A buyers’ guide to AC/DC 1975 – 1981

There is a school of thought that you don’t actually need to know what an individual AC/DC album sounds like, you just need to know if it’s any good…

If there is one band that stuck to a formula throughout their career, then it’s AC/DC. Hell, even Status Quo transitioned from their Carnaby Street phase to their head-down boogie phase. Seemingly impervious to changes in fashion, AC/DC have gamely stuck to their guns throughout their four decade career though, the core sound and subject matters never really changing, regardless of line up changes and production team. While this has inevitably resulted in countless (admittedly fair) accusations of a lack of development down the years, the fact that AC/DC remain one of the biggest and most influential rock bands on the planet indicates that they’ve been right to not fiddle with their formula.

Of course, like any act with a lengthy career, their individual albums have widely varied in quality, however the consensus remains that their golden period is 1975 – 1981. This period includes all the material recorded with their celebrated original vocalist, Bon Scott and the first two with his replacement, Brain Johnson

It seems that due to Bon Scott’s death, the band’s pre-Back in Black albums seem to be beyond criticism in the eyes of their more misty-eyed fans, however they do actually significantly vary in quality. After 1981, AC/DC’s albums tended to be received enthusiastically, but became ever more formulaic, with only the merry-go-round of drummers marking the difference from one to the next.

It’s strange to reflect after nearly four decades of rock ‘n’ roll riffage, but back in the mid 70s, when AC/DC first landed here in the UK, they were initially lumped in with the punk movement. Their first internationally available album was High Voltage, an album compiled from tracks from their first two Australian releases and a releases which almost vindicates the initial assumption that they were a punk act. Easily the most stripped down and raw AC/DC studio album, High Voltage is a recording where what is left out is almost as important as what was left in.

High Voltage is AC/DC without the trimmings, a lean and hungry beast somewhere in the middle of the food-chain and still trying to find its way in the world. Yes, there are mis-steps, there are lapses in taste (then again, it wouldn’t be an AC/DC album without them) and the sound certainly isn’t as full-blooded as it would later become, but the basics are here – the reliable engine room of a rhythm section, the neanderthal riffs and Bon’s Alex Harvey-indebted vocals.

Song wise, it’s standard AC/DC fare, with celebrations of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and sexually transmitted diseases abound. “The Jack” is the obvious highlight, but when you compare this studio version with later live recordings, it does lack a certain amount of fizz.

While High Voltage isn’t in the echelon of great AC/DC albums, the material here would be a big help in establishing the band’s reputation as one of the all time great live hard rock bands.

Like High Voltage before it, the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, differs significantly from the original Australian version. In one sense, it’s a step up from AC/DC’s international debut, but it’s also still weighed down by some rather tasteless sleaziness and the worst sort of knuckle-headed misogyny. While much of their misogyny could be laughed off as so extreme to actually cross over into parody, they have a tendency to rely on it a little more frequently than is strictly necessary.

Musically, AC/DC continues to evolve on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, with Malcolm Young establishing himself as its rhythmicly riffing core. While his brother Angus has always been the band’s iconic six string hero, much of AC/DC’s success is down to Malcolm’s groove. His brother Angus would be the public face of AC/DC over their long career, but Malcolm has always been the band’s heart – if Malcolm’s out of sorts, then it usually equates to a weaker AC/DC album. Throughout the album the band sounds much more well drilled, disciplined and considerably tighter musical unit.

Perhaps even more so than AC/DC’s debut, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap is the album where Bon Scott’s vocals betray the stylistic debt that he owed to fellow Scot Alex Harvey. Nowhere is this more obvious than “Big Balls”, a song so obvious in its single entendre that it’s tongue isn’t so much planted in the band’s collective cheek, as fully rooted there. Depite all this, it’s a fun tune. In fact, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap as a whole is a fun listen, as long as you keep it in mind that the subject matter is not meant to be taken seriously.

While a little less consistent than AC/DC’s best albums, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap is home to a number of great tunes, such as the title track, “Problem Child” and the uncharacteristicly slow and moody “”Ride On”. Elsewhere, it’s pretty standard AC/DC fare, fun rock and roll, but hardly life changing stuff.

Despite them regularly headlining Heavy Metal festivals, I’ve never been utterly convinced that AC/DC were Heavy Metal act. It’s certainly a tag that the band themselves are keen to brush off. Yes they had the primal riffs. Yes they had the snarly voiced vocalist and an extrovert lead guitarist, but to me their sound owed more to early rock ‘n’ roll than the obvious heavy metal holy trinity of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. For proof you need look no further than Let There Be Rock.

