Ringing Hell’s Bells with AC/DC

“AC/DC has made 10 albums that all sound the same” – a journalist, anonymous.

“He’s a liar. We’ve made 11 albums that all sound the same.” – Angus Young

AC/DC is undoubtedly one of the most successful hard rock acts of all time. They were formed in November, 1973 in Australia by brothers Malcolm and Angus Young. To this day, they’ve thrilled and rocked their loyal fanbase with a simple formula: good, hard, rock and roll music. Over the last few weeks, the band announced a major transition. Brian Johnson, their longtime lead vocalist, was essentially forced to quit the band due to the threat of compete and permanent hearing loss. The band has named as his replacement the legendary Axl Rose, who is also busy performing with a recently reunited Guns N’ Roses. Will the transition work? It might, for this is not the first time in the band’s history that they were forced to replace their lead singer. But let’s rewind a little bit.

On July 27, 1979, AC/DC dropped a new album called Highway to Hell. The album was the band’s fifth full international release. It was named after its now-famous title track, which lyrically deals with the issues of a grueling live tour schedule. But it is much more than that. It’s a song about the essence of the rock and roll lifestyle. Parting, sex, drugs, booze, it’s all there, built into the monster power of that rocking mega-riff that kickstarts the song. It’s a microcosm for what AC/DC is all about as a band, as a musical force. AC/DC is a hard rock protest against everything pompous or overly artful in rock and roll. If prog rock wanted to take rock and roll to a higher level, AC/DC wanted nothing more than to distill rock and roll right down to its very essence: loud, hard, fast, aggressive, violent, and all built upon a giant musical party.

For Allmusic.com, Steve Huey wrote of the song “Highway to Hell”, “The rest of the band’s performance behind [lead singer Bon] Scott typifies the blend of power, simplicity, and sheer groove that made AC/DC one of the greatest hard rock bands ever: the Young brothers play a monster three-chord, start-stop riff that leaves lots of space for Phil Rudd’s thumping backbeat to breathe.”

With the release of “Highway to Hell”, AC/DC broke new commercial ground in the United States. The album reached #17 there and established the band in the U.S. as stars. It’s since been certified 7x platinum in the States.

But all was not bright around the corner for the now hugely successful Australian rock band. On February 18, 1980, Bon Scott went out partying and drank too much. The next day he was discovered dead in his car. The coroner ruled that it was “death by misadventure – acute alcohol poisoning”. Family and friends were devastated. His band was devastated. The fans were devastated. AC/DC had achieved what seemed like the pinnacle of success in music, and it was ripped away from Bon Scott in the quick blink of an eye.

Bon Scott, who first joined the band as their lead vocalist in the early year of 1974, died tragically young. With steadily rising success, the band had to make a decision as to whether or not to carry on. They did, and ultimately found a new lead vocalist in Brian Johnson. At first, Angus, Malcolm, and the rest of the band didn’t know what to do. But at the end of Scott’s funeral, his father came up to them and gave them his blessing, saying, “You’ve got to find someone else, you know that. Whatever you do, don’t stop.”

They took Scott’s father’s advice to heart. Songwriting became a therapeutic process for the band, and they soon came to the point where it was time to begin auditioning new singers. One name that was mentioned as a possible replacement was Steve Marriott from The Small Faces as well as Humble Pie. But ultimately the band decided on Brian Johnson after hearing the raw, impressive power of his pipes. In fact, he was a singer that even Bon Scott had been familiar with and enjoyed.

Brian Johnson’s musical influences as a vocalist included many of the classics, including Ray Charles, Howlin’ Wolf, Eric Burdon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tina Turner, and Joe Cocker – lots of blues, rock and roll, and soul. This helped him click with the Young brothers, and so did their shared dislike of punk music, which they saw as the anti-good time party hard rock that AC/DC had been thriving with. On The Sex Pistols, Johnson said, “Johnny Rotten’s a wanker”. It seemed like the right fit for AC/DC’s future, and in little more than a month having passed since the death of Bon Scott, Brian Johnson was the band’s new lead singer.

With Brian Johnson now fronting the band, AC/DC now recorded their follow up to Highway to Hell. The results, Back in Black, became their most successful album to date. On the strength of singles like “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Hells Bells”, and “Back in Black” the album has gone on to sell about 50 million copies, which would make it good for the second highest selling album in history behind only Michael Jackson’s 1982 landmark Thriller. The album and its famous songs have penetrated pop culture to an unbelievable degree.

One way in which the song “Hells Bells” has become legend has been through its use in Major League Baseball. Trevor Hoffman, the legendary closing pitcher for the San Diego Padres, had famously used the tune as his entrance music between the years 1998-2010. Hoffman’s emergence to the sound of the ringing bells at the beginning of the song, followed by its slow burning, ominous riff was always one of the most thrilling moments in baseball between those years. Hoffman, who has the second highest number of saves in baseball history, is behind only the Yankees’ iconic Mariano Rivera in that category. One can’t but help to think that hearing Hells Bells as he rushed to the mound helped to pump him up for nearly all of those saves.

Though AC/DC has remained a frankly legendary band since the release of Back in Black, things have very recently taken a bit of a strange turn for both Brian Johnson and the band as a whole. On March 7, 2016, the band announced that they would have to postpone the remainder of the dates on their current tour. The reason: Brian Johnson faced the possibility of total hearing loss if he continued on with the band.

On April 16th, the band announced the addition of a guest lead vocalist to replace Brian Johnson for the remainder of the tour dates. That vocalist would be none other than Axl Rose, the iconic, sometimes reclusive, and always controversial lead singer of Guns N’ Roses. In a recent Tribut post on Guns N’ Roses, we commented on the move to replace Johnson, at least temporarily, with the enigmatic figure of Axl Rose. Rose is simultaneously fronting a newly reunited Guns N’ Roses with guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan back in the fold. We raised the question of whether or not Axl Rose would be able to handle the work load of pulling double duty for both Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC, not to mention it remains unclear how long his tenure with the latter band will last.

In the end, we think that Axl Rose, if he doesn’t somehow melt down or implode in the process, will do fine and certainly interesting work as the lead vocalist for AC/DC. Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC are two of the most vaunted, successful, and cherished hard rock bands of the last 50 years. In Axl Rose, AC/DC chose from the cream of the crop of hard rock singers, despite Axl’s troubled history and unreliability. He certainly has lots of rock and roll clout and chops. Ultimately, the merger between Axl and AC/DC might not work, but it won’t be because of hard rock vocal talent or status as an icon of rock – Axl Rose has that for days.

But whether or not it succeeds or fails, it certainly won’t make a chink in the armor of AC/DC’s overall success and legacy. There’s no questioning those. Simply put, AC/DC is one of the greatest ever in terms of rock success and many would say, in terms of hard rock music. That’s something for everyone involved in the enterprise to feel pretty damned good about.

Rock on AC/DC, rock on.

-Brian Reiser
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