AC/DC Overcome Tragedy with Triumphant Back in Black: Classic Album Review

The iconic rockers turn in one of the biggest records of all time in the wake of loss

AC:DC - Back In Black



    Rock’s biggest-selling album ever — AC/DC’s Back in Black — is turning 40 years old this month, and Consequence of Sound is celebrating in a big way. In a joint effort with Gibson Guitars, we’re presenting “Back in Black 40th Anniversary: A Virtual Celebration”. The online stream will take place Friday, July 24th, premiering at 5:00 p.m. ET across the CoS social channels, with an amazing giveaway. Learn more about the celebration here, and enter the giveaway here or at the bottom of this article.

    Going into 1980, it most certainly seemed like it would be smooth sailing across the finish line for AC/DC. After several years of slowly climbing up the ladder of success Stateside and in Europe (they were already gigantic in their homeland of Australia), 1979 had perfectly set the stage for a bona fide worldwide breakthrough in the new decade.

    Their last album, Highway to Hell, had peaked at No. 17 in the US and went gold (while the album’s anthemic title track reached No. 47 on the singles chart), and the band — then comprised of singer Bon Scott, guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams, and drummer Phil Rudd — were about to make the transition from opener to arena headliner. And then …tragedy struck.


    Well-known for his fondness for partying and in particular, for alcohol, Scott was found dead on February 19, 1980, at the age of 33 in the backseat of a car in London (his death certificate lists the cause as “death by misadventure” — for many years it was assumed caused by alcohol, but in recent times, the possibility of a heroin overdose has come to light).

    A decision was eventually made by the surviving members to carry on, with former Geordie singer, Brian Johnson, officially being named Scott’s successor on April 1st. Soon after, Johnson and his new bandmates (and the producer behind Highway to Hell, Mutt Lange), congregated at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to get to work on AC/DC’s next studio LP. By May, the sessions had wrapped up, and on July 25th, the world was given one of rock’s all-time classic (and largest-selling) recordings, Back in Black.

    “They’re night and day,” Testament singer Chuck Billy explained concerning the differences between crooner Bon and shouter Brian in the book A Rockin’ Rollin’ Man: Bon Scott Remembered. “And I think especially lyric-wise for sure, I totally see the difference. But, something about Brian’s technique and his style of vocals — because he’s unique — really made him fit in there with a unique band. I think if they had someone ordinary, I don’t know if it would be the same AC/DC — they had to have that unique thing as the lead person out there. And I think Brian Johnson was that guy.”


    While all 10 of the album’s tracks crediting both the Young brothers and Johnson as the sole composers, it later surfaced that Scott had some sort of involvement in the genesis of the material (at the very least, playing drums on a few demos — with others going so far as to allege he may have contributed a bit lyrically). But either way, the end result was simply stunning, as Back in Black (whose title was an obvious nod to their recently deceased bandmate) rocked hard from front to back — one of the rare albums where not a single weak track was included.

    It’s not to say that every single track is regularly aired on the radio or has gone on to receive regular renditions on the concert stage — for instance, such solid selections as “Given the Dog a Bone”, “Let Me Put My Love into You”, and “Shake a Leg” have gone overlooked at times. But probably more so than on any other AC/DC album, the classics outweigh the lesser compositions, including four songs that have never left their setlists (nor rock radio playlists) since their initial unveiling: “Hells Bells”, the title track, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”. And then there are tunes that would probably be most other bands’ A-listers — “Shoot to Thrill”, “What Do You Do for Money Honey”, and “Have a Drink on Me” — but here, are just a step below the aforementioned “Big 4.”

    While Johnson’s vocals were probably the thing most eager listeners were focusing on around this time, the amount of exceptional guitar riffs and chord progressions that the Young brothers bashed out throughout Back in Black is another ingredient that makes the album such a timeless classic. And while seemingly most hard rock/heavy metal guitarists of the era were favoring Eddie Van Halen-like high-tech shredding, Angus refused to stray far from his Chuck Berry boogie approach.


    And this was not lost on Racer X/Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert, as he recounted in the book Shredders!: The Oral History of Speed Guitar (And More). “At the time in the late ’70s, early ’80s, the virtuoso thing was just starting to take off. In a way, if you were into the virtuoso culture at the time, Angus, people would put him down. Like, ‘Oh, that’s so simple,’ or ‘All they play are blues licks.’ And I don’t think I ever fell into that.”

    “I remember as a guitar player, I was more into Van Halen,” Gilbert continues, “but I still loved what AC/DC did, and I still spent time with that music. I learned all the songs and played those songs a ton when I was in a band. Just loved them. And when you listen to Angus, you wouldn’t want to put an Yngwie solo in an AC/DC song. It would just be wrong. Angus is playing the perfect guitar for the style, and you wouldn’t want to change a note.”

    And AC/DC was immediately rewarded for their efforts. Back in Black rocketed as high as No. 4 on the Billboard 200 while going all the way to No. 1 on the UK, France, Australia, and Canada charts. And a total of four singles were issued from the album (you guessed it, it was once again the aforementioned “Big 4”), with “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the title track cracking the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 35 and No. 37, respectively).


    But unlike certain rock albums that storm the charts and then become largely forgotten over time (or sound increasingly dated as the years progress), Back in Black has possessed incredible staying power in the consciousness of rock fans. So much so that at last count (December 2019) the album has sold a staggering 25 million copies … in the US alone.

    Looking back on Back in Black 40 years after its original release, it remains impressive both how the band was able to assemble and record the album so soon after the death of Scott and also how they happened to locate the perfect replacement behind the mic (something that is quite difficult to do in most cases — all you have to do is take a gander at how many rock bands have failed after trying to replace an already established singer).

    “For me, I was the hugest AC/DC fan, and I was so ready to be disappointed,” Chuck Billy adds. “And I wasn’t. That record was always my go-to record at a certain point in my life. It always makes me smile or think of good times — Back in Black. Just that point in my life, that record means a lot to me. I was so happy for them to continue on with such great records with him. Not many bands can do that — and sell 200 million records.”


    Watch our “AC/DC Back in Black 40th Anniversary Virtual Celebration”

    Consequence of Sound and Gibson Guitars teamed up to present the “Back in Black 40th Anniversary Virtual Celebration”. Hosted by guitar virtuoso Jared James Nichols, the digital event featured testimonials, tutorials, and performances from Slash, Dee Snider, and members of Alice in Chains, Cage the Elephant, Anthrax, and many more. Watch below:

    Enter the Back in Black 40th Anniversary Giveaway!

    We’re giving away a massive prize pack of gear to have you rocking just like AC/DC. Included is a Gibson Custom SG “Red Devil” guitar just like Angus Young’s; the latest SoloDallas Schaffer Tower EX signed by inventor Ken Schaffer; a Marshall JTM45 amp with a SoloDallas Black Mod converting it to a JTM50, just like the one Young used on Back in Black; and a Marshall cabinet loaded with vintage speakers (a total retail value of over $15,000). Five runners-up will each receive a Schaffer Replica Storm pedal and Back in Black on vinyl.

    Enter simply by filling out the widget below. Note: If you do not see the widget, click here to enter (open to U.S. and Canadian residents only).


    AC/DC Back in Black 40 Prize Pack


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