Just two days ago we told you the story of "The Black Phoenix", the story of the biggest comeback album in the history of music and of a band that after the crash rose from its own ashes and returned bigger and stronger with the masterpiece "Back In Black".
Read about it here:
Today we will go back in time to the story of the album that came out a year earlier, to the meteoric rise to fame and crash that immediately followed. We warn you: it's long, but it's worth it...
Soת "Highway To Hell", "AC/DC's" sixth album in Australia and its fifth internationally distributed, is celebrating its birthday today and we, with immense excitement and reverence, present you with an overview of this masterpiece album.
Let's start with the fact that until the release of this album, the band worked very hard to gain international recognition. Although the band was well known in its country of origin, Australia, it was difficult for it to enter the public consciousness in Europe and especially in the United States.
Just to explain how difficult it was for the band to succeed in America, it should be noted that the "Atlantic Records branch" in the United States refused to release the 1976 album "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap", because they did not believe in its ability to succeed.
In 1977 AC/DC came to tour in America and without help from the radio stations, began to build their audience from the bottom up, with a lot of hard work on the road and in live shows. These efforts were also well reflected in sales figures and by 1978 the American branch of "Atlantic Records" began to believe that the band had great potential in the United States, provided they worked with a producer who would make them accessible to the general public and incorporate more radio-friendly sound.
Until then the producers of all the band's albums were brother George Young and his good friend Harry Vanda, but in order to fulfill it's vision, "Atlantic" decided to connect the well-known producer Eddie Kramer to the band. Eddie worked with many good artists like Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and more. The band Strongly refused the move, especially Angus and Malcolm who felt a commitment to their big brother George, but that was the condition of "Atlantic" and the band decided to give it a chance. They met with Kramer in Miami Florida and already from the first meeting something did not work there. Rumor has it that during that meeting Kramer asked the band members if Bon Scott could even sing. Eventually, Malcolm called the band's director, Michael Browning, and demanded that to do everything in his power to help them. He explained to Browning that there was no chemistry and understanding between Kramer and the band and told him that Kramer even tried to persuade them to record the song "'Gimme Some Loving" by "Spencer Davis Group".
In an attempt to get out of the awkward situation, Browning turned to producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange and asked him to step in. Lang was not a well-known producer at the time. He worked mostly with the "Boomtown Rats" but later, following the success he had with "AC/DC", he would become a super-producer who would work with big and famous and among others produce Def Leppard's breakthrough albums, the album "Foreigner - 4" and albums by Brian Adams and Muse.
Three weeks into the recording session with Kramer and the band did not write a single song. They asked Kramer for a day off with the intention of getting him not to come to the studio. That day they snuck into the studio and without Kramer's knowledge recorded six songs. They secretly sent these songs to Matt Lang and asked him to agree to work with them. Lang was ready of course, and already at this point in time history was made, as this meteoric encounter between him and the band was about to revolutionize the world of music.
The album "Highway To Hell" is the first album the band has recorded outside of Australia. The recordings began in March 1979 at Roundhouse Studios in north London and lasted about three months, mainly because of Lang's perfectionism. Lang was a very meticulous producer who did not give up on the band and spurred it to achieve excellence. Songs were performed over and over again and recorded time and time again until Lang was satisfied with the result. The band sometimes worked 15 hours straight for over two months, which they was not used to as all of their previous albums were recorded in no more than three weeks. Lang had an absolute hearing. An un-stretched snare drum, over-stretched guitar string or even improper breathing during singing were immediately fixed. Lang's way of working was not easy for the band, but they learned to appreciate Lang and his pursuit of excellence.
Lang's greatness was that he did not force himself on the band. He did not force them to do things his way but only directed and instructed them how to do things better. Lang also did not ask the band to do things he was unable to do on his own and thus gained their appreciation.
One of the turning points in the band's attitude towards Lang was in the recording of the song "If You Want Blood". Bon Scott came up with the lyrics and it was obvious he was really struggling with the song. Lang told Scott that he must learn to control his breathing, but Bon Scott did not accept this with understanding and replied to Lang that if he thought he was so good then he would do it himself. Without any hesitation, Lang grabbed the microphone and gave an amazing vocal performance, leaving the band members speechless. From that moment on, the band learned to appreciate Lang even more. Lang taught Bon Scott how to breathe during singing to become a technically better singer. Moreover, once he felt that Bon Scott's singing was good enough he accompanied him with background vocals, something the band had not done before. It was a small but amazing addition to the band's sound and most importantly - it did not damage its DNA and was therefore welcomed among "AC/DC" members.
But Lang was not content with just that. He asked Angus Young to sit next to him while playing the solos and with small and clever advice renovated and further sharpened his instructive playing. Lang also polished and enhanced the band's so familiar double-guitar sound, an upgrade that on their next album, "Back In Black" (also produced by Lang), would already be perfect.
The result was no less than perfect. Lang and the band have managed to produce a formula that on the one hand will maintain the audacity, roughness and boldness of "AC/DC" and on the other hand will make the sound more refined, friendly and accessible to the masses.
