The second wave of the AC/DC catalog re-issues by Epic Records hits upon the most interesting phases of the Australian riff monsters’ legacy. While instant classics and multi-platinum sellers Highway to Hell and Back in Black were the centerpieces of the first wave, this one focuses on the period immediately before and the decade following that highly successful era of the group. Diplomatically spreading the releases fairly evenly between the periods of Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, it’s the latter era that floundered the most.
Faced with the enormous pressure of following up one of the all time greatest rock records in Back in Black, the band went through the summer of 1981 unable to get the sound they wanted at a studio in France (this according to the expansive liner notes, stellar for each CD of the re-launch). Moving locations improved the sonic quality, but did nothing to salvage the songs.
For Those About to Rock We Salute You starts off strong enough, as the title tracks’ sparse guitar beginning paves the way for a sexy slide into an explosive finale that inspired legions of denim clad arena audiences to raise their fists in unison with the anthem. The remainder of the record never quite lives up to its initial burst. While Back in Black wasn’t the most coy with sexual innuendo (“Shoot to Thrill”, “Givin the Dog a Bone”), it never came close to the embarrassment of titles like “Inject the Venom”, or “Night of the Long Knives”. The lyrics are worse: “It’s high tide / So let’s ride / The moon is risin’ / And so am I” (“Let’s Get It Up”). The music seems forced at times; the overdone choruses and guitars pushed too close to the front of the mix leave too much gunpowder in the cannon with no cannonball to fire.
Who Made Who, the soundtrack from the Stephen King film debacle Maximum Overdrive, is the closest the band has come to releasing a greatest hits album. Early mega-hits “Hells Bells”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, and “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” mix with newer songs like the made-for-radio title track, where a simple drum beat and meaty bass line combine with a classic Angus Young guitar riff that was an early blue print for “Thunderstruck”, a track that would show up four years later on The Razor’s Edge. Only nine cuts deep, including two short instrumentals, Who Made Who got right to the point and avoids unnecessary filler, almost metaphorical for the way many of AC/DC’s hit songs were designed. While not a complete retrospective by any means, it handily avoids the temptation to include B-Sides and throwaways.
Produced by Aerosmith’s career revivalist Bruce Fairbairn, The Razors Edge is a brilliant record that, though similar in style, contains everything For Those about to Rock (released nine years earlier) lacked. Brian Johnson’s voice, which had deteriorated to a raspy croak as the ‘80s wore on, made a miraculous return to its scotch-soaked beginnings. The aforementioned “Thunderstruck” is a classic AC/DC album opener, an innovative guitar riff, blistering solo and shout along chorus that would launch live shows for years to come. Unlike For Those about to Rock, the classic sound never lets up, as tracks like “Fire Your Guns”, “Rock Your Heart Out”, and especially “Moneytalks” demonstrate more swagger and sex (and louder and better) than anything since Back in Black. Even the menacing title track, with an almost Spanish styled guitar intro, broke new ground for the band with its dark drum beats and chant-like backing vocals, managing to make AC/DC sound both familiar and fresh as the ‘90s began.
Back in 1977, fresh faced is exactly what the lads were, determined to break big outside of Australia. Let There Be Rock, their sophomore effort, lives up to its pretentious title in every way imaginable. Thick and chunky riffage between Angus and Malcolm Young fill the record that would be such a kick in the balls to the burgeoning punk scene in England that some actually considered it punk. Whether trading back and forth across “Whole Lotta Rosie”, or splitting the fretwork in the beginning of “Overdose” before doubling up on the sharpest three chord attack in rock ever, the Young brothers reinvented the twin guitar assault to a sickeningly tight operation. The title track lays a down a smoking lead that Motley Crue tried to steal and every rock band since have used as a blueprint to jamming out the next great rocker. Bon Scott was the perfect match to the dirty guitar as his vocals stormed where others might have shirked, refining his horny and throaty howl into a confident scream. He began to incorporate a storyteller feel to his lyrical delivery more than before, fitting over any bottom end fill or grinding guitar perfectly.
Released one year later Powerage was a worthy successor, and the best possible transitionary record to Highway to Hell, even though today Powerage remains an unheralded masterpiece. The guitars loosen up and backing vocals begin to creep in the back door with greater frequency. The biggest reason for the change was new member Cliff Williams not only taking over bass duties, but becoming an integral part of the bands’ sound. A deep churn of bass fills Powerage, lending weight and depth to tracks like “Down Payment Blues”, which starts off ominously enough before Williams’ duals with Angus Young as they both rise competitively until Scott steps in to sing them down before settling in for the ride. Never a “singer” in the traditional sense of the word, Scott finally eased into a range where he felt comfortable enough to carry notes that, when coupled with his trademark growl, added a timbre that would be explored much more by the encouragement of producer Mutt Lange on Highway to Hell. The bluesy sound of Scott’s voice bleeds into the music, where Angus and Malcolm slow the tempo while steadily building into a rollicking jam throughout the majority of the record before bringing in the wrecking ball of “Kicked in the Teeth”, a ferocious track that weaves in and out of mini-aneurysm solos as Scott wails “Kicked in the teeth again / Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win”. There may not be a better verse to sum up this five-disc snapshot of the AC/DC catalog.