This AC/DC grab bag is expensive, but you know you want it.
With gross earnings topping an astronomical $105 million, to say that it's been a good year for AC/DC is a bit of an understatement. With a third generation discovering the band's music, they're now more popular than they've ever been, there's no venue too small for them to play, exorbitantly-priced shows are selling out left and right, and to top it off, their spirited fifteenth album Black Ice did not disappoint when it came out a year ago. And typical of a huge act, they know how to sell their brand. Go to any AC/DC show these days, and the sheer number of people who gladly shell out 15 bucks for a pair of flashing devil horns is staggering, the sight of 20 or 30 thousand flickering horns always a breathtaking sight at an outdoor show. With the 50-something band looking and sounding rejuvenated and a complete international discography fully remastered and re-released, AC/DC nostalgia has been in overdrive these last five years. Since it's more than apparent that when it comes to a large portion of their fanbase there's no price too high, you can't blame the band for striking while the iron is hot.
Which leads us to Backtracks, a monstrous new collection cunningly timed for the holiday season. With an eye-popping price tag of $225 (US), the Deluxe Collectors Edition is designed to whet the appetites of the die-hard fans. It's an ingeniously designed multimedia package that relies heavily on the "wow" factor. And wow, indeed: three CDs packed to the gills with rarities, two loaded DVDs, a lavish 180 gram LP, a 164 page coffee table book, a host of reproduced memorabilia, and the capper, the whole shebang fitting into a fully functional one watt amplifier. Just how good the amp sounds or how durable it is (there's no volume control, if that's any indication), is beside the point. This package is just too damn cool. But amplifier, book, replica buttons, picks, and posters aside, what about the real meat 'n' potatoes of this set? How does the actual music measure up?
The first thing that should be said about Backtracks is that this is nowhere near the definitive collection of AC/DC odds and sods. However, what's there is often tremendously rewarding, especially the first CD, the aptly titled Studio Rarities. For those unaware, the band's early back catalogue is extremely confusing. The Australian 1975 debut High Voltage is not the same as the international version of High Voltage that came out in 1976. The bulk of that album's material comes from the second Australian LP, T.N.T., while some of the Australian High Voltage surfaced on 1984's '74 Jailbreak EP, but not all of it. With me so far? In addition, the international Let There Be Rock and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap albums bear significantly differing track listings from the Australian versions, which, of course, have never seen the light of day on CD. And not only that, but several classic songs that the vast majority of us all know and love are actually edited versions of the Australian releases.
So it goes without saying that AC/DC had a fair bit of housecleaning as far as archival material goes, and Backtracks does a nice job straightening out loose ends. More than half of the 75-minute CD is devoted to that haphazard 1974-1978 time frame. It is a curious collection of oddball tracks. 1974's "Stick Around" is a far cry from the heavy blues of guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young's subsequent compositions, bearing a stronger resemblance to T. Rex more than anything. The jangly ballad "Love Song" is even more bizarre. Vocalist Bon Scott ditches his classic, confrontational, swaggering persona for a shockingly vulnerable style that doesn't fit into AC/DC's oeuvre at all. 1976 "Jailbreak" b-side "Fling Thing" is a whimsical interpretation of Scottish traditional "Loch Lomond", "R.I.P. (Rock in Peace)" from the Australian Dirty Deeds is a brilliant boogie-woogie jam, and 1978's "Cold Hearted Man" features the vicious Scott in prime form. The lascivious 1977 b-side "Carry Me Home" would have been a good fit on Let There Be Rock, while the uproarious "Crabsody in Blue" from the Australian version of the same album is a very welcome addition here. In addition, the extended Australian versions of such staples as "High Voltage", "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)", "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap", and "Ain't No Fun (Waiting Round to be a Millionaire)" are a real treat to hear in fully remastered form.
