Category Archives: AC/DC

Rocks In The Attic #448: AC/DC – ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ (2000)

RITA#448.jpgI saw the mighty ‘DC the other night in Auckland, my third time seeing the band. As you would expect, it was exactly the same as every other time I’ve seen them – but to be fair there was enough different this time round for it still to be interesting.

The biggest difference was the line-up – due to ill health sadly forcing his retirement, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young has now been replaced by his nephew Stevie Young; and original drummer Phil Rudd, arrested recently for hiring a hitman to take out two men, was also out of the picture, replaced by the man he replaced back in the ‘90s, Chris Slade. The best joke I heard about Rudd’s arrest was that he was mistakenly overheard just saying that the band needed a couple of hits.

That was the thing I was most looking forward to with this concert – the return of Chris Slade, the drummer who drove the band through the Live At Donington concert film. As New Zealand music journalist Simon Sweetman has correctly pointed out, Phil Rudd could never play Thunderstruck correctly, there was always something missing. Slade played on the studio version of the song from the Razors Edge album, and his approach to the song takes it to another level, not least for those great side-bass drums he has positioned on either side of him.

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Seeing the band on stage without founding member Malcolm Young was heartbreaking. Malcolm has always been a rock on stage, standing in the shadows but always there holding the rhythm. The only positive outcome was that his position went to a family member (who looks so alike Malcolm that the casual onlooker probably wouldn’t even notice), and to complete the illusion Stevie even used Malcolm’s guitar – a Gretsch G6131 Jet Firebird with the neck and middle pickups removed.

The show wasn’t without its hitches – Brian Johnson missed his intro to Sin City (“Diamonds…”) and caught up with the second half of the line. The ego-ramp was really underused, with Angus and Brian only venturing out it in the final bunch of songs. There were a few sound issues early on, with Stevie’s guitar deadly quiet until they fixed it.  Angus’ guitar tone sounded a bit digitally enhanced – not something you want to hear from a guitarist so heavily associated with keeping it old-school. And the band didn’t play The Jack – the first song I learnt to play on the guitar – and as a result there was no slow blues played during the set.

But for all the cons, there was more than enough pros (a lot of the women in the audience looked like pros actually – lots of 40 year old faded blondes, with missing teeth, dressed as 20 year olds). They played two older songs, High Voltage and Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be (both from the Live At Donington set-list) which I was very happy to see. I’d never seen the band play Have A Drink On Me (from 1980’s Back In Black) lie before, and that was such a surprise and so unexpected, I initially thought Angus was playing the intro as some kind of blues throwaway snippet into another song. For the same reason, it was also great to see them play Shot Down In Flames – another deep cut off n album overshadowed by hit singles (in this case, 1979’s Highway To Hell).

Angus’ playing was still very fluid for a 60-year old, and there was no evidence of ‘locked-up fingers’ syndrome (that blighted Jimmy Page at Zeppelin’s O2 reunion show). And perhaps as a nod to his advancing age though, Angus didn’t do his momentum-stopping mid-set strip-tease, thankfully keeping his shirt on for the second half of the show. Rock N’ Roll Ain’t Eye Pollution and all that.

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The crowd was very interesting in fact. All ages were represented, the youngest child I saw couldn’t have been any older than six or seven, and while it wasn’t a completely 50/50 gender split, I’d estimate about 40% of the audience were chicks. There were some proper low-lifes there though. I expect if Auckland Police looked into it, there would have been a distinct drop in the number of burglaries reported on the night – all the no-mark bogans were wearing their best black t-shirts at the AC/DC show.

The set-list didn’t feature any songs from 1995’s Ballbreaker or 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, the record I’m supposed to be talking about here. Both albums are solid efforts and I’m surprised they didn’t play just one track from each. I guess they have to be vigilant with this though. Not every studio album can be represented – there are seventeen of them!

While I enjoyed Ballbreaker, leading me to see the band for the first time on that tour (supported by the Wildhearts no less), I prefer Stiff Upper Lip of the two. It’s a bluesier, low-key affair – but it didn’t do very well in terms of sales, selling half what Ballbreaker and its follow-up Black Ice did. I even skipped that tour, busy playing with my own band at the time.

I’m sure there’ll be another album though, in four or five years. And another tour hopefully. Here’s to the 2020 world tour!

