The 10 AC/DC Songs That Are More Important Than You Think

[30 July 2014]

By Jesse Fink

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)


“Spellbound” really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo. 

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)


This is one of the best songs off Powerage—perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist—but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I’m living in a nightmare / She’s looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can’t afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)


Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-‘80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)


It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that—maybe he was having a bad day—but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell”. It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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5. “Live Wire”
(TNT, 1975; High Voltage, 1976)

A real staple of AC/DC’s live shows, in fact the first song they ever played on stage when they arrived in the United States in 1977, without Mark Evans, and the song that opens the brilliant Live from the Atlantic Studios release. That record was produced for American radio stations by Michael Klenfner, Perry Cooper and Judy Libow at Atlantic Records.

Significantly, “Live Wire” was also the first song AC/DC played live in England, at the Red Cow in Hammersmith in 1976.

There’s a great passage in Mark’s book about it and for me it sums up the power of the band: “We opened with ‘Live Wire.’ My bass intro drifted in the air, Mal’s ominous guitar chords joined in, Phil’s hi-hat cymbals tapped away and then the song exploded when Angus and the drums absolutely fucking erupted. I felt like I was lifted off the ground, it was that powerful.”

Jimmy Douglass, who was the engineer on Live from the Atlantic Studios, told me: “I remember the feeling of standing and just looking at the speakers, listening and going, ‘Hooooly shit.’” That’s how powerful their music is. For me, there’s nothing like AC/DC and I believe it’s their primal energy, what Jimmy calls their “pure energy fire”, that is the secret of their popularity around the world. I’ve seen a picture of a young Buddhist monk in the Himalayas with an AC/DC T-shirt under his robe. What other band has that reach?

 
4. “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”
(TNT, 1975; High Voltage, 1976)

This is another song that showcases the brilliance of George Young—the bagpipes were all his idea—but more significantly the one that first got the notice of American radio programmers and launched AC/DC’s Stateside adventure. Contrary to all the claims already made (from Seattle’s Steve Slaton to Flint’s Peter C. Cavanaugh), the first person to play AC/DC on the radio in the United States was Bill Bartlett at WPDQ/WAIV in Jacksonville, Florida. Texas, California, Massachussetts and the Midwest were key areas for early airplay, but Florida was where it all kicked off.

Bartlett had been playing AC/DC well before anyone else after coming out to Australia as a foreign-exchange student in the early ‘70s and getting on the mailing list of Australian record companies for new releases. Bartlett also broke Little River Band on radio in the US. These were the days when record companies had a lot of trouble getting Aussie bands played. I’ve seen a photo from the era of an A&R guy in Florida shopping around a new LRB record with a live tree kangaroo as a gimmick.

Australian bands have a lot to thank Bartlett for, and he was acknowledged in a letter from late Atlantic Records promo executive Perry Cooper as “the first person in the country to turn me on to AC/DC.” Bartlett now lives in Costa Rica and “It’s a Long Way to the Top” has become a classic, loved by fans and covered by scores of bands. I especially love the Nantucket version. Dropkick Murphys do a very commendable version, too.

 
3. “High Voltage”
(TNT, 1975; High Voltage, 1976)

A song that for me encapsulates the max-energy joie de vivre and peerless rock boogie of AC/DC before they went all primal noise with Let There Be Rock. Don’t listen to the God botherers or the critics who tell you AC/DC’s music is dark with infernal themes. It’s joyful at its core. It’s just pure rock ‘n’ roll. You’d have to be dead not to have your head or body move with this track. The first of their true classics and an enduring hit among fans. But who played the drums on it?

According to Tony Currenti, it was him and not Phil Rudd, who’s in the clip filmed in Melbourne in 1975. I’ve seen Tony play this live and he plays in exactly the same style: understated, not heavy, but with real swing and powerfully. Rudd plays the drums for “High Voltage” in a different way: you can hear it in the intro.

A friend called Anthony Stocqueler, who plays in the Australian AC/DC tribute band Let There Be Bon, rehearsed with him before The Choirboys show in Sydney and told me, “The intro is different with Tony. Phil plays four ‘dah dah dah dah’ while Tony does two ‘dah dah dah dah’ then falls in to 4/4 time while the guitars are still doing the intro. It’s something that is very unique to Tony’s style. Phil has never done it like the album: only once live in Sydney in 2010. Still didn’t sound quite right. The first time I played the song with Tony he played it like the record. I had goosebumps. No drummer ever does it like that.”

Currenti claims he laid down the track in the studio while recording “High Voltage”, the Australian version, which puts him at odds with the recollection of former Albert Productions A&R head honcho Chris Gilbey, who asserts the record was cut after the sessions had finished. Fascinatingly, audience noise for the clip, directed by Larry Larstead, was stolen from George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh live album. Larry apologises to Harrison for it in the book.