The last third of Studio Rarities is more of a mixed bag, though, as the focus shifts on Brian Johnson-era ephemera. The 12" extended mix of "Who Made Who" is pointless, and the 1988 b-sides "Snake Eyes" and Borrowed Time" are no better than the dreadful Blow Up Your Video album. Much better is the lithe "Money Talks" b-side "Down on the Borderline" and the fun, by-the-numbers 2000 tune "Cyberspace", as well as "Big Gun", from the excellent soundtrack for the doomed 1993 Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero.
Discs two and three serve up 29 live tracks culled from various promotional releases. The four songs that feature Scott on lead vocals all smoke, but especially "Dog Eat Dog", recorded at the 1978 Glasgow concert that yielded the bulk of the If You Want Blood, You've Got It live album. The band's live show didn't lose a step after Scott's 1980 death, as the fiery 1981 performances of "Back in Black", "T.N.T.", and "Let There Be Rock" all attest. The band is absolutely taut, the sandpaper-throated Johnson in full snarl. It's cool to hear the hugely underrated Flick of the Switch gems "Guns For Hire" and "This House is on Fire", but that's all we get from that forgotten 1983-85 era. The bulk of the live material, though, is merely comprised of audio tracks from such live videos/DVDs as 1992's Live at Donington and For Those About to Rock: Monsters in Moscow, and 1996's No Bull. There are no mediocre performances, as AC/DC remains one of the most consistently good live bands in rock 'n' roll history, but seeing as how the majority of fans either own or have seen these performances already, there's not much novelty in having a handful of excerpts on CD.
The Family Jewels Disc Three DVD continues where the best-selling 2005 release left off, offering alternate video clips of early singles and updating the band's videography to the present day, including Black Ice standouts "Rock 'n' Roll Train" and "Anything Goes". However, the real keeper, and definitely the best of the five discs, is the full concert Live at the Circus Krone. Filmed in Munich, Germany during their short tour of smaller venues in 2003, it's a rare sight of the venerable band playing a complete, hot and sweaty set in a very cozy venue in front of just a couple thousand fans. It's the kind of no-frills set-up that a band like AC/DC benefits from immensely, and they put on a rousing performance highlighted by such rarely performed songs like "Rock 'n' Roll Damnation", "Bad Boy Boogie", "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)", and "What's Next to the Moon". Filmed in hi-definition and featuring 5.1 surround sound, the interaction between the band and the audience is contagious: no gigantic barriers, no sterile stadium stage, just the music, Angus working the room, and Johnson leading the party. It's a fabulous couple hours.
For those unwilling or unable to shell out the big cash for the Deluxe Edition, a "Standard Edition" has also been put together, but despite its nice digipak design (sorry, kids, this amp doesn't work) and classy 36 page full-color booklet, folks are really getting the short end of the stick with this one. Studio Rarities only has 12 tracks as opposed to the Deluxe's 18 (the same tracklisting as the Deluxe Edition's bonus LP, it so happens), and every well-known classic ("High Voltage", "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)", "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap", "Ain't No Fun (Waiting Round to be a Millionaire)", "Rocker") has been left off, which is a bit cruel. The single-CD version of Live Rarities does focus 12 of its 15 tracks on the 1978-1985 period and the complete Family Jewels Disc Three is tossed in, but Live at the Circus Krone is not included in the Standard Edition, and that's a big one to miss. It's hard to justify paying 30 bucks for such a truncated set.
Overall, Backtracks is not quite the treasure trove that fans might have been craving all these years, and it might have been a better idea to offer complete remastered CDs of AC/DC's first four Australian albums instead of the single-CD mishmash, or even dig a little deeper into the live/studio vaults. That said, in spite of some bumps along the way, it's still a very fun seven or eight hour trip, one that comes closer to giving the fans bang for their buck than some might think. Besides, if you own the Deluxe Edition and wind up getting a little bored hearing "You Shook Me All Night Long" performed for the bazillionth time, at the very least you can pick up your own guitar, put on those devil horns, grab the official guitar pick, plug in, pretend to turn the amp up as far as the little thing will go, and play along, duck-walking to your heart's content.