Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: Highway To Hell
- Year of Release: 1979
- Country: Australia
- Label: Albert Productions
- Format: Jewelcase CD
- Catalogue Number: 4770882
From the crunching first chord of the classic first riff of the title track, it is immediately clear that this is ‘it’. After 4 or 5 (depending on whether you’re Australian or not) albums combining patches of brilliance with the middling fare that developing songwriting inevitably produces, this is the very moment that these long-time pretenders to the rock ‘n’ roll throne ascended to greatness, and took possession of the throne for themselves.
Sometimes criticised for shaving off the band’s remaining raw edges, Mutt Lange’s production is clean and crisp, but still splendidly live-sounding, and ‘Highway To Hell’ is the perfect jumping off point for AC/DC’s now fully matured sound. The world-weary Bon Scott of Powerage is nowhere to be seen, and although his lyrics for Highway To Hell are ultimately less sophisticated and poetic, they represent a perfect marriage with the music; this time round, Scott is here for a good time, not a long time. A subtle shift in composition sees the placement of the vocal melodies utilising the space left by the Young brothers’ sparse lead and rhythm more than ever before – notice how his verses on the title track snake in and out of the main riff, not battling for supremacy, but complementing the song perfectly.
One also gets the sense that for possibly the first time in their career, AC/DC consider the impact that clever track sequencing can make to the impact of an album, and Highway To Hell hangs together cohesively as a result. After the one-two punch of the opener, followed by the louche blues swagger of ‘Girl’s Got Rhythm’, every bit the musical embodiment of Angus Young’s devilish snarl pictured on the cover art, the intro of ‘Walk All Over You’ briefly brings the tempo down, before the speedy verses and half time chorus structure repeat the trick of the previous album’s ‘What’s Next To The Moon’ in reverse, creating for the first time on record, a real sense of dynamics, replicating the pacing of a live show.
Curiously on such a masterpiece of sequencing, the only real false move is the placement of the creepy blues of ‘Night Prowler’ at the tail end of the album. Now notorious for its association with the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez, unfortunately a fan of both the band and violent homicide, the track is both relatively weak musically, and also unpleasant lyrically, with even the most charitable reading of overtly predatory lyrics painting the band in a poor and misogynistic light.
The strange choice of closing track however, cannot dim the power and magic of everything that comes before. On an album full to the brim with highlights, including the quicksilver rock ‘n’ roll of the vicious ‘Beatin’ Around The Bush’ in which the verses take the band’s compositional economy to a new level accompanying Scott’s lascivious vocals with a bass and snare and little else, there are two tracks that stand above the rest as the quintessential Scott-era songs. ‘Touch Too Much’, with it’s muted minor key verse and chorus, has an unusually melancholy, but anthemic feel for AC/DC, foreshadowing the sound of Back In Black, which adopts this tone throughout to great effect. At the other end of the spectrum is the triumphant ‘If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It), which takes all of the AC/DC components, and pushes them into the red. The intro builds a tension released by the unforgettable main riff, a career best performance from Scott illuminates the song from the very first soaring phrase, and it all culminates in the almost gang-vocal harmonies of the high-octane chorus. It doesn’t need an outstanding Young solo to add a final layer of varnish, but it most certainly gets one, and the overall effect is total rock ‘n’ roll majesty.
Highway To Hell is Bon Scott’s AC/DC at their leanest, meanest and most vital. Authentic rock ‘n’ roll rebellion drips from every pore of this album. It may not keep you warm in winter, containing as it does no fat whatsoever, but it will keep you moving for long enough that you won’t notice the cold. Scott may never have recorded another word for the band, but this is the greatest epitaph that he could have wished for.