This is one of those articles I’ve been dreading writing. For the most part, when people read Unpopular Opinions (and probably anything for that matter), they read what they want to. And because most people on the internet love nothing more than to be irritated by other people’s opinions on trivial subjects like rock bands, everyone is going to read this installment as “Brian Johnson is better than Bon Scott.”
Brian Johnson is not a better singer than Bon Scott. But Back in Black is better than any other AC/DC record.
There’s not a single bad record with Bon Scott singing. A couple — Powerage and Highway to Hell — are even certifiably great. Highway to Hell has the best rock & roll murder ballad (“Night Prowler”) this side of “Midnight Rambler.” None, however, are pound for pound as good as Back in Black. The bulk of this record was written while Bon Scott was still among the living, so one can only imagine just how next-level great it would have been with the presence of the band’s iconic, tattooed frontman.
In fact, Back in Black is so solid precisely because it capitalizes on everything the band had been working toward through the 1970s. Tragedy doubtless added a dimension of urgency into making the record after the band were urged to sally forth following Bon Scott’s untimely demise. It’s one of only eight records ever to sell more than 40 million copies.
I always like to get out in front of the elephant in the room. In this case, it’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” If I could wave a magic wand and erase this song from human memory, or at least remove it from classic-rock radio rotation for all eternity, I would exercise that power. I’m sure there was some point, 30-plus years ago, when this song wasn’t as cringe-inducing as a college freshman with an acoustic guitar, but those days are long gone. It’s a smear of shit on an otherwise pitch-perfect record.
“Hell’s Bells” is moody, atmospheric and a perfect beginning to the record. “Shoot to Thrill” and “What Do You Do for Money Honey” are the ideal rocking ragers for a night of drinking out at the bar, and that’s before we even get to “Have a Drink on Me.” “Givin the Dog a Bone” and “Let Me Put My Love Into You” are precisely why this is a solid record for dicking your lady down after the aforementioned night out at the bar. The title track might be overplayed on film soundtracks and classic rock radio, but it’s still killer nonetheless; not quite the radio staple that keeps getting better that “The Boys Are Back in Town” is but classic for a reason nonetheless. “Shake a Leg” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” end the record on a smooth note that continues to rock.
In addition to the songwriting, the production has a lot to do with why this record is a next-level AC/DC record. AC/DC have always been great at capturing a raw, live sound. Back in Black adds just a touch of professional slickness to the mix, without totally sanding off the rough edges that always made the band sound so alive.
The biggest tragedy — other than every record the band recorded after this — is that Bon Scott wasn’t around to sing on it. Brian Johnson did his absolute best on this record and he was totally capable, but he just wasn’t the man. After Back in Black, AC/DC resembled a business more than a band, as button-cute as substitute lead singer Axl Rose rocking out in a chair like a child on a road trip. One has to wonder why they didn’t hang it up 30 years ago.