“With a different hand at the controls, and an on-form Brian Johnson, it could have been a classic”: how AC/DC made an epic mis-step with Fly On The Wall

A portrait of AC/DC with an inset of the Fly On The Wall album cover
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Back in 1985, on the evidence of Fly On The Wall, AC/DC was a band in stasis. Previous album Flick Of The Switch had been co-produced by the band and engineer Tony Platt, but this follow-up was self-produced (with assistance from engineer Mark Dearnley) over in Switzerland. A nice place to be for sure, but a dangerous place for bands to play at the best of times – witness the arse-up Motörhead made of Iron Fist, for example. It didn’t help that Malcolm and Angus Young’s closeness to the material rendered all sonic objectivity somewhat absent.

In addition, Brian Johnson’s voice was markedly starting to sound weaker: the album throughout is muddied by enormous amounts of heavy reverb to try and add some power to the vocalist’s tortured larynx. Married to a guitar-heavy, vocal-low mix, the result is an LP from which much of the usual sparkle and exuberant forcefulness is sucked – and the often ostensibly heavier blues-based material is noticeably weakened as a direct consequence.

Undeniably talented new drummer Simon Wright also debuts here, replacing Phil Rudd, and chips in with some unremarkable, hammerhead work – a strong basis for things you could argue, but the tempos of the tracks drag: take the stuttering intro to Shake Your Foundations (which doesn’t shake anything, despite peaking in the UK charts at 24), or the opening title track itself. The latter remains, frustratingly, a potentially crackling piece of music, but one that is stymied by the uneasy feeling that the energy is somehow missing. As an opening track after two years away, it didn’t bode well for the rest of the album, stammering when it could have flown free and fast-fretted. With a different hand at the controls, and an on-form Johnson, Fly On The Wall (the song) could and probably should have been an AC/DC classic. 

Which is not something that can be said of the risible First Blood. While the shagging-obsessed playfulness of the band is eyebrow-raisingly tongue in cheek most of the time, the nursery rhyme sleaziness here is just silly – even Angus seems to be going through the motions (though the solo has the sound and feel of Thin Lizzy’s Brian Robertson – not such a bad thing). Maybe you could argue that it’s to ’DC’s credit that they had the balls to commit this to tape at all. Time has not been so forgiving, sadly. 

Likewise, the daft chorus in Danger (it sounds like a public information film) is ultimately forgettable –though the hellraising verses ring more than true. If nothing else, this makes this into an utterly honest track, though it only just broke into the Top 50 on its single release. 

Sink The Pink – complete with an intro heavily influenced by The Who, which is near as dammit repeated on Hell Or High Water – revels in its bludgeoning sexuality, and for once is topped with a good vocal performance atop another classic 12-bar bluesy riff that pounds along. Johnson may as well be completely absent, however, from Hell Of High Water for all the good his vocals are, buried as they are to the point of incomprehensibility in a weak, meandering workout. 

As the album draws to a close with the totally non-ironic, overlong dumbness of Back In Business and the gnarled but generic Send For The Man, the overall feeling is that of relief. It’s not a bad album, but ’DC’s benchmarks by this point had been set so soaringly high that any dip in output would be glaringly evident. The signs were there in Flick Of The Switch, and Fly On The Wall did little to up the ante.

AC/DC - Shake Your Foundations (Official Music Video) - YouTube AC/DC - Shake Your Foundations (Official Music Video) - YouTube
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Though there are many naysayers as to the perceived quality of Fly On The Wall as a whole, when taken as a standalone piece of work, there are more than a few high points to be found. Playing With Girls is a muscular and confident piece of heavy rock featuring some quite brilliant guitar licks (and Johnson’s admirable avowal that he “wants all the women in the world”. Stand Up is the band in anthemic, thunderous, chests-out mode – the head-slamming choruses and shimmering guitar acrobatics from Angus make it a standout moment – and then of course there’s the title track itself. Angus’ soloing has a fluidity about it that suggests there’s plenty more in the tank; the new drummer puts his mark on the sound (though it’s not quite a settled rhythmic unit in many ways). The five-song sister video release (also titled Fly On The Wall) – which placed the group in a sleazy NY club with a set of suitably lairy characters –sums up the aesthetic of the project eloquently. 

With the US rise of the Spandex set imminent, sonically Fly… is ahead of its time on more than one occasion. And in the hands of an über-producer of the calibre of Mutt Lange, the results could well have been very different. Certainly it could have been a lot tighter in terms of arrangement, and with a proper, ballsy mix engineer, the LP would have indeed shaken those foundations. A missed opportunity, then, resulting in what is essentially a quality EP with far too much filler (it’s got a great cover, though). That said, its peak UK chart position of No. 7 and a string of triumphant European dates showed that, as far as the fans were concerned, the band were still a major player, and music critics can go to hell. Which would certainly make the world a far happier place, wouldn’t it?

All told, Fly On The Wall treads very little new ground – even by the band’s standards. Significantly, the best tracks from the LP were resurrected the following year, on 1986’s Who Made Who soundtrack. That particular release would eventually serve as a reminder that when on form, ’DC can be absolutely peerless