Graded on a Curve:
AC/DC,
Back in Black

A very brief history lesson. First Attila was the greatest hard rock band in the world. Then Sir Lord Baltimore took over as the greatest hard rock band in the world. Then along came AC/DC to produce an electrical surge that brought down the hard rock power grid, settling the debate forever. Their ascendancy caused many a band to give up the ghost. Some sold their gear and returned to England to resume their careers as bricklayers. Others picked up dulcimers and went full folkie. I saw Deep Purple at a Greenwich Village folk club and their lute and bodhrán take on “Smoke on the Water”inspired some discerning fan with a flare gun to burn the place to the ground.

AC/DC played a primal, zero frills, straight ahead hard rock that led morons (like the younger me) to conclude their music was for dummies. Frank Zappa (my then idol) played cerebral brain music. AC/DC just punched you in the solar plexus. Theirs was gut music, like Iggy and the Stooges or a souped-up, oversexed early Black Sabbath.

And on 1980’s Back in Black—the band’s seventh studio LP—AC/DC forged its metal into a tool of sledgehammer simplicity. It was former Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson’s first LP with the band, Bon Scott having died from alcohol poisoning the previous February. The band recorded the LP in the Bahamas, where a diehard fan in the form of a crab scuttled across the studio floor. With his cheerleading the band recorded ten tracks that stripped hard rock to its essentials. Three chords, no poofter organ solos, just barf in your face music for the lads at the local.

You get a little dark stuff in the form of “Hell’s Bells,” are invited to have a drink with the lads, and get a lecture on how rock and roll isn’t poisoning the aural environment. But what you mostly get is not so subtle sexual innuendo that reveals Ted Nugent to be a loincloth feminist. This is 12-year-old stuff, but to be fair to the band, there’s nothing on Back in Black as pubescent as Zappa’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

On Back in Black AC/DC comes at you like an irate rugby prop. Opener “Hell’s Bells” is “for whom the bell tolls” doom and gloom and slow as a funeral cortege, while “Shoot to Thrill” hits you right between the eyes with a directness that proves the shortest distance between electrical amplification and the human ear is a straight line. Has there ever been a better couplet than “Shoot to thrill, play to kill/Too many women with too many pills”? Move over William Shakespeare, there’s a new bard in town!

The lyrics of sing-along “Givin’ the Dog a Bone” are so oral sex stupid only the PMRC would take them seriously, and I’m sure the boys would take your calling the song “crude” as a compliment. “What Do You Do for Your Money” same deal—chorus I defy you not to sing along with, lyrics I’m sure Johnson would tell you are a thought-provoking examination of the pay-for-sex industry. And just to prove every synapse in Johnson’s body goes straight to his johnson we get the mid-tempo “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” a line that were you to try it on a woman would most likely get you castrated.

“Shake a Leg” is a classic addition to the juvenile delinquency canon and boasts lyrics along the lines of “Kickin’ ass in the class and they say I’m a damn disgrace/They tell me what they think but they stink and I don’t really care.” “Rock Ain’t Noise Pollution” is an attempt to get an exemption from the Clean Ear Act, and I love the part at the end where Johnson proves himself a great logician with the line “Rock and roll is just rock and roll.”

One of these days I intend to track down Johnson and challenge him to come through on his offer in “Have a Drink on Me,” one of the best songs about getting blind blotto to ever come out of a blackout.“Back in Black” romper stompers you to a happy pulp. “You Shook Me All Night Long” is without a doubt the greatest love song to American thighs ever. If Johnson is to be taken literally his partner—who’s “working double time on the seduction line”—is equal parts earthquake and Joe Frazier, and he’s lucky to have survived.

Back in Black is as perfect a hard rock album as you’ll ever hear. Not a single misstep, no wimpy power ballads, no rambling guitar solos, just giant riffs, cheap liquor, and thighs made in the U.S.A. The thrust of “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is that said music will still be roaming the earth when the last cockroach bites the dust, and in a very real sense AC/DC was rock and roll. If the world’s cockroach population knows what’s good for it it’ll rush out and purchase life insurance pronto. No point in waiting to hear hell’s bells.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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