Held in higher esteem than is perhaps strictly necessary, Highway To Hell has the sad distinction of being the last AC/DC album on which vocalist Bon Scott appeared. As has been proved repeatedly in the music industry, few things enhance the reputation of an artist more than death, so perhaps that is why so many AC/DC fans point to Highway To Hell as the band’s best studio album.
To a point that is understandable, as it was the first of the band’s albums that was a truly global hit and Scott himself was on formidable form. It also contains a number of AC/DC’s finest songs, not least among them the title track (perhaps Bon Scott’s finest moment and certainly one of the band’s best tunes up to that point). The biggest influence on how the Highway to Hell sounded though wasn’t from inside the band itself, but by the now legendary producer Mutt Lange, who at the time was in the early years of what has become a long and illustrious career.
For me though Highway To Hell falls between two stools. It wasn’t the the stripped down over-amplified rock and roll basics that had made Let There Be Rock such an enjoyable listen, but neither was it the super accessible release that Back in Black was. As it bridged the gap between the two, it ultimately sounded like a band having travelled form the former and very much on the verge of the latter. Few albums capture that sense of immediate potential Highway To Hell.
In retrospect, some of the songs on Highway to Hell come across as if Bon Scott is almost predicting his death, particularly on the slightly too-on-the-nose “Touch Too Much” and “Shot Down In Flames”. Elsewhere, there’s perhaps more focus on slower numbers on which Scott emphasises his creepy and predatory side, however too many such numbers dilute their impact, and for me that’s what prevents Highway to Hell from reaching the level of greatness to sit among the very top tier of AC/DC albums. That’s not to say that it isn’t one of AC/DC’s key albums. Highway to Hell finds the band displaying the level of confidence that would see them shortly become one of the world’s biggest rock bands, and getting Mutt Lange on board as producer was a huge part of that, as it gave them a level of sonic polish that would see AC/DC become much more accessible, not only to denim and leather clad rock fans, but a more mainstream audience as well. The fact that not even the sudden death of their iconic frontman managed to derail this journey to success says is a tribute to just how much momentum that AC/DC had built up at that point.
Scott’s senseless death could be seen as an obvious cross roads for the surviving members of AC/DC, however their next album would see them conquer the world, and it was Highway to Hell that provided the launch pad for that.