July 27th marked the 40 year anniversary of one of the great rock records, Highway to Hell. The album pushed the up and coming Aussie act AC/DC to true stardom, being certified 7x platinum and creating a title track that – among a number of the band’s other hits – currently lives as one of hard rock’s most iconic songs. It’s impossible to overstate just how relentless this album’s attitude is. “Highway to Hell” is one of the slower songs on the album, and the punch of its three chord riff (the type of which AC/DC has perfected) leaves me seeing stars by the end of its brisk three-and-a-half minute runtime. Producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange took the AC/DC’s talent for steady, balls to the wall bangers from and condensed them into crisply produced three minute tracks that made it an instant global success. (It also resulted in a medical milestone. Doctors discovered that if CDs and cassette tapes of the album were smelted in a furnace, they liquefied into pure testosterone that could be – and still is – used to produce booster pills and shots.) Since then AC/DC has been a staple of the hard rock acts that owned the music industry for the last half of the 20th century.
AC/DC was my first pop-culture obsession. I was in 3rd grade when Guitar Hero II overthrew the U.S. government and brainwashed all of its citizenry into obsessively strumming their five-button controllers along to classic rock covers. The genius of Guitar Hero was its ability to convince players that they were rock gods, and 8 year old me fell hard for the ploy. I moved quickly into picking up a real guitar to manifest my inner power. AC/DC quickly became the band whose catalogue I burned through . Their riffs were more than easy enough for beginners, but the myriad patterns they produced with A, D, and G power chords, along with their breakneck speed, made AC/DC songs the ideal target for my early musicianship.
Of course, the reason behind my love for AC/DC as a budding musician (spoiler: I never truly bloomed) is the most frequent criticism against them: their songs all follow the same formula. The riffs center primarily on three to four chords, the chorus likely features some variant of the word “balls,” and the solo is some bluesy shred from schoolboy guitarist Angus Young. Young supposedly once said “I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” Complexity is not their claim to fame.
I’m not here to deny that the formula exists, but there is more variety in the band’s catalogue than I think they are given credit for. Their whole ’70s career oozes a bluesiness that they shed in the Brian Johnson era. Songs like “Ride On” and “Gone Shootin'” owe as much to Robert Johnson as anyone. And “Beating Around the Bush,” while rooted in the three chord structure, has an adrenaline-fueled two string lick that makes me want to rip off my shirt and toss my brother through a wall. AC/DC may only five tricks up their sleeve, but the combinations of those tricks and the kineticism with which they perform them never cease to amaze me.
And they’re also just so fucking tight. It would be easy to think that, since the barebones of AC/DC’s tracks are so defined and seemingly simple, the band plays pretty loose with them. But if you listen closely to their albums, there is not a single missed note, no strum where Angus and rhythm guitar brother Malcolm Young are out of sync. The drummer (usually Phil Rudd, but Chris Slade took over from 1989-1994) and bassist are essentially breathing metronomes, rocking out to the 4/4 beats of the song and doing nothing else, but that is far easier said than done. The only moment of imprecision I found relistening to their discography comes at the beginning of the genius “Overdose,” where an appregio is simply but flimsily strummed. Otherwise the band is a finely tuned machine that cannot be stopped and cannot falter.
The AC/DC machine spent their first twenty-five years making every other hard rock band look like Duran Duran. Few bands have come close to holding the same power that AC/DC did. Even bands that were capable of rocking as hard as AC/DC did, like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Black Sabbath, only get to that level occasionally. While they are arguable much better bands, they just don’t make me lose my goddamn mind like AC/DC does. AC/DC reduces me to my most primal state, a very specific high where the little intelligence I have is no more useful than a dog turd in the summer heat and I am more than happy to rid myself of it.
And sure, there are times where they aren’t the rock gods I have made them out to be so far. At their worst they come off as lazy; their albums post-Razor’s Edge have been resoundingly mediocre, falling back on mid-tempo jams that have a fraction of the energy they rose to stardom utilizing. But they spent a shocking amount of time at their best, as they didn’t make a truly bad album until 1995’s Ballbreaker, and their albums up to For Those About to Rock are unimpeachable. When they are hitting their stride, AC/DC does not let me sit still. I headbang. I dance. I strain my vocal chords to poorly mimic Bon Scott’s seductive shrieks or growl along to Brian Johnson’s gravelly tones. I want to grab my cherry red Gibson SG – purchased specifically because it is Angus Young’s signature guitar – and plow through a song along with the two brothers. I want to fuck. I want to snort a mile long line of cocaine (okay, maybe that one is a stretch). I want to shed all of my stress and rock out like that’s all there’s nothing else in the world worth doing.
There aren’t many things that I ask of the media that I consume. At the top of the short list of questions I consider when critiquing something is “Does [insert media] know what it wants to be, and does it be that thing successfully?” AC/DC never once wavers from its goal of producing unfiltered, overwhelming, and gut-punching rock n’ roll. From the sex-soaked way Scott mutters “Cut this,” at the start of “Problem Child” to sadistic macho of “Hells Bells,” AC/DC exudes the juvenile rush of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll better than anyone else ever could. Nobody does what AC/DC does as well as they do. My tastes have changed radically since I was an eight year old, as you’d expect, but AC/DC sits comfortably on the Mount Rushmore of my favorite bands. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
For more of Adrian’s thoughts on one of rock’s greatest bands, follow him on Twitter @APBryant32.