Back in Black is still my favorite AC/DC album, though its predecessor, Highway to Hell, is running only about a nose length behind. I owned Highway first, in fact. Both were produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange. And, both albums have just about all of my favorite AC/DC songs on them.
The difference in the two—the main difference—is that Bon Scott, the band’s original lead singer, died after Highway was released, and was replaced rather quickly by Brian Johnson, who continued as the band’s lead singer for the following decades, until he was replaced by Axl Rose only recently.
That AC/DC could put out a decent album with a new singer would have been nothing short of remarkable. The fact that they released their best-selling, most popular and critically respected album after replacing Bon was miraculous.
Side One of the album kicked off with “Hells Bells” and quickly rolled through five great tunes, including “Shoot to Thrill” in the No. 2 spot. It’s a good album side with straight ahead hard rock songs. AC/DC is never an extremely fancy band. Their simplicity is their strength, and even though I just called it “simple” it apparently isn’t. Many have tried to duplicate the AC/DC sound. They make it look easier than it apparently is. The group Rhino Bucket comes close. Give them a listen and see if you agree.
But, Side Two is my favorite. It kicks off with the title track, “Back in Black.” This was written as a tribute to Bon Scott, a celebration of his life. It’s still my favorite AC/DC song. Side Two doesn’t let up, though. In quick succession, the songs averaging about four-minutes in length, it’s followed by “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Have a Drink on Me,” “Shake a Leg,” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” Not a dog in the pack.
You might assume that my preference for Back in Black over Highway to Hell means that I prefer Brian Johnson’s vocals over Bon Scott’s.
That’s not true. I was, and am, a Bon Scott fan. I do like Brian Johnson’s vocals, but he doesn’t have the same mischievous quality that I always detected in Bon’s work. Also, I don’t think Brian plays bagpipes like Bon did on “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll).”
Back in Black is just one of those rare things. A near-perfect unified work of art. Lightning can strike twice, but it’s a rare occurrence. In my opinion, AC/DC never came close to repeating this feat afterward. They’ve continued to make music that I like, but no single album like this one.
It’s a good record, man.