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Episode 24: AC/DC

(Atlantic Records via Amazon.com)

Jeff and Scot talk to Eric Garcia about AC/DC.

Introducing the Band
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) with guest Eric Michael Garcia, reporter for Roll Call. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricMGarcia, and read his work here.

Eric’s Musical Pick: AC/DC
The gang breaks out their schoolboy uniforms and disconcertingly tiny shorts as they get dosed with ten thousand volts of AC/DC, one of the quintessential hard-rock groups of all time. After an opening debate on whether they’re properly an Australian or Scottish band, Eric, Scot and Jeff talk about the glory of brothers Angus (lead guitar) and Malcolm (rhythm guitar) Young as reliably great purveyors of riffage with a dark edge and a sure sense of ridiculousness. Jeff emphasizes that, while they were the key blueprint for Spinal Tap, it should never be forgotten that AC/DC was always in on the joke, with self-consciously silly over-the-top lyrics combined with deadly serious guitar playing. Eric celebrates them as a band without any pretensions that seemed made directly for “the knuckleheads like me.”

The Aussie Years: High VoltageT.N.T. and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
From small things big things one day come, and all are agreed that AC/DC wasn’t really sure quite what they wanted to be on their Australian-only debut album High Voltage (1975). Their cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go” is pretty snappy, but elsewhere they experiment with glam-rock touches (and even make a laughable attempt at a ‘pretty’ power ballad in “Love Song”) and generally don’t seem to know where they’re going. Their lead singer, a chap named Bon Scott, seems to have very little idea of how to even carry a tune — but that would change very soon.

Everyone is much more positive about the band’s second album, T.N.T. (1975), where the band scores their first real classic in “It’s A Long Way To The Top” (featuring Bon on bagpipes) and generally sounds ten times more competent and self-assured. Only the rather stifled production (Jeff says “Live Wire” sounds like it was recorded in a tube sock) and a few obnoxiously repetitive songs — to wit, Scott’s ode to venereal disease “The Jack” — let it down. Scot loves the ‘boogie’ sound on this album – not quite the blazing metallic hard rock of their later career, still more openly bluesy. Eric draws attention to the interplay between Malcolm and Angus as guitar players, weaving in and out of one another all over this record, and particular on the title track (oi! oi! oi!).

While T.N.T. eventually gained international release outside of Australia (in an adulterated version that was, confusingly, called High Voltage and included two songs from the debut record), their 3rd album was rejected by American record executives and kept away from U.S. audiences. The irony is this record was Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976), the record where many believe AC/DC really put it all together for the first time. (Certainly, most readers will be familiar with the fascinatingly charismatic grunting of the title track.) Scot avers that the record company might have had their reasons, not only because the album is still a bit unformed (with a few generic tracks), but also because it’s a deeply, deeply sleazy record, with songs like “The Squealer” about which the less you understand lyrically, the better. Jeff agrees but nevertheless cannot help loving wonderfully stupid dirty jokes like “Big Balls,” which is pretty much about exactly what you think it is. (Jeff declares Bon Scott to be “the Leonardo da Vinci of singing about balls.”)

Let There Be Rock: AC/DC Find Their Sound and are Fully Unleashed
A healthy quotient of fans would argue that the band didn’t really become the AC/DC we all know and love until Let There Be Rock (1977), an album that is a sonic revolution for the band. Not only is their playing tighter and more focused, but their production is improved tenfold and finally the guitar sound is that wild, overcharged, lightning-bolt AC/DC sound that went on to define the group for the rest of their careers. Jeff loves every song on this record, yes, even the one called “Crabsody In Blue” (no points for guessing what it’s about). But Scot loves the title track (which is self-mythologizing sort of ‘gospel of rock & roll’ song that every self-respecting metal band needs) and points out that songs like these are long because Angus Young genuinely has interesting things to say. Jeff agrees and says he has never been more interesting than on “Whole Lotta Rosie,” and that his brother’s rhythm guitar is nearly as impressive.

