Category: AC/DC


Best-Sellers

According to Wikipedia (‘cause ya know, the internet is never wrong…), but also what I’ve heard most of my life, the best-selling album of all time is Thriller by Michael Jackson. Officially, it has sold 42.4 million copies, but some suggest it may have sold as many as 65 million. Following it distantly (more than 10 mil) is the first Eagles’ greatest hits compilation. It sorta makes sense – The Eagles were a singles band. All their albums were basically collections of filler punctuated by 3 or 4 great songs on each one. When you collect all those great songs in one place, you get the 2nd best-selling album of all time.

After that comes the soundtrack to The Bodyguard. Technically, it’s a “various artists” thing, but let’s not kid ourselves – it’s a Whitney Houston record. She sings the first 6 tracks, and Alan Silvestri (who gets credit on the film for “Music by”) only does track 13. The rest is, again, just filler.

Fourth is Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, which again sorta makes sense. Rumours and the story surrounding it are splitting at the seams with human drama. Go to any supermarket checkout line and the tabloids will show you how much we love a messy breakup playing out in public, and one committed to record is no different. It’s the reason Taylor Swift’s music is so popular; she’s gone through the cycle of dating, breaking up and writing a song about the guy she just broke up with about 6 billion times now. Rumours features not 1 but 2 breakups, and to top it all off, band members and songwriters are breaking up with each other! You have Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams,” which is a 2nd-person account of her breakup with Lindsey Buckingham, followed a little later by Buckingham’s own “Go Your Own Way,” a 2nd-person account of his breakup with Nicks! There’s also keyboardist Christine McVie divorcing her husband, bass player John McVie, and writing a hit single about her new lover, “You Make Loving Fun,” forcing John to play it every night. That’s just mean.

Other top sellers include Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road by The Beatles, and Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall by Pink Floyd, which gives me hope. However, Shania Twain’s Come On Over beats out Led Zeppelin’s IV by half a million. I’ll save my ground-shaking rage at that fact for another time…

And in slot #5, we have Back In Black, AC/DC’s tribute to Bon Scott that not only contains a tip of the hat to Bon, but honors Bon’s memory by being the biggest, baddest, most explosively rocking album AC/DC has ever done or will do. Honestly, I don’t know why AC/DC made more albums after this.

That’s a very good question: why did AC/DC continue? Nothing they did afterwards came even close to the overwhelming, jaw-dropping awesomeness of Back In Black. Hell, only one album in that entire 34-year span even had any hit singles. I don’t know the definitive answer, but consider this. AC/DC made Back In Black in the first place because Bon would have wanted them to continue, so it would be a poor honoring of that to make one album and then call it quits. If they did that, they may as well have not even made Back In Black at all. So under that logic, they’ll have to keep making albums until the day the last AC/DC member dies. And that seems just like the sort of bull-headed rock and roll thing they would do.

Every single song on Back In Black (and indeed every AC/DC song from anywhere in their career) sells itself out completely to the trimming and trappings of loud and overly indulgent rock and roll. This is what AC/DC does – their approach to their music only involves a lead brick on the gas pedal. And while that’s not true of their personal lives anymore since Bon died, they still make their name on their sound being SO huge, SO bombastic and SO overwhelming that there isn’t another band that can withstand them.

This is the only image I could find from the video. You can’t see the mechanical bull, but you get the idea…

“You Shook Me All Night Long” is the first single from Back In Black and also the first AC/DC song I can remember hearing. I was about 7 years old, at the house of a friend of my older sister’s down the street, and we weren’t supposed to be watching MTV, a fact that my sister’s friend’s mom didn’t know. I was kinda blown away – not just by the force and power of the guitars and grittiness of Brian Johnson’s voice, but also by the scantily-clad hotty riding the mechanical bull in the video. The song’s lyrics are simply dripping with innuendo and double entendres which flew way over my 7 year-old head. That mechanical bull stuck with me, though…

“What Do You Do For Money Honey” follows a looooong tradition of songs about prostitutes. Precious few of them take a moral stance. Instead, most of them have an observational tone, letting the listeners come to their own conclusions. AC/DC, like The Rolling Stones before them, perform their hooker song as an ode to the charms and prowess of the woman of the night in question. “What Do You Do For Money Honey” is a pretty direct song concerning its subject matter, but like all hooker songs, never mentions the words “hooker,” “whore” or “prostitute.”

“Shoot to Thrill” is my favorite AC/DC song of all for one simple reason: the final chorus breakdown and “big rock ending” features Brian Johnson throwing himself completely into the song and singing his lungs out. It’s like he’s laying himself on the slab of sacrifice of the altar to the gods of rock and roll. Like Bruce Springsteen did on “Jungleland,” he sings as though he fully believes the world is going to end when the song is done. It’s quite a thing to behold.

