The story of Back In Black ends with success, a success few ever experience and one which five youths from Australia never could have imagined achieving when they penned the words to "It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)," the song that would set them on their path to success in earnest.
The story of Back In Black begins where most stories end – with death.
This is the story of Back In Black.
In the early months of 1980, AC/DC was riding high on the success of their latest album, 1979’s Highway To Hell. The album, AC/DC’s first to break into the US Top 100 as it surged to #17, propelled them into their largest tour to date, crossing North America and Europe as they played to larger and larger audiences. After a few weeks off following the final show of their Highway To Hell tour on January 27 in Southampton, UK, AC/DC began work on their follow-up album. Songs were beginning to take shape when Angus received a call that would bring everything to a screeching halt: lead singer Bon Scott had been found dead on February 19, 1980 after a night of drinking. He was only 33.
The band was thrown into shock as panicked calls were placed back and forth between band members in search of information. Bon was not only the frontman and lyricist, but the bare-chested elder statesman of the band and their galvanizing force. He was also no stranger to the excesses of a good time, which made coming to terms with his tragic end that much harder. Drummer Phil Rudd: "I found it a little hard to put into perspective because it’s all such a shock. I mean, the guy already died a couple times before anyway, so we all expected him to sorta turn up at practice the next day."
Fearing Bon’s parents would first hear of their son’s death from a reporter or in the tabloids, Malcolm made the hardest call he had ever had to make in dialing the Scott family in Australia to deliver the tragic news. The call was made that much harder when Bon’s parents initially mistook Malcolm for their son calling home to check in. They were devastated.
On March 1, Bon’s ashes were buried in Freemantle Cemetery’s Memorial Garden, just outside of Perth.
With Bon gone, the future of AC/DC was uncertain. Malcolm suggested rehearsing to Angus as a means of coping with the loss of Bon, whom they considered a member of their family. Angus was unsure, but his brother helped convinced him otherwise. "We kinda felt that, you know, that was that. The only thing that kept it together, I think, was Mal." While the band briefly considered quitting, they eventually concluded that Scott would have wanted AC/DC to continue in face of their loss. Angus realized that, "if it had been one of us, Bon would have done the same." Phil Rudd echoed Angus’ sentiments in describing the band’s decision to go on: "We all agreed that the last person that would want to see it fall would be Bon."
With the decision to continue with the band behind them, the obvious question loomed large: who would front the band? The search for a new lead singer began and various candidates for Bon’s replacement were brought in to audition for the band, but nothing clicked. Auditions continued, but the band had yet to find a suitable fit when Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who had produced Highway To Hell and was already onboard for the follow-up, suggested Brian Johnson. It was obvious that Lange wasn’t the only one who saw Brian as an ideal candidate for the post when a letter from a fan in Cleveland, Ohio fortuitously turned up at management’s offices enthusiastically suggesting the band audition the singer from Newcastle. Whatever the deciding factor, a call was placed.
When Brian picked up the band’s call, he was still gigging with his own band, Geordie, who he had been with through various line-up changes for the better part of a decade. In between shows fronting Geordie and various side jobs, including a gig singing in a commercial for Hoover Vacuums that ultimately forced him to be late on the day of his audition with AC/DC, Brian was having trouble making ends meet and was actively looking for another band to join. The call to audition for AC/DC was a welcome one and, after his Hoover gig, Brian headed to London for his date with destiny.
When Brian arrived he was handed a Newcastle Brown Ale and the band launched right into it, asking Brian what he’d like to sing. After running through "Whole Lotta Rosie" and Ike & Tina Turner’s "Nutbush City Limits," it was obvious that Brian wasn’t just another candidate. The band was impressed and a few days later, he was hired. On April 8th, Brian Johnson was officially introduced as AC/DC’s new lead singer.
Brian seemed like a natural fit for AC/DC and even had the approval of Bon. As Angus Young later recalled, "I remember Bon playing me Little Richard, and then telling me the story of when he saw Brian singing." He says about that night, "There’s this guy up there screaming at the top of his lungs and then the next thing you know he hits the deck. He’s on the floor, rolling around and screaming. I thought it was great, and then to top it off – you couldn’t get a better encore – they came in and wheeled the guy off!" Later that night, Johnson would be diagnosed with appendicitis, which was the cause of his writhing around on stage.
With Brian Johnson in place, the band got back to work on the new album. In April, only a few months after Bon’s death, the band traveled to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where they began recording with the Robert John "Mutt" Lange and engineer Tony Platt, who had also worked on Highway To Hell.
Recording wasn’t always, or often, smooth. The band’s gear was initially held up by customs and the island was overcome with tropical storms that wreaked havoc on the studio’s electricity. It was all a new experience for Brian, who had trouble adjusting to the environment, as did the rest of the band. "After about five days out in the Bahamas, cause it is a lonely place the Bahamas, it’s a rotten place, it’s a stinkin’ place; I was certainly plucked out of my environment, my working class environment up in Newcastle, and suddenly chopped into the Bahamas with all this sand and sun and palm trees. I just didn’t like it; the lads here they did as well. No one liked it, it was rotten. Try to do a rock n’ roll album there."
