AC/DC: Back In Black - Album Of The Week Club review

As one of our reviewers says, "AC/DC may not have reinvented the wheel here, but they may have produced the best f**king wheel to ever exist"

AC/DC - Black In Black album cover
(Image: © Atlantic Records)

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AC/DC - Black In Black

AC/DC - Black In Black album cover

(Image credit: Atlantic Records)

Hells Bells
Shoot to Thrill
What Do You Do for Money Honey
Given the Dog a Bone
Let Me Put My Love into You
Back in Black
You Shook Me All Night Long
Have a Drink on Me
Shake a Leg
Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution

After the escalating commercial success of Highway To Hell (their first million-selling album) and the sudden, juddering impact of Bon Scott's death, AC/DC – with the blessing of Bon’s mother Ida – set about rebuilding. 

The band set about album rehearsals in London with new singer Brian Johnson in place - much to his surprise and delight. “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. 

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.

Former AC/DC tour manager Ian Jeffrey has claimed that he still has a folder of Bon 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,” said 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."

Back In Black was released on July 21, 1980, five months and one day after Bon Scott had died. Within two weeks it topped the UK chart. And in the US, after a slow start, the album was certified platinum in October, when it began an incredible 13-month residency in the Billboard Top 10.

The album not only resurrected AC/DC, it took them to a new level, elevating the band to superstar status and transforming Brian Johnson from has-been to hero.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in July 1980

  • Closer - Joy Division
  • Crocodiles - Echo & the Bunnymen
  • Full Moon - Charlie Daniels Band
  • Live Seventy Nine - Hawkwind
  • Chicago XIV - Chicago
  • Voices - Hall & Oates
  • Live At Last - Black Sabbath
  • Playing for Keeps - Eddie Money

What they said...

"While the accidental death of singer Bon Scott last February was undoubtedly a big blow to AC/DC, Scott’s untimely demise seems to have lit a roaring fire under this Australian band. Back in Black is not only the best of AC/DC’s six American albums, it’s the apex of heavy-metal art: the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre. In other words, Back in Black kicks like a mutha." (Rolling Stone)

"Fantasy 'macho' songs? Yeah. Token slower song? Two? My God. Song incorporating compulsory 'all night long' lyric? Okay. All songs sound sufficiently alike? Yes indeed. Well, that all seems to be there. Yes, it's yet another triumph for
lowest common denominator headbanging – the new thoroughly predictable,
thoroughly dreadful AC/DC album." (Smash Hits)

"Replacing Aerosmith as primitives of choice among admirers of heavy machinery, these Aussies are a little too archetypal for my tastes. Angus Young does come up with killer riffs, though not as consistently as a refined person like myself might hope, and fresh recruit Brian Johnson sings like there's a cattle prod at his scrotum, just the thing for fans who can't decide whether their newfound testosterone is agony or ecstasy." (Robert Christgau

What you said...

Philip Qvist: Right, with sales of over 50 million, let's get to the obvious questions.

Is this the best Rock record of all time? No, but it still a great album - the sales justify it.

Is it AC/DC's best record? Open to debate; many people I know love it - and think it is their best. For me, Let There Be Rock (my favourite album by them), Powerage and Highway To Hell are better albums, but only just. One thing is for sure, subsequent releases have never even come close to the quality of Back In Black.

Is this album a triumph? Absolutely; to lose their charismatic singer in the manner that they did, and then to come up with a record like this, and within seven months of Bon's death, is nothing short of miraculous. An utter triumph for sure.

Shake a Leg is probably the "weakest" track, You Shook Me All Night Long is in the overplayed category, but it doesn't diminish the quality of Back In Black; while the title track, Hells Bells, Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution and Shoot to Thrill are all quality songs.

And a special mention must go to Brian Johnson; he was in an unenviable position but he delivered - in spades.

Not quite a 10/10 record but close enough. Do you have a 9.5 option for this album?

A Rock Classic for sure.

Wade Babineau: A few friends and I have discussed this one over the years. We've all come to the agreement that Back In Black is one of AC/DC's finest moments. We've often wondered how this album would have developed if Bon was still alive. We all know that some of Bon's lyric ideas made their way into the album. Truly you could hear Bon singing a song like Let Me Put My Love Into You, Have A Drink On Me or Giving the Dog A Bone

They were headed to mega success with Highway To Hell and given that they would have worked with Mutt Lange again on this one, I think it would have still been a stellar album with Bon. However one could argue that his death and rally around by band members to salute their fallen leader spurred them on even more. Easily the best album of the Brian Johnson era. I would agree that Shake A Leg is not my favourite on the album, but it still gets played.

