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AC/DC's Back In Black: the story behind the album

back in black

It was towards the end of February, 1980. Brian Johnson was staying in the spare room of his mum’s house in Newcastle when he heard the news. “I remember picking up the Daily Express and seeing this report that Bon was dead and I was amazed that it was such a tiny little report,” says Johnson, rolling his eyes. “And the press treated it with such contempt, you know, that tone of ‘What did you expect?’” He shakes his head. “It was just fucking awful...”

Malcolm Young, meanwhile, was in London, jamming new ideas for the band’s next album.

“Me and Angus had already written some stuff on the road, but we’d settled in at this place called E-Zee Hire and we were banging a few things out, demo ideas mainly.

“Bon, in fact, had popped down,” he adds, while seated on the sofa of his room at the Mandarin Oriental in Munich. “He was staying in London, too. In reality, we’d actually gone six years without a break by that point, you know, on the road and then straight into the studio - you just did it.

“Bon was a little bit older than us, he probably had a few sore bones, I’m looking back on it of course, that’s just my impression. But we were down at the rehearsal room and he came down to see us and said he was just about ready to go for it, you know. He was starting to recharge his batteries. He was looking really good. So, you know, a couple of days later it was bang! It was a total shock and, obviously, it just took over everything, the whole situation.”

Johnson pulls heavily on his roll up. Johnson, in fact, is always pulling heavily on a roll up. “Then I saw the Melody Maker and it was plastered all over it, as you can imagine, and it was odd because I’d only just got to know the band. A friend of mine had got me into them, and I’d just seen them doing Rock Goes To College on the BBC a few months before. The club band I was playing in at the time was doing Whole Lotta Rosie, too. But I hadn’t even twigged by then that I’d met Bon in Hull years before when he’d supported us.”

In 1973, Scott’s then band, Fraternity, had supported Johnson’s then band, Geordie, on their European tour. According to legend, Bon would later impress upon AC/DC how good a frontman Johnson was.

“It was such a weird thing and it actually affected me more than I thought it would, you know, emotionally,” he adds. “And it changed my life, obviously.”

“We went back over to Australia for the funeral and we came back and we were just sitting around,” says Malcolm. “I think our then manager [Peter Mensch, whose Q Prime organisation would go on to manage Def Leppard, Metallica, Queensrÿche and a host of others in the 80s] even approached us on the plane on the flight back saying he had some singers’ names for us to look at.” A list which allegedly included The Easybeats’ Stevie Wright, Australian Alan Fryer (who was in a band called Heaven) and ex-Heavy Metal Kids singer Gary Holton). But “I just couldn’t be bothered,” admits Malcolm. “I remember waving them away and just thinking it’s not fucking right, you know? So we waited a while and he kept pounding away, but we didn’t really have any interest in the names coming forward.”

He lets out a sigh. “We were back in London, and me and Angus were just sitting around doing virtually nothing, I wasn’t even playing my guitar. And, eventually, we said ‘Let’s just get together for the sake of ourselves, it doesn’t matter but at least we can play our guitars together and try to get through it’. And there was no pressure on to do anything, to be honest. We were just doing it to do something. And that’s how we slowly got back into it.”

Which is how the story started. After the escalating commercial success of Highway To Hell (their first million-selling album) and the sudden, juddering impact of Bon’s death, the band, with the blessing of Bon’s mother Ida, set about rebuilding. Legendary producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange (who would go on to work with Def Leppard, The Cars, and future wife Shania Twain, to name just a few) was already on board after the commercial and critical success of Highway… Surprisingly, however, Lange hadn’t been first choice to produce that album. The band’s label had been pressuring them to work with an outside producer after a string of albums produced by older brother (and former Easybeat) George Young and his production partner Harry Vanda.

