If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that my favorite band is AC/DC, and has been since I first heard “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” on the radio when I was seven years old. Their rhythm guitarist and founder Malcolm Young died this week from complications of dementia. Rockers from all over paid tribute to him after his death. You don’t see a lot of rhythm guitar these days. It was seen as indulgent, but it build a foundation that gave AC/DC their iconic onslaught of sound.
I’ve expounded on the original lineup’s raw power and outlaw heart. In the States they debuted at CBGB and were as revolutionary at the time as the Ramones, blistering through sets and bringing rock ‘n roll back to its animal roots. They took a lot of ribbing over the years for sophomoric lyrics (which veered into parody after Bon Scott’s death) but Angus Young wore a schoolboy outfit, so that was what they were meant to be. Anyone who says “they made the same album over and over” never listened to the first five, when they developed a rough style that referred to down & out living as much as sex, which is what rock ‘n roll literally means. Over at Andrew Nette’s crime fiction site Pulp Curry, I chose my favorite crime-themed AC/DC songs. Today I’ll share a few overall favorites.
I was less a fan of the Brian Johnson era. Back in Black is their biggest selling album, and it has a handful of great songs- “You Shook Me,” the title track. “Hells Bells” (sic), “Shoot to Thrill,” and “Shake a Leg”, and “Have a Drink on Me,” while the rest of the album tries for Bon’s sly humor but derails into misogyny, with “Given the Dog a Bone” (sic), “What Do You Do For Money Honey.” and “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” which explicitly says “don’t you struggle, don’t you fight, it’s your turn tonight” when Bon never compared women to dogs when he expounded on his love of fellatio, in “Go Down”. My favorite song of his is a love tribute to a big woman, a Tasmanian named Rosie, who he became obsessed with after a one night stand:
Now, I give Bon a lot of credit but every song is written by Young/Young/Scott, and their method was to have the Young brothers jam up a riff and then Bon would alter lyrics from his notebooks to fit the beat. Listen to the guitar solo in this song. Hear Bon’s raw need. I wish someone had interviewed Rosie or tracked her down.
They didn’t exactly turn to frat boy garbage after Johnson came aboard, but they lost their way and never got it back. My favorite underrated album is Flick of the Switch, with songs inspired by westerns, arrests, and cops raiding the stage in Belgium after the crowd refused to leave (based on a concert when Bon was singer). This gives the tiniest bit of credence to the fan conspiracy theory that they cribbed from Bon’s lyric notebooks after he died, and started to go downhill when they ran out of songs. My next book, tentatively titled Death to Hipsters, uses this as a subplot. The main character was told by his cult rockstar mother than he is Bon’s son, and he doesn’t believe her, so I have a lot of fun with my love of the band in that one. I hope you’ll get to read it soon!
“Guns for Hire” off Flick of the Switch got a revival in Iron Man 2, the soundtrack of which serves as a great AC/DC “best of” album. Jon Favreau even dug up the lost Bon single “Cold Hearted Man,” about Leroy Kincaid, an ice cold killer from Bon’s youth. Astute readers will remember the real name of “Okie”, Jay Desmarteaux’s convict mentor, is Leroy Kincaid. A little nod to a great song:
A lesser known great song off Flick of the Switch is “Badlands” which reminds me of Mad Max out in the wastelands:
As for pure guitar work, these are my favorites:
“Shake a Leg,” from Back in Black
“Kicked in the Teeth” from Powerage, one of their best albums.
“Hail Caesar” from Ballbreaker
“Heatseeker” from Blow Up Your Video
This is the tour I saw them on, high school 1989. I was disheartened that Angus no longer mooned the crowd, bowing to censors. He kept boxers on. And the band started going our of their way to not use foul language. I think “Thunderstruck” off The Razor’s Edge was the final nail in the coffin, a nonsensical song written for arenas that made them giants again. Johnson’s voice was gone and the songs did indeed begin to sound all the same.
The less said about “For Those About to Rock” the better. The title track is boring and the rest of the album only gets worse. They did create an amazing rock anthem that pays tribute to the black R&B artists who invented rock ‘n roll, and that song is called “Let There Be Rock.” I’ll leave you with it. It’s light-hearted and fun and still blisters the paint off the walls. Friends who love hardcore and speed metal and act “harder than thou” … sorry, to me that’s like hot sauces made in a lab to have high scoville units but no flavor. There are harder rock tunes (“Brain Shake” off Flick of the Switch is AC/DC’s nod to thrash) but at some point you’re just showing off.
This one’s got heart.