Robert Dunn: I was born and brought up near, and went to school in, Kirriemuir which was Bon Scott's home town until his family emigrated to Australia, so preferring the albums he sang on is almost compulsory. 

For years, my copy of this was a cassette 'back up' of my Latin teacher's vinyl copy, but even then you could see the difference Mutt Lange was making to the AC/DC sound. The change to a more commercial sound had already started on Highway To Hell, so how much of a departure was Back In Black? If you listen to the songs, not much. The awesome rhythm section driving everything on allowing Angus to riff and solo, the song structure, all these are still firmly in place. 

I believe that Angus reined it in a bit, and there is some real emotion in some of his solos (check out Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution), but this is still prime AC/DC. The main difference is of course the introduction of Brian Johnson, apparently endorsed by Bon Scott after seeing Geordie play a gig. To me, he doesn't really fill Bon Scott's shoes but puts them respectfully to one side and plants his own firmly in the band. He does a great job, at short notice, but this was to be the last AC/DC album I bought as I just don't like his voice that much. 

When Scott sang Down Payment Blues or Ride On, you just knew that he had been down there and it felt authentic, with Johnson it felt like just another song. For me, Bon Scott's authenticity, ear for a melody and phrasing set him apart, but there is no denying that this album straddles that difficult line between 'proper' rock and commercially accessible rock and much of the credit for that must go to Brian Johnson. A great album full of great songs, but not their greatest.

Adam Ranger: This is one of the greatest rock records.of all time. Highway to Hell
– another classic – is released, then Bon Scott dies. How would AC/DC recover from that? Back In Black is the answer. From that opening riff you know this is great. Rock And Roll Aint Noise Pollution became an anthem for me in 1980/81. It has the sleaze/sexual tongue in cheek of bon Scott too. Let me put my love into you babe...

The album is a great retort to a disaster and one, which, like Highway To Hell, I turn to regularly.

Elad Winberg: Maybe my favourite hard rock album ever! It's just like a Greatest Hits compilation of AC/DC, since every song is just larger than life, and it has Hells Bells, which is probably my favourite song by them.

Despite preferring Bon Scott, I really like everything they did with Brian up until Flick Of The Switch, and Back In Black stands out as their masterpiece, even though Powerage and Highway To Hell are not too far behind.

Dave Ferris: There's a scene in Wayne's World 1 or 2 where Wayne's girlfriend shows him a copy of Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive! and Wayne's response is "Are you kidding? ....they used to give away copies of this album with boxes of Tide in the 70's"

Well, the same could be said about 1980's Back in Black. Much has been said about this album. 40 years ago, I was 13 years old and (officially) a teenager. As a young growing drummer, I became faster and more complex with drum fills and playing styles and I shrugged off the playing style of AC/DC as simple and stupid. I attended a multitude of parties in college in the 80's that had Back in Black blasting as the soundtrack of the party. 

Yet again, it was popular and the ever-growing non-conformist in me made yet another excuse not to like it... (because everybody else did). My boss at the independent record store I worked at in college once told me "You may not like AC/DC. But, they (or the sales of the band) help keep the lights on!" 

Over the years, I've come to embrace this album not only as a great rock album. But, the simplicity of Phil Rudd's drumming is a testimony of keeping the playing simple and making the song move is what makes people move and dance. When I first starting giving drum lessons to my son. I had him play along to Back In Black because it's a great place to start. As a drummer, isn't that what matters?

Jay Turner: This was their last great album! It was just as great as all of the albums that came before it and things started getting repetitive and homogenised from then on. I love Brian's vocals on this one. The slight style change didn't much bother me, as Highway To Hell was a change in this direction. For me it was another home run for the band, and a prelude to many disappointing albums to come.

Aaron J. Hardek: Not much to review here other to say it may be the most solid record in the history of man. From the first note to the last, a continuous storm of great riff after great riff. Solid, unshakable rhythm section. Amazing vocals (even though I'm partial to Bon). They may not have reinvented the wheel here but they may just have produced the best fucking wheel to ever exist. 

If aliens came down and asked to be introduced to rock'n'roll, this is the first platter that should be spun. And this is coming from someone that's not even a huge AC/DC fan. Like em a lot, yeah, but they're probably about 20th or so on my personal list. Granted if I was making a playlist for a newcomer to rock, this album tops the list.