“We ended up going in to work with this guy called Eddie Kramer, who’d worked with Hendrix,” Malcolm recalls. “I remember he looked at Bon and said to us, ‘Can your guy sing?’. He was a bit of a prat, to be honest with you. He might have sat behind the knobs for Hendrix, but he’s certainly not Hendrix, I can tell you that much. And then, luckily, our management found ‘Mutt’.”

The band set about album rehearsals in London with Johnson in place - much to his surprise and delight. “I was down there the night before they told us,” the singer recalls. “Angus had this guy called Plug, and I said to him, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’, and he just said, ‘Stay the night and you’ll know in the morning’.

“The next morning they told us, and I’ll always remember coming back down to London for those two weeks of rehearsals and all these people were popping in and out to take a look at us. I was sitting there and I looked up and Ozzy Osbourne was standing there having a look, like. I can appreciate it, they all loved Bon. But I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh Brian, what the fuck have you got yourself into?’. I wasn’t scared though, I was excited, I looked at it like, ‘Well, if I do get fired at least I can tell me mates I was in AC/DC for a couple of weeks and I’d had a nice holiday in London’.”

The band flew out to Compass Point Studios in Nassau less than two weeks later. Landing during a lull in a storm that continued to rage across the island for the next three days. For Johnson, from Newcastle to Nassau wasn’t the journey to paradise he might have first envisioned.

“It was hardly any kind of studio, we were in these little concrete cells, comfy mind, you had a bed and a chair. And this big old black lady ran the whole place. Oh, she was fearsome, she ruled that place with a rod of iron. We had to lock the doors at night because she’d warned us about these Haitians who’d come down at night and rob the place. So she bought us all these six-foot fishing spears to keep at the fucking door! It was a bit of a stretch from Newcastle, I can tell you.

“I remember arriving at night and the customs took the guitars off Mal and Angus and they were like, ‘We’re here to work, we need them’. But they just didn’t like the look of us, and I suddenly realised what it’s like to be in a serious rock band; the shit you have to deal with. And of course, the Bahamas I’d seen in the photographs was all white beaches and when we got there it was pissing it down, there was flooding and all the electricity went out, nay TV.

“We just ended up sitting there for three days until the weather broke and the guitars were cleared. Plug and Keith were down there every day trying to get them back, and eventually I think it was a case of a bit of bribery and then magically we got the guitars back.”

While much of the music and melodies had been written on the road and in rehearsals in London, most of the album’s lyrics would be written in the first instance by Brian and then edited and added to accordingly by the Young brothers, while the band were in Compass Point. Malcolm and Angus (and even George Young) had come up with all the song titles, and had then left it up to Johnson to fill in the gaps.

“He was the new guy and we wanted to make him feel that he was a part of the band,” says Malcolm. “He got straight to it, there was a lot of pressure on him, we had a tight deadline and a producer in ‘Mutt’ who really tried to make an impact with the vocals, so all eyes were on Brian.

“I remember going down there and there were all these storms. Back In Black was our first time there. It was the best place to do that album because there was nothing going on. We’d sit through the night with a couple of bottles of rum with coconut milk in and work. That’s where a lot of the lyric ideas came from.”

The first song the band would record for the album would turn out to be their biggest international hit, You Shook Me All Night Long.

“I remember sitting in my room writing that and I had this blank sheet of paper and this title and I was thinking, ‘Oh, what have I started?’.” says Brian, wrinkling his forehead. “And I’ll tell you something and I’m not scared of being called a sissy and I don’t believe in spirits and that, but something happened to me that night in that room. Something passed through us, and I felt great about it.

“I don’t give a fuck if people believe me or not, but something washed through me and went, it’s alright son, it’s alright. This kind of calm. I’d like to think it was Bon, but I can’t because I’m too cynical and I don’t want people getting carried away. But something happened and I just started writing the song.

