The old joke goes that the reason AC/DC has sold so many copies of "Back in Black" -- it's currently up to around 19 million -- is because every day, at least one redneck discovers that his Trans Am tape deck chews up cassettes. And it's true that many warm beers have been drunk and many skinny joints have been smoked in millions of drivers' seats while some mulleted goofball pumped his fist belligerently to "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution." AC/DC's relentlessly midtempo bombast, their thunderously basic riffage, their puerile lyrical innuendo: It's the stuff that typically indicates the high watermark of taste for trailer parks full of wife-beating crackers permanently "between jobs."
For this reason alone, many might cast the band as a guilty pleasure of a misspent youth. In truth, AC/DC is one of the best post-Stones rock & roll bands ever. Beyond the rarified pantheon built on the four cornerstones of the MC5's raw politics, Aerosmith's melodic swagger, Van Halen's big-tent bravado and AC/DC raunchy bluster, you would be hard-pressed to find any bands that have more clearly defined and inspired rock & roll. Each group built reputations based on intensely populist music, and it's that ground-level appeal that powered AC/DC's tremendous impact. Having never shied away from the easy joke or the gut-punching riff, it makes sense that, of all four of those bands, AC/DC is the one from a prison colony.
Founded in December 1973 by the Young brothers -- Malcolm and Angus -- in Sydney, Australia, the membership of AC/DC went through no less than six permutations by the time vocalist Bon Scott joined nine months later. The band recorded its debut, "High Voltage" -- in 10 days, no less -- soon after. The best tracks from that album and its Australian follow-up, T.N.T., were combined in America and Europe as "High Voltage" in late 1976. Though a song with a bagpipe solo might seem an inauspicious debut for a rock band, AC/DC quickly began to establish themselves among rock aficionados in the States. (But not among enough, according to their label, to warrant releasing 1976's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" until 1981, after the success of "Back in Black.")
During the whirlwind between the American release of "High Voltage" and the 1980 death of Bon Scott, AC/DC delivered one seminal live recording ("If You Want Blood `You've Got It"`, two excellent studio albums (Let There Be Rock and Powerage) and one certifiable classic, the full-on, rock overload of "Highway to Hell." The strongest (and last) Bon Scott studio album, Highway to Hell is also the group's strongest. On this release, the bar-fight hooligans became full-fledged rock monsters, from the starting title track through the closing "Night Prowler."
It was only a couple weeks after the close of the band's fourth European tour for "Highway to Hell" that Bon Scott would be found in the back of a car in London, having choked to death on his own vomit. The primary chapter in AC/DC's history came to a close. "Back in Black" -- recorded less than two months after Scott's death -- both maintained and culminated the band's legacy, as new member Brian Johnson's uncanny vocal resemblance to Scott helped keep the fire alive a bit longer. Later recordings would show a marked decrease in quality, and though AC/DC still continues to bash out essentially the same three songs (the fast boogie one, the raunchy midtempo one, the loud, anthemic one), the magic has gone.
Nearly 30 years later, we're still excited about a band that has essentially been rocking in place for their entire existence. AC/CD is due to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next week, and they've just seen their catalog moved to a new label and excellently remastered. The first batch includes "High Voltage," "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," "Highway to Hell," "Back in Black" and "AC/DC Live" (a 1992 beast that captures the arena mechanics of current AC/DC), while the rest of the archive will be doled out in April and May. Beefed up with amazingly superior sound, Epic has treated AC/DC's material like the musical treasure it is. So even though rednecks will always be losing their "Back in Black" tapes, for those of us who take their music more seriously, these reissues are a godsend -- not a guilty pleasure.