Retrospective Review: AC/DC - Back in Black

You're a hard rock band in the late 1970s. Your stock is steadily rising and pretty much everything is going swimmingly. As you enter the 1980s, the future looks rosy for everyone associated with the band.

But then, tragedy.

That was the story of AC/DC until February 1980, when their lead singer Bon Scott died following a binge-drinking session in London. Following a period of mourning and reflection, the remaining members decided to continue the band and, whilst hunting for a new singer, remembered one name in particular that Bon himself had mentioned previously: Brian Johnson.

Within weeks, Johnson had joined up with the band and in April, a mere two months after Scott's death, they reconvened with producer Robert John 'Mutt' Lange to begin recording their next record. This is a remarkably fast turnaround for a band who had experienced such a huge loss.

What's perhaps even more remarkable is the quality of the album itself. In the midst of such circumstances, you could have forgiven the band for churning out a below par effort. Instead, AC/DC regrouped to record one of the greatest albums of all-time and, at approximately 50 million copies sold, the 2nd biggest selling album of all-time behind Michael Jackson's Thriller.


It's a platinum-standard record from the moment the opening bell rings, initiating chills all over your body, to the moment the last chord is strung. Songs like 'Hells Bells' 'Shoot to Thrill', 'You Shook Me All Night Long' and the title track have all gone down in history as some of the greatest hard rock songs of all-time, and those that surround them aren't half bad either. To sound this lively, this upbeat and this energetic within a few months of real tragedy says a lot about the character of this band.

Johnson also proved himself to be the perfect recruit; his gravelly tones suited AC/DC's style down to a tee. Indeed, his delivery is not totally unlike Scott's, with the main difference being how Johnson sounds like he's swallowed three bags of cement. It may not be the prettiest voice in the world, but you'd be hard pressed to think of anyone who could have better replaced Scott. Think about it - have you ever once heard anyone try to sing a Johnson-era track without trying to emulate the geordie? It's an iconic voice.

There's not a whole lot to say about the music that hasn't already been discussed. It's AC/DC, masters of the ideology "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Their albums may vary in quality, but the basis of their music has never changed: simple chord progressions, the same drum beat, and Angus Young tearing the house down with his predictably excellent solos. Very, very rarely do they deviate from this idea - and yet, they never get old or boring. It's quite astounding to think that a band with so little experimentation has managed to become one of the most revered and successful artists the world has ever seen. Change and evolution is critical for most artists to survive. AC/DC is the exception.

Credit must also go to Mutt Lange and the entire production team who worked on this album. Not only is it compositionally excellent, it's a feat of sonic engineering. The record sounds gutsy, powerful and forceful, whilst always remaining warm and crystal clear. Though production values were - and are - always rising, not many albums have topped this record for pure sound quality, even in the forty years since its release. By contrast, Iron Maiden's debut album was released in the same year and, sonically, that sounds weak and empty. Back in Black, however, drives into your skull and never lets go, but never overpowers the brain. It's an outstanding production job that perfectly maintains the balance between power and clarity.

Back in Black would be an astonishing achievement for any band, but to create a record of this magnitude a mere two months after their beloved lead singer died is quite unbelievable. Everyone, from the band to the production staff, came together to make the stars align and forge a record that will forever stand the test of time. In this age of downloads and streams, its place as one the biggest selling albums of all time is surely safe, and it's a richly deserved reward for what is a brilliant and quintessential record, not just for hard rock, but for music.