The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC: Back in Black
It's one of the biggest selling albums of all time and, according to former Guns N' Roses drummer Matt Sorum, "the greatest resurrection of a band in history". But how much of Back in Black was the work of the late Bon Scott?
Excerpted from The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC by Jesse Fink. Published by © St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
“Back in Black” (1980)
Back in Black didn’t just signal a darker, heavier sound for the decade that was to follow for AC/DC but stands even today as a signpost of when Angus and Malcolm Young came into their own as musicians. Even, it’s not a stretch to say, as men.
Malcolm was 27 years old and Angus had turned 25. They’d changed managers, had to accept artistic and spiritual relegation for their older brother George and lost their lead singer, friend, guide, muse and lyricist. There was a new bloke with a big mop of curls out front and another, altogether odder one behind the mixing desk—someone more demanding and finicky but undeniably more brilliant than anyone they’d ever encountered in the music business.
But after four weeks of recording at Compass Point, west of Nassau on the Caribbean island of New Providence, then 12 days of mixing at Electric Lady Studios in New York City they delivered not only a great album but the best song of their lives: the title track. It remains the most penetrative AC/DC song in popular culture. It’s been covered by Santana, Muse, Shakira, Foo Fighters and Living Colour (the latter brilliantly) and sampled in music by Nelly, Limp Bizkit, Eminem, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and Boogie Down Productions. Why?
“It’s a song that is very important in the history of rock ’n’ roll and moving on in life in general,” explains former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum. “I always look to that song as the ultimate statement in ‘never give up.’ The greatest resurrection of a band in history.”
“Their licks, those themes they came up with,” coos Jerry Greenberg. “Oh. My. God. It was absolutely unbelievable. I just thought it could be one of the biggest all-time rock records ever and it proved right.”
But not everyone was sure. Atlantic’s head of singles, Larry Yasgar, who was on the ground ordering stock for record stores, was worried Brian Johnson wasn’t going to take with fans.
“We didn’t know if the kids were going to be turned off or what was going to happen,” he says. “Well, we found out. It didn’t matter.”
“Highway to Hell and Back in Black really are the seminal albums for the band because so many things came together,” argues Tony Platt. “The culmination of things at that particular point meant that AC/DC were at their peak at the moment that they had the best set of songs. I would say that the band was at their first peak playing-wise and Mutt Lange was at his first peak production-wise. Plus the overriding factor of having had such a tragic and important death in the band, and with the emotional aspects permeating every facet of the music, there must have been just an amazing perfect storm going on.
“The songs were direct and powerful, the playing was incredibly impactful, nothing was out of place. And the enthusiasm and prowess of Brian Johnson, with his desire to prove himself, cannot be overlooked.
Even Mark Opitz, who’d had to make way for Highway to Hell engineers Mark Dearnley and Tony Platt in the crossover from Vanda & Young to Lange, agrees the Youngs pulled out something special with Back in Black.
“Back in Black’s very good,” he says. “Highway to Hell was okay. But you can see Highway to Hell was a transitional experience for them. Powerage went, ‘Okay, that’s too far to the left; now we’ve gotta swing right because the record company wants it and we’ve got to learn how to do it so we like it.’ You could see that transformation happening there. If Back in Black hadn’t worked they would have gone home. That was crucial. A huge album. The mere title. Fuck. If we’re going to do something, it’s going to be fucking good. And we’re going to do it as best we can, no matter what. And we’re going to bunker down with Mutt; he fucking understands us. And you listen to Back in Black [against] something like Def Leppard’s Hysteria—two different records, same producer—and what needed to be done on Hysteria didn’t need to be done on Back in Black, that’s for sure. Because these guys could play.”
