Brian Johnson has been AC/DC's frontman for over four decades, a tenure more than seven times that of his predecessor, Bon Scott. He joined the band in time for their biggest album, 1980's Back In Black, and as AC/DC shifted from theatres to arenas, and from arenas to stadiums, he led the way. And yet, for some, he's still in the new boy, still operating in Bon's undoubtedly significant shadow,
Johnson has been more than happy to embrace that status, forever gracious about Bon's contributions to the band. "He was larger than life," he told Classic Rock in 2020. "Just this great singer, wordsmith, frontman – you name it, he had it.”
Truth be told, Johnson also has it. And it's the songs he's sung that have transformed AC/DC from livewire boogie merchants into one of the biggest rock'n'roll acts the world has ever seen.
These are his 30 best songs, as chosen by Paul Elliott, official AC/DC fan club member from 1980 to 1982.
Hells Bells (Back In Black, 1980)
The colossal opening track on the biggest selling hard rock album of all time introduced AC/DC’s new singer in heroic style. Beginning with a tolling bell and a slow, portentous riff (described by Angus Young as “mystical”), Hells Bells has Brian Johnson playing harbinger of doom, his menacing lyrics written after a thunderstorm battered the tropical island of Nassau, where the band were recording. Johnson proved he not only had a phenomenal range, he could also deliver a tongue-in-cheek one-liner worthy of Bon Scott. “If good’s on the left,” he declared, “Then i’m sticking to the right!”
Shoot To Thrill (Back In Black, 1980)
With its funky groove and brilliant, slightly leftfield arrangement, Shoot To Thrill is the envy of many a rock musician. Dan Hawkins (The Darkness) reckons it has “the greatest intro riff ever”, while Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott loves the mid-song breakdown. “The drums are the lead instrument,” Joe says, “and the way Phil Rudd builds it up is just incredible.” On top of all that, Brian Johnson hits high notes that would give a lesser man sizeable haemorrhoids.
Back In Black (Back In Black, 1980)
No band in the history of rock’n’roll has more great riffs than AC/DC: not Led Zeppelin, not Black Sabbath, not anyone. And Back In Black has the greatest riff of them all, a mid-pocket heavy-hitter that swings as hard as Muhammad Ali in his prime. With Johnson rapping between crunching staccato chords, Angus peeling off two killer solos and Phil Rudd kicking ass as only he can, Back In Black is – to quote Ali – so bad it makes medicine sick.
You Shook Me All Night Long (Back In Black, 1980)
The lead single from Back In Black may have peaked outside the top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic, but it remains AC/DC’s best-known song. A bawdy, celebratory rock’n’roll anthem so infectious it could get the Pope out on the piss, You Shook Me All Night Long has Brian Johnson drooling about a young hottie’s “American thighs”. Such is his advanced stage of overexcitement that he gasps: “She told me to come but I was already there.”
Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution (Back In Black, 1980)
After five weeks in Nassau recording Back In Black, AC/DC had nine tracks in the can, but needed one more to complete the album. No worries: Malcolm and Angus Young wrote it in 15 minutes. Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution was a two-fingered salute to the bible-thumping do-gooders that had plagued the band in America; a swaggering blues-boogie delivered in such a casual manner than Johnson is heard lighting a fag in the intro.
Have A Drink On Me (Back in Black, 1980)
Originally demoed with Bon on drums, Have A Drink On Me was completed with lyrics from Brian that celebrated his predecessor’s boozy joie de vivre. “Whiskey, gin and brandy/ With a glass i’m pretty handy”. As Johnson later said, “The whole point of the Back In Black album was to celebrate Bon’s life.”
For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) (For Those about To rock (We salute You), 1981)
Inspired by the battle cry of Roman gladiators – “We who are about to die, salute you” – the title track from AC/DC's first US number one album was built to an epic scale, from glacier-paced intro to frenetic cannonade finale. For nigh on 30 years, For Those About To Rock has provided the tumultuous climax to ’DC's live show. It is, quite simply, the mother of all rock anthems.
Let’s Get It Up (For Those about To rock (We salute You), 1981)
Although Rolling Stone magazine hailed it as AC/DC’s “best album”, For Those About To Rock is the band’s most underrated work. If it wasn’t as good as Back In Black, it was still a great record, and Let’s Get It Up is one of many highlights, a slow and meaty boogie that hit the UK Top 20.