And cap track “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” contains AC/DC’s entire musical philosophy boiled down to an easy-to-digest 4 minutes and 26 seconds version. It’s in the title, and in the spoken word intro: “Rock and roll ain’t no riddle, man. To me it makes good, good sense!” And perhaps the most blindingly simple declaration which sums up the whole enchilada is the closing lyric: “Rock and roll is just rock and roll.” Slam the gavel, court is adjourned.

Next: why darkness and despair are such attractive qualities in a girl.

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Naughtiness

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a pretty good child. Behaviorally, I never did anything that was really dangerous; never smoked, never did drugs, never snuck out at night, was (almost) never disrespectful to my parents, and didn’t run with a bad crowd.

The biggest bone of contention between me and my parents was my musical choices. As I entered the second decade of my life, they started furrowing their brows. Bands like Aerosmith and Green Day caused them some grief, and they weren’t crazy about Smashing Pumpkins either. And it really started when I was in 4th grade and liked Vanilla Ice enough to ask for To the Extreme for Christmas. I got it, too.

But for whatever reason (fate, luck, God, circumstance, maybe all of them), I never discovered true naughtiness in music in my youth. The most I got was Steven Tyler quoting Frank Zappa (which I didn’t know at the time) singing “Buns up and kneelin’ / I was a’ wheelin’ and a dealin’.” And while that was more than enough for my parents, there were MUCH worse things out there at the time. 2 Live Crew caused quite a stir with “Me So Horny” and their entire As Nasty As They Wanna Be album, and it echoed in the church youth group my parents headed. Likewise, Digital Underground and “The Humpty Dance” crossed the consciousnesses of the teens in my parents’ youth group. They tried to play a cassette of it on a youth group road trip in my dad’s motor home stereo; he promptly threw it out the window.

Those two groups were on the periphery of my vision growing up, but Onyx wasn’t. When I was in 6th grade, there was a kid that went to my older sister’s school (Harkness Road, my own high school) that we gave a ride to in the mornings. We also took him to church for youth group on Wednesday nights (I went to the kids’ program at our church). His name was Luke, and he was what most adults would classify as a “bad influence.” My parents were friends with his mother, and I guess they were hoping good company would redeem bad character, the opposite of the way it typically works. It was through him that I experienced a number of different “naughty” things, Onyx being one of them.

Onyx were an early ‘90s rap group and a key figure in the gangtsa rap movement, a cluster of black artists that used incredibly violent imagery and profuse profanity. Since gangsta rap was meant to present an exaggerated glimpse into the black urban lifestyle and mindset, this also included rampant misogyny. Luke played me Onyx’s debut album on headphones one time, and I was particularly disturbed by the song “Blac Vagina Finda,” which essentially describes an interracial gang rape. I expressed my discomfort and distaste, and Luke laughed derisively and called me a pussy.

Loathe as I am to admit it, my desire to fit in with Luke and other people I was around caused me to wade into the sludge-teeming waters of gangsta rap for a while. It didn’t last long, since the overwhelming waves of stinking immorality bowled me over and were too much for me. It’s not that people like Onyx and Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were simply talking about sex and violence and the bad things of the world; I have no problem with that. It’s the way they talked about them. That way was extremely vulgar and obvious, which insulted the wordsmith in me, but looming largest in my mind was that it was celebratory. In their verbage, the bad things of the world weren’t bad at all. Gun violence was to be celebrated. Misogyny was to be celebrated. Illegal drugs were to be celebrated. Law and order were to be disrespected, insulted and ultimately destroyed. Love is weakness, attachment to your sexual partner is weakness, and your entire ethos is to be dictated by taking what you can get and not caring about how much damage you are causing to the people around you. Simply put, this was the opposite of everything I was brought up to believe.

So luckily, I went back to my Genesis and Phil Collins, and was on the verge of discovering R.E.M. and a world of other delights. And in the end, it worked out.

AC/DC probably would have been on that list of bands my parents were hoping I would NOT be into when I was younger. Like a few others I’ve talked about, my fandom of AC/DC is relatively recent. I was 9 when The Razors Edge came out, and I remember thinking “Thunderstruck” was pretty groovy, but the guy’s voice was like grinding gravel between two sheets of corrugated steel. And at that time, I didn’t have a clue that Back In Black even existed, let alone Bon Scott. A decade and a half later when the Jack Black extravaganza School of Rock was released, I found a liking for “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll),” which led me into Bon-era deliciousness. From there, I was hooked.

