I remember the first time I heard AC/DC. It may have been the only time I really listened to a heavy metal song in its entirety. That was because I was part of a captive audience on a school bus. Some senior brought his boombox on board our crowded bus with AC/DC’s Back In Black in tow.
It was early autumn in 1980. School had just started and I was on a new bus route to what seemed then to me like a backwater high school called Northeast Guilford. The guy with the boombox was the first person I’d ever seen who had the courage to play anything beyond ‘Planet Rock’ or ‘Rapper’s Delight’ publicly on a boombox. It helped that his friend was our driver. AC/DC was hot then. Even as their latest album Back In Black entered the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, it was joined by three of their previous releases.
For the first two or so weeks of school this guy would play Back In Black as loud as his little radio could. I was beginning to like it. Unlike a lot of heavy metal from the time, it sounded very stripped down and live sounding – that it had few if any studio tricks or effects. The fact that I would learn that AC/DC was from Australia not England made them all the more cool.
Apparently the band had just come off a big hit tour and sometime afterwards the lead singer Bonn Scott killed himself in some alcohol related dilemma. Undeterred, the band hired a new lead singer and set off to record a follow up with legendary producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lang at the helm.
Although the post production aspects of the album were almost technology free, it was carefully recorded in various spaces to get the mix of intimate and ambient acoustics. The high energy mix that resulted was just the ticket for teenage boys who would be playing it loud on $100 boombox.
Lang’s production tastes favored pop music at the time, but his sensibilities did not hamper the hard edge of AC/DC. Lang would bring out new found melodic qualities in AC/DC that had been lacking in previous releases. In addition to the usual catchy guitar rifts the band was known for, new singer Brian Johnson would fill the shoes of his predecessor with a similar vocal style and energy that bordered melodic yelling.
It all came together to create some of the most memorable rock anthems ever to blast from the interiors of muscle cars on a Saturday night. Songs like ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘Shoot to Thrill’ feature the prominent snare drum and dueling guitar sounds the band became known for.
It would be my personal favorite the title track that would become one of their most recognizable. The million dollar rift was enough to make even ghetto kids hard rockers if just for a moment. More than a few rappers have used the rift t good effect. More recently new audiences were introduced to the song via the Iron Man films.
In fact Back In Black is one of the few real heavy metal albums that I own and actually like. Kids today likely don’t play AC-DC on their boomboxes phones which is a good thing because no tiny mobile device could ever do the big sound of Back In Black justice.