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Unlimited Fuel and Hearts of Steel: Flooring It for 40 Years on the “Highway to Hell”

highway to hell

Although Back in Black would go on to become the third best selling album in history (and there’s no hyperbole to call it the best selling standalone rock album since it is eclipsed only by the R&B/pop of Thriller and an Eagles hits compilation), there was a time when everyone involved was hopeful it wouldn’t be a letdown after AC/DC’s initial American breakthrough.

That album is Highway to Hell. It came out exactly 40 years ago on July 27, 1979.

Upon its release, AC/DC was not anywhere close to the juggernauts that defined rock-‘n’-roll. Although huge in their native Australia and garnering some success in Europe, they never had much traction in America to this point.

The first album to receive international release was High Voltage in 1976, which had “She’s Got Balls” from the band’s Aussie-only debut of the same name replacing a cover of Chuck Berry’s “School Days” from the actual sophomore album T.N.T. — it was inauspiciously received. In the Rolling Stone review, Billy Altman said that hard rock “has unquestionably hit its all-time low… AC/DC has nothing to say musically (two guitars, bass and drums all goose-stepping together in mindless three-chord formations)… Stupidity bothers me. Calculated stupidity offends me.”

It didn’t get much better: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap may be considered a classic, AC/DC canon way before the cannons, but it was never even released in America, rejected by Atlantic Records until five years after its 1976 international release. “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting ‘Round to Be a Millionaire)” indeed.

The band churned out records — Let There Be Rock and Powerage both came out within twenty months of Dirty Deeds — all of which had two things in common: AC/DC’s trademark sound and American indifference. They peaked at 154 and 133 respectively on Billboard’s album charts.

Despite the lukewarm sales figures the band had started touring in America and their incendiary live shows were slowly gaining converts. Atlantic Records showed an interest in the band but offered some suggestions. The most controversial was to have the band dump their longtime producers Harry Vanda and George Young. This would have been bad enough even without George being guitarists Angus and Malcolm’s older brother.

After Eddie Kramer (of Hendrix, Kiss and Zeppelin fame) flamed out, they turned to one Robert John Lange, known as “Mutt” to his friends. The biggest records the South African producer had worked on to that point were early records from Graham Parker and The Boomtown Rats. Although changing management to Peter Mensch who at the time worked with the likes of Aerosmith and Scorpions at Leber-Krebs and who would go on to manage Metallica as half of Q Prime Management probably didn’t hurt, it was Mutt Lange who changed everything.

For a band that reveled in all things raw and lived the same way, Lange polished AC/DC from coal into diamond with the same technique used in that literal transformation (the back cover of High Voltage with faux-letters to the band, especially the one telling drummer Phil Rudd: “Enclosed please find the remains of the drum sticks you broke over my daughter’s head last Friday night. Or was it a billiard cue? She is still a little uncertain.”) He pressured the band, challenged their preconceived notions of what AC/DC was and could be. The result was transformative.

Listen to “Touch Too Much,” which was the third single off the record and its bright, crisp, harmonized chorus. AC/DC could never have done that before Lange and it is the prototype for the glossy shimmer that coated all of Def Leppard’s Pyromania which would go on to become a defining record for the next batch of High School seniors. The 1980s were born one year earlier.

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The first two singles were no slouches either: The title track would become a cultural yardstick, a rallying tribal rite of passage as it blared from the windows of muscle cars, a precursor for the Satanic Panic of the next decade (as was album closer “Night Prowler” which allegedly influenced serial murderer Richard Ramirez), “Highway to Hell” was something for everyone. It also contrasted Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” a symbolic passing of the torch from the quintessential 1970s hard rock band to one that would define the next decade.

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In the same spirit of dozens of AC/DC songs that rather explicitly referenced carnal activity, “Girls Got Rhythm” had a sturdy backbeat that would move backsides for decades to come.

I have often mentioned that my own gateway to metal was hearing AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” when Casey Kasem dutifully played them for a few weeks on his American Top 40 radio show when I was on the cusp of adolescence. I realized at that young age that loud guitars shit all over “Bette Davis Eyes.”

With that kind of introduction, it was a given that I would either become a metalhead or a stripper. Most people are confident I made the right choice.

brian acdc

Although I was the perfect age to jump on the AC/DC bandwagon with everyone else on the planet for Back in Black, I was only ten years old when Highway to Hell came out. Though this still puts me several decades older than most Invisible Oranges readership (and, um, editors), it means we all shared discovery of the album and the original AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott long after its release 40 years ago.

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My 17-year-old son Matthew is among the latest to get into AC/DC. He heard the band initially through pop culture — their songs are still trotted out for Hollywood blockbuster soundtracks, the radio plays a dozen or so songs on the regular, Jack Black emulated Angus Young’s riffs and schoolboy fashion sense in School of Rock, and women still gyrate to the band for fun and profit. (Not that Matthew knows anything about that! Though he did say “Girls Got Rhythm” was his jam which I think shows pretty good parenting, even more so than not showing him that video.)

Between asking him to do his chores, I asked him how it was that he was enjoying Highway to Hell at the same age when I was doing so when kids are supposed to hate their parents’ music and vice-versa.

“No matter what a lot of people say, I think of AC/DC as the definition of rock-‘n’-roll,” he said as prideful tears welled up in his dad’s eyes. “They may on paper sound generic, but try finding a band that sounds anything like them. It’s just rock in its essence. This is some of the most faithful stuff I’ve seen. Truthfully it hasn’t aged. It won’t die, it doesn’t really change, and it fits with every generation.”

highway to hell 2

Of course the biggest fact about Highway to Hell isn’t what it started, it’s what it ended: it was the last album that original vocalist Bon Scott sang on. On February 19, 1980 the singer’s hard drinking got the best of him and he died in his sleep. The death certificate listed it as “death by misadventure.” He was 33 years old.

As groundbreaking and ear-shattering as Back in Black is, it’s hard to say that any album without Bon Scott is the best AC/DC album. This is no slight against Brian Johnson, who always was an amiable chap whose gruff voice offered its own distinctive draw; it’s just that Bon Scott had character and an impish charm and it’s hard to imagine an album without his distinctive voice be considered the band’s best.

And as was wonderfully articulated by my seventeen year old son AC/DC was “rock in its essence.” Logically, if AC/DC is the band that defines rock and roll and Bon Scott was the singer who defined AC/DC, Highway to Hell is the best rock and roll album ever made.

For 40 years and counting, it’s hard to argue that kind of logic.

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