The Thursday Death Match: Highway To Hell vs. Back In Black
AC/DC's last album with Bon faces off against their first with Brian
Two years, two singers, two enormous albums. But which is better? Bon Scott's last stand, or Brian Johnson's best-selling tribute? Paul Brannigan thinks it's the former...
AC/DC in 1979. Pic: Getty Images
The answer, if we were debating AC/DC’s finest album, would be Powerage, obviously. But the long shadows cast by the two studio sets which followed, each a milestone in ‘DC’s storied career, both defining moments in a narrative arc which saw an Aussie bar band propelled into the world’s biggest stadia, are undeniable. Back In Black, of course, is a masterpiece, AC/DC’s best known and biggest-selling album, an undisputed Hall of Fame entry for anyone even vaguely in thrall to the liberating, transcendent sound of an over-amplified electric guitar struck with purpose: Highway To Hell just happens to be better.
Unlike so many of my esteemed colleagues at Classic Rock, Mr Elliott included, I can’t claim to have seen AC/DC with Bon at centre-stage: I was nine years old when he passed, and still possessed of the opinion that Showaddywaddy were the world’s finest rock‘n’roll band when I first saw the words ‘Bon Scott R.I.P’ scratched into a school desk. But from the moment I heard his electrifying ‘You can stick your 9 to 5 living, and your collar and your tie…’ rant on a borrowed copy of the High Voltage album, Bon, for me, was the Rock‘n’Roll Singer, swagger, rebellion and ‘fuck you’ attitude made (tattooed) flesh. So while the Highway To Hell album will forever be viewed as his epitaph, it’s also a fabulous, intoxicating and utterly joyous celebration of life lived hard, lived loud and lived wholly without guilt, shame or regret.
As every AC/DC fans knows, Highway To Hell was a triumph rescued from the jaws of disaster, an album with so much commercial expectation riding upon it that Atlantic Records originally attempted to bully the band into covering The Spencer Davis Group’s 1966 hit Gimme Some Lovin’ in a desperate bid for chart action. Mindful that the pressure was on, Malcolm Young (and the group’s new hot-shot manager Peter Mensch) fired original producer Eddie Kramer, hired in Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, and forced his band to knuckle down for three month’s solid graft in the studio. The result was the most polished, professional and powerful album of the quintet’s career…and subsequently their first million-selling disc in America.
Mutt Lange’s genius was to translate all the blood, sweat and tears squeezed out of his charges in London’s Roundhouse Studio into an album that sounds effortless, care-free and spontaneous. AC/DC never lacked balls, energy or thuggish aggression, but on Highway To Hell their swinging punches were delivered with precision and poise, impacting with heart-stopping force. The devil, as ever with Lange, is in the details here. The lairy gang vocals on the chorus of Walk All Over You (close your eyes and tell me you can’t instantly see Malcolm Young shuffling forward towards his mic stand as you read those words). Those economical, brutally effective guitar stabs on the verses of Touch Too Much. The breath-robbing full-tilt climax of If You Want Blood. The unstoppable, rolling momentum of Girls Got Rhythm.
Bon, throughout, is at his most commanding, compelling and irresistible, cock o’ the walk in a rough ‘n’ tumble, spit ‘n’ sawdust world where “nobody’s playing Manilow”, rolling with the punches (both Beating Around The Bush and Shot Down In Flames lay out scenarios in which the horn-dog singer’s ego takes a bruising) and always on the sniff for the next adventure, as detailed so memorably on the album’s title track. In the current issue of Classic Rock magazine you’ll see Highway To Hell described as “not just AC/DC’s greatest song, [but] the ultimate rock anthem, period” and who but a fool would argue with that? The song is Bon as he’ll always be remembered – cocksure, rumbustious and ready to take on the world with a gap-toothed grin, come whatever may. It’s the sound of freedom, the sound of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band at their most feral and fearless. And that, friends, is why I’ll always love Highway To Hell more than Back In Black, for while the latter is a monumental tribute to the memory of DC’s late, legendary frontman, Highway To Hell is Bon Scott and his band at their most gloriously, thrillingly alive.
Shazbot. Nanu nanu.
Spoilin' For A Fight on behalf of Back In Black? It's Paul Elliott.
AC/DC in 1980. Pic: Getty Images
The definitive AC/DC album? That’s a tough one. It could be Highway To Hell. Could be Let There Be Rock. For many diehard fans, it’s Powerage.
For me, it’s the live album, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, which really captures the essence of AC/DC. From a band that built its reputation on stage, it is an absolute tour de force.
One thing is certain. The definitive AC/DC albums were the ones they made with Bon Scott. But their best album is the one they made in the wake of Bon’s death in 1980. The album that was, in the words of lead guitarist Angus Young, “our tribute to Bon.” The album they named Back In Black.
Bon Scott had been such a dominant figure in AC/DC. He had everything needed to front the most electrifying rock’n’roll band in the world. His voice was tough as leather. His lyrics were full of bad attitude and sly innuendo. He had the same kind of rock star charisma as Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott – a blend of cockiness and streetwise cool.
The six albums that Bon recorded with AC/DC between 1975 and 1979 are all classics in their own right. And they are definitive in the way that almost all bands’ early works are. The same is true of Black Sabbath with Ozzy and Van Halen with David Lee Roth, although they are notable exceptions: Deep Purple with Ian Gillan, Iron Maiden with Bruce Dickinson.
But what AC/DC pulled off with Back In Black was the most amazing comeback in the entire history of rock’n’roll. The band found in Brian Johnson a singer with the voice and the no-bullshit persona to replace the seemingly irreplaceable. And out of tragedy, they achieved their greatest triumph.
Back In Black is not just the best album AC/DC have ever made. It’s the best album anybody has ever made. There are more artistic rock albums – the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue, for starters. But in terms of pure balls-out hard rock power, Back In Black is unbeatable. It is also, of course, the biggest selling rock album of all time.
The most famous songs on Back In Black are deathless rock anthems: Hells Bells, Shoot To Thrill, You Shook Me All Night Long, Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, and the title track. But on this album, every song is brilliant. Even those that might be considered fillers – such as Have A Drink On Me and What Do You For Money Honey – are better than most other bands’ best songs.
Hells Bells is the greatest opening track ever. Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution is the perfect finale – and they knocked that out in an hour. The production, by ‘Mutt’ Lange, has never been topped. And what Brian Johnson delivered was the performance of a lifetime.
With Back In Black, AC/DC created the perfect hard rock album. In the 35 years since its release, only one album, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, has been anything like as great as Back In Black.
And if you’re still not convinced that this is AC/DC’s best album, consider what is in the band’s setlist on their current world tour. On most of their recent gigs, they’ve been playing 20 songs in all.
It breaks down like this. Three tracks from the new album Rock Or Bust and three from Let There Be Rock; two from Highway To Hell and from High Voltage; one each from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Black Ice, The Razors Edge, Powerage and For Those About To Rock. And five from Back In Black.
As Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello once said: “No matter how great any other album is, Back In Black will still kick its ass!”
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