drifter from Texas with a long rap sheet of drugs and traffic violations. After his capture, he was convicted of 13 counts of first degree murder, 5 counts of attempted murder, 11 counts of sexual assault, and 14 counts of burglary. His general pattern towards the end of his spree was he would enter the home of a victim, shoot and kill the man (if there was one), and rape or otherwise sexually violate the woman, sometimes killing her afterward and sometimes letting her live, forever bearing the mental scars of what happened to her.

While we as logical and sane citizens find it impossible to truly penetrate just why he would do what he did, several explanations have been posited. The first and easiest is that he’s just completely bat-shit crazy – no mystery to it, he’s merely nuts. The second is that he’s a Satanist. Any Los Angelino could tell you that he stood up in the middle of his trial and shouted “Hail Satan!” and showed off the pentagram he had carved into his palm. Those who don’t know very much about the Church of Satan find Satanism to be an easy scapegoat for any number of atrocious behaviors. The third, and most difficult to defend, is that he’s an AC/DC fan.

There aren’t very many people who sincerely believe anymore that rock and roll is the language of the devil, but in 1985, folks were more apt to point the finger that way. All it took was for Ramirez to leave an AC/DC hat at a crime scene, and then for him to admit his intense fandom of the band, especially the song “Night Prowler.” That naturally lead into accusations of AC/DC making godless, murderous music (and being Satanists), and of rock and roll in general causing people to go on killing sprees. It seems far-fetched, but some people really think that.

There’s a company called Beka Books that makes textbooks for Christian homeschool education. I went to a small private Christian high school, and we used Beka books almost exclusively. The curriculum for my Biology class, besides teaching creation science from a Protestant perspective and discrediting evolution up and down, had in its teaching that people who listened to rock and roll were put into a zombie-like trance called “zoning,” and their behavior could be completely unpredictable, not being influenced by any sort of morality. Short version: don’t listen to rock and roll, ‘cause you will probably kill people. “Zoning,” by the way, wasn’t presented as a theory or opinion, but as fully confirmed scientific fact.

my high school Biology book, published by Beka

my high school Biology book, published by Beka

I swear I’m not making this up.

If I had to make a wager, I’d say what was going on with Richard Ramirez had much more to do with the inside rather than the outside. The guy quite obviously had major issues with both his brain and his soul. Those issues might have been intrinsic and always there, or they might have been caused by some series of traumatic events that happened to him. My guess is both. But you can rest assured (and the members of AC/DC can, too) that it was NOT AC/DC’s music that caused him to butcher and ravage so many people. His citing of “Night Prowler” is very akin to Charles Manson saying The White Album gave him cues for his own murders.

To be fair, “Night Prowler” is a pretty nasty song. The basic idea Bon had when he wrote it was teenage sex, but sex between two underage people was very high taboo at the time. So rather than use a straight-up storytelling mode (Bon’s usual method), he used a killer stalking a girl at her house and killing her as an allegory for sex. ‘Cause, y’know, that’s so much better…

At its most innocent, it’s about a horny teenage boy sneaking into his girlfriend’s room at night. One level up on the sleaziness scale, it’s about a criminal who stalks from house to house at night, raping anonymous women. Going further, it could be about a vampire who does that. Further still, it could be about some Satanic ritual in which young girls are stolen from their homes, raped, and then sacrificed to some evil god.

I won’t speak to how disturbing that is (it should be self-evident), but I will say that to get a meaning out of “Night Prowler” other than the first level (or the second if you miss the allegory), you’d really have to let your imagination run away with you. Knowing Bon Scott as a songwriter and singer, he probably didn’t have the darkness in him to write a song about rape in any form, even a negative one. Ultimately, he was just a guy who loved to party, and he didn’t care enough about the consequences (short- or long-term) to let them get in the way of that. He loved fun, and rape ain’t fun; end of story.

“Night Prowler” closes the album, and Bon closes the song with “Shazbot! Nanu nanu!” as a sort of sign-off. “Nanu nanu” is a phrase said by goofy alien Mork on the ‘70s sitcom Mork and Mindy as a sign-off for his transmissions home. In an ironic twist, this sign-off would be Bon’s last recorded message to the world, as he died a mere 6 months after Highway to Hell’s release.

Next: the brothers Young.

AC/DC - Highway to Hell - 8/3/1979

AC/DC – Highway to Hell – 8/3/1979

I’m not one to buy into clichés. I usually see them as representing a collection of extremes, rarely having much to do with reality. Rock and roll is an institution that’s simply begging to be made into one huge cliché, and people have been obliging it since its inception. Anywhere in its history you look, you’ll see rock stars trying to live up to this monster idea of what a rock star apparently should be, often to the detriment of the music they’re creating. So it’s rare that an instance occurs where a band makes great music while simultaneously indulging in all the clichéd rock excesses: booze, money, drugs, hot women, trashing hotel rooms and other generally bad behavior.

AC/DC is one of those instances… almost.

I say “almost” because when I look at their songwriting with my critical, slightly-music-theory educated eye, it’s… meh. An AC/DC song follows a pattern pretty closely – there isn’t a lot of variation in key, tempo or chord structure, and that’s true of their entire career. It’s definitely not stunning work, and that may be the reason their ‘80s and ‘90s output wasn’t especially popular (with the exception of The Razors Edge). It wasn’t until they entered their 4th decade that they saw a big rise in their popularity, and that was mostly because of nostalgia.

Let me be clear, though. That mediocre level of songwriting is completely forgivable (and can even be celebrated) for two reasons. First, there is almost no hard rock band that sticks so closely to the traditions of blues music. Led Zeppelin did a better job at updating the blues, but that’s basically it. Even the mighty Rolling Stones took a pop approach to the blues, thus diminishing its bluesyness. As far as making it bigger, louder, and more bombastic, AC/DC is the way to go.

Second is this: they really know how to work it. Anybody can write a mediocre song – that would be the very definition of “mediocre.” But what not anybody can do is play that song with the gusto, heart, attitude and visceral gutsiness that AC/DC does.

And everything that I’ve just mentioned – from the clichés to the excess to the guts – is exemplified in their 1979 album Highway to Hell. They had been driving without seatbelts for their entire career up to this point, flagrantly and joyously disregarding any sense of safety or caution. Highway to Hell saw them flooring the gas pedal and taking their hands off the wheel. This was true for the Young brothers and the rest, but particularly true of lead singer Bon Scott.

Bon Scott

Bon Scott

No one could sing like Bon. By that I don’t mean he could sing particularly well, or even that his voice was any better than someone else’s; the opposite is true in a lot of cases. But this much remains: Bon Scott’s voice was unlike any other, and no one has been or will be able to duplicate it. Whenever anybody tries, it just sounds lame. The one and only exception is Brian Johnson, AC/DC’s lead singer after Bon’s tragic and unexpected death. And even there, Brian wasn’t imitating Bon, but just happened to have a voice that was eerily similar.

Highway to Hell is the apex of their first wave stardom, and also the deepest depth of their lack of control. The title song is tragically prophetic of the end that befell Bon Scott shortly after the album’s release. The music in “Highway to Hell,” like all other AC/DC songs up to this point, is dirty, wild, and full of abandon. As a guitarist, you can’t play this song without a sneer twisting your facial features. The lyrics display AC/DC’s glorious, play-with-fire naivety. It started with Let There Be Rock’s “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be.” They seem to be rushing headlong into danger, meanwhile screaming “Yeah! Bring on the danger!”

Next: you won’t feel the steel ’til it’s hanging out your back!