The album opens up with the theme song "Highway to Hell" and one of the greatest riffs of all time. Although this eternal anthem is written in the names of Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Bon Scott, the immortal riff was created by Angus Young. According to the prevailing version, the title of the song came from the nickname that Angus gave to the US tour. The song talks about the hard and arduous life on the roads and the sacrifice of the band members in the struggle for glory, which is similar to a "highway to hell". Another version claims that "Highway To Hell" was a nickname for the "Canning" highway in Australia, which passes through Bon Scott's home in Fremantle and ends at the "Rock and Roll Raffles pub", a way that claimed the lives of many young people who drank at the same pub and later hit the road The fastest "to hell". This is the first "AC/DC" song to hit the charts in the United States and it has undoubtedly contributed greatly to the success of the entire album and the band's penetration into consciousness in the United States and around the world.
The second track, "Girls Got Rhythm", is one of the last songs Bon Scott wrote before his death. The song is his classic lyric about passion, girls, parties, etc. Scott describes how his wife provides for him and he manages to do so in his beautiful and special way, without arousing the parental organizations. In this song Matt Lang's influence is evident, especially in the harmonies of the two voices. The background sounds that come as the answer "Girls Got Rhythm ... Back Seat Rhythm" are, as mentioned, a small addition that did not exist in the previous albums, which simply changes the sound of the band in a big way.
In the third track, "Walk All Over You", a song about sex, we slow down a bit, but do not worry - it's just to get you in the mood. The song begins with a sophisticated and slow riff that slowly heats up to the boiling point where the whole band bursts in in high gear, only to return again to the slow riff during the chorus, but in between the band opens burners with 100% rock and roll in front. Bon Scott proves here again why he was one of Rock's great singers, while Angus does what he does best - bringing out from the guitar sounds that play ping pong in our gut.
"Touch to Much" was played on the BBC music program "Top of the Popes" just 12 days before Bon Scott's death. The song was previously recorded by the band with other lyrics, but did not get included on any album. The first version of the song with the alternative lyrics can be found in the excellent box "Bonfire", which was released in 1997. By the way, a comparison between the two different versions proves as a thousand witnesses the greatness of Matt Lang and the tremendous change his production brought about in the band. Before Axl Rose joined the band during the 2016 tour he declared it to be his favorite song in the "AC/DC" catalog.
The track that seals the first side of the vinyl, "Beating Around the Bush", opens with a guitar riff that is a kind of tribute to Peter Green. The guitar line at the opening of the song sounds just like the guitar line in "Fleetwood Mac's" "Oh Well" song. Here it is worth noting that most of the songs on the album deal with themes of lust, sex and entertainment and this particular song is all dripping with sex.
The other side of the vinyl opens up with "Shot Down in Flames", a song about a guy who goes out at night and tries his luck with girls over and over again, without success.
The next track, "Get It Hot", is a classic rock 'n' roll piece - another song about parties, entertainment, alcohol, in short "heavyweight" topics that Bon Scott used to write about. The guitars and bass in this song are tuned down by half a tone.
The title of the song "If You Want Blood" came from the name of the live album that preceded "Highway To Hell" and was released before it, in 1978. The phrase came from an answer to a question Bon Scott was asked in an interview with him in 1978. The journalist asked him what the audience should expect from AC/DC and Bon Scott replied, "If you want blood, you got it." It is interesting that this particular song appears in five different soundtracks of movies.
"Love Hungry Man" is another song where the guitars and bass are tuned down by half a tone. Angus claimed it was the song he was least proud of on the album and that he probably wrote it after a night of bad pizza. Not a bad song at all, with excellent bass work by Cliff Williams, great solos and beauty of background vocals courtesy of producer Matt Lang.
The song that seals the album, "Night Prowler", is the third song on the album where the guitars are tuned down by half a tone. The song opens with two quick breaths by Scott that apparently aim to put the listener in an atmosphere of fear. A slow and classic blues song whose name is associated with serial killer Richard Ramirez, nicknamed "Night Stalker" and was a fan of the band and of this song in particular. In one of his murders, Ramirez wore an "AC/DC" shirt and a band hat and even left the hat in the scene. In 1985, Ramirez was convicted of 15 murders. The song brought negative publicity to the band. Conservatives in the United States have called for a boycott of their songs, but as you know it didn't really help.
The album "Highway To Hell" brought the band dizzying success and international recognition. This is the band's first album to hit the charts in the United States and is also the band's second best-selling album, after "Back In Black". The album has garnered excellent reviews almost universally and is considered one of the greatest hard rock albums ever made. Moreover, the album is ranked 200th and most respected in the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (regardless of specific genre).
The album cover includes a painting of the band and Angus with school clothes and devil horns. Religious organizations did not like it so there is an alternative and "kosher" cover of the album, with Angus and without the horns.
Very tragically, precisely at the peak of the band's success the immortal vocalist Bon Scott passed away, just seven months after the album's release, in February 1980. Scott went to sleep drunk in a car outside a friend's house, after a night of drunkenness, and apparently suffocated in his sleep. The band members thought it was the end, but Bon's family wanted them to move on because it was a sort of Scott will.
Indeed, the band gathered themselves from the rubble and a few months later came "Back In Black" with an album that was entirely dedicated to Bon Scott. "Back In Black" undoubtedly marks one of the greatest comebacks in the music world and is without a doubt among the greatest albums of all time. It is the band's best-selling album and one of the best-selling albums in the music industry in general.