In a striking vote of confidence in their new band member, Malcolm and Angus took the usual task of writing the music and handed over the lyrical responsibilities to Brian. It was clear from the get go that Brian was up to the task of being the voice of AC/DC. Describing his approach, Brian explains: "I’ve always been a cheeky writer. I’ve always written songs with tongue and cheek, where people can listen to them and have a little bit of smile on their face while they listen to them, you know, like in ‘Given the Dog a Bone’ and things like that." Brian’s playful ease with words benefited even the album’s gravest material, allowing him to adapt the island’s inclement weather into the album’s memorable introductory lyrics, on the somber opener "Hell’s Bells":
"I'm a rolling thunder, pourin’ rain. I'm comin' down like a hurricane. My lightning's flashing across the sky. You're only young but you're gonna die."
Going into the Compass Point sessions, the band had rough outlines for nine songs. After working through and recording the nine, the need for a tenth and final song was decided upon. Malcolm and Angus cleared the studio, directing the band and crew to the local bar, while they stayed behind and worked-up a riff for the final number. As Malcolm described it, "We bopped it down in about fifteen minutes and sat around for a while. The guys come back, we played it to Mutt and Mutt went ‘That’s cool. Let’s go for that one.’" The result was the album’s closing track, "Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution."
With the closing track in place, it was only a matter of weeks before the album was completed.
The result was Back In Black, an album that, in the words of Brian Johnson was "a good rock record in memory of Bon, but without the slabber, without all the mulch and the crap that usually goes with that." In short, it was a straight-up, no bullshit rock record; one that Bon would approve of. Keeping with the no frills approach to the recording, AC/DC directed the label to keep the album stark, a concept that Atlantic Records initially struggled against. Malcolm eventually told them, "When it becomes black, it’ll be right. All black, nothing on it. We want it embossed so you don’t need white lines on it." The band eventually compromised by allowing a thin grey border to appear around their logo, their only concession.
With just a month until the album’s release, Brian performed his first shows with the band, a six-date European run that began on June 29 in Namur, Belgium. Brian was understandably nervous about that first night, but he was heartened each night by the crowd’s warm reception and the appearance of signs in the audience welcoming him to the stage.
While in the Netherlands as part of that six-date run, the band recorded a series of basic performance videos for six songs — "Back In Black", "Hells Bells", "What Do You Do For Money Honey", "You Shook Me All Night Long", "Let Me Put My Love Into You" and "Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" – that were used to promote the album, but which largely went unreleased until 2005’s Family Jewels DVD.
On July 13, the band officially kicked off their tour in support of Back In Black with a show in Edmonton, Canada. The stage set included a new centerpiece which had first been conceived of for use in the recording of the album and has since become a permanent fixture on AC/DC tours — the Hell’s Bell. Malcolm recalls, "I was just taking a piss and I just thought, ‘Hang on, why don’t we get a big fucking bell?’" The sudden inspiration produced not just the centerpiece of the band’s live show; its tolling set the tone for the album.
Twelve days into their tour of North America, Back In Black was released stateside and, directly afterwards, throughout the world. Initial reviews of Back In Black were mixed. Some critics, like Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, heaped praise upon the album:
"Back In Black is not only the best of AC/DC's six American albums, it's the apex of heavy-metal art: the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre. In other words, Back In Black kicks like a mutha."
Others, like The L.A. Times’ Terry Atkinson, weren’t so enthusiastic:
"…the heavy-metal songs here are among the most uninspired by a group that never had a whole lot to offer in the first place, other than a wild-acting (but ordinary-sounding) guitarist, Angus Young, and a slightly charming brashness that quickly becomes irritating and dull."
While the critics were mixed, fans couldn’t get enough of the album. As Geffen Records A&R chief John Kalodner (who signed the band to Atlantic Records) told the L.A. Times back in January of 1981, "Their time has come as a rock band — there’s no other explanation for it. It’s been pure word-of-mouth. Every kid is telling his friends that they’ve got to have this record." Upon release, the album shot to #1 in the UK and #4 in the US, where it eventually spent 131 straight weeks on the Billboard charts. The popularity of Back In Black didn’t let up as the band continued to tour the globe and just a few months after its release, the album was certified platinum in the US, a first for one of the band’s records.
As the tour continued on, Back In Black’s success manifested itself in ways other than increased sales. "It was nice the way as the tour progressed the album went straight into the charts in the States and people started to know the songs," Brian said, "Whereas before, when we’d say, ‘Here's a song called 'Back In Black,’’ there'd be nothing, a total sorta, ‘Hmmmmmm.’ Now with the end of the tour: ‘Here's 'Back In Black’’ and ‘Woooooaaahhh,’ a big roar. It's fantastic." The band stayed on the road through the New Year, hitting cities across North America and Europe before wrapping up in February of 1981 with a run of Australian dates, the band’s first shows there since Bon’s passing.
Just 12 months before, AC/DC had been greeted with tragedy in the New Year. Now, 12 months later, they were returning home to the same earth under which the ashes of their friend and frontman lay and riding high off a success none of them saw coming, especially not Bon’s heir in AC/DC, Brian Johnson. "If I told you in a month’s time you were going to be the hottest thing in music," said Brian, "You wouldn’t be able to grasp it until it happened." Bon would have loved it.
Back In Black has gone on to be a hard rock landmark and a touchstone for generation after generation around the world, pushing it to ever greater sales. By December of 2007, more than 22 million copies of the album had been sold in the US alone, with total worldwide sales of nearly 50 million copies.
To all those out there keeping Back In Black in rotation, and the memory of its dedicatee, Bon Scott, alive, we salute you and we thank you. Rock on.