It has been a strange trip, this end stage of AC/DC’s long and brilliant career. The biggest shock came first – the sudden retirement of rhythm guitarist and de facto band leader Malcolm Young after he succumbed to dementia. Then came the exit of drummer Phil Rudd, after he was charged with threatening to kill and possession of illegal drugs. And finally, the most surreal turn, when singer Brian Johnson was forced to withdraw from the Rock Or Bust tour – or risk permanent deafness – and was replaced for the remaining shows by Axl Rose.
After all that, what happens next for AC/DC is really anyone’s guess. If Johnson recovers he might come back. If not, the band might carry on with another singer – maybe even Axl if the Guns N’ Roses reunion goes tits-up. Stranger things have happened – but not many. The bottom line is that AC/DC’s future will be decided by Angus Young alone – the band’s sole remaining founder member, their totemic lead guitarist and, in his big brother’s absence, the boss.
It was Angus and Malcolm who held AC/DC together after the death of singer Bon Scott in 1980. And now, so many years later, even without Malcolm around, Angus doesn’t look like he’s about to give up on the band that the brothers formed in Sydney, Australia in 1973, when Angus was just 18.
In all of those years AC/DC’s music hasn’t changed much, and that single-minded vision has served them well, with more than 200 million records sold. The basic blueprint that AC/DC laid down on their early albums with Bon Scott – hard, no-nonsense, riff-driven rock’n’roll – has sustained them all the way through to their latest album, 2014’s Rock Or Bust.
All of AC/DC’s best albums were recorded with Bon, with one exception: Back In Black, Brian Johnson’s debut, released just five months after Bon’s death, went on to become the biggest-selling rock album in history. And if
AC/DC never reached such heights again, there was, on subsequent albums, a succession of classic, loud-and-proud, idiot-savant rock anthems: For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), Thunderstruck, Stiff Upper Lip, Rock N Roll Train…
Whatever the future holds for AC/DC, to millions of fans they will always be the greatest hard rock band of them all. And here, we salute them.
AC/DC’s classic albums
Back In Black - Atlantic, 1980
There was a powerful significance in that title, and that none-more-black cover. Angus described Back In Black as “our tribute to Bon”. But it became so much more than that. The biggest-selling album of AC/DC’s career, and the second-biggest-selling ever (after Michael Jackson’s Thriller) Back In Black is the mother of all comeback records and arguably the greatest hard rock album of all time.
It has so many classic songs: Hells Bells, Shoot To Thrill, You Shook Me All Night Long, Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, that genius title track. New boy Brian Johnson sang the shit out of every one of them. And so, out of tragedy came AC/DC’s greatest triumph.
Powerage - Atlantic, 1978
Keith Richards knows a thing or two about rock’n’roll. So does Joe Perry. And both have cited Powerage as their favourite AC/DC album. It is, simply, AC/DC’s purest rock’n’roll record. “The whole band means it, and you can hear it,” Richards said.
The raw power of Riff Raff and Kicked In The Teeth is an assault on the senses. Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation and Sin City, the two anthems, are all about groove. And in two of the album’s deep cuts, Scott revealed the grim realities of a life lived hard: in Down Payment Blues his memories of being broke, in Gone Shootin’ his sadness for a junkie girlfriend who ‘never made it past the bedroom door’.
AC/DC’s reputation-cementing albums
Highway To Hell - Atlantic, 1979
Highway To Hell was the band’s big breakthrough, their first million-seller. And, sadly, the last record that Bon Scott ever made.
Its success owed much to a change of producer. Replacing the trusted duo of Harry Vanda and George Young (Malcolm and Angus’s elder brother) was Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, who cut The Boomtown Rats’ 1978 No.1 Rat Trap. Shrewdly, Lange made AC/DC sound better, slicker, without cutting off their balls.
The band still sounded badass, notably on the pummeling Walk All Over You and the sinister Night Prowler, but there were huge, radio-friendly choruses in Touch Too Much and the title track.
High Voltage - Atlantic, 1976
The album that introduced AC/DC to the world beyond Australia was not met with universal acclaim. Rolling Stone described High Voltage as an “all-time low” for rock music.