Alan Duggan: The Day AC/DC died in my book. Brian Johnson was the singer who couldn't sing.

James Last: Is it a great album? Absolutely! Is it superior to all other albums in the band's catalogue? Some would argue yes, others would argue no. I'm in the latter camp, but I would agree that it, along with Highway To Hell (which I prefer), serves as the best introduction to AC/DC, it's arguably the most accessible/catchiest.

John Davidson: There's really not much more to be said about Back in Black.

It is probably the best "comeback" album of all time (though Heaven and Hell is a contender).

It's not hard to envisage the ghost of Bon Scott lingering around the studio smiling at the lyrics and nodding along to the riffs and rhythms, as AC/DC laid down a third album in a row of masterclass level hard driven blues based rock.

Musically there's not really a bad song on the album with Malcolm and Angus riffing and soloing in their inimitable style and the drum and bass providing that steady groove.

Brian has a slightly throaty, raspier style than Bon, bit it still fits the music wonderfully - you can see immediately why they hired him.

Hells Bells still give me chills. Back In Black remains a timeless classic rock song and the music on Let Me Put My Love In To You is among the best they ever wrote.

With the benefit of 40 years of personal growth I do find the lyrics a bit naff at times, Let Me Put My Love In To You not even being the worst offender.

My poor old Mum didn't usually complain about me playing my music but she drew the line at Givin' The Dog A Bone, and in fairness I can see why.

You Shook Me All Night Long, What Do You Do For Money and Shoot To Thrill hit the spot in exactly the way they are intended to, and while Shake A Leg alongside Givin' is definitely an album track, there's no real filler .

Have A Drink On Me is as close to a formal epitaph for Bon as AC/DC would ever get and Rock And Roll Aint Noise Pollution - indeed the whole album - is a bold statement of intent. The show goes on, bawdy lyrics and all.

On a par with Highway To Hell, though Powerage is their best by a small margin . 9/10.

Paul Hutchings: Whilst I love Bon era more and I think that they hold up better than most of the Brian era stuff, Back In Black is a masterful piece of work from a band who were still reeling. If you were around when it came out, then it will mean a huge amount. The tolling of the bell as Hells Bells kicks things off still sends shivers down the spine. The title track crunches hard and is one of those universally popular songs that crosses genres, ages groups and cultures. It's also one of the best albums to drive to. Ever. Still played on a regular basis.

Troy Smith: The Monster. Bon’s death took the brothers Young to not just another planet but a whole new universe on spaceship Lange. More hard rock anthems than you can poke an SG at! I am a huge fan and much prefer AC/DC with Bon, but this album is so awesome it’s simply undeniable. 10/10.

Jonathan Novajosky: Before I listened to this, I was worried I would have a little fatigue. We’ve all heard these hits a million times. But it’s been a long time since I touched this album for some reason, and I’m glad to say I sort of rediscovered how much I liked it. I could go without Hell Bells, but Shoot to Thrill is still one of my favourites, and You Shook Me All Night Long is too fun not to love.

Even a few of the deep cuts are solid, especially Have a Drink On Me. There isn’t much to say about Back In Black that hasn’t been said plenty of times. It’s one of the most iconic rock albums ever. I may not love a lot of the other AC/DC albums, but Back In Black deserves a spot in any rock fan’s playlist rotation at any time. 9/10

Brian Carr: (Forgive me if I repeat anything from my Powerage review.)

Unlike the Classic Rock folks on the wonderful 20 Million Club podcast, by the age of eight when Back In Black was released, I was already familiar with AC/DC (at least, as much as an eight year old can be). My uncle, the coolest guy in the world to my young eyes, played bass in cover bands and he would handle lead vocals on their versions of Bon-led AC/DC tracks (the story went that one of their bands had to apologise after playing The Jack at a school talent show). He had High Voltage and Powerage on vinyl as well as Let There Be Rock, which mesmerised me with the zombie looking fans on the cover leaning out over the front of the stage. 

My mom also loved the band, so Back In Black hit our household on 8-track at some point between 1980 and 1982. I remember pulling the mattress onto the floor with my brothers for a makeshift stage and lip syncing to the tunes (complete with air guitar!). The entire album is ingrained and when I revisited it recently for the podcast, it is still absolutely brilliant. I know exponentially more about music 40 years later and still marvel at the brilliance. The songs, the riffs, the production, the backstory, even the voice - Back In Black is an album perfectly created for the masses, even people that aren’t into hard rock. That’s the reason why it has sold 50 million.

