The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2003 is one of the more notable (no pun intended). From the blue-eyed soul and vocal croonings of the Righteous Brothers to the blue-eyed reggae and ego conflicts of the police, the artists inducted this year possess some of the most recognizable sounds in rock history. And yet, the most recognizable of them all may be the thunder from down under, Australia’s AC/DC. When Angus Young’s Gibson SG comes through your right speaker, joined by his brother Malcolm’s Gretsch Firebird on the left, you know that they’ll shake you all night long.
Indeed, AC/DC is the only band inducted this year still actively doing anything all night long. The Police broke up years ago, reportedly with Sting putting a knife to Stewart Copeland’s throat; the Clash, too, fell apart due to internal power struggles, and Joe Strummer’s death last year merely made a reunion logically impossible. Elvis Costello has spent more time with Burt Bacharach than Randy Bachman of late, and the Righteous Brothers are still living off the royalties from the use of “Unchained Melody” in Ghost.
AC/DC, however, is still going relatively strong. 2000′s Stiff Upper Lip broke no new ground, but it showed that the band could still rock, more than twenty years after their first album. Indeed, in 1995, when Ballbreaker was released, the band was accused by critics of making the same album 12 times over. “That’s a dirty lie!” lead guitarist Angus Young responded: “The truth is that we’ve made the same album over and over 14 times!”
And so they have. Despite having a few too many songs about STDs (“The Jack”), as well as sexual promiscuity (“Whole Lotta Rosie”) and innuendo (“Hard as Rock,” “Let Me Put My Love into You”) AC/DC has kept the blues-based rock fires burning. They first toured America in 1977, but they didn’t make much of a splash until the success of 1979′s Highway to Hell and 1980′s Back in Black.
What’s interesting to note is that Highway to Hell — which has little to do with Satan and everything to do with the ups-and-downs of touring — was recorded with original lead singer Bon Scott, who drank himself to death shortly before beginning work on Back in Black. The band bounced back from the tragedy, picking up lead singer Brian Johnson, who has been as solid — if not as colorful — a frontman as Scott ever was. Few bands could bounce back so powerfully, let alone so quickly.
The secret to AC/DC’s success is quite simple, really: good, tight rock-and-roll songs played with enthusiasm. AC/DC’s albums are as electric as their live performances, perhaps because they are one of the few bands to still record live in the studio. “It’s the only way to capture as much atmosphere as possible,” Angus says. “It doesn’t always make for the best friendships, but it sure as hell helps get a good vibe on a record.” The guitar sound achieved by the brothers Young is nothing less than gargantuan, which is almost astonishing given that neither stands much more than five feet tall. Dressed in his trademark schoolboy uniform, Angus spends much of an AC/DC concert playing his guitar while riding on Johnson’s shoulders.
Judging from their music, the band’s politics are nonexistent. That said, they must be capitalists, and smart ones at that: They negotiated their contracts wisely enough that a label for which they have yet to record an album released newly remastered editions of their back catalog — just in time to capitalize on the publicity from their inauguration into the Hall of Fame.
The sound of the remasters is rather good. Some of the albums — like Back in Black — had received a similar upgrade during the mid-1990s, so the sound improvement there is less noticeable. However, the latest remasters improved on those by boosting the volume level, which is something you want when listening to AC/DC. In addition, they come with technology that lets you access, via the Internet, unreleased tracks, live versions, and videos. The Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap CD, for instance, lets you see a live performance of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” one of their earliest songs. It’s a nice touch, and something I wish other artists would do, but it would be better to put the extras on the discs themselves. The videos are at a relatively low resolution and take a long time to download, even on a T-1 connection. The songs are not downloadable.
Chances are you already own Back in Black. Forty million people do. If not, it’s hard to recommend starting anywhere else. Highway to Hell is probably the best of the Bon Scott years, although Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap has some classic AC/DC moments — the title track, “Big Balls,” and the actually poignant slow blues of “Ride On.”
In addition to Back in Black, the Johnson years are best represented by 1990′s The Razor’s Edge. After Let There Be Rock, the follow-up to Back in Black, the band put together some astonishingly dull and uninspired albums. But after lightning struck a plane in which Angus was flying, he came up with the riff to “Thunderstruck,” which put the band’s career back on track.
In a way, the Live set that came out of that tour serves as a de facto greatest-hits album. Opening with “Thunderstruck,” it moves through the classic tracks from the band until ending with “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).” There are single and double disc versions available. The single disc is adequate, covering all the ground; the double-disc set better represents a live concert and goes a bit deeper into the band’s 20-year catalog.
What has made AC/DC last so long? “We like the feel-good factor in music,” said Malcolm. Brother Angus added, “You don’t join a rock-and-roll band to self-destruct; you join to have a good time!” And they do, and their listeners do. It’s not Dylan, it’s not Springsteen, it’s only rock-and-roll, but I like it.
— Kevin Cherry is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in political science and a frequent contributor to NRO.