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.
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!