Counterbalance No. 95: AC/DC's 'Back in Black'
The 95th Most Acclaimed Album of All Time has nine lives, cat's eyes, using every one of them and running wild. Counterbalance checks to see whether AC/DC's 1980 breakthrough ain't noise pollution after all.
Klinger: As we consider the ways in which the Great List has evolved over time, with various opinions forming a general canonical consensus, I often find it helpful to go back and look at the ways these albums and artists were initially received by the critical community. No example is more curious than the case of Australian hard rockers AC/DC. In the first pressing of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, published in 1979, all of AC/DC's albums received no stars. Zero. A little square where the number of stars would be. That was before the death of lead singer Bon Scott, the release of this album, and an additional 30-plus years’ worth of albums, tours, and general sticktoitiveness. Rock and roll may not be noise pollution, but AC/DC clearly understands that it's a war of attrition, and if you stick around long enough, respect—even the grudging kind—will eventually have to be paid.
So here we are with an AC/DC album eking its way into the top 100, which must make those first wave rock writers sweat right through their vintage Quicksilver Messenger Service t-shirts. It's nearly the equivalent to telling a Pitchfork writer that one day Limp Bizkit will be revered by future generations. These are the thoughts that have run through my mind as I've been listening to Back in Black, an album that broke big when I was in the 7th grade and still sounds for all the world like junior high to me. I still can't quite decide whether that's necessarily all that good or all that bad. Mendelsohn, this album has been around your entire life. You've probably been to countless weddings where "You Shook Me All Night Long" was played. What do you make of Back in Black?
Mendelsohn: I can't take this album seriously. I wish I could. I wish I could appreciate it in some sort ironic way that only hipsters are allowed to do. And if that was the case, then Pitchfork would also have to appreciate this album, and a 10.0 rating for Back in Black is only a couple of steps away from ironic appreciation of Limp Bizkit and our collective nightmare will have come true. It still might, let's just wait 10 more years and see what happens because, as I've gotten older, I've come to realize that kids have terrible taste.
But I digress. I've gotten sidetracked by my fear for where the past and the future meet in an explosion of terrible music and poor fashion choices. As you noted, like a lot of the records on the Great List, Back in Black has been around for my entire life. The difference between Back in Black and the rest of these records is that I have never viewed it as an album worthy of critical praise and that is mostly because I've never known anyone who has thought of AC/DC being worthy of critical praise in general. There was no moment in my life when someone handed me this album and whispered reverently, "You have to listen to this record." [I did. Did you have an older brother growing up? -- Ed.] AC/DC was just another staple on the classic rock station, a heavy metal band that was neither heavy nor metal. So, needless to say, I'm a little at a loss as to what to think about AC/DC's inclusion in the Top 100.
Am I so far removed from AC/DC as a force in popular music that I just can't see it? The music isn't bad. And I'm not saying that out of some sort of half-hearted attempt at begrudging respect. These Aussies wrote an exemplary piece of rock 'n' roll -- I just can't wrap my head around it. Too many turns on the classic rock station, too many terrible wedding sing-a-longs.
Klinger: Well, that's understandable, but it's important for us to remember that there's really no way for us, at this stage in our lives, to appreciate this album in its intended context. This isn't an album that's meant to be listened to in academic, chin-stroking mode (heh, stroking), which could explain why the critics were at a disadvantage.
I've been too busy lately to listen to Back in Black while drinking a couple cases of beer with some dudes, but I'll bet doing so would squelch whatever misgivings I might have. I know I'd be better equipped to enjoy the straight-ahead rockery of "Shoot to Thrill" or the Chuck Berry influences in Angus Young's guitar work. Meanwhile, Brian Johnson's keening wail would just float over the top of our slurred, unison chorus rather than occasionally annoying me. I might even be able to overlook the group's strikingly naive view of sexuality. (I mean, really, "Let me cut your cake with my knife"? Johnson demonstrates such a rudimentary understanding of the mechanics of lovemaking that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had never experienced carnal relations when he wrote these lyrics.)
Mendelsohn: I don't think there was ever a point in my life, no matter how much beer I drank, when I could fully appreciate this record. I recognize the general simplicity of this record and the precision of the Young brothers in executing hook-filled guitar riffs, because when they hit that sweet spot, like on "Shoot to Thrill" or "Back in Black", they knock it out of the park. But when they miss, it just ends up sounding derivative and lazy, like they couldn't come up with anything new so they just switched the chords around and did the same thing they had done on the previous song. Lyrically, I don't think it would be to anyone's benefit to go looking for wisdom in anything that comes out of the mouths of theses cast outs from the Outback. And in Johnson's defense, maybe he just really likes cake. Get your mind out of the gutter.
The inclusion of the record strikes me as completely at odds with the rest of the list. Sure, we seen a fair number of records whose enjoyment is linked directly to the consumption of booze, but those records played an important in the foundation of rock 'n' roll or its various sub genres. Oh, wait, does this have something to do with heavy metal and its rise to full genre status in the 1980s?
Klinger: Partly, I reckon. The same impulses that have led Zeppelin from the hard rock ghetto to the canon have delivered AC/DC to a similar place. Also, it's important to note that more recent generations of critics have a similar relationship to this album that you do. It's always been around, and there's never been that shock of the new that so many people initially resist.
Besides, AC/DC's influence extends well beyond what's come to be called heavy metal. You can hear it in the early Beastie Boys, most notably. Back in Black is also significant to my ears in the way that Mutt Lange's production brought a newer, slicker sensibility to hard rock. This album is buffed to such a fine polish, with so little left to chance, that it's easy to see why this album crossed over from the adolescent male base into, well, wedding receptions. (And given the fact that Mutt Lange later went on to produce Def Leppard and Shania Twain, I'm surprised he doesn't get a lot more fan mail from the strippers of America.)
Mendelsohn: We've seen slick production before, just never applied with such aplomb to hard rock. That may be it though. Led Zeppelin, for as popular as they were, still had a roughness that refused to be buffed out. Something I would attribute to the blues influence that ran so strongly through their veins. AC/DC doesn't have that strong link to the blues tradition, instead they seem to be hanging off the pop branch of the music tree, it's way out there at the end of the pop branch, but you can hear it in songs like "You Shook Me All Night Long" and "Have A Drink on Me", with the big choruses that demand sing-a-longs.
Klinger: The Young brothers might argue that they have a deeper connection to blues stylings than what you hear here (and they'd refer you to their earlier LPs as proof), but I get your point. I think AC/DC also manages to insert just the right amount of cartoonery into the proceedings (heh, insert), what with the schoolboy uniform and the Andy Capp hat and all, to deliver a sound that's more fun than menacing ("Hells Bells" notwithstanding). They wind up somewhere in the continuum between the Stooges (stupidity as performance art) and Kiss (performance art as stupidity), which is a pretty neat trick.
Mendelsohn: Still, I feel like I'm missing something. This record is such an anomaly in my mind. At least it will be a couple years before we will have to talk about another AC/DC record (Highway to Hell at #278) and then after that it will be a thousand or so more spots before the next one. Hopefully by that time the critics will have come to their senses or maybe the Internet will have become obsolete. Here's hoping.