Evil Walks (For Those about To rock (We salute You), 1981)
In AC/DC’s world, women historically fell into two categories: nymphomaniacs (groupies, naughty schoolgirls, etc) and cold-hearted bitches. An example of the latter was presented in Evil Walks: a ball-busting bunny-boiler so twisted that Brian Johnson chuckled, “I sometimes wonder where you park your broom!” Fittingly, the riff that began this song is the meanest that Malcolm and Angus Young ever wrote.
SpellBound (For Those about To rock (We salute You), 1981)
AC/DC are not known for their existentialism. 90 per cent of their songs are about rock‘n’roll or sex or fighting, sometimes all three. But with Spellbound they went pretty deep. Over a grinding blues-based riff, Brian Johnson sings like a man who’s lost all hope. “I can’t do nothin’ right/can’t even start a fight…”. As Rolling Stone’s reviewer noted in 1981: “There’s a whole generation out there feeling isolated, out of it, often beer-addled, and yearning for expression. AC/DC are playing their song.”
Guns For Hire (Flick of The switch, 1983)
It’s one of the great intros: Angus throttling his SG in short spasms, then jerking out a one-note rhythm before Phil Rudd brings the whole band piling in. And after such an electrifying start, Guns For Hire never dips. The chorus is a no-brainer – with guns for hire, Johnson was always going to “shoot you with desire”. And his macho posturing is delivered with a wink. “I’m a smooth operator,” he growls, “a big dictator.” Bon would have been proud of that one.
Bedlam In Belgium (Flick Of The switch, 1983)
Like Whole Lotta Rosie, Bedlam in Belgium based on a true story. On october 12, 1977, AC/DC played a gig in the Belgian town of Kontich that almost ended in a riot when police shut down the power following complaints from local residents. One eyewitness even claimed that Bon Scott was threatened with a gun by an over-zealous cop. Six years later, this incident was immortalised in the appropriately titled Bedlam In Belgium. sadly, Bon wasn’t around to tell the story, but the way Brian Johnson sings it, it’s as if he’d been staring down that barrel.
Badlands (Flick Of The switch, 1983)
After three albums with super-producer Mutt Lange, AC/DC took a DIY approach on Flick Of The Switch. The raw, back-to-basics sound worked perfectly on tracks such as Badlands, a hard-driving boogie with the feel of early-70s ZZ Top.
Who Made Who (Who Made Who, 1986)
Master horror author Stephen King lucked out when AC/DC – his all-time favourite band – agreed to make the soundtrack album for Maximum Overdrive, his first movie as a director. The movie bombed at the box office, but Who Made Who, the album’s title track and single, was a top 20 hit, with its clipped riff and huge chorus right on the money.
Heatseeker (Blow Up Your Video, 1988)
AC/DC lost their way in the late 80s. Blow Up Your Video was a poor album, not much better than the preceding Fly On The Wall. But one track stands out: the hit single Heatseeker, a flat-out rock‘n’roller that kicks like a mule.
Thunderstruck (The Razors Edge, 1990)
As a blockbuster showstopper live anthem, Thunderstruck is right up there with Hells Bells and For Those about To Rock. With its demented yob chanting and a frankly ridiculous performance from Brian Johnson, who sounds like he’s inhaled helium, this is surely the most gonzoid of all AC/DC songs.
Fire Your Guns (The Razors Edge, 1990)
Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairbairn brought a polish to The Razors Edge that had been missing from AC/DC albums since the Mutt Lange era, but there’s nothing fancy about Fire Your Guns, a song full of piss ‘n’ vinegar, so fast it had Angus duck-walking on stage in a blur of knobbly knees.
Moneytalks (The Razors Edge, 1990)
One of the catchiest tunes AC/DC have ever written, combined with a real doozy of a riff. Of course, Moneytalks should be two words, not one. But as the album’s title illustrates, grammar ain’t AC/DC’s strong point.
Hard As A Rock (Ballbreaker, 1995)
With Rick Rubin producing and, more importantly, Phil Rudd back on the drum-stool after a 12-year break, AC/DC hit top gear again on Ballbreaker. The album’s opening track is a humdinger, although it does leave one question unanswered: is Brian Johnson hard as a rock or, as he later claims, harder than a rock?
