Of Balls and Short Australian Men: A Nuanced Guide to AC/DC

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Between 1976 and this week, AC/DC has released 15 studio albums. I own 13 of them. I suspect I’ll have purchased my 14th AC/DC album, the new Rock or Bust, by the time this article is published. How do I explain this? Why didn’t I just stop with Back in Black and the Bon Scott–era LPs? Is it really essential for anyone to be familiar with Blow Up Your Video? Exactly how drunk was I when I bought Ballbreaker? Good or bad, aren’t all AC/DC albums basically the same?1

These are all pertinent questions. Let me answer the last one first: Basically, yes, they’re all the same. But if you’ll allow me to go beyond the basic answer, then no, they’re not the same at all. In fact, if you like AC/DC enough to own 86.7 percent of their recorded output, you will insist (as I do) that each album has a clearly defined personality.

It is true that AC/DC has a well-established aesthetic from which it has not deviated for nearly 40 years. Someone once remarked that AC/DC sounds like the Rolling Stones if Keith Richards had won all the arguments, which is broadly accurate.2 AC/DC never conformed to trends that would’ve dated its records to a particular time. Pick an AC/DC record from any era, and you won’t find power ballads, synthesizers, rappers, or EDM undulations. All you’ll hear is a Gibson SG soloing over a roaring Gretsch Jet Firebird and a drum thud that’s slightly behind the beat, along with lots of double entendres that are classified as single entendres in most Southern states. AC/DC albums are like redwoods — you must cut them open and count the years in the liner notes to determine their age.

AC/DC’s fidelity hasn’t been universally endearing. The band’s M.O. challenges conventional wisdom about what constitutes “good” art. In terms of critical orthodoxy, it’s a given that good artists must “evolve,” meaning they don’t repeat themselves. If a record is reviewed poorly by music critics, and the person who made the record is an established entity with a familiar discography, it’s a near-certainty that the criticism will be based in the artist “recycling” his or her signature sound. But AC/DC never cared about critical orthodoxy. Therefore, the band never changed up its sound. The men of AC/DC just set about writing the same kinds of songs over and over — sometimes well, sometimes really well, and sometimes just OK. Whatever the result, AC/DC albums retained their “it’s good because it’s pizza” edibility.

Self-awareness is key. AC/DC is “music that you didn’t really have to think about and say, ‘These guys have got a message,’” was how Angus Young put it to Rolling Stone in 2001. “There was no message. It’s not like we were out there social-reforming or something.”

But this does not mean every AC/DC album is identical. Obviously, there are two different singers: AC/DC with Bon Scott (he sings in a guttural squeal) is perhaps the best hard-rock band ever, and AC/DC with Brian Johnson (he sings in a piercing squeal) is the best-selling hard-rock band ever. There’s also the matter of AC/DC drummers: Phil Rudd left in 1983 and rejoined in 1994, and the guys who replaced him (Simon Wright and Chris Slade) never got that punishing bricklayer’s slap totally nailed down. Normally, the loss of a particular drum sound might be overlooked. With a minimalist band like AC/DC, however, the slightest deviation echoes loudly.

So, for the uninitiated, I have set about distinguishing AC/DC albums. I stuck with the studio LPs, which leaves out live albums3 and other inconsequential releases.4 My hope is that you’ll never hear these same-sounding records the same way again. My suspicion is that we’re about to be neck-deep in balls.

The Meta Album: High Voltage (1976)

With the possible exception of Oasis’s Definitely Maybe and the probable exception of Art Brut’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll, High Voltage is the definitive debut album by a rock band about a rock band making its debut album. There are songs about wanting to be in a band (“Rock ’n’ Roll Singer”), what it’s like to actually be in a band (“It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll)”),5 what it’s like to play a rock show (“Live Wire”), and the bad things that can happen at the party after the rock show (“The Jack”). That’s an entire career arc for most bands, and it’s just the first four songs. If AC/DC hadn’t become rock stars after this, High Voltage would merely be the “deluded album.” But Bon Scott was pushing 30 when this LP was released; he was willing his denim-covered ass out of the pub and down the road to immortality.

