As assignments go, this is a toughie. Ranking the 10 songs of AC/DC’s 1980 meisterwerk Back In Black from worst to best is like trying to decide which of your children you’re going to throw out of the lifeboat first. A staggering 50 million album sales since its release would suggest that the general verdict is very much ‘in’ on this hard rock classic. And nobody said the job would be easy. So let’s step lively and get to it…
10) Shake A Leg
One of the album’s few weak moments, particular during a laboured chorus that feels a little tossed off. On an album that’s full of highlights this is perhaps a harsh assessment of a tune that nonetheless rattles along on the back of some well-intentioned riffing. But overall this is the closest Back In Black gets to filler. It’s six out of 10, and the song’s weaknesses are only amplified by the exalted company it keeps.
9) Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution
Something of a curate’s egg, this one. A lot of fans find this slow-boil album closer a real treasure. Others think it’s throwaway. The truth is that it lies somewhere between the two. Your reaction often depends on the mood you’re in when you listen to it. Sometimes it feels like an anthemic call to arms. Sometimes it feels a wee bit hokey. But what we can all agree on, surely, is that it definitely isn’t one of Back In Black’s standout moments.
8) Have A Drink On Me
Some might consider the lyrics to this one in bad taste, given that the band’s previous vocalist Bon Scott had recently met his maker as a result of a serious drinking binge. “I’m trying to walk a straight line/On sour mash and cheap wine,” sings Scott’s replacement Brian Johnson, but you can’t help but be carried along by the song’s sense of alcohol-induced camaraderie. The Young brothers pump out riff after riff to keep things swinging and the tune works by answering only to its own internal logic.
7) Given The Dog A Bone
On any other album this would be a standout track. On Back In Black you might contemplate calling it ‘filler’. The lyrics – extolling the virtues of a woman who makes up in sexual enthusiasm what she lacks in looks – haven’t worn well and the track’s circular riff isn’t one of the album’s standout moments. But this is a harsh appraisal of a song that can still get your feet tapping and your head banging, and that’s worthy of any rock fan’s attention.
6) Let Me Put My Love Into You
As the old adage says, power is nothing without control, and this track provides the aural proof. Again, not a solid gold Back In Black classic, but LMPMLIY still has much to recommend it. This is a track that simmers rather than burns. But its interesting arrangement – quiet verse and chorus aided and abetted by a hot little linking lick – is ear-catching nonetheless. Alongside the album’s title track, this is an intriguing example of AC/DC developing unexpected musical contrasts of light and shade.
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5) What Do You Do For Money Honey
There are few finer things in rock than AC/DC finding a tempo that works, then sitting on it. This acerbic look at a gold digger on the make is one of the finest examples of the ten-legged groove machine in full effect. A deceptively simple riff gives the verses a Spartan feel that only enhances their power. This leads into a pre-chorus directed by Brian’s lung-busting vocal that then flows into a mighty chant-along of a chorus. Add in a pre-solo breakdown and you’ve got all the elements of a solid gold winner.
4) You Shook Me All Night Long
Back In Black producer Mutt Lange had pulled off an impressive trick of the light on AC/DC’s previous album, Highway To Hell. He polished up the band’s sound and made the group commercially hotter, while losing none of their core identity. This song once again highlights Lange’s ability to bring entirely acceptable pop sensibility to a hard rock band as he helps the band deliver a singalong, ‘arms around your best mate’s shoulder’ winner of a tune.
3) Shoot To Thrill
AC/DC’s raw power is shown to its best effect when it’s subordinate to a groove – and Shoot To Thrill has groove by the bucketload. The song’s main staccato riff cleverly slots into a nailed-on mid-tempo rhythm provided by bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, while Brian Johnson adds the icing on the cake with a simply irresistible vocal melody. Angus Young’s solo – wild yet somehow perfectly controlled – drives things up a further notch before Johnson contributes an ear-splitting, almost scat-like climax to proceedings. Sublime.
2) Hells Bells
Has there ever been a song that builds a greater sense of anticipation than Hells Bells? Starting the album with the toll of a 2000-pound cast bronze bell seemed like a deliberately sombre nod to Bon Scott’s premature death. But when Angus fires up that slow and deliberate riff, then locks into a groove that the rest of the band follow seamlessly, the sheer power of the song can’t help but be entirely uplifting. A mighty, meaty vocal from Brian, meanwhile, banishes any thoughts that the new guy might not cut the mustard. Gigantic in every way.
1) Back In Black
The album’s big daddy. As rock songs go, this is close to perfection. Starting with a scratchy little guitar count-in, things go large when the song’s gargantuan riff kicks in. There’s no need for speed when you’ve got this much power, and the band lock in and rock out throughout four minutes and 15 seconds of mid-pocket mayhem. Back In Black has such a groove to it that it almost has some kind of deep spiritual relationship to hip hop. But there’s no need to worry. This is a rock song to end all rock songs.
The 20 Million Club is Classic Rock's new podcast - and the first episode is all about Back In Black.
AC/DC: The epic inside story of Back In Black