Hit: Stiff Upper Lip

Hidden Gem: Hold Me Back

Rocks In The Attic’s buyer’s guide to…AC/DC

  – 3 essential albums, an overlooked gem, a wildcard, one to avoid, and the best of the rest –

“I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made eleven albums that sounds exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made twelve albums that sound exactly the same.” So says, AC/DC lead guitarist and fifty-nine year old Scottish Australian schoolboy, Angus Young. While other bands have been cursed by following the same formula over and over again (Francis Rossi, please stand up), AC/DC have turned it to their advantage.
ACDC0Over fourteen studio albums, the band have stuck to a blueprint of blues-based heavy rock. 99% of their songs follow the same format – counterpoint guitar riffs from brothers Angus and Malcolm, steady 4/4 drum beats, driving bass lines, soaring vocals and finally, a solo from Angus. There’s no room for piano, no room for strings and the only backing vocals you get are from the rest of the band, who are about as tuneful as an after-hours pub karaoke session.

Lead vocal duties divide the band into two eras – the band’s formative years were helmed by fellow Scottish Australian Bon Scott, but his untimely death in 1980 saw the band enter a more commercial phase under the screams of flat-cap loving Geordie Brian Johnson.

But regardless of what you may have heard, there are differences between their albums. Each of their 1970s albums follow a progressive arc, until they settled on their massive world conquering sound as they entered the 1980s. Albums since that point have struggled to find that same high level of quality, acting mainly as a springboard for the band to go out on the road for yet another world tour.

Start off with: Highway To Hell (1979, Atlantic Records)

ACDC1The album that saw the AC/DC break America was also their swansong with Bon Scott, who would die just months later. Up to this point all the studio albums were produced by former ‘60s Australian beat group stars Harry Vanda and George (older brother of Angus and Malcolm) Young.  For Highway To Hell, the band would enlist the production duties of Robert John “Mutt” Lange – notable amongst other things for producing Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and marrying Shania Twain.

Lange’s production revitalised the band. Overnight they changed from a noisy rock band from the backwaters of Australia into a household-name stadium rock band. Aside from the title track – typically played by the band in their live shows to open their encore – not much else from the album has survived into the band’s live set to this day; but this is probably the most consistent of all their albums.

Follow that with: Back In Black (1980, Atlantic Records)

ACDC2After Bon Scott’s death, the band could have called it a day. Most bands would have, if they’d lost their lead singer. But AC/DC were always more about guitars than vocals. After auditioning half of London for the job (including Gary Holton who would go on to play Wayne in TV’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet), the band settled on Brian Johnson. The resulting album is a tribute – a relatively sincere one, considering the medium – to their fallen bandmate. Opener Hells Bells sets the scene with a tolling bell, before the band slowly introduce their new banshee vocalist.

Back In Black, also produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is probably AC/DC’s most commercial-sounding record. Singles such as the title track and You Shook Me All Night Long saw the album become the best-selling rock album of the 1980s. It’s currently tied with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon as the second best-selling album of all time (after Michael Jackson’s Thriller).

Just like VHS beat Betamax as the consumer’s choice of video in the 1980s (a fact commonly attributed to the pornography industry selecting the fledgling VHS technology as the way forward), Back In Black outstripped all other contenders in record sales by being purchased by every strip club in America. You Shook Me All Night Long has soundtracked a lot of lapdances – it’s not heavy rock, it’s stripper rock! Def Leppard would achieve the same feat later in the decade with Pour Some Sugar On Me, from their best-selling Hysteria album – a song that sounds like it’s describing a sexual act, but was probably written about their one-armed drummer Rick Allen making a cup of tea.

Oh, and Shoot To Thrill? The best middle-eight instrumental section in rock music, hands down.

Then get: Powerage (1978, Atlantic Records)

ACDC3Powerage is AC/DC’s greatest achievement – the last thing they did before they crossed over into the mainstream. At this point, it’s all still them; there’s no ‘hit-making’ hot-shot producer in the background to claim any credit. The album is no-frills rock ‘n roll from start to finish, although it does come with a celebrity endorsement – Rolling Stone Keith Richards earmarked it as his favourite AC/DC record.

Aside from Sin City, not much else from the record has survived into the band’s live set to this day. Still, opener Rock ‘N Roll Damnation is almost the quintessential AC/DC song, and Riff Raff has one of the band’s longest intros, building up for over a minute and finally released when Angus Young bends an open D-chord that sounds as sick as anything.

But it’s the slow-burn of songs like Down Payment Blues that really wins people over, on Powerage, the most introspective of their records.