In the no-frills clips for the title track and five others off the album filmed in one day in Breda, The Netherlands, and directed by AC/DC: Let There Be Rock directors Eric Mistler and Eric Dionysius, Malcolm Young is not much bigger than the white Gretsch Falcon he’s playing. Him? Producing that unbelievable riff? Johnson looks like he’d tear your head off in a bar fight. But that little guy? He’s the one driving all of it. And then there’s Phil Rudd, whose desiccated, heavy drumming is eclipsed by the twin guitar work of the Youngs in the AC/DC “experience” but is as much a part of the AC/DC sound as three-chord riffs and flyaway solos.
In a 1991 interview with German AC/DC fanzine Daily Dirt, reproduced in Howard Johnson’s Get Your Jumbo Jet Out of My Airport: Random Notes for AC/DC Obsessives, Rudd says: “I don’t think about making things faster but heavier. A big hit at the right point can improve the song. The trick is the same with all the instruments. Look at the old blues players. Three notes get right to your soul whereas others can play 50 million and not touch you. That’s my style. I don’t do a lot but I do it right.”
When he left the band for those Martin Guerre years in the1980s and early 1990s, the band had lost one of its limbs. The Youngs had to shaft him first, though, to realize it.
“Big fucking cement slabs,” says F-word factory Rob Riley. “One of the greatest fucking drummers that ever fucking lived. He just lays it down. He’s absolutely fucking fantastic.”
“Phil Rudd is the heart and soul of that band,” says Mike Fraser. “He’s got really interesting placement of where the cymbals go. It’s not always on the one and three or the two and four. He’ll do sort of offbeat cymbals, though not a lot of them. So it keeps the drum part powerful and driving but still interesting.”
Sorum maintains the unshowy, languid Rudd has been there so long it’s all become symbiotic.
“It’s really the way Rudd sits in the groove. It’s all moving together, although there is a push-and-pull from the other guys that makes it so in the pocket and sexy.
“Phil’s a guy that is the ultimate example of meat-and-potatoes drumming while being very musical at the same time. He’s not the ‘Hey, look at me, I’m the drummer’ type, which really is what’s so cool about Phil.”
As with “Highway to Hell,” a catchy chorus was paramount to “Back in Black,” along with the angular, spiky rhythm.
“It sort of stores up the energy then pumps it out in little spurts,” says Platt. “The orchestration, and the way that the arrangements are set, every instrument is really doing its part. Nothing’s getting in the way of anything else. So when the vocal is spitting out that rhythmic verse the guitars are just underpinning it. They’re not trying to be clever in any way. And then when it hits the chorus the riff just riiiiips through the whole thing and the riff is as good as the melody.”
Back in Black was also an album where AC/DC happily deployed the benefits of technology to augment their sound and make it fatter and bigger, with the caveat that the tricks used weren’t obvious. For Highway to Hell, says Platt, the guitars were overdubbed “quite extensively” and the album was a “little less live” than its successor.
“Back in Black is a very honest, truthful, upfront album and I think it reflects that in the sound. One of the most important things that I remember from working with the Youngs was that you can use effects but don’t let them get heard at all. So there are plenty of effects lurking in the background of the albums that I worked on but you’re not aware that they’re there. They’re tucked in behind the natural sounds and they don’t impose in the slightest.”
Johnson’s vocals, however, were true to his capability. Contrary to rumor there was no double tracking.
“There are some reverbs and some little tweaks and tricks that are sitting there that thicken the vocal out but there’s no double tracking. On choruses there are sometimes backing vocals that are singing the same note, the melody notes, the unison notes. Mutt was particularly good at getting those kind of football crowd–type choruses without it sounding like a football crowd.”
Yet most of it was recorded with outdated equipment.
“It’s somewhat ironic because the desk that was in that studio at Compass Point at that particular time was an MCI, and it is looked on today as one of the lesser of the period desks,” says Terry Manning. “But it didn’t seem to matter, did it?”
The band that arrived at Compass Point straight after AC/DC was Talking Heads. They were there to cut Remain in Light, an album containing one of the most extraordinary songs in pop- music history: “Once in a Lifetime.”
Equipment didn’t matter at all.