The album was comprised of the best tracks from the band’s first two Australia releases from 1975: the original High Voltage, and T.N.T. Two of those songs have remained in AC/DC’s live set ever since: T.N.T. itself, with its wonderfully yobbish sensibility, and the dirty blues The Jack. And in Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer and It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll) – Bon’s tales of dreams and heartbreak – there is a hunger in his voice that burns.
Let There Be Rock - Atlantic, 1977
Malcolm Young once said of his band’s music: “It’s just loud rock‘n’roll – wham, bam, thank you mam!” No AC/DC album embodies that spirit better than Let There Be Rock.
Released in ’77, when punk rock was at its height, the album had a raw edge, a manic intensity and a streetwise attitude that appealed to punks and headbangers alike.
Recorded mostly live-in-the-studio (Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be is completely out of tune), it included two tracks that would become rock classics: Whole Lotta Rosie, Bon’s tribute to a 19-stone groupie, and the frenetic and profane title track.
If You Want Blood - Atlantic, 1978
The title of this live album spoke volumes. So did the cover: Angus impaled on his own guitar, Bon beside him, eyes glazed. It was symbolic of a band that gave everything they had on stage.
If You Want Blood was recorded on 1978’s Powerage tour, much of the final cut coming from a gig in Glasgow, the Young brothers’ birthplace. “That,” said Angus, “was the magic show.”
The rowdy Glaswegian audience became a part of that magic, chanting Angus’ name during Whole Lotta Rosie. The result was one of the great live albums, rivaling Thin Lizzy’s Live And Dangerous and Motörhead’s No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith.
They’re not quite classics, but they’re still worth exploring
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap - Atlantic, 1976
After delivering their second album for Atlantic Records, the band had a nasty surprise. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – as its title clearly implied – was so rough-and-ready, so unpalatable to mainstream tastes, that the label refused to release it in the US (it came out there only after the band hit big in the 80s).
Atlantic had a point. It was never going to be a hit. But its menacing title track has endured as a live staple. And amid the lewd and crude stuff – the smutty Big Balls, the blistering Rocker, with Bon self-mythologising as a ‘right-out-of-controller’ – there is a glimpse of the man behind the myth in the sorrowful Ride On.
For Those About To Rock - Atlantic, 1981
AC/DC have never topped Back In Black. Nobody has – not even Guns N’ Roses with Appetite For Destruction. The closest they got was with its immediate follow-up, For Those About To Rock We Salute You, their first US No.1.
What elevates this above every AC/DC album that followed is its title track. Named after a Roman gladiator’s motto, its gargantuan riff, heroic chorus and explosive climax made it the band’s biggest and loudest anthem.
The last AC/DC last album produced by Mutt Lange, it wasn’t perfect. But with other great tracks in Let’s Get It Up, Evil Walks and Spellbound, this is seriously heavy shit.
The Razors Edge - Atlantic, 1990
On every AC/DC album of the past 30 years there is at least one classic track, from Who Made Who in ’86 to Rock Or Bust in 2014. The very best of them – better, even, than Rock N Roll Train from Black Ice – is Thunderstruck, the insanely brilliant opening track on The Razors Edge.
With its electrifying intro from Angus, the ominous chanting of ‘Thunder!’, a ball-busting vocal from Johnson and a monster riff laid in at the three-minute mark, Thunderstruck is AC/DC gone totally OTT. And while there was some rubbish on this album, such as Mistress For Christmas, there was also the great, hooky Moneytalks and hard-and-fast stinger Fire Your Guns.
Fly On The Wall - Atlantic, 1985
On Back In Black AC/DC got everything right. But just five years later, with Fly On The Wall, they got everything wrong – horribly so.
For 1983’s Flick Of The Switch, without Mutt Lange as producer the band had taken the DIY route, and it worked. With its stripped-down, bone-dry sound and some meaty material, it’s their most underrated record. But with Fly On The Wall they lost the plot.
As co-producers, Malcolm and Angus somehow made AC/DC sound like a tribute act on a bad night, and as writers all they could muster was one half-decent song, Shake Your Foundations. All told, the album is a disaster.