Back In Black – AC/DC – A Rock Classic Reaches Forty

All text by Phil Ashdown.

Back In Black is the seventh studio LP from Anglo-Australian rock band AC/DC and was released 25 July 1980. It is the first album to feature vocalist Brian Johnson following the death of previous singer Bon Scott.

After the commercial success and international breakthrough of their 1979 album Highway To Hell, the band were planning a follow-up. As they re-grouped to begin the writing process it was announced that Bon Scott had died on 19 February from alcohol poisoning after a heavy drinking session in London. The band, initially thought of disbanding but friends and family talked them into continuing and they soon recruited Brian Johnson, a virtually penniless singer from Newcastle who found brief fame in the UK fronting the band Geordie.

Back In Black was written by Johnson and guitarists Angus And Malcolm Young. Malcolm had been working on a funky, stop-start riff during the Highway To Hell Tour which became the first song recorded. Setting the tone for the album it had been turned into an absolutely crunching anthem called Back In Black. The lyrics were a tribute to Bon Scott and a statement of intent from the band as they began to come to terms with their loss. It turned out that Brian had a similar suggestive way with lyrics to his predecessor, on You Shook Me All Night Long he joked “She told me to come but I was already there”.

The album was recorded in just seven weeks in the Bahamas from April to May 1980 with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. As they arrived the area was being hit by tropical storms that disrupted the studio’s electrics and Johnson referenced this in the opening lines of Hell’s Bells .. “I’m rolling thunder, pourin’ rain. I’m comin’ on like a hurricane. My lightning’s flashing across the sky. You’re only young but you’re gonna die.” Obviously Johnson felt under enormous pressure during the writing process as none of Bon Scott’s lyrics were used for the album. Also producer Lange focused particular detail on his vocal performance, requesting Johnson to work hard on his technique, with every breath even in the correct place.

At the end of their fifth week the band had nine tracks in the can. They needed one more to finish the album. Malcolm and Angus wrote Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution in 15 minutes. Producer Lange asked Johnson to say something over the intro and just came up with a spontaneous speech with him drawing on a cigarette that he thought would never make it onto the album.

As the recording sessions reached the end, the band asked manager Ian Jeffery to search for a bell sound to include at the opening to the album. He located a foundry to cast a bell to use but their time in the studio was coming to an end so suggested engineer Tony Platt record a nearby churches bells. However each time the bell was struck the sound was spoilt by a flight of birds. Fortunately the foundry was able to bring forward the bell production and it was made with perfect pitch so was recorded and finally used for Hells Bells. The end result was worth the trouble, with the portentous bell tolls a total of 13 times creating a dramatic and fitting effect.

The cover artwork was kept deliberately simple and black as a sign of mourning at the loss of Scott. Atlantic Records only stipulation was a grey outline around the band logo.

Back in Black was first released in the United States on 25 July 1980. Its release in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe followed on 31 July, and on 11 August in Australia. It was an immediate commercial success, debuting at number one on the British album chart and reaching number four on the US chart. Rolling Stone magazine called this “an exceptional showing for a heavy-metal album”. It topped the British chart for two weeks and remained in the top 10 of the American chart for more than five months.

After Back in Black was released, AC/DC’s previous albums – Highway to Hell, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It and Let There Be Rock all re-entered the British charts, which made them the first band since The Beatles to have four albums in the British Top 100 simultaneously.

To promote the album, music videos were filmed for the songs “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Hells Bells”, the title track, “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “Let Me Put Love Into You”, and “Shoot to Thrill”. Only the first four were released as singles. In the US, the single “You Shook Me All Night Long”/”Have a Drink on Me” became AC/DC’s first Top 40 hit in the country, peaking at no. 35.

Back In Black not only resurrected AC/DC, it took them to a new level, elevating the band to superstar status and transforming Brian Johnson from has-been to hero.

The tour to support the album began in Belgium on 29 June and ran for 143 shows, including six in London at Hammersmith Odeon and Apollo Victoria Theatre. Amongst the visuals for the production was the their own one-ton “Hells Bell”, which was lowered to the stage each night as the bell tolls of “Hells Bells” were heard. Johnson would finish it off with several hard hits, hammer in hand as the band ended the show.

On 13 December 2007, the album was certified 22× multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of American, denoting 22 million American sales. This put it sixth in the list of best-selling albums in America. Worldwide, it went on to sell 50 million copies, leading New Musical Express to call it “the biggest selling hard rock album ever made”.

Album Tracklist

  1. Back In Black
  2. Hells Bells
  3. Shoot To Thrill
  4. Given The Dog A Bone
  5. What Do You Do For Money Honey
  6. Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution
  7. Let Me Put My Love Into You
  8. You Shook Me All Night Long
  9. Shake A Leg
  10. Have A Drink On Me

Band Line-Up

  • Brian Johnson – lead vocals
  • Angus Young – lead guitar
  • Malcolm Young – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
  • Cliff Williams – bass guitar, backing vocals
  • Phil Rudd – drums

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