A few days ago, I posted the following message on Facebook: “This might sound like a trick question. It is not. What is the best album AC/DC have made with Brian Johnson?”
The first person to answer was Andy Copping, Senior Vice President of Music at Live Nation UK, and the bloke who organizes the Download festival. With only weeks to go until Download, you’d think that Coppo would have more important things to do than dick around on Facebook, but apparently not. “There is simply no substitute,” he said. “Back In Black.”
Next up was Classic Rock’s own Jerry Ewing, who listed every album AC/DC have made with Johnson, in order of merit. Back In Black was first; 1985’s Fly On The Wall last. And so the same answer was repeated over and over: by various Classic Rock writers, musicians and friends. Only one person was not completely on-message – Paradise Lost guitarist Aaron Aedy. But this was because he couldn’t choose between Back In Black and its 1981 follow-up For Those About To Rock We Salute You.
The verdict was unanimous: Back In Black is far and away the best album AC/DC have made with Brian Johnson. For many – this writer included – the best album ever made, period. It’s also the second biggest selling album of all time, and of course, what it represented on a human level was something truly extraordinary: the rebirth of a great rock’n’roll band following the death of singer Bon Scott and the arrival of Johnson in his place.
But if Back In Black is the absolute peak of what AC/DC have achieved with Brian Johnson, there is a lot of great music they’ve made since then. And that’s what we’re focusing on here. If we simply picked the ten greatest songs from Brian’s 35 years in AC/DC, then at least half of them would be from that one album: Hells Bells, Shoot To Thrill, You Shook Me All Night Long, Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution and Back In Black itself. But really, that’s too easy; too predictable. So here, instead, is the best of the rest. Ten great tracks recorded between 1981 and 2014: some of them established AC/DC classics, others known only to genuine DC connoisseurs…
10. Rock Or Bust (2014)
If ever a picture spoke a thousand words, it’s the photo inside AC/DC’s latest album. Beneath the words ‘In Rock We Trust’, a line from the title song Rock Or Bust, there is a shot of two guitars resting against amp stacks: guitars belonging to Angus and Malcolm Young. For a band not known for public displays of emotion, a band that closed its ranks following the death of Bon Scott, this was a heartfelt tribute to the man who had done so much to define the AC/DC sound before he was forced into retirement, suffering from dementia. And yet, for all the emotions in play, this album was, in every other respect, business as usual for AC/DC. The title track is an affirmation. Its riff is vintage DC. Phil Rudd – now also gone, for reasons of his own making – kicks it along as only he can. And Brian Johnson, of course, sings his ass off. 35 years after Back In Black, Johnson and AC/DC have still got it.
9. Let’s Get It Up (1981)
So many years down the line, only one song from the 1981 album For Those About To Rock has survived in AC/DC’s live set – the monolithic title track. But there are many other great songs on this album: Evil Walks, with its monstrously heavy and menacing opening; C.O.D. with its PMRC-baiting joke, “Care of the Devil”; Snowballed, a flat-out blaster; and Let’s Get It Up, a swaggering boogie with a king-sized hook and a lyric inspired by, well, what most AC/DC songs are inspired by. As Johnson said when the song was released as a single: “It’s filth. Pure filth. We’re a filthy band.”
8. Guns For Hire (1983)
No AC/DC album is as underrated as 1983’s Flick Of The Switch. It got a five-star review in Sounds, but over time it has been pretty much forgotten. It deserves better. Nobody in their right mind would call this a classic – and the production, by the band, is nowhere near as good as what ‘Mutt’ Lange achieved on their three previous albums – but there are some great songs on this album, and Guns For Hire is the best. The intro is brilliant: staccato bursts of guitar from Angus Young stuttering into a kick-ass riff. The lyrics are full of cheeky, gunslinger-themed innuendo: “Quick draw, on the floor…” And the chorus is the perfect no-brainer: “My gun’s for hire/Shoot you with desire.”
