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Back In Black

This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.

Imagine that Mick Jagger or Bono or Axl Rose or Eddie Vedder died and their respective bands decided to find a replacement and make another album. What are the chances that they would make not only the best-selling album of their careers, but also the best? That’s the trick AC/DC accomplished with Back in Black. Released in August 1980, only half a year after singer Bon Scott fatally choked on his own vomit, hard rock’s second-best-selling album of all time (after Led Zeppelin’s fourth) is both fitting tribute and raucous wake. Like much of Def Leppard’s back catalog, Back in Black was produced by the future Mr. Shania Twain, Robert “Mutt” Lange. But unlike Def Leppard’s quintessential Eighties products Pyromania and Hysteria, the Australian quintet’s follow-up to its 1979 breakthrough Highway to Hell still sounds thoroughly timeless, the essence of unrepentantly simple but savagely crafted hard rock.

From the vengeful death knell of “Hell’s Bells” to the strutting finale of “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” the rhythms on this album do not relent. Neither does the screeching of Scott’s successor, Brian Johnson. Nearly everything is beat and scream, explosion and release. Unleashed while New Wave was reasserting rock as dance music, this monument of clean rock sonics and dirty impulses makes a strong case for headbanging, but a better argument for a full-body party.

Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young play their guitars in such close tandem that they seem synced by the same churning organism. As chords bang and pummel, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd drag and push the beat with such steady fluctuations that the result is one continuous, well-oiled throttle.As titles such as “You Shook Me All Night Long” proclaim, Back in Black is a celebration of thrashing, animal sex. It’s also a wince-inducing spew of mean-spirited sexism, particularly during the one-two bitch slap of “What Do You Do for Money Honey” and “Given the Dog a Bone.” Johnson misinterprets Scott’s sass as contempt, just as gangsta rap would turn thug love into something ugly. If Back in Black someday does sound dated, let it be for this sole mistake.


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