After conquering Australia, then a few rocky years and rocky albums chasing American attention, AC/DC finally got massive mainstream success, just in time for Bon Scott to die after only the briefest taste. Looking at the albums that came before this time, there are plenty of enduring hits and hard rock classics. But what gave Highway to Hell the honour of being that crossover to bring them massive mainstream success?
The title track kicks things off with one of Malcolm Young’s most memorable riffs. It’s simple, it’s sparse, it leaves plenty of room to breathe and it drives home that signature AC/DC freight train relentless sound that has been the backbone to everything that’s right about this band for so many years.
It still works live with Brian Johnson’s voice in the post-Bon years, but Scott was definitely the master at bringing a combination of legit street creed and a cheeky wink to cock swinging phrases like “highway to hell” (and later in If You Want Blood, You Got It). Most other front men would just sound like bragging dick heads trying to sound like rock stars. Scott makes you believe that shit, while also letting you know that he’s half pulling the piss at the same time.
Next up is Girls Got Rhythm. If you’re a glass half empty kind of person, you could write it off as one of those anonymous AC/DC standards that never moves an inch away from their overused formula. Me, I’m a little more glass half full, happy to hear a song from the Bon era that I’ve never heard before. It even offers a few little surprises in the sound. It’s almost poppy with its call and response chorus and charmingly clichéd lyrics.
But I’m a little closer to the ‘half empty’ crowd when it comes to Walk All Over You. It’s not a bad song, it just seems like some of the not so great aspects of your average AC/DC song, watered down to be even more not so great. Until Angus Young steps in with his solo. It’s standard Angus stuff, but it injects an energy into the song that raises it for those first couple of minutes. Then, even when Angus takes a step back, that energy has taken hold and the second half of the song becomes one of Highway to Hell’s real highlights.
Where that lack of energy was a real liability in the opening moments of Walk All Over You, it comes across much more effectively as ominous restraint in Touch Too Much. It’s also one of the most different AC/DC songs you’ll ever hear. In a lot of ways, it sounds like the song in a campy rock musical that would introduce the moustache twirling villain. The grown man in a school uniform should be a constant reminder of AC/DC’s ability to embrace camp, but I always forget about it until I hear songs like Touch Too Much.
And when they decide it’s time for a hard core shot in the arm, they really deliver with Beating Around the Bush. Basically a punk rock song, fast, loud and bursting out of your speakers. Which makes the average Shot Down in Flames feel even more like unessential filler than it would be if heard in isolation.
As soon as I heard the opening notes of Love Hungry Man, all I could hear was the sound of a creatively drained band trying to fill out the last two tracks on their album. Everyone one is obviously on cruise control with this song, except bass player Cliff Williams. This is the most complex, intricate bass work I’ve ever heard from this band. Sure, that’s not saying much, and this is hardly Bootsy Collins stuff, but it was good to hear Williams given a little room to stretch his legs for a change.
The highs of Highway to Hell are amazingly high, and none more so than the title track. The lows are pretty low, but the majority of the album is right in that middle ground of totally fine, nothing special. It makes me wonder why this was the album that gave AC/DC their long overdue massive mainstream success.
Mick Wall’s biography, AC/DC: Hell Aint a Bad Place to Be, places all of that credit at the feet of producer “Mutt” Lang, but I think it comes more down to the band sticking to their guns, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up and finally being rewarded for those convictions and hard work.