Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: Fly On The Wall
- Year of Release: 1985
- Country: Australia
- Label: Epic
- Format: Digipack CD
- Catalogue Number: 510768 2
Fly On The Wall find us in 1985, in the middle of one of the most excessive decades of modern times, and one in which style is arguably prioritised over substance. The stratospheric success of MTV in the US has vastly changed popular music, and hard rock in its various forms is enjoying mainstream acclaim in a way that it probably hasn’t before or since. Although their major artistic successes pre-date this explosion in popularity of the genre as a whole, AC/DC’s wagon is unavoidably hitched to the rock ‘n’ roll train driven by the likes of Bon Jovi, Poison and Mötley Crüe, and there’ss no doubt that some of the influences of the time (musical and otherwise) seeped into their own output. Although the sales achieved during this era insulated the band financially when the more casual fans moved on with the tides of fashion in the 1990s, some of the music itself does not quite stand up to scrutiny with the benefit of the distance of time.
Ominously, and unusally for an AC/DC album, Fly On The Wall does not start especially well. Although the standard clipped intro riff, joined by pounding four on the floor drums, raises eyebrows and expectations, the rest of the title-track does not fulfil the early promise. A common theme across the album, the track contains the germ of something good, but fails to develop it into anything especially compelling. The vocals lazily follow the guitar line throughout, as opposed to offering any kind of counterpoint, and without the benefit of a lyric sheet, it is difficult to get a handle on what Brian Johnson is singing about, as the vocals are generally buried in a mix that is kind to the lead guitars, but little else. This is lethal to a band whose career is built on making the most out of relatively limited ingredients, acting as an unnecessary constraint on the songwriting ambition.
Thankfully though, the album is not entirely without redeeming qualities. Following the title track is a succession of four songs that represent the salvation of the album, and could’ve formed the core of a better record, had the band had the courage to ditch the weaker material found elsewhere. ‘Shake Your Foundations’ pairs a crafty Young riff workout with comfortably the most infectious chorus to be found on the album, even while straying into slightly cock-rock territory, and the stadium-blues of ‘First Blood’ (despite the lyrics dashing any hopes of a Rambo-inspired track) demonstrates that the band haven’t completely lost their ability ingeniously twist their well-worn template just enough to delight. The beautifully slow and slinky ‘Danger’ overstays its welcome, but offers a musical lightness of touch to contrast with Johnson’s gravel-gargling vocal and ‘Sink The Pink’ overcomes a frankly cringeworthy title to deliver a blast of prime ‘DC that, alone on this record, could fit comfortably on Highway To Hell or Back In Black. The two bar guitar lick that precedes the chorus showcases the kind of attention to detail and precision songwriting that is largely absent on Fly On The Wall, and it is no surprise that the result is perhaps the most memorable song to come out of this period of the band’s career.
Sadly, with the exception of the sparkling and deft ‘Stand Up’, the rest of Fly On The Wall is the first sustained misstep of AC/DC’s career. Occupying the middle lane of the road like an annoying driver, there is little to love about the self-plagiarising ‘Hell Or High Water’ or the horrible ‘Playing With Girls’, which sounds like an Aerosmith outtake, and isn’t even rescued by a raucous chorus riff which it would have been nice to have seen redeployed as the cornerstone of a much better song. ‘Back In Business’ is perhaps the worst song on both the unfortunate run of anti-classics that close out the record, and indeed of the band’s career as a whole, and ‘Send For The Man’ is presumably a request for someone to put us all out of our misery, as it closes Fly On The Wall with a whimper that barely registers on an AC/DC richter scale topped by the use of actual cannon fire only a couple of albums previous.
Fly On The Wall is essentially a failure. Commercially it would see the band continue to maintain their place as one of the genre’s key players, headlining large venues and festivals globally, but artistically it is forgettable and indeed the nadir of the band’s output thus far. It contains a handful of enjoyable songs, and still more moments of inspiration. Regrettably, these moments are stretched to breaking point, with the band clearly lacking in ideas and instead resorting to releasing something that they hoped ticked enough boxes to qualify as good enough, rather than aiming to excel their previous work. Nowhere is this more obvious than the lyrical and vocal contributions of Johnson. Where once the band offered creative filth delivered with a nudge and a wink via soaring melodies, on Fly On The Wall the band make do with well-worn cliches and facile rhyming couplets repeated ad nauseum, via forgettable melodies that too often fail to add another dimension to the songs themselves. It’s a far cry from Back In Black.
It’s not all bad, but it is workmanlike and lacking in grit and intensity, as if assembled on a production-line by workers that just failed to give enough of a shit to add the effortless magic that distinguishes the band’s best work. On Fly On The Wall, AC/DC transition fully from the world’s most exciting rock ‘n’ roll experience to a competent stadium rock band, a transition that would give them the longevity to ultimately come back in the 21st century with something more musically impressive, but with the disappointing trade-off being the mediocrity of this particular album.