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 were, and in some sense remained for a long time, the biggest rock band on the planet. They were well on the way to achieving this prior to the release of Back in Black having released a string of albums with talismanic lead singer Bon Scott. The sad passing of Scott put this promising career arc in severe jeopardy, however the band bounced back by recruiting Brian Johnson, the flatcap wearing former member of Geordie who sounded like he scoured the inside of his throat with sandpaper every morning, and promptly recording and releasing the biggest album of their career. Some would say too promptly.
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 most 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 in the rock press 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 since 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 could have done to improve 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. While AC/DC could be criticised for sticking to a tried and tested formula throughout their long career (and indeed many have criticised them at great length), the longevity of their career and commercial success is a testimony to the fact that the formula has served them well. A tired cliché it may be, but you don’t need to know what an individual AC/DC album sounds like, only if it’s any good, and Back in Black is by far their best.
On reflection, it is fair to say that AC/DC have spent the last three and a half 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, and possibly Highway to Hell 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 (another criticism levelled at them by non-fans. , and to be fair, that criticism is not without merit), 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 days of the band itself may be numbered, Back in Black remains an ageless and strangely fresh sounding album that will be discovered by each subsequent generation that falls under the spell of rock and roll. Bon Scott would have surely approved.