Author – BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: Back In Black
- Year of Release: 1980
- Country: Australia
- Label: Atlantic
- Format: Vinyl Imitation CD
- Catalogue Number: 7567-92418-5
In some respects, that Back In Black exists at all is a stroke of fortune. Following the death of charismatic vocalist Bon Scott in London in February 1980, one could’ve forgiven the band for calling it a day altogether. However, in the wake of support from the Scott family, the brothers Young recruited British singer Brian Johnson, decamped to the Bahamas, and in the astonishingly short space of just 6 months wrote and released nothing less than one of the greatest albums ever made.
The first incarnation of the band already had an impressive back catalogue of records, ranging from good to great, but the unwavering quality of Back In Black elevates it above not just the rest of the band’s discography, but above almost all discography. It’s not just every single song on this album that is virtually perfection, but almost every single note, every beat of every drum, every vocal melody that all comes together to build a monument to the sheer power and majesty of unbeatable rock ‘n’ roll.
The album opens with one of the shortest, but most recognisable intros ever recorded – the hi hat accompanied by a muted guitar scratching out the first 6 beats of the song, before the guitar drops out, and two lone hi hat beats allow just enough time for every listener to unpack and tune their air guitar before the band hits the open E that commences the inimitable riff of the title track, a riff so simple, but so good that decades later it continues to resound around guitar shops and rehearsal rooms the world over. When Johnson tears into the first verse with the line ‘Back in black, I hit the sack, I’ve been too long, I’m glad to be back’, it is clear that despite the sable cover borne by the album, this is no funeral. Instead, this is a riotous wake, a celebration of and tribute to the life of Bon Scott, the kind at which friends and relatives share bittersweet stories of loved ones lost, and reminisce long into the night, surrounded by abandoned tumblers of liquor, ice cubes melting into the remnants.
As Back In Black progresses, however, subtle variations in tone reveal themselves, giving the album a level of depth and sophistication that the band have hinted at, but only infrequently attained. The minor key classicism of both ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’ (the latter belying it’s lascivious title) carry serious weight and gravitas, alongside smart vocal melodies and dextrous guitar work. The sinuous, slinking pre-chorus riff of the latter in particular is spine-tingling; the band falling momentarily silent, as Angus Young delivers one of the most liquid guitar licks of his career.
Elsewhere, ‘Shoot To Thrill’ and ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ combine taut riffing with stadium-ready choruses, and ‘Given The Dog A Bone’ offers a rare throwback to Powerage-era AC/DC, with its supercharged rock ‘n’ roll riffing, and bawdy lyrics. The keystone of the album though, and the finest moment in an album built entirely from fine moments is the spectacular ‘Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’. As Angus Young picks out the riff, joined by drums and vocals adding a filthy, dragging swing, one can imagine the band sitting backstage in a rehearsal room, as Young happens to land on an interesting riff as he plays around with some standard blues figures. The rest of their band feel their way into the song as if it’s being spontaneously composed, and the whole thing benefits from a looseness that suggests the recording engineer left the tape running by accident, capturing the first and greatest take of all.
As the insouciant (and thematically inappropriate given the manner of Bon Scott’s demise) blues of ‘Have A Drink On Me’ brings the album to a nonchalantly brilliant close, the only possible response is to lift the figurative needle on the figurative record player, and drop it straight back again at track 1. Second time around, in addition to all of the many highlights enumerated above, one can truly enjoy the minuscule details that reveal themselves over time, and which have given the album such ageless longevity; the vibrato enlivening the post-chorus riff of ‘Hells Bells’, the drum fill bridging the gap between the half-time ‘Shake A Leg’ intro and the standard tempo of its verse, and the outrageous first note of the ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ solo.
Back In Black is everything that is great about AC/DC distilled into ten 3 minute nuggets of miraculous rock ‘n’ roll. The many years of development and refinement of their craft produced an album that is near to perfection in both conception and execution, the songwriting honed with laser-guided precision into a crystalline masterpiece as essential to life as air, water and whisky. This life-affirming album will never get old and tired, and indeed every listen only serves to reinforce its endless magnificence.