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.