Only one year after finally conquering America with Highway to Hell, AC/DC had a little bit of a problem. A little bit of problem of the dead singer variety. As charismatic and commanding a presence as Bon Scott was, AC/DC was lucky to be one of the few bands whose front man isn’t necessarily the most identifiable. Angus Young, with his school boy uniform, Gibson SG guitar and on stage antics had been a co-front man from day one. And with band fuhrer Malcolm Young still there to pull the stings and write the majority of the music, AC/DC were back, bigger than ever, and in a shockingly quick time, with Back in Black.
As far as resetting the agenda after such a huge band upheaval goes, you could do a lot worse than opening your album with a song like Hells Bells. It shows that all the non-Bon aspects of the band that fans loved about AC/DC are still there. There’s the driving guitar, the no frills but pinpoint accurate rhythm section, and there’s a clear added level of confidence after the success of Highway to Hell. It also gives new singer, Brian Johnson, a chance to immediately show what a great fit he is for the band.
Shoot to Thrill backs all of that up. It also further cements Johnson’s qualifications for the gig. Sure, I have the benefit of hindsight, but I think if I was hearing this for the first time in 1980, I’d recognise that Johnson is in no way trying to do a Bon Scott impression. He’s singing his own way and adding his own energy. At the same time, it fits the AC/DC sound amazingly well and is clear that he’d be able to do a more than serviceable job of the Bon era hits on stage.
After the stella one-two opening punch, we get the first shit bomb of the AC/DC PB (post Bon). What You Do for the Money Honey should be put in the history books as the first Brian Johnson lead piece of generic AC/DC filler. Standard riff A, followed by sub par innuendo based lyrics B, leading into formulaic Angus solo C. Everything you ever need to accuse AC/DC of being repetitive (which I kind of agree with, but also kind of love) is in this song. But it’s absolute genius compared to the laziness of Giving the Dog a Bone. Lyrically and musically, it’s even more tossed off and lazy than the title makes it sound.
After a too long stretch of mediocrity, Back in Black delivers one of the few true zeitgeist invaders from the Brian Johnson years. The titular song has one of the greatest guitar riffs from any AC/DC era, it’s the perfect showcase of Johnson’s vocals and Angus Young delivers one of his most inventive solos ever committed to tape.
Next up is possibly the next most recognisable Johnson fronted jam, You Shook Me All Night Long. It’s simpler rhythmically, musically and melodically than Back in Black, but no less iconic and attention grabbing. Back in Black is by far the better song, but the simplicity of You Shook Me All Night Long is a nice light to Black’s shade that shows AC/DC had already figured out more than one way to best utilise their new singer.
Unfortunately, that’s where the classics and enduring winners end. From here on out, it’s your typical AC/DC filler where each song sounds increasingly like it was entirely built around the one phrase repeated over and over in each song’s chorus. Have a Drink on Me, Shake a Leg and Rock n’ Roll Aint Noise Pollution… See what I mean?
Back in Black really did the impossible. To replace in irrepressible front man like Bon Scott, even with the advantage of Angus Young’s notoriety to fall back on, is an amazing feat. To do it less than a year after Bon’s death is just phenomenal. Sure, it had a wave of momentum to ride, thanks to the success of Highway to Hell, but I don’t think it really rests on those laurels. Well, at least it doesn’t rest on those laurels any more or less than any other AC/DC album. It’s the second bestselling album of all time, it’s the number one bestselling Australian album of all time. And you know what, based just on Hells Bells, Shoot to Thrill and the titular Back in Black, I’m totally cool with that