Criminally overlooked: The Razor’s Edge (1990, Atco Records)

ACDC4In March 1990, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry mentioned to Guitar World magazine that ‘people put us down for [using outside songwriters], but I wonder how an AC/DC record would sound if they’d pull somebody like Jim Vallance into the songwriting process. Would they get another one-song record with Heatseeker, or would you get a whole album that was that cool?”

At the time, AC/DC were actually in the process of doing something along these lines. While that September’s The Razor’s Edge was written in its entirety by Angus and Malcolm Young, it was produced by Bruce Fairbairn – the man who had produced Aerosmith’s successful comeback albums, Permanent Vacation (1987) and Pump (1989).

It’s almost a cliché to disregard any of the post-Back In Black albums as cannon-fodder (pun very much intended); but The Razor’s Edge saw the end of a run of ‘80s albums where the band had very much lost their way. From this point on, with albums produced by the likes of Rick Rubin and Brendan O’Brien, they spent a bit more time and effort on their studio output.

The album’s opener, Thunderstruck, is another contender for the quintessential AC/DC song and concrete proof that they were still as relevant to ‘90s rock music as they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The long-shot: For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (1981, Atlantic Records)

ACDC5The third and final album produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange fails to match the quality of its two predecessors, but it does have its moments. It’s so close to Back In Black and Highway To Hell in its chronology that you can almost hear some of the magic of those records in its grooves. Of course, on the other side of the coin, the album’s other next-door neighbour is 1983’s Flick Of The Switch, where their mid-‘80s rot really set in.

The album-opening title trackremains a firm live fixture – they’ve closed their sets with the track for the last thirty three years – and the track serves as the true peak of their creative accomplishments. It was all steadily downhill from this point on.

Avoid like the plague: ’74 Jailbreak (1984, Atlantic Records)

ACDC6An EP – usually priced as a full-length album – containing just twenty four minutes of material, ’74 Jailbreak is a cynical cash-in release on the behalf of Atlantic Records. It’s essentially a small collection of leftover songs that didn’t make the international releases at the start of the band’s career (several of these early albums were combinations of songs from more than one Australian release, with some omissions made in the interests of running time).

This really is what you buy only when you have all of the other AC/DC albums, even the questionable mid-‘80s ones.

Best compilation: Iron Man 2 (O.S.T.) (2010)

ACDC7AC/DC must be one of the only major bands in the world without an official ‘greatest hits’ compilation. Sure, there are box-sets – Bonfire (1997) and BackTracks (2009) – but these aren’t compilations in the true sense of the word. The band has avoided issuing a simple collection of their singles – something I really respect them for.

Of the two soundtracks they have released – 1986’s Who Made Who (the soundtrack to Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive) and 2010’s Iron Man 2 – it is the later release that stands as the nearest thing to a ‘greatest hits’ release, split roughly 50/50 between the Bon Scott and Brian Johnson eras.

It’s just a shame the film is so boring!

Best live album: AC/DC Live (1992, Atco Records)

ACDC81978’s If You Want Blood You’ve Got It captured the live sound of the Bon Scott era, but its raw energy was plagued by a muddy Vanda / Young production. 1992’s AC/DC Live doesn’t suffer from that problem. Taken from 1991’s The Razor’s Edge tour, the album offered an authentic live recording of the band. Bruce Fairbairn had got close to capturing that sound on record (on The Razor’s Edge) and was invited back to produce the live record.

Live At Donington, the album’s companion piece video, is also worth checking out. Recording during their third headlining appearance at the British rock festival, it’s essentially the same set as can be found on the AC/DC Live record (and on every subsequent tour for that matter). One nice little bonus extra on the DVD / Blu Ray version is a commentary track comprised of an interview with the Young brothers as they talk though the concepts and directions behind each of their albums. You know, those albums that are supposedly all the same…
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Rocks In The Attic #252: AC/DC – ‘’74 Jailbreak’ (1984)

RITA#252When I was greedily consuming AC/DC’s back catalogue at the tender age of 14, this was always the album I could never bring myself to buy. It’s not even an album – it’s an EP of five songs previously released on the band’s Australian albums (but missing from the international releases), to celebrate the band’s 10th anniversary – which all sounds fine until you consider that it was priced the same as all their other albums. It was either this or a full album for the same price; so it remained an aspirational purchase, always slightly out of my reach.