Music has always been the centerpiece of my life, the language through which I speak and am spoken to, but it’s better for certain music to enter your life at certain stages of your life than others. Gangsta rap, while it was a horrible experience for me, came around at just the right time. It taught me a very stark lesson about where my musical boundaries were, what I could take and what I couldn’t. AC/DC, likewise, came around at just the right time. Had I waded into their music at a younger age, I might have not only drawn the ire of my parents (even more than I did anyway), but I might have become a different, more depraved person. It’s because AC/DC came around when I was mature enough to deal with them that their bawdy talk and low-brow subject matter can hit me at the angle it does. If it were from a different, younger angle, it would probably be a lot more harmful.

Next: always a bridesmaid, never the best-selling album of all time.

Bang Your Head

There was a guy in college (I don’t remember his name ‘cause we weren’t friends) that I was in a conversation with once. It was at one of those freshman mixers at the beginning of the year. There was a group of us, and he posed a question to the group.

“What is the biggest, heaviest, most monster, melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll, EVER? Don’t answer; just think of it in your head. You got it?”

We said “yeah,” or nodded, or murmured assent.

“Wrong. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

I piped up in a testy voice. “Isn’t that an impossible question to answer, since music is inherently subjective?”

“No. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

We all just rolled our eyes and wandered off. Not because “Back In Black” isn’t the most melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll ever (a thing which is impossible to determine), but because none of us liked being told by a relative stranger that we were definitively wrong about something, and in such a brusque tone. And you know what I thought? “’Back In Black’ can go suck my balls. Jerk.”

Quite obviously, this was before my fandom of AC/DC started, which is logical considering this is freshman year of college and my musical world is very small, swirlingly absorbed by Smashing Pumpkins and Genesis. Still, that’s little excuse. While it’s impossible to put guitar riffs on a scale of “this one is so-much-point-so-much better than that one,” “Back In Black” really IS monstrous – head-banging, devil-horning, balls-to-the-wall monstrous.

Every rock fan on the planet, the tall and the small, knows that riff. Every rock guitarist knows how to play that riff. Why? ‘Cause it’s a really easy riff; seriously, it takes a few times through to get the basics down. The only tricky part is the descending note pattern at the end of the 2nd measure. And for whatever reason, it’s one of the riffs that young guitarist learn first.

“Back In Black” is AC/DC’s tribute to their fallen singer, Bon Scott, written by their new singer, Brian Johnson, a man who had never actually met Bon. Admittedly, Brian was just writing what sounded good, going off of what he had heard ad infinitum from his other AC/DC-ers. Angus told him that the lyric needed to not be sad or morbid, but instead to be a celebration. And when Brian wrote the line “I got nine lives, cat’s eyes / Abusing every one of them and running wild,” it fit so perfectly with the man Brian had never met. And now it’s taken on a life of its own, being covered by so many rock bands it’s uncountable.

Lyrically, “Back In Black” is a first-person narrative from a guy who truly believes he is invincible. He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking and the gorge right below his high wire, but he behaves as if he’s never going to die. Sound familiar? And while this all seems like it’s setting us up for a delicious blow of irony on paper, the music is just as disrespectful to the concept of danger as the song’s protagonist. It’s driving, joyful and full of larger-than-life energy. “Back In Black,” being the tribute song that it is, gives no indication of the tragic fall or hopeless ending that Bon’s life turned out to have. It leaves all of that to “Hells Bells,” the album’s opening song.

“Hells Bells” fulfills what buying a CD or vinyl copy of Back In Black means for the listener. You find it in the record store and it’s all black; the words on the cover are barely readable. From the album’s physicality alone, you get a small sense of doom and dread, not knowing what awaits you when you drop the needle or press play, but fearing that it will be dark and a little disturbing. “Hells Bells” doesn’t disappoint. It opens the album with the lonely and mournful sound of a single church bell, rung several times before an electric guitar plays an equally mournful minor key riff. The absolute weight of the music falls on you as the rest of the band joins in, and you know that this is a different AC/DC than you knew.

Then there’s “Hells Bells” subject matter and main character: Satan himself. In this song, he’s a roaring lion, a savage devourer, and a remorseless consumer of every soul he comes across. The Satan that AC/DC portrays, like that of Black Sabbath and the plethora of bands they inspired, is the simplest and most obvious form of evil. How can anyone look at this evil and want any part of it? How can anyone listen to a song like “Hells Bells” and not see incredibly clearly that, contrary to what Bon previously affirmed, Hell is a VERY BAD place to be?

AC/DC, I think, understands this. They know that there exists a schism between two eternal destinies and that it’s drawn upon moral lines. They realize that there IS good, there IS evil, and that human beings exist somewhere in between, tipping at different times towards one or the other. And I truly believe that AC/DC want to tip towards the good, on the whole. It may not show in much of their music, but it doesn’t have to in order to be true. AC/DC, at their scar tissue-covered heart, are searching for salvation.

