Literally thousands of bands have talked about making an album like Back in Black — a singular blast of red-blooded, riff-driven rock & roll — but only AC/DC have succeeded so wildly. In February 1980, just after the Aussie fivesome had broken stateside with 1979’s Highway to Hell, singer Bon Scott choked on his own vomit in the back of a car. The band initially returned to the studio as a form of therapy, but six weeks after Scott’s death, it had found a replacement and soon after hopped a plane to the Bahamas to begin recording. If AC/DC were beset by sadness or uncertainty about how to proceed, they kept it to themselves. Indeed, Back in Black might be the leanest and meanest record of all time — balls-out arena rock that punks could love.
Now reissued with slightly crisper sound and a skimpy making-of DVD, Back in Black is the rare classic record that actually sounds timeless. Synergistically soused brothers Angus and Malcolm Young conceived the songs’ riffs first, defining each track with adrenalized blues blurts so archetypal that the sheet music ought to be chiseled on stone tablets. With future Def Leppard producer (and Mr. Shania Twain) Robert “Mutt” Lange emphasizing the hooks amid the racket, the results were body-rocking rather than overblown. Scott’s replacement, Brian Johnson — who, appropriately enough, was toiling on an auto assembly line in England when he was called in for an audition — worked the grooves like a street brawler on jukebox shout-alongs such as “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Hells Bells” and the defiant title cut.
Back in Black is so explosive that people forget that it was intended as a tribute to Scott. The same spirit that made the band tell the Grim Reaper to go fuck himself also made for some Spinal Tap-esque moments — particularly on the locker-room epic “Givin’ the Dog a Bone.” The 20 million people who bought this album didn’t care. Back in Black marked AC/DC’s artistic peak, but how couldn’t it? You could spend a lifetime trying to imitate music this perfectly simple.