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Classic Corner: AC/DC ‘Highway to Hell’

When you put the words ‘classic’ and ‘AC/DC’ into the same sentence you will often hear the words ‘Back in Black’ invariably mentioned in the next breath and not...

When you put the words ‘classic’ and ‘AC/DC’ into the same sentence you will often hear the words ‘Back in Black’ invariably mentioned in the next breath and not without merit I might add. The bands seventh studio album (although only sixth released internationally) and the first without Bon Scott on mic duties, released in 1980 it has gone onto make it’s way into the record books. In June 2011 the album was recognised as having sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide. This makes it tied for second highest-selling album of all time, the highest-selling album by a band (together with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), the best-selling hard rock album of all-time, and the best-selling album ever released by an Australian musical act – and that was all two years ago!

So is there anyway, when you review the bands extensive back catalogue that another album can rival Back in Black as AC/DC’s finest work? Can a case be made that, in fact, it isn’t their ‘classic’ album? Well, frankly, yes I do think a case can be made that actually Highway to Hell and not Back in Black is AC/DC’s ‘classic’ album. Let’s have a look shall we?

The bands album releases prior to Highway to Hell had not brought them the type of success and fame they longed for. From 1975 to 1978 the band had released five albums, two of which – High Voltage and T.N.T – were only initially released in Australia (High Voltage would, a year after its Australia release in 1975, be released internationally).

High Voltage and T.N.T had limited commercial success, really only making a dent in the Australian Kent music report album chart with position of 7 and 1 respectively. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, originally released in 1976, only achieved success when it was re-released in 1981 in the US as a result of the bands ‘break through’ success from an album released in 1979. Can you guess what album that was? Yup, Highway to Hell.

All of the initial albums relatively poor performances stood in stark contrast to their standing as a live band. By 1977 they had already toured with Black Sabbath, Kiss and Aerosmith. The fact that they had not achieved the same level of success with their album sales was, to many, a surprise.

Arguably the band really only started to pick up a head of steam as they entered the last few years of the ‘70’s. In ’77 and ’78 they released Let There Be Rock and Powerage respectively. Let There Be Rock did actually garner them some commercial sales which the previous efforts had not, finishing at number 17 in the UK billboard and 154 in the US. Powerage again made the US charts but only just, clawing into the top 200 at number 133.
In today’s music market place releasing three albums in as a many years is unheard of. Whether that’s due to the record labels trying to stagger the releases to get their artist the most commercial sales or just because musicians of today are lazier than in times gone by, who can say? But back then times were different and in 1979 AC/DC released Highway to Hell.

Alongside the release of Highway to Hell AC/DC had also made some changes which would have an impact on the rest of their career. Powerage had been the debut of new bassist Cliff Williams and he would be a staple of the line up right up to the present day. Williams’ bass style might be considered basic by some but with it, he brought a stability and assurance that the band could rely on. Williams says he plays “the same thing in every song, for the most part. In AC/DC’s music, the song is more important than any individual’s bit in it. Complex [bass] lines wouldn’t add anything to a guitar-oriented band like ours, so I try to create a bottom layer that drives what our guys are doing on top.”

As well as the line-up change there had been a change behind the scenes too. Up until this time all of the albums had been produced by Harry Vanda and George Young. In 2007, the Australian Musician magazine selected the meeting of Vanda and Young in a Sydney migrants’ hostel in 1964 as the most significant event in Australian pop and rock music history such was their prowess at producing artists. This should serve to highlight that the move to a new producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, was taken extremely seriously by the band. Lange however drove the band on during the recording of the album to try to capture what had made them such heralded live performers – their raw power, passion, energy and put quite simply, their loudness.

The phrase “break through” was used earlier in this article in relation to Highway to Hell and it truly was, for a number of reasons. Lyrically the band had moved away from some of the more juvenile phrases which littered their earlier songs and had become more solid, more – for want of a better phrase – ‘rock n roll’. Songs such as ‘Highway to Hell’, ‘Shoot down in flames’ and ‘If you want blood (you got it)’ displayed a new, more mature side to the band. Of course the band were never going to leave their favourite topics of girls, sex and booze behind and they still used these in songs such as ‘Girls got Rhythm’ and ‘Touch too much’. The sound captured by Lange was cleaner, crisper and louder than before, the bands performance honed by all those days touring and gigging. The album scored the band a massive hit, reaching the previously uncharted territory of inside the top 20 in the US charts – settling at number 17.

In my mind the band had finally shown the world what concert goers everywhere already knew, that AC/DC were a real ‘rock n roll’ band. They had finally managed to translate their power and energy onto a record, finally managed to capture their essence for all the world to hear. There is no disputing that Back in Black is a great album and its place in the pantheon of classics is well deserved – it’s sales speak for themselves. However, few people ever analysis success preferring as they to do to revel in it – never wanting to know what made it a success and instead saving reviews and interrogations for failures. The foundations for Back in Black can be traced back to Highway to Hell though; it served as a platform for the band to build from.
I appreciate people will dispute this article and point to the fact that it is testament to the band that they came off the back of Bon Scott’s death in 1980 to make Back in Black and that it was so successful. For those reasons many consider it their finest work. I ask those people though, had it not been for the success of Highway to Hell who would have known of the band and Bon Scott outside of their immediate fan base or those in the scene? Would Back in Black had been the unmitigated success it is if it had been an earlier release? Or did it go onto become the best selling rock album of all time because Highway to Hell had established the band as one of the worlds great rock and roll acts?

It is a discussion that can go on all day and night and I know people won’t agree with me. I would though, urge you all, to consider this: what is your favourite album by a band or artist? Then think what had they released before it? You might just find yourself a new classic….

Words: Brian McKay

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