It is said that timing is everything. In AC/DC‘s case, the staggered release schedule for re-mastered versions of the band’s entire catalogue has been timed to coincide with its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ambitious plan is divided into three separate release dates to satisfactorily accommodate the numerous re-mastered CDs, guaranteeing that fans will have a great deal to look forward to over the next several months. The first leg of this re-launching project consists of six albums; Back in Black, High Voltage, Highway to Hell, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and AC/DC Live (single disc and twin CD set). While the four studio recordings are the strongest of the band’s extensive offerings, Back in Black is without question the defining moment in AC/DC’s illustrious career.
The importance of Back in Black to AC/DC’s existence and the overall musical landscape of 1980 cannot be overstated. The decade opened with popular music in a confounding state of flux. Disco had run its dreadful course, and was being replaced by a slightly more tolerable Top 40 hybrid. Punk, too, was waning, gradually morphing into the next big movement known as new wave, and plain old rock had degenerated into a large-scale arena commodity. Metal remained the bastard of all musical genres; bands such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, et al., although credible in their own rights, were unable to reach a wide spread audience of listeners. The musical world was in dire need of clarity, and AC/DC delivered. In the face of tremendous odds, the band produced an album of Herculean proportions, successfully bringing its career back from the abyss, as well as creating the template for radio friendly metal with mass market appeal.
A year earlier, no one could have expected AC/DC to continue recording into the ‘80s, let alone create an album of such magnitude. The hard playing, no holds barred lifestyle that had defined the band’s persona throughout the ‘70s had ironically claimed its biggest proponent, lead singer Bon Scott. The band had been on the cusp of worldwide popularity following its 1979 album Highway to Hell, but Scott’s death nearly served as the final chapter in the AC/DC saga. The band weathered the tragedy and soldiered on, soon replacing Scott with Brian Johnson, and entered the new decade with steely resolve. The result of the band’s determined efforts was of course, 1980’s Back in Black.
The freshly re-mastered release returns Back in Black to its glorious past. Newly updated packaging has dispensed with traditional CD jewel case and paper insert fare, replacing it instead with essentially a miniature version of the original LP, complete with embossed lettering on the front cover. The CD is held in a sturdy tray amid a clever three-way fold out adorned with photos from the 1980 album jacket. Tucked neatly away in the inner sleeve pocket is a 16-page booklet of additional photos and liner notes. Conspicuously absent from the updated disc are any bonus tracks, usually standard additions to a re-mastered release. Still, fans can take advantage of current technology by using the CD to access a variety of “extras” through the web site, including audio/video footage, photos, contests, and general band related news. In this way, the album provides access to a wealth of exclusive material while maintaining the integrity of its original form. As attractive as the packaging is however, it is the music that matters most, and Back in Black‘s songs have never sounded better.
The re-mastering process has restored to the album’s 10 tracks the sharpness they had on vinyl nearly a quarter century ago. The record opens with the memorable tolling intro to “Hells Bells”, ominous and foreboding in its somber tribute to the fallen Scott. The world is introduced to Johnson’s howling vocal shortly thereafter, and listeners can once again experience the power chord crunch of Angus Young’s brilliant guitar work. The rock radio staples “Shoot to Thrill”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Shake a Leg” and “Have a Drink on Me” are as potent now as they were when first heard in 1980, while the songs “What Do You Do for the Money Honey”, “Givin’ the Dog a Bone”, “Let Me Put My Love into You” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” fill out the album in true AC/DC fashion. Together these nine songs make a tremendous record, but the crown jewel of Back in Black is undoubtedly the title track, the opening to which lays claim to being one of the two most recognized riffs in hard rock history, (the second being Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”). Few songs, (and albums), have ingrained themselves more into the collective consciousness of music fans, nor have motivated greater numbers of fledgling teenage air guitarists to purchase real instruments. Equally important is the impact Back in Black generated in bridging the gap between metal and the music mainstream. Bands from Metallica to Queens of the Stone Age owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to their Aussie counterparts for opening up previously inaccessible media outlets and broadening metal’s overall fan base.
Much of Back in Black‘s success comes from its content having transcended time and musical genres. The fact that the songs still resonate as strongly as they do, while garnering consistent radio airtime, signifies that the album has evolved over two decades into something more than just a rock record. Back in Black, like the band that created it, has become an institution. The re-mastered version maintains all of the excitement and power of the original pressing, and as such, should have a special place reserved for it in every fans’ own CD Hall of Fame.