[Today: The bell tolls…]
In the early morning hours of February 19th, 1980, Bon Scott succumbed to acute alcohol poisoning while asleep in the passenger’s seat of a car parked in East Dulwich, London. AC/DC was hard at work on the follow-up to their commercial breakthrough Highway To Hell when their lead singer drank himself to death, and there was little thought that the band would continue, let alone finish the album in question. Scott’s death was one of the cruelest blows in the history of rock – the man who sang about what a long way to the top it was (if you wanted to rock & roll) had his band just a few steps from the top of the mountain when he died. Ronald Belford Scott wasn’t just the voice of AC/DC, he was the heart and soul of the band and the driving force behind their transformation from a glam rock-styled outfit into one of the hardest rocking bands to ever plug into a stack of amps.
The remaining members were shell-shocked by his death and had given no thought to their future plans, when at his funeral, Bon’s father approached them and encouraged them to go on. “You’ve got to find someone else, you know that,” he told them. “Whatever you do, don’t stop.” Guitarists and brothers Angus and Malcolm Young began making music with one another, as a way to cut the pain, and eventually started rehearsing lead singers. After a number of less-than-thrilling auditions, they remembered a singer named Brian Johnson, with a band called Geordie, that Scott had once gushed about. Johnson, a huge AC/DC fan, knew all of the band’s songs inside and out, and passed his audition with flying colors. As Malcolm Young told Mojo last year, “We went, ‘Fucking hell, this guy is cutting the mustard.'”
And how. Johnson is more of a screamer than a singer, and his heavy metal howl perfectly fits the mood of the album. Recorded in the Bahamas for tax purposes, these sessions took place while a hurricane was battering the island and a machete-wielding maniac was on the prowl outside the studios. Back In Black works equally well as a hard rocking ode to a fallen comrade, and a life-affirming yowl from the edge of the grave. “FORGET THE HEARSE CUZ I’LL NEVER DIE!”, Johnson bellows on the title track. ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘Have A Drink On Me’ eulogize Scott, but in broad enough terms that the former has become the standard track for baseball closers, and the latter remains a barroom favorite. Songs like ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ and ‘Shoot To Thrill’ were logical extensions of the places that Scott had gone lyrically, and album-closer ‘Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ is a fierce statement of purpose.
Back In Black was driven by grief and fear and adrenaline, and after entering the US charts at #187, it eventually climbed all the way to the top, and never… stopped… selling. It recently passed 50 million sold, second all-time only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This album is a standard of our times. It affirms that rock and roll will never die, and Bon Scott lives on…
Listen: Back In Black