Zombies

AC/DC/ - Back In Black - 7/21/1980

AC/DC – Back In Black – 7/21/1980

I just saw a short film called Cargo; it was one of the finalists at Tropfest Australia 2013. It’s about a dad who is bit by a zombie (his wife) and is trying to get his baby daughter to safety before he turns. It’s only 6 and a half minutes long and features no dialogue, but it wrecked and ravaged me with its throbbing-heart emotionalism and simple yet gut-punching theme – love conquers all, even zombies.

The main appeal zombies have to me is the rapid change in states of a thing. When water turns to ice or steam, the elemental nature of the thing stays the same – two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen. But we understand and experience the altered-state water in totally new ways.

And with zombies, the very nature of the thing seems to change, though it’s still recognizable as what it used to be. In Cargo, the man’s wife is elementally different, something dangerous and terrifying, even though she is still his wife. And likewise, he knows that he will very soon become very dangerous to his baby daughter. But she will still be his daughter, and he must still protect her, even from himself.

Things drastically changed for AC/DC when Bon Scott suddenly died by aspirating his own vomit, even the nature of AC/DC itself. They never really got over the grief of losing Bon, but they translated it into music. They all decided they had to go on with the band, and that the last thing Bon would have wanted was for AC/DC to die with him. The surviving members even talked it over with Bon’s mother, and with her consent, they started seeking a new lead singer.

Brian Johnson was the first name the Young brothers came up with. He was a someone Bon had told them about while he was alive, and a performance that he had seen of Brian screaming his guts out on every song with his then-band Geordie. On one song, he held a high note, then dropped to the stage floor flailing and convulsing. The roadies had to take him out in a wheelchair. Bon thought, “Now there’s a guy who knows what rock and roll is all about.” Brian later told them it was because he came down with appendicitis that very night.

Bon Scott had only been dead a few weeks when Brian Johnson got a call from the Young brothers asking him to come to London to audition. The first song he sang was “Whole Lotta Rosie,” which is one of the songs I think of when I think, “What would be an impossible song to audition with because it’s so immortally Bon’s?” Brian, though, he smashed it out of the park. After the members of AC/DC finished picking their jaws up off the floor, they jammed some more and then hired Brian a few days later. They never even auditioned anyone else.

Brian Johnson is like a zombie version of Bon Scott. His voice is what Bon’s would sound like if he had come back from the dead, if Hell had spat him back out. Both have a gravely roughness and intensity, but the main difference is that while Bon’s voice gave you a sense of fun debauchery, Brian’s only indicates a downward spiral, hedonism ending where it usually does. And likewise, AC/DC’s music experienced a shift when Bon died, and became a zombie version of itself. It’s much more subtle, and the ironic celebration of sin and bad behavior is still there, but it’s a much more hopeless one. The band went from being carefree Libertines to uncaring Nihilists, and the beginning of it is on Back In Black.

In addition to taking the reins as AC/DC’s new lead vocalist, Brian also took over as main lyricist. His writing involves a level of double-entendres and euphemisms previously unseen in AC/DC’s songs. Bon told stories; he was like the guy in the bar who says “Let me tell you ‘bout this one chick I used to date. Smokin’ hot body. And in bed? Whoo! Every night was like a rodeo!” But Brian relied on the more literary devices of innuendo and implication.

And somehow, this made the dirty jokes that much dirtier. Those who get it don’t need anything else to be said. What Brian says is sometimes very subtle. “Let me cut your cake with my knife.” “She told me to come but I was already there.” “I’ll be guided in, We’ll be ridin’, giving what you got to me.” Do you know what he’s talking about? ‘Cause I do.

But without a doubt, the most suggestive, euphemism-laced and subtly filthy song on Back In Black is “Givin the Dog a Bone.” This song skirts the line between decency and just out-and-out pornographic detail. Nearly every line is a double-entendre, and the whole song stops just short of stating the thing it’s about outright. It shouldn’t take more than the first verse for you to figure it out.

She’s taking down easy, Goin’ down to her knees

Goin’ down to the devil, down-down to ninety degrees

Oh, she’s blowing me crazy ‘til my ammunition is dry

Oh, she’s using her head again

Oh, she’s using her head again

I’m just giving the dog a bone

I’ll give you a hint – it starts with an F and ends with an –ellatio.

While I’m not crazy about its choice in topic, “Givin the Dog a Bone” is an absolutely ingenious song in the way it talks about it. This type of verbage makes the wordsmith in me simply tingle with delight. “Givin the Dog a Bone,” the better part of the Back In Black album, and indeed AC/DC’s post-Bon output on the whole, joins a long tradition in rock and roll that goes all the way back to Robert Johnson when he sang “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg!” Even Shakespeare did it with the line in Hamlet about “country matters.” It can be summed up, I think, with a rather current phrase: I see what ‘cha did there… Wink, wink.

Next: A tribute to a fallen friend.

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!