Here’s my bottom line: The Beatles aren’t my favourite band, but I believe they are the greatest band ever. Jimi Hendrix isn’t my favourite guitar player, but I believe he is the greatest rock guitarist. Back In Black is not my favourite AC/DC album, but I believe it is their best. Favourites are about personal tastes; my picks for the greatest are simply for sheer influence on the world.

Bill Griffin: I became familiar with AC/DC through the Powerage album (Rock 'n' Roll Damnation got pretty significant airplay on Sacramento FM) and was really looking forward to seeing them live when they appeared at a Day On The Green in 1979. Unfortunately, they bored me to tears and I stopped listening to them for some time even though I was highly appreciative of being able to see them before Bon passed away.

Eventually though, I simply couldn't deny the absolute brilliance of this album. There isn't even one second of filler here and it has to be in every rock fan's top 10 list.

Chris Wigmore: I’ve heard of this album, it’s quite obscure, I’m not sure if it sold very well. Which is a shame because it actually sounds quite good. The production is faultless, and the songs are a blast. They seem somewhat obsessed with strippers and blowjobs, so I’m guessing they’re quite young. Opener Hells Bells seems to be about something different but the rest of the songs are about boning women. 

The guitarist is very good, great vibrato. I heard a previous album of theirs a few years back and they must have had a different singer because I could make out the words and they seemed more subtle. This singer sounds like he’s thumbed his testicles up into his arsehole. 

A few good lyrics though ‘forget about the check we’ll get hell to pay’ ‘she’s got the power of Union she only strikes when it’s hot’ and ‘let me cut your cake with my knife’ are the work of genius. I think it’s a solid album, I wonder what became of them?

Roland Bearne: What can one possibly say about this that hasn't been said a million times?! Massive record, world beating, discussed to death, so possibly not the greatest conversation starter! I can only relate my personal experience with it.

The anticipation surrounding its release was spine tingling, the apprehension as the needle hit the vinyl, the joy of the Bell, "that" riff then.... will he, won't he? Yes, whoop, holler, jumpy dancing, he nailed it. The King is dead, Long live the King! Whether it's your bag or not, it's an absolute 24 carat slab of rock'n'roll greatness. Simples.

Hai Kixmiller: Don't call it a come-back! I've read a lot of articles which have called AC/DC's Back In Black album the greatest come-back album of all time. For a band to have a come-back, wouldn't they have had to breakup, retire, or just stopped making music altogether? A change of band members doesn't constitute a come-back does it?

Whatever you call it, one can not deny the greatness that is Back In Black. A eulogy, a tribute, a collection of raucous and bawdy rock n' roll?! However you spin it, in 1980, Back In Black grabbed the world by the scruff of the neck and has been shaking us all night long ever since.

The eulogy. Before there's even one guitar note, or one utterance of voice, four ominous bell chimes are the first thing the listener hears. The bell will toll nine more times and then fades out as the haunting melody of the song builds into a toe tapping, head nodding rock song. 

Malcolm Young has said that this entire album was dedicated to the memory of Bon Scott. From the plain black album cover design to the tolling of the church bells to the contents and contexts of the lyrics and songs, there's a lot here that raises a pint to the former lead singer. The opening track goes for nearly a minute and a half before Brian Johnson, aka. The Replacement Singer, is introduced. When I first heard Back In Black I did what I suspect nearly all AC/DC fans did, I made the comparison. Hey, this Johnson guy sounds alright. Then I settled in for a good listening.

The tribute. The songs on Back In Black mostly pay homage to the bands memories of the good times with Scott. When Bon was still alive the band had actually written some stuff for their follow up to Highway To Hell but Malcolm and Angus didn't want to use any of that material so as not to appear like they were capitalising on Bon's death. The only material that carried over was the song Have a Drink on Me, which the band had done a demo of with Bon on the drums. 

Other than that one song, Malcolm and Angus wanted the new album to shine on Bon but also stand on its own going forward. Some of Brian's lyrics pay homage to Bon's own penchant for the double-entendre. The album pretty much sums up Bon Scott's life, and his love for wine, women, and song.

Back In Black is a rock'n'roll juggernaut because it's the right attitude at the right time. The NWOBHM movement is just about to take off like a rocket. Steadily gaining ground throughout the late 70s, 1980 is the year that the fans of NWOBHM begin to become the new market for rock. Made up mostly of young, white, males from working class families, dressed in denim and t-shirts, looking for like-minded people to listen to music with, drink beer, and generally party with. 