Scot thinks that 1978’s Powerage might even be better, from its delightfully silly cover on downward. One of the few AC/DC albums that gets away from goofy sex songs and clowning around for more hardscrabble serious lyrical concerns by Bon Scott, the Young brothers match it with an all-out guitar assault on songs like “Riff Raff” and “Down Payment Blues.” There isn’t a single bad song on Powerage, and indeed Scot claims it as the best AC/DC album.

To Hell and Black Again
Enter Mutt Lange. Up until this point, AC/DC had been produced by the Youngs’ older brother George, but in a bid for a commercial breakthrough in the United States, they turned to the future Mr. Shania Twain and the result was Highway To Hell (1979), a record which accomplished the job in spades, largely due to its legendary title track becoming a massive radio hit. But Jeff and Eric insist it isn’t even close to the best song on the album: Jeff goes with the remarkable “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It” (Scot agrees), while Eric is all about “Girls Got Rhythm.” But that only scratches the surface of Highway To Hell, where Lange’s production opens up new sonic worlds for the Young brothers to conquer with their guitar on songs like “Shot Down In Flames” and “Get It Hot.” The gang also discusses “Night Prowler” and the subsequent Richard Ramirez controversy that would erupt over it five years later.

Jeff makes it a point to salute what a fantastic rock singer Bon Scott finally became on Highway To Hell, a vast difference than his tentative beginnings back in 1975. This made his death in the beginning of 1980 that much more of a loss for the band – he was cut down in his prime. The man AC/DC found to replace him, Brian Johnson, was a freak of nature vocally: capable of shrieking the highest notes of the male range, at top volume, and in key. And the result was Back In Black (1980), an album that saw AC/DC recovering from the death of Bon Scott without missing a single beat. This is their most famous and best-selling album, with their single most famous song (“You Shook Me All Night Long”), and nothing the gang can say about it is going to change your opinion of it.

But the gang presses on anyway, because they love the dickens out of this from start to finish. Jeff explains that Back In Black is the most *ridiculous* rock album of all time, a riotously funny joke of insanely extreme hyper-riffage, hyper-sexuality, and hyper-activity that directly inspired Spinal Tap (“Let Me Put My Love Into You” is simultaneously one of the most absurdly on-the-nose lyrics in history and an amazing hard-rock song). Eric loves “Hell’s Bells” and Scot thinks “Back In Black” (the title track) may be one of the band’s most effective moments ever. You probably own this album already. If you don’t, you probably should.

AC/DC’s Lost Decade, then Sudden Revival on The Razor’s Edge
The gang rolls through the post-Back In Black years with a gimlet eye, pointing out that even though For Those About To Rock We Salute You (1981) may have gone to #1 in the Billboard Charts (the band’s only number one record), the album itself is distressingly generic, and sounds like AC/DC has run out of ideas for the first time in their career. Flick Of The Switch (1983) is even worse, a back-to-basics album that Jeff, alone among the gang, is willing to defend. But nobody has a good word to say about the appalling Fly On The Wall(1985), where Brian Johnson’s vocal cords have totally given out on him and he sounds like a dying cat yawping along to generic hard-rock. The lone bright spot of this era is the fantastic one-off “Who Made Who,” which the band recorded for the soundtrack of the so-bad-it’s-good Stephen King-directed film Maximum Overdrive in 1986.

Nobody wants to spend much time on Blow Up Your Video (1988) either, but everyone is surprised by AC/DC’s big comeback The Razor’s Edge (1990), which doesn’t rise to the same heights as Back In Black (nothing ever could), but still has “Thunderstruck,” for cryin’ out loud.

The Final Years
The gang desultorily covers the denoument of AC/DC’s career, from the disastrous Ballbreaker (the long-delayed 1995 follow-up to The Razor’s Edge that dissipated whatever momentum the band might have had) all the way through to 2014’s Rock Or Bust.

Eric, Scot and Jeff each name their two key albums and five key songs by AC/DC.

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