“Then when we went in to record it, that was when I realised that Malcolm is pretty much the captain of the AC/DC ship. ‘Mutt’ had said, ‘Brian, it’s got too many words in it’. And Mal kind of looked at him sideways and went, ‘What? Too many words?’. And ‘Mutt’ went, ‘Could you do it this way for me?’. And so he’s got me singing it like, ‘She was a fast machine’ [significant pause, clicks his fingers in an almost demure swing beat] ‘she kept her motor clean’ [ditto] ‘she had the side to side’ [once more] ‘telling me no lies…’”

At this point he’s doubled up with laughter. He straightens himself up and does his best to look grim. “Then Mal came in and heard it and went kinda ballistic. He was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’ve taken out the rock and roll!’. And I remember we took it up to the house that night, and we had this little music box and we put it on. I was thinking ‘That’s fucking good’ - and that was even before the lead had been put on.”

Lange, of course, would also produce the follow-up album, For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), which would present the band with another commercial smash (though not quite on the scale of Back In Black), but it would be his last with the band.

“It was actually time to call it a day really and ‘Mutt’ was a big part of that,” says Malcolm. “Highway… was always his favourite album even though Back… was the big seller, and we’d done that album in about six weeks all told. But things had moved on when we came to do Back… The recording process was changing, and Mutt was right at the forefront of that.

“The whole thing was getting longer and longer and For Those About To Rock… had been such a hassle, moving from studio to studio, we’d been all over the fucking shop.” Lange eventually hired a recording mobile from England to record in Paris. “By the time we got to play the songs all the freshness had gone and it’s hard enough in the studio for us as it is, we’re a band that ultimately wants to be on stage…”

“Aye, he’s very meticulous.” agrees Brian, rolling papers paused at his lips. “I think that’s part of the reason that Mal and Angus wanted to get away from him. Admittedly, as a singer, it’s great to hear the results he gets out of you, but fucking hell,” he groans.

“It was like, ‘Again, Brian, again - hold on, you sang that note too long so there’s no room for a breath’. He wouldn’t let anything go past him. He had this thing where he didn’t want people to listen to the album down the road and say there’s no way someone could sing that, they’ve dropped that in, even the breaths had to be in the right place. And you cannot knock a man for that, but he drove me nuts. I’d be sitting there going, ‘Arrggghh!’.

“It’s weird but my fond memories of that album are when ‘Mutt’ went, ‘Right, you’re done, off you go, thank you’. And I’d been working every day and I was little bit suspicious by then and I was going, ‘Can’t be, there must be something else’. And I walked out of there and it was about three in the afternoon, and it was a beautiful sunny day and I went down to where the huts were and I sat on this seawall and I got a ciggie out and sat there among the trees, and I was so happy that I’d done it. But I hadn’t really heard one song, I’d go in do a couple of verses, pop back and do a chorus. That’s the way ‘Mutt’ keeps you interested, you know.

“I got back to Newcastle and it was with great trepidation that I opened up the album when they finally sent me a copy,” recalls Johnson. “I put it on and I was going, ‘Jesus Christ, I hope I’m not shit’; I couldn’t even hear the songs I was so nervous. And everyone in Newcastle - actually, everyone in the world - knew it was coming out.”

Although all of the band would later admit to frustrations with working with the meticulous producer, none disputed that his role was pivotal. Johnson is especially grateful for his work on Hells Bells.

“I could not find a start for that song, how do you start a song called Hells Bells? You know, what do you write about? Anyway, ‘Mutt’ knew I was sitting on me tod and the weather was shite and there was this huge clap of thunder across the sky, and Mutt came in and went, ‘I’ve got an idea for you, Brian, rolling thunder, pouring rain…’, and I went ‘Fucking hell!’ He mimics jotting the lines down on a pad. “And then it was ‘Coming on like a hurricane,’ because one was actually coming on. And he just went, ‘Yeah, there you go,’ and he disappeared. I was just sitting there under this little light I had and he’d just come in and done that and I was like, fuck me, the opening lyric, there it is…”

“That title was one of the ones we’d dedicated to Bon, in light of the Highway To Hell album, you know?” says Malcolm. “That and Back In Black was our sort of tribute. The oldest title on there was one that George had come up with when we were working on Powerage - What Do You Do For Money Honey, which we all chipped in on.”