Bon Scott Of AC/DCFin Costello/Redferns

The Punk Album: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976)

AC/DC hated punk. But punks liked AC/DC’s early records. (One of the biggest boosters of High Voltage was the hip, influential British DJ John Peel, which makes him the one degree of separation between AC/DC and Elastica.) On Dirty Deeds,6 Scott sings in his snottiest, most exaggerated “scary Australian thug” voice; he’s like a prequel to Mad Max. And the band plays like the Sex Pistols if the Sex Pistols had enjoyed actual sex. Topics on Dirty Deeds include murder for hire, juvenile delinquency, greed, female orgasms, and engorged testicles. AC/DC is never less than exuberant about them. There was no future, no future, no future for you, maybe, but AC/DC preferred to direct its youthful nihilism outward.

The Blues Album: Let There Be Rock (1977)

Toward the end of Dirty Deeds, Bon Scott slows things down and mewls his mission statement, “Ride On,” pledging to keep moving forward in spite of the loneliness rattling around his empty head. That feeling carries over to Let There Be Rock, which isn’t blues but has a blues spirit. On the title track, Scott nods toward the ancient dichotomy of American music — “The white man had the schmaltz / The black man had the blues” — and makes his allegiance clear, calling himself the seventh son in “Bad Boy Boogie” and betraying his tendency for romantic fatalism by likening sex and love to drugs (“Overdose”) and the devil (“Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”). Scott was a man at the crossroads on Let There Be Rock and consciously chose darkness.

Photo of AC DC and Bon SCOTT and AC/DC and Angus YOUNGGetty

The Post-America Album: Powerage (1978)

AC/DC toured the U.S. for the first time in the summer of ’77, sticking mostly to secondary markets in the South and Midwest because that was where the drunken factory workers predisposed to loving AC/DC tended to live.7 AC/DC made Powerage after that, and the references to Las Vegas (“Sin City”), predatory capitalism (“Down Payment Blues”), guns (“Gimme a Bullet”), and more guns (“Gone Shootin’”) don’t seem coincidental. After Powerage, every subsequent AC/DC album alludes to heavy weaponry or war at least once. Granted, those guns are usually just metaphors for wangs.8 But conflating guns with wangs is an especially American obsession.

AC/DC In LondonFin Costello/Redferns

The Heavy Metal Album: Highway to Hell (1979)

The men of AC/DC hated heavy metal even more than they hated punk. But metalheads liked AC/DC, especially Highway to Hell. This was due more to the album’s iconography than to its sound — this album contains numerous references to Satan, blood, and dirty girls who love guys preoccupied with Satan and blood. In terms of the songwriting and production, however, Highway to Hell is easily the poppiest of the Bon Scott–era albums. (The exception is the opening 50 seconds of “Walk All Over You,” which is the greatest Black Sabbath tribute ever.) Highway to Hell was the first of three consecutive AC/DC records produced by reclusive pop-metal necromancer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who became an instant legend for his work here.

The most metal aspect of Highway to Hell is that serial killer Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez claimed upon his arrest in 1985 that he was driven to commit crimes by the album’s concluding cut, “Night Prowler,” an otherwise innocuous song about a boy sneaking into his girlfriend’s bedroom at night. For a while, political opportunists tried to pass off AC/DC as disciples of Aleister Crowley. But the only devil the band seemed to worship was Benny Hill.

The Pre-’90s Country Album: Back in Black (1980)

A.k.a. the first AC/DC album after Bon Scott died and Brian Johnson took over. A.k.a. the only AC/DC album that moms like. In the semi-decent biography AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll, there’s an unsourced aside about how it’s commonplace for Nashville recording engineers to check the acoustics of Music Row studios by blasting Back in Black. I have no idea if that’s true, but this is part of the public record: Lange followed Back in Black by producing a bunch of blockbusters for Def Leppard, and then in the ’90s he hooked up (professionally and personally) with Shania Twain, ushering in country as the new arena rock. Since then, Back in Black has become a totem for every country singer with vaguely “edgy” rock aspirations. (For modern country artists, Angus Young overshadowed Faron Young long ago.) I swear I’ve heard at least one song from Back in Black playing over the PA before every big-time country concert I’ve ever attended. Not once was it “Givin’ the Dog a Bone,” which should never be played publicly anywhere, even in animal shelters.