With a winning combination of unfussy production, guitar licks nicked from early rock ‘n’ roll acts and just made louder, Let There Be Rock is unarguably one of the finest AC/DC albums. What is most notable is how groovesome and rhythmic they could be, thanks in no small part to their secret weapon, the ever reliable Malcolm Young.

Let There Be Rock is where AC/DC pretty much perfected their particular brand of super-amplified rock n roll, with “Go Down” and “Bad Boy Boogie” being fine examples which have been sadly overlooked in the AC/DC songbook over the years. This is somewhat understandable as they share an album with three flat-out AC/DC classics in the title track, “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be”, and (of course) “Whole Lotta Rosie”. Early versions of Let There Be Rock featured the song “Crabsody in Blue”, however from about 1980 onwards, re-releases have replaced this with “Problem Child” from Dirty deeds Done Dirt Cheap.

Given how a lot of what is today is termed as ‘heavy metal’ has become self-congratulatory, over-complicated and just damn fiddly, it’s nice to hear a hard rock band who lived for the simple joys of the double entendre lyric and a simple riff. Sure, they were never sophisticated in their lyrical themes or musical ideas, but sometimes keeping it simple and effective is what works best.

If this era of AC/DC has an overlooked album, then Powerage is it. While it certainly doesn’t boast anthemic classics of the pedigree of “Problem Child”, “Whole Lotta Rosie” or even “Highway to Hell”, it does hold it’s own in the band’s back catalogue. Beyond “Riff Raff” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation”, there’s not much here that the fair-weather fan would have heard of, therefore it gives many of the songs here a sort of undiscovered-gem quality.

In the grand scheme of AC/DC albums, Powerage is one of the better ones, regardless of it’s lack of fried-gold classics. This album’s strength is in it’s unity – by this stage of their career AC/DC were capable of writing an album of songs that sound like they belong together. This album ebbs and flows, it has a natural beginning, middle and end. It’s not over-long, or over-thought-out, it just gets on with the job of being an AC/DC album and while it may never gain the belated critical acclaim, or get slobbered over by the fans like their bigger selling albums, in it’s own way it is perhaps the definitive AC/DC album.

AC/DC are one of the definitive live acts and If You Want Blood… captured them at a point where they had reached a peak creatively, but they were still hungry. This is the recording where the legend that was Bon Scott sealed his reputation as one of the finest hard rock vocalists ever.

As celebrated as If You Want Blood… is, it’s not perfect. Some of the renditions of the songs are just too loose and they do detract from their studio versions. Elsewhere though AC/DC flawlessly craft definitive versions of the songs, nowhere more so than “Whole Lotta Rosie”.

Even after all these years, with innumerable live shows being released on DVD and a more up to date live album released in the early 90s, this is still the ultimate live AC/DC experience for those of us that still haven’t been to one of their shows.

Perhaps held in higher esteem than is strictly necessary, Highway To Hell has the sad distinction of being the final AC/DC album on which Bon Scott appeared. As is often the case, death enhances the reputation of an artist, so perhaps that is why so many AC/DC fans point to Highway To Hell as the band’s finest studio album.

To a point that is understandable, as it was the first of the band’s albums that was a true global hit and Scott was on formidable form. It also contains a number of AC/DC’s best songs, not least among them the title track (perhaps Bon Scott’s finest moment and certainly the band’s best tune up until that point). The biggest influence on how the album sounded though wasn’t from inside the band, but by the now legendary producer Mutt Lange who at the time was at the beginning of what has become a long and illustrious career.

For me though Highway To Hell falls between two stools. It wasn’t the super amplified rock and roll that Let There Be Rock was, but neither did it have the commercial smarts that would make Back in Black such an enjoyable listen. As it bridged the gap between the two, it ultimately it turned out to be neither one thing or the other which is a sad fate for any album, particularly one with as much potential for greatness as Highway To Hell. What it did do though was provide a couple of oddly fitting eulogies for the tragic Bon Scott in “Touch Too Much” (possibly the finest ode to over indulgence ever) and perhaps less obviously “Shot Down In Flames”.

For the surviving members of AC/DC, Scott’s senseless death was an obvious cross roads in their career. Their next move could make or break them.

