The Black Phoenix...
On July 25, 1980, the album "Back In Black" was released, the seventh studio album by the band "AC/DC".
This is the story of the biggest comeback in the history of Rock.
The story of a band that worked hard to gain international recognition, with lots of blood, sweat, and tears, on stage, on bumpy roads, and in cheap motels.
A band that, after much effort, finally managed to touch fame, but even before it had time to enjoy its fruits, it experienced a terrible tragedy that shattered everything to pieces.
A band that against all odds managed to rise from its own ashes, just like the Phoenix, to "come back in black", bigger, better, stronger...
This is the story of "AC/DC" - the story of the "Black Phoenix"....
This is the band's first album without lead singer Bon Scott, who just five months earlier, on February 19, 1980, was found dead in his friend's car after a night of revelry and drunkenness.
This album is the band's best-selling album in almost 50 years of activity.
It ranks forth among the best-selling albums of all time, with an incredible sales figure of about 50 million copies worldwide. An album that ranks 84th on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
So, to understand how this all happened, how after the band's total crash it managed to release one of the greatest and most successful albums of all time, one has to go back a bit in time.
The band, formed in Australia in 1973 by brothers Angus Young and Malcolm Young, was relatively successful in their country of origin, but for years failed to push the boundaries of their homeland and struggled to gain international recognition, especially in the United States. "Atlantic Records" in the United States refused to release their third 1976 album, "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap", as they did not believe in its ability to succeed in sales.
Eventually after a lot of hard work, "AC/DC" manages, against all odds, to obtain a recording contract with "Atlantic" and release their amazing breakthrough album "Highway To Hell" in 1979. The story of that album is fascinating in itself, but we will leave it to a separate review that we published on this album.
"Highway To Hell" was a resounding success and reached the top of the album charts around the globe and especially in the US.
(Photo: Rock History In Pics Twitter)
Broken and shattered by the heavy disaster that befell them, the band members were already thinking of disbanding, but it was Bon Scott's family members who persuaded them to move on, claiming that this was his last will.
Shortly after the funeral, the band is already looking for a lead singer to step into Bon Scott's big shoes. The search was exhausting and lasted about a month, during which a large number of candidates were examined. At one point the band even considers Malcolm Young to fill the role of lead singer, but then Mutt Lange (who produced the album "Highway To Hell") offers Brian Johnson - the singer of the glam band "Geordie" - as a replacement. Johnson was then 32 years old, he lived with his parents in Newcastle and owned a vinyl roof for the collectible car repair shop.
Johnson recalls that he received an invitation to come and meet the band. He entered the rehearsal room and saw the band members bored to death after a whole month of unsuccessful auditions. Malcolm Young was the one who first approached him, offered him a beer, and asked what he wanted to sing. Brian Johnson responded to Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits". After finishing the audition round, Johnson was called to the rehearsal room for a second audition, by which time he had already sung "Highway To Hell". On March 29, 1980 - About a month after Bon Scott's death, Malcolm Young called Brian Johnson to inform him that he had been accepted into the band. What fascinated the band members were, among other things, the fact that Johnson did not try to emulate Bon Scott but gave a personal interpretation to his songs. Later Angus Young will also recall that Bon Scott himself told him that he saw Brian Johnson in a live show of "Geordie" and was very impressed with his performance.
"Armed" with its new frontman, the band flew to the Bahamas to write and record the new album.
Although the band had first sketches of some songs they had started working on with Bon Scott, they decided to start from scratch, and Johnson was given a free hand to rewrite his own lyrics, as the band did not want to look like they attempt to profit from Bon Scott's death.
This album was entirely dedicated to Bon Scott, from beginning to end. The band requested that the album cover will be completely black, as a sign of the heavy grief that fell on them following Bon Scott's death. The "Atlantic" record company initially refused, but eventually, a compromise was reached whereby the band's logo would be framed in a thin gray line on a black background. Unlike the album cover, the music was far from sad and gloomy.
The first song on the album "Hells Bells" is a tribute to Bon Scott, but there is also an irony in it with the wink to the previous album, "Highway To Hell", which turned out to be Scott's swan song. Brian Johnson's lyrics speak to his anxieties in trying to adapt to environmental change and the pressure to get used to his new band. Despite the gloomy beginning, the body of the song is more rhythmic and pulsating. The song opens with four church bells ringing before the main riff leading the song enters, as a tribute to Bon Scott. After entering the riff the bell continues to ring another 9 times. It was clear to the band that they would not use a bell effect to honor the memory of their good friend, so they insisted on recording a real church bell. The recordings were not so simple and had to be repeated over and over again, sometimes in different locations, since the ringing of the bell caused wing owners in the area to fly and the heavy wings noise was heard on the recording. No less than 15 microphones placed in different locations around the bell are used for recording to pick up a sound that is as close as possible to the original ring tone. It is interesting to note that when this song was played in performances, Brian Johnson was the one who struck a similar bell that was created especially for the band.