7. Who Made Who (1986)
Legendary horror author Stephen King is also a major rock fan, and for the 1986 movie Maximum Overdrive, written and directed by King, he got his favourite band to do the soundtrack album – released with the title Who Made Who. AC/DC hadn’t lost the plot and gone all artsy fartsy. This was not a movie score or anything fancy like that: simply, a collection of AC/DC standards, plus three brand new tracks. And while two of those tracks were unremarkable – instrumentals that sounded like unfinished demos – the title track was a doozy. It was also a top 20 hit in the UK.
6. Hard As A Rock (1995)
On The Cult’s 1987 album Electric, producer Rick Rubin did a great job of transforming the darlings of goth into a balls-out heavy metal band: a revolution set out on the album’s opening track Wild Flower, with a riff lifted straight from AC/DC’s early-70s song Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer. A decade later, Rubin got to work with the real thing, producing AC/DC’s 1995 album Ballbreaker, which also marked the return of drummer Phil Rudd after a 12-year absence. It was the band’s best record since For Those About To Rock, and one of the standout tracks was Hard As A Rock – a glorious, dumb-by-design anthem in which an excitable Brian Johnson delivered the immortal line: “Her hot potatoes/Will elevate ya.”
5. Stiff Upper Lip (2000)
In 2000, when the famous American shock-jock Howard Stern first played the title track from the new AC/DC album, he could barely contain his excitement. What he loved most of all was a line in the intro that Brian Johnson spoke in a low growl. Stern quoted this line – “I was born with a stiff” – and proclaimed, “These guys are fucking geniuses!” What was also evident in this song was AC/DC’s genius for heavy boogie. Stiff Upper Lip was the band’s funkiest song since 1978’s Gone Shootin’.
4. Boogie Man (1995)
Whenever Angus Young has been asked about the music he listens to, the answer is always is the same. Old rock ’n’ roll and blues: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. The influence of the blues seeped into AC/DC’s early albums with Bon Scott, on classic songs such as The Jack, Ride On and Night Prowler. And the same was true of Boogie Man, a deep cut from Ballbreaker on which Brian proved that he too could sing the blues. To borrow a phrase from Classic Rock writer Mick Wall, Boogie Man is a song that swings like a hanged man’s boots.
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3. Rock’N’Roll Train (2008)
There is a long tradition of landmark AC/DC songs with ‘rock’ or ‘rock ’n’ roll’ in the title, or variations on said theme. It begins in 1975 with It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll), and continues through Rocker, Let There Be Rock, Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation, Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, For Those About To Rock and on to Rock Or Bust. And right up there with the best of them is Rock N Roll Train. From 2008’s Black Ice – the album that sadly turned out to be the last the band would make with Malcolm Young – Rock N Roll Train has the kind of killer riff on which Mal built his reputation as the best rhythm guitarist of his generation. The chorus is a monster. There’s also a great, fluid solo from Angus. And when the band played this song as the opener on the Black Ice tour, the reaction from the audience was equal to when other bands play their biggest hit at the end of their set – as proved in this clip from the official DVD Live At River Plate, when Brian gives a two-fisted salute to the fans as they go nuts.
2. Thunderstruck (1991)
One of the epic tracks in the AC/DC catalogue is Thunderstruck, the gonzoid opening salvo from the 1991 album The Razors Edge, and a song built for stadiums. The intro has Angus playing at lightning speed: he said recently that he’ll retire when he can no longer play it. The chant of “Thunder!” has an echo of Bon-era yob-rock bruiser T.N.T. Brian Johnson’s singing is so ball-tighteningly high, it’s no wonder than Angus once described him as sounding like a guy who’s just had a truck dropped on his foot. And when the main riff kicks in, at around three minutes, it’s a moment of pure exhilaration.
1. For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) (1981)
The title track from the follow-up to Back In Black has ended up becoming the mother of all AC/DC anthems. With a title based on the warrior code of Roman gladiators – ‘For those about to die, we salute you’ – the song begins at a slow march before speeding up to a frenzied climax amid deafening cannon fire. On stage, with prop cannons and eardrum-shaking pyrotechnics, this only a singer of Brian Johnson’s power could make himself heard. And for decades now, For Those About To Rock has remained immovable as the final song in every AC/DC performance.