#77: AC/DC, "Back in Black" (1980)

77 Back in Black.jpeg

Like rock ‘n’ roll itself, AC/DC’s Back In Black can feel like a gallery of clichés.

The album after the lead singer drinks himself to death; the rich kid savant producer who gives rock this loud a polar sharpness; lyrics with the wattage of an older sibling’s encouragement; lyrics with the loving stupidity of an older sibling’s advice; drums so warm they almost breathe; the GOAT all-black album cover; 1980 Leo season made real (US release date: July 25), a Mobius strip of White Anglophone nonsense and bravado that helped forge the commercial culture of the decade as much as Reagan’s creaky old smile did; loud, clear, fun, inescapable, shallow, pure.

Funny thing is, clichés happen. The child of a prosperous South African engineer and a German heiress, producer Robert “Mutt” Lange really does have a remarkable gift for clarifying rock: smaller studio amps to control Malcolm & Angus Young’s guitars; a prodigious number of takes; wiping the background clear of clutter so that the sounds people are paying money for, power chords and more power chords, soar.

The replacement for the deceased Bon Scott, Brian Johnson, really did go from journeyman to lead singer on the most popular rock album of all time. Johnson’s voice, once thought too high, even harsh, compared to Scott’s, now sounds predestined for these songs. Johnson’s voice scratches at lines, wails and snaps. The levity is there too. Listen to how he changes the refrain slightly at the end of “Hell’s Bells,” from “Oh” to “Aw, hell’s bells!” like he’s just dropped something.

But you get it. You don’t need a hagiography. Even if you can’t stand a single second of the music, if you’re reading this, you’re involved. Back in Black is like caffeine, capitalism, love, and the devil: even if you don’t believe in it, it believes in you.

Maybe a snippet of “You Shook Me All Night Long” (the shouted “YOU” that starts the chorus?) pings around in your own brain’s compartments, you having been in concrete stadiums, having sat through movie trailers and a battalion of sports promo packages in this life, having been subjected to AC/DC’s ersatz followers, laughable hair metal runoff.

Maybe it’s closer to you. Maybe you lifted weights to Back in Black or routinely closed up a short-order kitchen with it. Maybe you had a pedantic older sibling who put “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” on a mixtape a few months ago, couldn’t change it now, and would be goddamned if he’ll listen to Ace of Base while he drives you home.


Like a cursed or enchanted object, I don’t know how or when AC/DC’s Back In Black arrived in my life exactly.

I know I have had my own copy since college, having bought the CD at Encore on South State in Ann Arbor. I ripped it onto my desktop and have been ferrying those files from desktop to laptop to iPhone in the decade since. I know that much.

Listening to music and writing about it was close to a daily activity for me then. I worked on the college newspaper. It was my extremely intense and very important job to provide 500 words on Interpol or Ludacris or to cover a show at the Blind Pig. My friend, two years older, the music editor, would feed me albums I had missed or had never even heard: Autechre’s Amber, Television’s Marquee Moon, Spoon’s Girls Can Tell.

For a happy while, and with a pronounced peak at the time when I bought my own copy of Back in Black, I wager I was spending nearly every waking hour either listening to music to write about it or reading a book to write about it.

I didn’t need to work an actual, full-time campus job. I fell in with no student organization outside of the paper. I was out of state, with more than a minor tendency toward happy isolation, and I was churning through more media (though I certainly would have said “art” then and yes I was the worst) at a more ruthless, hungry pace than I have since.

AC/DC cut through the churn. Without the self importance of Led Zeppelin, without the sleeve-tat-bro-pout of Metallica, with the fun of ABBA, with the right kind of a Little Richard obsession, AC/DC and Back in Black kept making itself necessary to my life.

Before I realized it, the album had the same effect on me as coffee in the morning and cold beer in the afternoon. Get up, tidy the apartment, walk to class, deadlift this, errand running, read that, a quick repast with a friend to down a whiskey before moving on to the second half of the night, a chapter for which you want to be properly energized, a little loose but keyed in (“I’m tryin’ to walk a straight line / on sour mash and cheap wine”), all of it enhanced by “Hell’s Bells” or “Back in Black,” or—saints preserve me—“Let Me Put My Love Into You.”

The album’s pulse hit me at just the right time. As an English major interested in—shocker—intense early 20th century poets, ashy, sealed-off indie rock made in a cabin sounded like music made for a cabin. I was 22. I had enough frustration with Byzantium and Ariel. AC/DC fit.

I loved a drink, enjoyed loud-ass conversations and parlous decisions. They were all verve and performance, the minute of warm, anticipatory drums at 3:20 on “Shoot To Thrill” sounding like the heartbeat of a gigantic, friendly animal, the drums building to Johnson’s sizzling vocal fit, a pure version of the thing done to death, the rock star who just can’t even handle the words right now, howling and breathing with want.

Outside of rap, the music that surrounded me in early, middle-school adolescence was reflective of the private day school in which I spent my days: white, wan, and believing itself to be both more engaging and progressive than, you know, those other schools. Lots of discussions in which sixth graders were trusted with ‘big ideas.’ A few older draconian lacrosse players. Clinton-era achievements.

Dave Matthews and Phish, those were the two that I remember most. I remember what felt like their hegemonic control over my classmates, especially the cool ones. To me, that music sounded like artisanal paste or a FREE TIBET sticker on a zebra-striped Range Rover, or “the only people for me are the mad ones” printed on anything.  These bands had electrified instruments and beating hearts and this was what they made?

Maybe I let it get to me too much, but that complacent odor, that blasé, baked-on vibe, that all seemed to come from the music my peers loved. I think that aura helped drive me from home, out of that school, made me wary of the idea of “chill.” I could have used Back in Black then.

So, for me, that’s the most clichéd thing about Back in Black. The energy I wanted my life to have—bullshit as a desire like that is—runs through the best parts of an album so accomplished, so inescapable, that my desires aren’t even my desires anymore. My own petty passing facts aren’t so different from a million other coming-of-age narratives soundtracked by this exact album. And isn’t that just the biggest rock cliché you’ve ever heard.

—Evan McGarvey