AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black': A Track-by-Track Guide
The LP came at a turning point for the band. Singer Bon Scott died in his car on Feb. 19, 1980, after a night of drinking with friends. Within two months, AC/DC found a replacement in Brian Johnson, previously of the band Geordie, and set up shop with producer Mutt Lange in Compass Point Studios in Nassau, the Bahamas.
The band always wrote the same way: Guitarist brothers Angus and Malcolm Young composed music based on riffs, then the singer would add melodies and lyrics. That process didn't change with Johnson, who stuck to a reliable mix of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and juvenile delinquency. But he also added another layer, one that celebrated Scott's legacy with the title track.
Far from sinking the group, whose popularity peaked in 1979 with the release of Highway to Hell, Back in Black elevated AC/DC to even greater heights. Below we outline the songs that helped take them there.
1. "Hells Bells"
The bell that kicks off Back in Black's opening track didn't come from a sound effects disc, but was created specifically for AC/DC by John Taylor Bellfounders in Loughborough, England, to take on tour. But, as engineer Tony Platt told Sound on Sound, the one-ton bell wasn't finished by the time he pulled up in Ronnie Lane's mobile studio, so a two-ton bell found in a nearby church was slated as a substitute. But there was a problem: The birds in the belfry made too much noise as they flew away after the bell was struck. So the bell-makers sped up the process to complete AC/DC's homemade model. Platt placed more than a dozen microphones in various locations in the foundry to capture all of its harmonics. Then he and Lange combined all the sounds they recorded and slowed down the tape to deepen the tone. As for the lyrics, Johnson was stuck for ideas until Lange came into his Nassau room to tell the singer they'd be working on the song later that night. At that very moment, Johnson told Louder Sound, a thunderstorm began. "And I said, ‘That’s rolling thunder, that’s what they call it in England,'" he recalled. "He says, ‘Rolling thunder – write that down.’ And this is true – it went ‘boom!’ The fucking rain came down in torrents, you couldn’t hear yourself. And I just went, ‘Pourin’ rain!’ And the wind whipped up – ‘I’m comin’ on like a hurricane!’ I was gone. The song was ready that night."
2. "Shoot to Thrill"
For all of the sexual leanings in "Shoot to Thrill," Johnson revealed in The Story of Back in Black documentary series that the song was inspired more by a phenomenon sweeping his home country at the time: What I was thinking of at the time in England, it was more housewives on Valium, because the National Health System was overloaded with women who were just depressed, despondent and all that. So the doctor, just to get them out of the bloody office, would just say, 'Here, take some Valium.' And these women were dependent on it. 'Too many women with too many pills,' you know?" "Shoot to Thrill" was resurrected in the 2000s by Marvel for use in both Iron Man 2 and The Avengers.
3. "What Do You Do for Money Honey"
According AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll by Murray Engleheart with Arnaud Durieux, "What Do You Do for Money Honey" was a title that the Youngs' older brother, George Young, in his head since the Powerage sessions, which he co-produced. Johnson took the title and fashioned a lyric in which he accuses a woman of carving out a fancy lifestyle for herself by accepting gifts from men in exchange for sexual favors.
4. "Givin' the Dog a Bone"
Johnson's penchant for double-entendre, something he shared with Scott, was evident from his second audition with AC/DC. Engleheart and Durieux write that the singer came up with some of the lyrics to "Givin' the Dog a Bone" on the spot after hearing the riff. But Johnson was two hours late for the March 25, 1980, session because he was double-booked. Earlier that day, he recorded the jingle for a vacuum cleaner, for which he received approximately $445; the band was worried his tardiness meant he didn't want the job. A week later, on April 1, Brian Johnson was announced as AC/DC's new frontman.
5. "Let Me Put My Love Into You"
AC/DC have many songs about sex. But only one was special enough to make it on the PMRC's "Filthy Fifteen" list in 1985: "Let Me Put My Love Into You." Even so, Maximum Rock & Roll notes, the chorus' last line had to be changed because it was too explicit. Scott recorded two Back in Black demos with Angus and Malcolm Young a week before his death; this was one of them. But instead of singing the lyrics he had, Scott sat behind the drum kit. "He said, 'Let me bash away,'" Angus recalled in Maximum Rock & Roll. "Which was great for me and Mal, because every now and then it would help."
6. "Back in Black"
"Back in Black" started with an old riff Malcolm Young used to warmed up to, but the song didn't come together until after Scott's death. In a 2009 interview with Mojo, Johnson recalled that the Young brothers told him they wanted the song to be a tribute to their late singer, but that "it can't be morbid – it has to be for Bon, and it has to be a celebration." Johnson thought, "Well, no pressure there then!" He wrote "whatever came into my head, and at the time it seemed like mumbo jumbo." But, as it turned out, they loved how the lyrics about living fast and cheating death perfectly summed up Scott.
7. "You Shook Me All Night Long"
In the first installment of the video series The Story of Back in Black, Johnson recalled that after tracking his vocals for "You Shook Me All Night Long," someone in the band's camp suggested there were too many words and he should try breaking up the lines so the verses had more room to breathe. "I did it like that," he said. "And then Mal heard it and went, 'Stop, man. What the fuck is this?' He said, 'No, no, no, no, no. Do it back the old way. It rocks." Angus Young added that "it sounded kinda folky."
8. "Have a Drink on Me"
Scott also cut a demo in which he played drums for "Have a Drink on Me." He was the drummer in his first band, the Spektors, and lobbied for the job in AC/DC. "He said, 'I want to play drums,'" Angus Young remembered. "And we said, 'Well, Bon, we've already got a drummer. Your talents lie elsewhere.' But he was a good drummer. It showed in his character, because he saw himself as just another member of the band. He didn't have this lead-singer attitude of 'I have to be at the front all the time. I'm the singer. I'm the star. I get the chicks.'"
9. "Shake a Leg"
An ode to a juvenile delinquent, "Shake a Leg" offers a classic example of what Johnson brought to the band. Platt noted in Maximum Rock & Roll that the singer's ability to match his new bandmates was key to the album's success: "When you're singing in a band that's got Angus playing guitar, you've got to make your vocals as exciting as his guitar playing, and that's a real mountain to climb for anybody! ... By the same token, from [Johnson's] point of view, every single note of that is right at the edge of anybody's range. And it isn't just that it's sung up high, it's sung up high with all of that power and excitement at the same time."
10. "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution"
Back in Black's closing track was also the last song written for the album. Needing one more cut, Angus and Malcolm Young threw the music together in about 15 minutes; Johnson told Louder Sound that he "thought it was just gonna be a boozy chuck-away.” Then there was the title, which didn't exactly offer itself to easy rhyming. Still, the recording was as fast as the writing. "I’ll never forget the start of it," Johnson recalled. "I went into the recording booth, the intro starts and I hear, ‘Brian, it’s Mutt. Could you say something over that? Just talk.’ I was smoking a tab at the time and you can hear it. I was going, ‘Yeah, all you middle men.’ I just did this Southern-preacher thing. Honestly, it was one take. I never ever thought that it was gonna be on the record.”