The Party starts in 1980 and by summer, when Back In Black releases, the world is primed for one hell of a good time. AC/DC delivered the seminal blueprint for good time, in your face, blue collar, beer swilling, bad-ass, scare the old people, dangerous rock n' roll. And it still kicks ass today, 40 years on! Horns up and a raised beer to the boys that created this masterpiece that is Back In Black. And a raised beer and tip of the cap to the inspiration for Back In Black, Bon Scott. Ah, fuck it... two horns up for Bon! Cheers Mate!

Carl Black: Not an ounce of fat on this one. Each track is a mini epic. I'm just surprised that it sold 40 million. I'd say it should have sold double that. 

An admin of this very club said "what can we say about this the hasn't already been said." Well, there are plenty of voices who have a connection to these songs. We'll never hear them all. So there is plenty to hear. This album seems to be played over the PA at so many gigs In-between bands. 

I've seen Motorhead over 20 times ( sorry...speak up I'm a bit deaf). And at almost every Motorhead gig , this album was played, in full, over the PA. If it's good enough for Lemmy, it's good enough for you. But it's such a good album. When listening I wanted to be inside Wembley Stadium, with flashing devil horns on my head, linking arms with all of you , singing at the at top of my voice to all – and I mean all – of these tunes. It was so good I almost shed a tear from my glass eye. If it was Dirty Deeds  I would be crying like a baby pulled from its mother's tit. Sorry , but I'm off to listen to Drity Deeds next. As for Back In Black, full marks from me.

Mike Knoop: A landmark album when it came out 40 years ago. A feather in the cap for all involved, especially new singer, Brian Johnson, and producer "Mutt" Lange, who would go on to reap 80s multi platinum for Foreigner, the Cars, and - of course - Def Leppard. Johnson redlines the engine throughout, but the whole band sounds juiced up, goosed up and ready to blow your speakers - and break the bank.

As others have noted, the appallingly misogynistic lyrics are the weak link. I realise we’re talking about the band that gave us The Jack and Squealer, but when being knocked out by American thighs is the band at their most classy and romantic, you have a problem. Johnson may rhyme “money” with “honey,” but there’s no hiding the venom in a line like, “You bitch, you must be getting old.” See also Given The Dog A Bone and Let Me Put My Love Into You. AC/DC previously wrote about sex - a lot – but the lyrics were turning increasingly predatory and mean-spirited.

Speaking of mean-spirited, I don't buy the whole tribute to Bon angle. If there are five accepted stages of grief, the band is firmly locked in anger. How else to explain Have A Drink On Me, a "fun" song about getting legless and getting hell to pay? The anger is understandable, but it's passed off as something it's not.

Admittedly, I love the lyrics to Hells Bells, one of the greatest opening songs of all time. Brian Johnson adopts the persona of ol’ Beelzebubba himself – spitting out the kind of lyrics that would make a televangelist jump up and push his mistress of his lap. This may be the greatest metaphor for teenage rage - intentional or not - until Iron Maiden gave us The Number Of The Beast. It still resonates with me more than the only by-the-numbers track, plodding closer, Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution.

Similarly, in Shoot To Thrill," Brian Johnson has more sex in one song than I will have in my entire life, but these lyrics hearken back to the nod-and-a-wink humour of the Bon Scott days. And, again, the track is a scorcher from start to finish.

In conclusion, an album that still sounds amazing today – as long as you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics.

Andy Hubble: It is impossible to enjoy this album anymore. That doesn't mean that it's no good. It certainly has a lot of classic and well put-together songs and it's a really impressive achievement considering the tragic death of Bon Scott, but the fact that it's so ubiquitous and completely played-out has ruined it. Its own success has destroyed any pleasure I can get from most of the songs. 

Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution is still ok, I can still enjoy when it abruptly gets loud from the subdued intro. That's about it. The rest of it has become very trite, and this isn't the fault of the record. From 1980 to 1983 Have A Drink On Me was probably clever and fun to play while hitting on that sexy person at the bar. Now? Gag. 

Let Me Put My Love Into You? Whoa there, buddy, no need for subtlety. I don't want or need to hear Hells Bells, YSMANL, or Back In Black ever again. I shall reiterate that this isn't a commentary on the quality of the record or me disregarding the commercial and artistic success achieved after a devastating loss, but an indictment of the millions of people that have played these songs billions of times. Lobster for dinner tonight? Delicious! Lobster for dinner every night for the next 14 years? Please kill me.

Final Score: 9.36⁄10 (690 votes cast, with a total score of 6459)

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