Boogie Man (Ballbreaker, 1995)
With Bon, AC/DC cut some classic blues numbers: The Jack, Night Prowler and best of all, the melancholy Ride On. Boogie Man is the purest blues song of the Brian Johnson era, and the singer revels in the role of shady backdoor man.
Ballbreaker (Ballbreaker, 1995)
Besides giving Brian an opportunity to swing across the stage atop a life-size wrecking ball – half Tarzan, half Andy Capp – Ballbreaker was a throwback to the brute force and overt menace of Live Wire and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: a real bruiser.
Stiff Upper Lip (Stiff Upper Lip, 2000)
“I was born with a stiff,” croaked the ever-ready and aptly named Johnson, prompting mega-fan DJ Howard stern to proclaim: “These guys are fucking geniuses!” in addition to its single-entendre naughtiness, Stiff Upper Lip was the funkiest ‘DC track since 1978’s Gone Shootin’.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Train (Black Ice, 2008)
The opening track and first single from Classic Rock’s 2008 Album of The Year is vintage AC/DC. With a thumping great riff and a chorus that recalls the glory days of Highway To Hell and Back in Black, Rock ‘N’ Roll Train proved that AC/DC were still, unquestionably, the greatest hard rock band in the world.
Anything Goes (Black Ice, 2008)
A nod to Brian Johnson’s pre-AC/DC days as frontman for Geordie, Anything Goes has the feelgood factor of early-70s glam rock. Warning: exposure to this song, five pints into a Friday night, may induce an urge to place thumbs inside belt loops and dance like a complete twat.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Dream (Black Ice, 2008)
28 years after Back In Black, Brian Johnson was still one hell of a rock’n’roll singer, and he’s never sung more soulfully than on this moody sleeper track from Black Ice. When he joined AC/DC he had some big shoes to fill, but it’s no wonder Bon rated him so highly.
Play Ball (Rock Or Bust, 2014)
There was a lot riding on this song, the lead single from Rock Or Bust, the band’s first album without Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar. But every one of this album’s 11 tracks had been written by Malcolm and Angus, and Play Ball was bang on the money - a swinging rock’n’roll number in the classic AC/DC tradition, with Stevie Young holding down the rhythm just like his uncle Mal before him, and Angus at full throttle on lead.
Rock Or Bust (Rock Or Bust, 2014)
The AC/DC catalogue is full of songs with ‘rock’n’roll’ or simply ‘rock’ in the title - from classic anthems like Let There Be Rock and For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) to deep cuts like Rock ’N’ Roll Singer. The Rock Or Bust album has four such songs - impressive by any standards. And the title track is the best of them. The opening staccato riff stings like a heavyweight’s jab. The groove is irresistible. And the chorus is as life-affirming as it is daft.
Realize (Power Up, 2020)
When AC/DC’s 17th studio album Power Up was released in 2020, Brian Johnson told Classic Rock that he feared he’d never sing for the band again after a loss of hearing forced his withdrawal from the Rock Or Bust tour, on which he’d been replaced by Axl Rose. But after a “miracle” cure, he was back in the saddle - and that famously raspy voice was in full effect on Realize, the song that kicked off Power Up in heroically rowdy fashion.
Shot In The Dark (Power Up, 2020)
As the first taste of Power Up, teased ahead of the album, Shot In The Dark proved emphatically this legendary band still had plenty of juice in it. The return of Brian Johnson, bassist Cliff Williams (lured out of retirement) and drummer Phil Rudd (reinstalled after well-publicised legal problems) led Angus Young to tell Classic Rock: “It’s the line-up of the band that the fans wanted.” And with Shot In The Dark, the best song on the album, they delivered exactly what was required - a new anthem.
Through The Mists Of Time (Power Up, 2020)
On the Rock Or Bust album there was a moving tribute to Malcolm Young, whose ailing health had taken him out of the band: a photo of his and Angus’s guitars, with the words: “In rock we trust.” On Power Up, released in the wake of Malcolm’s death, there was perhaps the most profound song the band has ever recorded - Through The Mists Of Time.
Angus Young wouldn’t go so far as to call this a eulogy for his brother. “It’s just a ride through time,” he said. “A bit of a journey.” But Brian Johnson spoke with more emotion. “That song is just a beautiful story,” he said. “Every time I listen to it, I get goosebumps, thinking of Malcolm.” Whatever the truth, it is an AC/DC song like no other.