 
2. “Soul Stripper”
(High Voltage, 1975; ’74 Jailbreak, 1984)

This is one of the songs from the band’s debut LP, 1975’s High Voltage, that never made it on to the American issue of High Voltage (1976) but instead finally got released on the 1984 EP, ‘74 Jailbreak. How it never ended up on the band’s first American album I will never know. It’s one of the most compelling, hypnotic AC/DC songs I’ve heard, with dueling guitar leads from Malcolm and Angus (who share the songwriting credit between them), and again is notable for having George, Angus and Malcolm play on it, with vocals from Bon Scott and drums by the band’s forgotten drummer, Tony Currenti, who performed all the songs on the album bar “Baby Please Don’t Go”.

I was the first author ever who’d bothered to go talk to Tony. I tracked him down to his pizzeria in southern Sydney, went in, sat down and had a coffee and pizza with this avuncular Sicilian guy who looked like Al Delvecchio from Happy Days. He’s not the kind of guy you would expect in a million years had played for AC/DC. His shirt, covering his ample girth, was covered in flour. He told me a story that has changed AC/DC history and Tony’s since gone on to play drums again for the first time in four decades.

He recently played “High Voltage”, the single, on stage with The Choirboys in Sydney and is keen to start playing live again, either in Australia or overseas with interested acts. He’s an amazing drummer: a real “feel” player. You listen to the drums on that album and they’re very different to Phil Rudd’s playing but in no way inferior. There’s a good reason why Tony was George Young’s favourite session drummer and was asked to join AC/DC twice. Significantly, he also played on Stevie Wright’s classic, “Evie”, a song that should have been a hit in America but bombed.

Tony has been mentioned in passing on ACDC.com for his work on “Soul Stripper”, which is a belated recognition but still grossly insufficient. He never got an album credit for any of his work with AC/DC – anywhere – despite appearing on several releases, including the band’s American debut, High Voltage (1976) and ‘74 Jailbreak (1984). He deserves that at the very least. All he wants is to meet the Youngs again. He’s not after money. He’s happy with his lot. At the end of the day he’s part of rock history.

 
1. “Gimme a Bullet”
(Powerage, 1978)

This was the song that began my personal Conradian journey into the music of the Young brothers. It opens my book, The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC (St Martin’s Press, $25.99), as it was the song that, at a crucial juncture in my life, connected me with AC/DC on an emotional and physical level I’d never experienced before, and it made me a fan.

Far more interesting to readers is that after the book came out in Australia, I gave a lift one night to Mark Evans, AC/DC’s former bass player from 1975–77. My daughter Billie, Mark and I drove through the western suburbs of Sydney listening to songs off Powerage, Highway to Hell and Let There Be Rock. It was surreal. Driving around midnight, AC/DC cranked up full volume like something out of Wayne’s World, with a guy who used to be in AC/DC in the back seat, singing along with Billie and me. I’ll never forget it.

Mark’s a big part of the book and I dedicated it to him, former AC/DC drummer Tony Currenti and former Atlantic Records executive Michael Klenfner. Mark told me he’d gone away after reading The Youngs and re-listened to Powerage. He’d been in an adjoining studio playing with another band when some of it was recorded and George Young had even borrowed his guitar (as Cliff Williams had had visa problems entering Australia).

After re-listening to the album, Mark was convinced George Young had played bass on the album (there are previously unpublished photos in the book from inside the studio of George playing bass with Angus and Malcolm). Perhaps that was why the bass on “Gimme a Bullet” was so good and so much notier than Cliff’s usual contributions. Some of the bass on the album could well be Cliff, who eventually arrived in Australia and went into the studio – his name appears on the album and the official line is that he was the bass player.  But whose bass playing finally ended up being used on each track in the final analysis is up for debate.

Listen to it yourself and decide. There’s a history of George Young playing uncredited bass on AC/DC records. Personally, I think it’s one of their greatest songs, notable for the lack of a solo from Angus Young – and, as I write in the book, it stopped me from doing something stupid at a weak moment. Powerage is unquestionably the band’s masterpiece.

Jesse Fink worked for five years as a senior editor of non-fiction for HarperCollins Publishers before becoming deputy editor of Inside Sport magazine. He has won or been commended for several Australian Sports Commission Media Awards and had his feature writing collected in a number of anthologies. Fink is the author of the critically acclaimed 15 Days in June and the memoir Laid Bare: One Man’s Story of Sex, Love and Other Disorders. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/184058-the-10-ac-dc-songs-that-are-more-important-than-you-think/