The Postapocalyptic, Action-Adventure Album: For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981)

Back in Black was an impossible-to-top success, so AC/DC responded by making a subversive, John Carpenter–style anti-blockbuster instead. The iconic cannon blasts of the title track signal the peak of AC/DC’s militaristic side, as does the admonishment about how “loose lips sink ships” at the start of “I Put the Finger on You.” (This was the only hard-rock record of 1981 influenced by WWII-era U.S. Secretary of Defense George Marshall.) But AC/DC was strictly a renegade platoon, wandering the “street jungle” in search of “crowbars and hot-wired cars” in “Breaking the Rules,” and vowing “no mercy for the bad” in “Inject the Venom.” Brian Johnson was no Bon Scott, but he was a solid Snake Plissken.

AC/DCDave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty

The Cocaine Album: Flick of the Switch (1983)

A predominantly white cover. Trebly production. Breakneck tempos. Songs that veer from screamingly ecstatic (“Rising Power,” “This House Is on Fire”) to paranoid (“Nervous Shakedown”) to depressed (“Deep in the Hole”) to medically perilous (“Brain Shake”). A release date that coincides with the rise of recreational coke use in mainstream society. There’s no evidence that Flick of the Switch was made on blow. I’m only suggesting that the album’s sensibility was perhaps best appreciated by those under the influence of Bolivian marching powder and giggling along at the “symbolism” of Silver Spoons in the early ’80s.

The Mulligan Album: Fly on the Wall (1985)

The only AC/DC album I don’t own, and (conveniently for me) one of the only AC/DC LPs you can stream in its entirety on YouTube, because virtually nobody cares. Fly on the Wall is the rare instance when AC/DC tried to sound contemporary, and by contemporary, I mean like a shitty mid-’80s Kiss record. The guitars are turned up way past the point of sanity, and the drums sound like a sheepdog trying to fight its way out of a cardboard box. Also: It is impossible to discuss a song like “Sink the Pink” on the Internet in 2014 without someone accusing you of endorsing a song like “Sink the Pink.” So I’m taking a pass.

AC/DC Perform At Wembley Arena In LondonPeter Still/Redferns

The Hair-Metal Album: Blow Up Your Video (1988)

You could argue that Fly on the Wall is AC/DC true’s hair-metal album. (The guitar solo on “First Blood” invented C.C. DeVille.) But I like Blow Up Your Video a lot more, even if it’s only 30 percent better. The song titles accurately represent the frippery on display: “Heatseeker,” “Kissin’ Dynamite,” “Some Sin for Nuthin’,” “Ruff Stuff.” Still, Video boasts some of the tastiest filler from any of the Johnson-era albums, which is good, because Blow Up Your Video is all filler.9

The Pretty Woman Album: The Razors Edge (1990)

Thanks to “Thunderstruck” and “Moneytalks,” this became the most successful AC/DC album since Back in Black. But I have an alternate, completely unsubstantiated theory for explaining why The Razors Edge was a hit, and it centers on Julia Roberts playing a prostitute in a starmaking romantic comedy six months before the album was released. Clearly, stories about the collision of romance and finance were big in ’90, and The Razors Edge returns to the theme of men paying for sex repeatedly, whether it’s from the perspective of Roberts (“Got You by the Balls”), Richard Gere (“Moneytalks”), or a guy like Richard Gere who gets turned on by “Jingle Bells” (“Mistress for Christmas”). If I really wanted to push this theory to the breaking point, I would point out the lyrical similarities between “Goodbye and Good Riddance to Bad Luck” and Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking.” But that would be ill-advised.