Emotional adversity, power cuts and Haitians who had to be fended off with fishing spears aside, when the band talk 20 years on about the making of Back In Black, it’s with warmth and a certain fondness. Though memories might have been padded by a multi-million selling album that made them one of the biggest bands in the world, Johnson’s only real complaint concern the high notes on Shake A Leg (“Oh, that was fucking way up, some of those notes will never be heard by man again”.) While Malcolm manages a shudder when you draw his attention to Lange’s brief reworking of You Shook Me…, he says that the original version, along with Shoot To Thrill, was the easiest to put down in the studio. For Johnson it was Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.

“I didn’t know what to do at the start so you can hear me there having a fag at the beginning. Mal just said to go with it so I put my headphones on, put a tab in my mouth and just took a breath.”

He starts to repeat the lyrics loudly, head tilted slightly back: “‘All you middle men throw away your fancy cars…’. For some reason middle men were in the news at the time, the top guys weren’t getting the blame and the workforce weren’t getting it either, it was the middle men who were this grey area. I must have picked up on it and it just went from there.”

One of the many rumours which still surround the making of Back In Black are that some of the lyrics had actually been penned by Bon Scott prior to his death.

The title of Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution was a line, according to an ex-girlfriend, that Bon had used in an argument with his landlord. A suggestion Malcolm Young is swift to refute.

“Nah, that was one that Angus came up with,” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand. “We were in London at the time and there were all those problems with the old Marquee Club because it was in a built-up area and there was this whole thing about noise pollution in the news, the environmental health thing that you couldn’t have your stereo up loud after 11 at night, it all came from that.”

But what about the more serious charge that Bon was never credited for the lyrics he allegedly wrote? That he rehearsed the album with the band and that (and this one’s out there with JFK conspiracy theorists everywhere) there is an earlier, rough demo copy of Back In Black hidden away somewhere that features Bon on vocals.

“Bollocks,” says Johnson simply when I put it to him. “That’s a load of bollocks. Someone said to me the other day that Bon’s bigger in death than he was in life, which I don’t agree with. But legends do grow like years on the age of your birthday and those stories are great to tell to younger lads at the bar. Once I thought that the web would help clear all this shit up, but it’s just added to it. I can tell you that Bon hadn’t even gone into the studio to even rehearse with the lads, he was getting ready to work on the lyrics when he died.”

Malcolm Young is equally adamant.

“That is complete bollocks, I wish we had rehearsed the album with Bon,” he says. “Think about it, if we had an album with Bon on it then that would have gone out, obviously. It’d be a total fucking disaster to sit on that, know what I mean? It’s complete rubbish.

“Again, I wish he had written some of the lyrics. You can’t compete with Bon’s lyrics, he was born with this real talent for that. I remember the critics at the time having a go that the lyrics weren’t as good as Bon’s…”

Former tour manager Ian Jeffrey has also claimed that he still has a folder of Scott’s lyrics for 15 songs that were written for Back In Black, though he’s yet to produce anything to back the claim up.

“The only thing he ever gave me was a note with some scribblings of Bon’s and that was within a few days of his death,” says Malcolm. “It was something quite personal, and he didn’t want to hand it to Bon’s parents at the time. There were a couple of little lyrics on there but there was nothing with a title or that would give you any idea of where his head was at the time.

“But I kept that and I often wonder if I should send them back to Bon’s mum…” He trails off momentarily. “There wasn’t even enough to build up into something that would stand up to Bon’s reputation.” In 1994, Australian journalist Clinton Walker published his biography – Highway To Hell: The Life And Times Of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott. A revelatory read that painted Malcolm and Angus as manipulative ogres, it enshrined Bon’s memory and rumoured in its epilogue that Brian Johnson had been fired from the band and then later reinstated. But while Walker had interviewed Bon’s friends and family, crucially he never spoke to Malcolm or Angus.