This song also expresses, already in its first verse the difficulties the band went through during the recordings in the Bahamas and the fact that they experienced harsh weather during the process. Brian Johnson chose to open the song with the lyrics:
"I'm a rolling thunder, a pouring rain
I'm comin' on like a hurricane
My lightning's flashing across the sky
You're only young but you're gonna die"
Five songs later, the theme song that opens the second side of the vinyl runs right like a thread from "Highway To Hell" of the previous album, through "Hells Bels" which opens the current album to "Back In Black". The band seems to have put some thought into the location of the songs, which is probably not coincidental. Now imagine the "black phoenix" rising on the "Highway To Hell" to ring the bells, and after being burned in the fire of hell rising from his own ashes, only to return in black. This timeless song opens with one of the most famous counts in rock history, with Phil Rudd's high-hat igniting the song at an incredible pace and Young's guitar producing from its strings one of the greatest riffs ever written. Brian Johnson's singing during the verses is a bit reminiscent of rap singers and the choruses are being built up to the climax with a crescendo. Mutt Lange's production is at its peak with the dual guitar formula which is simply pure energy.
Every song on this album is the perfection of writing, performing, and producing. "Hells Bells" and "Back In Black" about which we wrote above. "You Shook Me All Night Long" which is the first single with Brian Johnson, the first song released from the album, and the first that Johnson wrote with the band, and includes guitar work that is among the best of the Young Brothers. Brian Johnson coined the iconic words "She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean" after watching pictures of American girls during the recordings of the album. He suddenly realized that women and cars were very similar. They are fast (run away), disappoint you, but then make you happy again when a "new model" comes out.
"Shoot to Thrill" was not released as a single, but was "grinded" on radio stations until it became a classic that even "Marvel" chose it to the soundtrack of "Iron Man 2" and "The Avengers". The guitars in this song sound different from the rest of the album since the recording method were different during which two guitar amplifiers were placed in two different spaces in the studio, when the recorded sound from both was compressed into one of the guitar channels. Angus Young and Malcolm Young were praised for their guitar work in this song, whose solo even went into quite a few charts of the greatest guitar solos of all time.
"What Do You Do for Money Honey" with the genius reef, is the ultimate "Gold Digger" anthem and talks about women who instead of working cling to rich men and extort their money.
"Given the Dog, a Bone" deals with oral sex, and "Let Me Put My Love into You" which comes right after deals with the same subject only from "another direction", with clever words by Brian Johnson who seems to have tried to continue with his predecessor's lyrical line. In 1985 the song received the "Filthy 15" rating the "worst" rating from the "Parental Censorship Organization" (PMRC) which used to label albums with words dealing with violence, sex, drugs, alcohol, and more. To tell the truth, almost any "AC/DC" song could have met these criteria, but the PMRC members chose this particular song to get the worst rating. Of course, the warning stickers did just the opposite, especially with the fans who were well aware of the lyrical content of the band and only got a nice backwind from the attention their beloved band gets.
It is hard to believe but the closing song "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" was actually written as a "filler" by Malcolm Young, at the request of producer Mutt Lange. He wrote it in the studio, within 15 minutes, while the rest of the band went out to dinner. 12 seconds into the song we hear Brian Johnson's cigarette lighter ignite followed by a puff. That's it, he and his friends can relax in the armchair, lift their fingers to all the critics who thought they would not recover from Bon Scott's death, all those who thought rock 'n' roll was just "polluting noise", all those who thought the band recycles itself to death.
All of these songs and others have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that "AC/DC" has completed the fastest and biggest comeback in the history of music.
"Back In Black" did not renew anything. It did not invent any new musical style nor did it signal any cultural change. Instead, "Back In Black" proved that sometimes greatness is actually in the lack of change. If you do something good, then keep doing the same thing, only bigger, and more powerful.
"Back In Black" proved that the genius of "AC/DC" is actually in simplicity and minimalism. If you look at the history of "AC/DC" over the years you can see that the band stuck to more or less the same simple and minimalist formula. With no substantial diversity in style or far-reaching changes in sound, "AC/DC" has managed throughout its career to bring out Masterpiece after Masterpiece, despite the apparent stagnation.
Legendary producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who accompanied them on the album "Highway To Hell" recognized this immediately and made sure that the changes he made, to make the band accessible to the general public, would not harm its DNA. More details on the meteoric encounter between the band and Lang in a review of the album celebrating a birthday the next day.