The Pre-Viagra Viagra Album: Ballbreaker (1995)

In the early ’70s, Pete Townshend devised an absurdly elaborate concept album called Lifehouse about society being connected by a massive mainframe called The Grid. Some people have suggested that this idea somehow “predicted” the Internet. I can’t vouch for that, but I will argue that AC/DC made a concept record about Viagra three years before Viagra was introduced. That album is Ballbreaker, which was produced by Rick Rubin, the go-to remedy for aged, flaccid rockers.

I don’t think AC/DC consciously made an album about Viagra, but pretending that they did is the only way I can care even a little about Ballbreaker, which is otherwise my second least-favorite AC/DC album after Fly on the Wall. So, if you’ll bear with me: Ballbreaker is about a man who takes a pill and becomes alarmingly aroused (“Hard As a Rock”), after which he attempts to clumsily initiate kinky sex (“Cover You in Oil”). He is turned down, which makes him angry (“The Furor”). We subsequently learn that this man is a very horny chef (“The Honey Roll”), or possibly Bill Clinton (“Burnin’ Alive,” which references a man from “a little town called Hope”). He must learn to accept that “size doesn’t matter” (“Love Bomb”) even if this is embarrassing (“Caught With Your Pants Down”) and drives him to self-destructive behavior (“Whiskey on the Rocks”). Finally, on the climactic title track, he “breaks” free of his chemical dependence and makes love to his wife, “livin’ out her dreams / Rippin’ off my jeans.”

You could also decide never to think about Ballbreaker ever again.

The Mature Album: Stiff Upper Lip (2001)

The least appropriate song title in AC/DC history isn’t “Sink the Pink” or “Emission Control.” The least appropriate AC/DC song title is “House of Jazz.” Jazz? What do these animals know about jazz? A song called “House of Jazz” belongs on an early-’90s Digable Planets record, not an early-’00s AC/DC LP. Also, by my unofficial count, this album has the fewest double entendres of any AC/DC album. On Stiff Upper Lip, AC/DC is content to simply say “Come and Get It” or “Give It Up,” rather than “Puttin’ My Hot Dog on Your Bun” or “Split My Banana.”

Exclusive World Premiere Of AC/DC "Live At River Plate" Presented By DeLeon TequilaGetty

The Walmart Album: Black Ice (2008)

The best Johnson-era AC/DC album not named Back in Black, The Razors Edge, or Blow Up Your Video (psych!), Black Ice is highlighted by the great “Rock ’n’ Roll Train,” one of four songs “about” rock music. Black Ice was a surprisingly robust seller, coming in second to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida on the year-end chart. AC/DC sold the album exclusively through Walmart in the U.S., and AC/DC and Walmart proved to be natural partners at the time. (For one thing, people who care about songs about rock music also tend to shop at Walmart.) It was not unlike AC/DC’s original strategy for taking over America in the late ’70s — market to the hinterlands, and gradually work your way in. From Walmart’s perspective, it could sell AC/DC albums like they were tube socks — both are utilitarian products that consumers wind up buying by rote every six or seven years.

The Vulnerable Album: Rock or Bust (2014)

Rock or Bust is superficially business as usual — the band throbs like one massive rhythm section, and there are songs called “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder” and “Rock the House” and the aforementioned “Emission Control.” But it’s arguably the most radical departure in the catalogue, because it’s the first AC/DC album not to feature founding member and unofficial general Malcolm Young. (Then there’s Phil Rudd’s recent drug charges and other legal troubles — he played on the record, but his future with the band is in doubt.) Angus is AC/DC’s de facto frontman, mascot, and band logo, but Malcolm was the band’s engine and dispenser of riffs. If he’s not the greatest rhythm guitarist in rock history, he gets to sit at the table with Keith Richards and Lou Reed.

That they were able to carry on without Malcolm and sound like themselves makes Rock or Bust an uncommonly melancholy AC/DC record. AC/DC is no longer invulnerable to the indignities of time. Rather, it is a wounded beast steeling its nerve, standing up straight, putting on that schoolboy outfit one last time, and duckwalking gingerly into the sunset.

Filed Under: Music, AC/DC, bon scott, brian johnson, malcolm young, angus young, phil rudd, back in black, rock and roll

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden