#200: AC/DC, "Highway to Hell" (1979)

200 Highway to Hell.jpg

When I was in junior high my best friend had an older brother who was a few years ahead of us. He was a record collector constantly seeking new sounds. One glorious hot Texas summer, we raided and digested every record he had. This turned me onto a lot of great rock music I never knew existed. It also cemented for me the concept of the “Older Brother Band,” bands that are distinctly separate from the music of your parents’ generation but not quite a part of yours. For me, Older Brother Bands included groups like Deep Purple, Pat Travers, and Montrose. My parents’ record collection was amazing. It was filled with Beatles, Stones, Dylan, etc. In other words, it was filled with the music of their youth. This collection was filled with bands I had never heard of, or at best only a slight inkling of. These records were the door I passed through on my way from the musical identity of my parents to a musical identity of my very own. An identity that was informed by many sources but distinctly and rebelliously apart from the tastes of my parents. It did not hurt that these were records that often horrified my folks.

I’m pretty sure the first band I found on the other side of the Older Brother Band bridge was AC/DC. My 8-track tape copy of “If You Want Blood” got worn away by nearly non-stop play. AC/DC is music without subtlety. It is sledgehammer music built entirely on the dark impulses of id and existing entirely below the belt buckle. Their sound is a three-headed beast delivering a rock and roll throat punch that remains mostly unrivaled even today. First there is the nearly cruelly unyielding riff-and-rhythm machine that is anchored in Malcolm Young’s deceptively simple rhythm guitar marching lockstep with the bass of Cliff Williams and the drums of Phil Rudd. Second is the genius-level blues-suffused lead work of Angus Young’s Gibson SG. It is so ferocious it fooled an entire generation into believing that an Australian blues rock band was heavy metal. The third head of the beast is frontman Bon Scott, who takes the naughty bad boy pose of Jagger, mangling it and fusing it to the raw aggression and sexuality of a Neanderthal. AC/DC does not make smart records. They don’t make nice records. The records they make are records that terrify parents and drop panties in back seats. Part of their genius is they never aspire to be more than that. They never vary from this framework. You might find them offensive and dumb but their impact cannot be denied. They do one thing, and they do it better than anyone else.

Though they had several great records under their belt already, Highway to Hell is where the AC/DC sound formula finds mastery. It is, for my money, the greatest rock record of the 70s, a decade of many amazing rock records. From dropping the needle into the groove of the title cut and picking it up at the end of “Night Prowler,” you’ve got a record that perfectly reflects the vision and intensity of its creators, an unabashed mix of violence, brute sexuality, relentless crushing riffage, and hooks that are the envy and nightmare of every Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building huckster ever to put pen to paper.

The summer Highway to Hell was released, I spent a lot of time with my best friend Jason. Highway to Hell was our record. The older brothers of our crowd also knew and loved it, but this platter of wax was ours. We found it without them. Loved it without their input or influence. Everywhere we went that summer, we dropped quarters in jukeboxes filling burger joints and arcades with the sounds of Angus, Malcolm, and Bon. At home, our turntables spun this as much as anything else. Jason passed this summer very suddenly. I feel his loss every day. No matter where I go or what I do, he’s there at some point during the day. We weaved in and out of each others' lives for somewhere near 45 years. Every great turning point in my life, my losses and my victories, were shared with him, and his with me. We were as much brothers as friends and our families were intertwined as much as we were individually.

Great records are often about many things: the art, the sound, the lyrics, the moment they are born and the climate they are created in. They are also always about who you share them with. Jason and I howled and wailed with Highway to Hell in adolescent abandon, furious, hilarious. I have revisited this record over and over since it was released in 1979. I knew when he passed that telling my story of Highway to Hell would be mixed with him. I shared so much life with this man. We often moved in and out of each others' lives for a year or two at a time. There were marriages, moves, travel and careers, all the things life brings to the table. We never lost touch. Absence was almost irrelevant. We always picked back up as if nothing had changed. Most often it was like one of us had just left the room to refill a glass and was just now back to pick up the conversation where we had left it just a minute or two earlier. So, my story of this record, like many others, is woven through with Jason, the Biscuit Boy. We shared a lot of records. This one was a departure point for finding individual style and taste independent of your influences. It is also a touchstone for a time and place that’s both long gone but never far away. I am connected to it through an unfaltering friendship that endured everything life threw at it. The raw seething power of Highway to Hell is a glorious 100 MPH thrill ride through all the things you aren’t supposed to like about the world, all the things you aren’t supposed to want to be. We got to be all of them and tell the tale unashamed.

Hey Jason, look at us, we’re on our way to the promised land!

—Bosco Farr