There are some rock albums that grow to be bigger than the band that recorded it, so much so that it eclipses their whole career, becomes somewhat of an albatross around their necks and they spend the rest of their careers trying to downplay the album as they struggle to match its commercial success. Then there is Back in Black and AC/DC.

AC/DC are in some sense the biggest rock band on the planet. They were well on the way to achieving this prior to the release of Back in Black. however, the sad passing of Scott put this promising career arc in severe jeopardy. Against the odds, AC/DC bounced back by recruiting Brian Johnson, a flatcap wearing Geordie who sounded like he scoured the inside of his throat with sandpaper every morning and recording and releasing the biggest album of their career.

It was always going to be controversial, AC/DC releasing an album a few short months after Scott’s tragic death. Scott had been one of the great colourful personalities in the 70s rock landscape and his boots were going to be difficult to fill. Over the years there has been far too much pondering about exactly how much of Back in Black had been penned by Scott (he received no writing credits) and how it would have sounded with his (marginally) more bluesy vocals. Needless analysis aside, I personally feel that while AC/DC recorded their best material with Scott, Brian Johnson has proved to be the better vocalist. Back in Black just wouldn’t have sounded as good with Scott on vocals. Listening to Back In Black now, it’s actually difficult to imagine what Scott would have done with the material available here. Despite his vocal limitations, Johnson has to take some credit for this album’s commercial edge, sure Scott would have made it sound grittier, but would that have made it any better? We certainly wouldn’t have been able to sing along quite as well.

Much of the success of Back in Black is down to the flawless and clean production of Mutt Lange, who had achieved great things with AC/DC previously on Highway to Hell. Back in Black was a step up in every way from its predecessor, with the more anthemic songs benefitting from Lange’s sparkling production. The rhythms are tight, the riffs colossal, the drums loud and Johnsons vocals pushed to the fore. The result is an oddly timeless album, loud enough to please the rockers, yet with enough commercial appeal to cross over to mainstream radio, something which almost no other hard rock act managed to do at the time.

After becoming one of the biggest bands in the world with the mighty Back in Black, it was perhaps inevitable that AC/DC were going to try to emulate the success of that album by recording a similar sounding follow-up. While For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), is by no means a failure in itself, it does fail to match it’s illustrious predecessor on a number of important areas. While the glorious title track and “Let’s Get It Up”, provide some audience friendly choruses, as a whole the album lacks a bit of spark. It’s slower paced (perhaps to suit Brian Johnson’s vocal style?) and it doesn’t quite get the blood pumping in the way that a truly great AC/DC album does.

To put it in the simplest terms, title track aside, it’s just not as fun as Back in Black. AC/DC were an anomaly in the late 70s and early 80s, as they were one of the few bands who actually sounded as if they genuinely enjoyed making music. Punk, for all it’s ‘music of the people’ posturing, took itself as seriously as any other music movement, the few hard rockers left were fighting a rear-guard action against the young upstarts, reggae was taking its politics more seriously, disco was largely a studio phenomenon and other important genres were still trying to find their feet. It’s sad then that with their much desereved huge success, AC/DC started taking themselves a little bit more seriously on For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), especially given the celebratory atmosphere of their two previous albums.

On a more positive note, Mutt Lange’s production is once again spot on, giving the music a bounce and a commercial edge that it may otherwise have lacked. Johnson had evidently settled in quickly as the band’s vocalist and it’s the last time that Phil Rudd’s rhythmic wallop would be heard on an AC/DC album for fourteen years. While For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) isn’t a bad album, by AC/DC standard’s it’s pretty ordinary, which given what this combination of vocalist, band and producer had been capable of previously, is a real shame, however this could be said for almost every album released by them since.

On reflection, it is fair to say that AC/DC have spent the subsequent decades of their career trying to match Back in Black and have not managed to do so. Cynics may mutter that this is because the band have never managed to replace what Bon Scott brought to the band in its early years, but I would counter that, Let There Be Rock aside, none of the albums they recorded with Scott can stand comparison with their most famous long player. For all their sonic brashness and neanderthal approach to sexual politics, AC/DC have been smart, and indeed humble, enough to embrace Back in Black as the career peak it is and have done nothing to damage its reputation over the years. While the band themselves are greying and hurtling towards old age, their early albums remain strangely ageless and fresh sounding mission statements that will be discovered by each subsequent generation that falls under the spell of rock and roll.

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