“I can tell you why we never had any time for him,” explains Malcolm. “A few years after Bon died he approached us – I remember that film La Bamba [the Ritchie Valens biopic] was big at the time – and they wanted to make a film like that about Bon. They didn’t even have a script and we were like, ‘Fuck this’. We couldn’t stop him using our songs through publishing, but we certainly weren’t going to help them put it out.

“So he goes off to a publisher and gets this advance on the premise that there’s this whole thing about a cover-up over Bon’s death, and he goes up with something to make his book happen I guess, and that’s what he came up with.”

There is still one more story about Back In Black to tell you about and, remarkably, this time it’s a true one.

“When the title track, Back In Black, was finished, mixed and everyone knew what was going on with that track, ‘Mutt’ could never see the point to it,” says Johnson. “He said, ‘I don’t get it, anything about it, the music, the lyrics, I just don’t see it at all, if only I could even get to like it’,” says Malcolm, still obviously amused by the memory.

“I don’t think he could figure it out because it was new, that kind of soul meets rock’n’roll thing. The phrasing on it came from jazz, from scat singing. But at that time Mutt just couldn’t see it at all, where we were coming from.”

Around 50 million sales later, presumably he no longer has that difficulty…

Facts In Black

Back In Black was the eighth AC/DC album and was recorded over six weeks at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas during April and May 1980.

● The band played their first gig with Brian Johnson on July 1, 1980, in Namur, Belgium.

● The album was originally released in America on July 25, 1980; in Britain and Europe on July 31; and finally in Australia on August 11.

● During the album’s course, AC/DC shot a total of six promotional videos: Back In Black, Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, Hell’s Bells, You Shook Me All Night Long, Let Me Put Love Into You and Shoot To Thrill.

● But only four singles were released from it: You Shook Me All Night Long, Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, Hells Bells and Back In Black.

● The remastered version of the album has whitened in the AC/DC logo on the cover; the original has their name in outline only.

● The album has now sold over 50 million copies worldwide.

● On release it topped the UK charts for two weeks, reached No.4 in America and stayed in the Top 10 for over five months. It went to No.2 in Australia.

● It did so well in America that Atlantic, their US record company, finally released their Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap album (which they’d originally passed on), which then proceeded to top Back In Black by reaching No.3, in May 1981.

● Angus Young on the riff to the album’s title track: “Malcolm had that riff for about three weeks. He came in one night and said, ‘You got your cassette here? Can I put this down? It’s been driving me mad. I won’t be getting any sleep until I put it on cassette.’ He sat down and played it all. The funniest thing is he said to me, ‘What do you think? I don’t know if it’s crap or not.’”

● The success of the album was cemented when the band were asked to headline the second Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock Festival in August 1981. (They would headline it twice more, in 84 and 91)

● The album has a phenomenal legacy. In 1999 they were asked by MTV to perform with Eminem at their prestigious annual Awards Ceremony as he rapped My Name Is over the Back In Black riff. The band declined because, as Malcolm put it, “That shows you how out of touch some people are.” There is, however, a version of the song incorporating the riff available via the net.

● The band was also approached by the Beastie Boys about using a sample of Back In Black for one of their songs. Malcolm again: “We thought about that, he had all the right reasons, but we’ve got a general rule and we said no. Why don’t they just write their own samples?”

● To this day, AC/DC have never topped the album commercially (or, according to their staunchest critics, creatively). Surprisingly perhaps, Brian Johnson agrees, saying: “I think everybody gets one album and if you do then you’re fucking lucky, it was just the right circumstances, everything was perfect for something to happen and it happened.”

Malcolm Young: “With Bon’s death we wanted to put everything down right, we were really focused on that album and it turned out to be timeless and I think it’ll stay that way. I think maybe AC/DC had come to a peak at that point.”

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock issue 22

AC/DC: the epic struggle behind For Those About To Rock