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AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ Celebrates 30th Anniversary

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AC/DC‘s ‘Back in Black’ is one of the few albums in recorded music to earn Diamond status, which is the RIAA’s recognition of sales of more than 10 million copies. The album has sold an astounding 22 million copies since its release on July 25, 1980. That means it’s an enduring piece of rock ‘n’ roll legacy, the crucial lexicon in the conversation of rock music.

On the 30th anniversary of this landmark album — a must-own record for any self-respective rock fan — Noisecreep spoke to author Anthony Bozza, who penned the HarperCollins book ‘Why AC/DC Matters.’ Since he is an expert on the subject, we asked him why the album has endured and wondered how things would be different had the late Bon Scott lived and sang on the album instead of Brian Johnson. (Note: This writer saw AC/DC at age 6, singing along to every word and impressing teenagers sitting in the next row!)

Anthony, in your opinion, what is the definitive reason ‘Back in Black’ has endured and achieved Diamond status, which so few albums have done, especially since the record was made after Bon Scott’s death, which was a tragedy that could have stopped the band cold in its tracks.

One reason why ‘Back in Black’ has endured so well? It is how it sounds. It’s huge, it’s clean, it’s sonically perfect. If you want to test a home theater system or a professional PA, play ‘Back in Black’ through it. Mutt Lange’s production is a masterpiece unto itself. There is a sonic architecture at work that was begun on ‘Highway to Hell’ and polished to a fine luster on ‘Back in Black.’ Add to that a collection of songs that highlight the succinct, fundamental brilliance of the players, and it should be no surprise that this album still sounds fresh, powerful and timely 30 years later. That’s just the music.

Once you think about the fact that the band had lost their ringleader, singer and lyricist, then tried out a guy their singer had been a fan of, and it all jelled so well that they managed to write their most popular and commercially successful album, all within four months of his death? Now you’re talking epic. There is no other story in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that compares.

What is your favorite song on ‘Back in Black’? Why? Lyrics? Licks?

‘Shoot to Thrill’ is a personal favorite. It’s got everything great about AC/DC: a musical breakdown where Angus’ quivering lead and Malcolm’s rhythm riff are heard in all their glory, an ace Brian Johnson vocal and lyrics about girls. To me it’s Brian’s take on ‘Shot Down in Flames,’ which is a Bon classic. Since there are no rules in this interview, I also have to mention ‘Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.’ To his credit and to the Young’s credit, Brian Johnson never tried to be Bon. He found a way to be himself in the band, and his presence and style helped them evolve without changing a prize-winning formula. Nothing on ‘Back in Black’ sounds like a band covering itself, but I think that song is the moment the new AC/DC was born.

How would ‘Back in Black’ be different if Bon Scott were singing on it instead of Brian Johnson? I know this is purely speculative, but it’s worth considering, since Scott’s and Johnson’s styles are so markedly different.

If Bon sang the same songs it would be incredible, but different. Brian is superhuman, but Bon had more of a range. His voice was more nimble and he did more with it. He took the listener on a journey because he acted out the lyrics vocally which made the words come alive. In simplest terms, he meant it and you felt it. Not to say that Brian is insincere; his delivery is about sheer power and control rather than storytelling. The songs on the album are built around Brian’s muscular, straight-ahead style, and the playing reflects it. I don’t think any of the songs on ‘Back in Black’ would have suffered if Bon recorded them, but at the same time, I’m not sure they would have been written the same way, either. They would have had more groove and less attack, which would make songs like ‘Given the Dog a Bone’ and ‘Shake a Leg’ something to hear. Bon would have also absolutely destroyed ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You.’ I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

What do you think is AC/DC’s second most important album and why?

Personally, I think ‘Back in Black’ is their second most important. ‘Highway to Hell’ wins in my book. It’s Bon Scott at his best and it’s got the production blueprint that underlies ‘Back in Black.’ Other than that, I’d have to say ‘Powerage,’ which is a great collection of songs, and then ‘High Voltage.’ Sorry, it’s real hard to keep it to one.

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You are writing the liner notes for DVD reissue of ‘Let There Be Rock …’

I’m very excited to be writing the liner notes for the DVD reissue of ‘Let There Be Rock.’ If anyone doubts the power and importance of Bon Scott in the pantheon of rock vocalists, they won’t after this film is reintroduced to the world. Bon should be mentioned in the same breath as Robert Plant, Steven Tyler and every iconic classic rock vocalist that comes to mind. He had range, charisma and a theatricality to his performance that was mesmerizing. His lyrics were funny, evocative and poetic. He didn’t just sing; he embodied the songs, because he lived them. The film captures the band at their peak on the ‘Highway to Hell’ tour and it’s only been available on VHS since its release in 1980. The new version is amazing — it’s been completely remastered and it sounds fantastic. I can’t wait for fans to see and hear this.

How did you come up with the idea for your book? After all was said and done, how was the book-writing process?

I’ve always wanted to write a critical analysis of why AC/DC are so good. I wanted to get to the heart of why, each and every time I listen to them, and every time I’ve seen them, they kick so much ass. I wanted to break down the elements of the music, because they are fundamental and simple, yet so powerful, as they’ve been since 1973. My career started at Rolling Stone magazine, and no critic there aside from David Fricke ever paid the band much mind. I found that inexcusable. AC/DC have more fans and have made more money than just about anyone, but it’s not some fluke like Bon Jovi. AC/DC don’t suck.

But I think their popularity was the issue for critics. I think that if they’d not been as popular or successful, sometime in the ’90s, my peers in the media would have found a reason to champion them as they did the Melvins, Thee Headcoats and every other band Kurt Cobain ever mentioned in an interview. Particularly during the “no-nonsense grunge era,” I didn’t get how no one made the connection that AC/DC were as true-blue, DIY and punk rock about their marketing decisions as Sonic Youth ever were. They never postured, and they were always anti-rock stars in the way all of the Seattle bands aspired to be. AC/DC is way more grunge than STP if you think about it, but the perception was that they were part of the Def Leppard era that had to be destroyed. AC/DC were never hair metal — they were never metal at all — they’re blues-based rock ‘n’ roll. They came from the dinosaur rock era of big record deals and jets, but they always did things their way. At best, most critics begrudgingly acknowledged their success but never their talent. Even Chuck Klosterman finds more real/ironic value in championing crap/guilty pleasures like Winger.

Writing this book was a joy. I wanted it to be tight and to the point — just like an AC/DC song. My research focused solely on explaining the success of the band’s formula, from the core elements in the music to the foundational ideals they’ve never abandoned. Authenticity is timeless. As far as a band goes, AC/DC is plug-n-play; there is no artifice, just musicianship.


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