A matured appreciation of the band’s back catalogue now makes this an essential purchase – the title track is worth the price alone. Originally released on the Australian version of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Jailbreak saw the light of day in the UK in 1976. It was released as a single on the same day as the Thin Lizzy song of the same name. That must have been a confusing day for denim-clad rockers in record shops.

It’s odd that the song was never used on any of the international releases until this EP came out, despite the band releasing it as a single and going to the trouble of shooting a great music video to promote it. The song was later to feature on the double-disc version of AC/DC Live in 1992, although this 14-minute version, split with a lengthy instrumental break to soundtrack Angus’ striptease, isn’t the best version. It’s a great pop song, but remains a largely ignored slice of their canon (no pun intended).

The rest of the EP’s tracks are taken from the original Aussie release of the band’s debut – High Voltage – and were probably overlooked by Atlantic Records in favour of the heavier songs on their second album. I guess when you take two albums and split them into one, you’re always going to have to leave something by the side of the road.

I can do without the cover of Baby, Please Don’t Go – it isn’t a patch on the seminal version by Van Morrison and Them – but Soul Stripper is fantastic. It’s a groove-based slow-burner, probably excluded from the international releases because of its length (6:25) and its lyrics which paint Bon Scott as a weak virgin – ‘then she made me say things I didn’t want to say / then she made me play games I didn’t want to play’.

Instrumentation other than guitar, bass and drums are usually very rare on an AC/DC track – unless you’re talking about bagpipes, cannons or (hells) bells – but Soul Stripper has a great cowbell-like percussive touch that sets it apart from the other songs cut from High Voltage. The effect makes the song sounds ominous – a true hidden gem.

Hit: Jailbreak

Hidden Gem: Soul Stripper

Rocks In The Attic #198: AC/DC – ‘Let There Be Rock’ (1977)

RITA#198This album is such a quantum leap from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, but it still doesn’t sound like the AC/DC of today. The production is more confident than the band’s previous two albums, but the overall sound comes across as noisy rather than channelled, as though the engineer and the producers made a few bad choices on the day of the recording, in terms of setting up the mics in the studio for the amps.

When I started listening to AC/DC in the early ‘90s they were terribly unfashionable. Just like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, they were seen as relics of the ‘70s and ‘80s – something that just wasn’t relevant any more, to anybody. I couldn’t believe when I found a friend at college who liked the band too. I truly thought I was alone in liking them.

Then slowly, they started to become less of a laughing stock, and more of a valid influence on people. When I started DJing in the late ‘90s, I would slip the odd ‘DC track into my set, mainly to blank stares. Then something happened in popular culture – I’m not exactly sure what – but they suddenly became a very cool band to listen to. Each week, I started getting requests to play some of their stuff – and not specific songs either, just a “’Ere mate, you got any ‘DC?”, as though anything I could have played by the band would have sufficed.

Now, thanks to films like Iron Man featuring Back In Black (and its sequel featuring an entire set of ‘DC songs), the band seems to be everywhere. Now I just need to wait for that Aerosmith revival to happen…

Hit: Whole Lotta Rosie

Hidden Gem: Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be

Rocks In The Attic #142: AC/DC – ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ (1976)

For me, and I’m talking about the international version of the Dirty Deeds album, this is where AC/DC really start sounding like AC/DC. The High Voltage album (again, to take the international release as gospel) sounds like a band searching for their sound, and I guess a few of the songs included here don’t really fit with the AC/DC template – or at least not as much as other songs on the album.

A lot of people don’t like it, but I really like the cover to this album. Designed by Hipgnosis, it’s essentially a stock photo of an American motel, with a range of random everyday people superimposed in the foreground. Those people, for no reason explained anywhere on the cover – or even in the title of the album – have their eyes blanked out with black bars. To make it even stranger, there is a Doberman amongst the crowd, and he doesn’thave a black bar across his eyes. Go figure.

The real gem of this album is Ride On– a slow blues, and for me a career highlight which they never came close to matching. I’d compare it to Since I’ve Been Loving You (from Led Zeppelin III) in that in both cases, the respective bands have endlessly tried to replicate these songs on subsequent releases without reaching those peaks again.

Hit: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Hidden Gem: Ride On

Rocks In The Attic #97: AC/DC – ‘High Voltage’ (1976)

Rocks In The Attic #97: AC/DC - ‘High Voltage’ (1976)My love for AC/DC was founded on the international versions of their early albums, with this being a collection of songs from their first two Australian releases. Now that I live at this end of the world, I keep meaning to hunt down their Aussie originals.

After I bought their 1992 Live album and decided to get the rest of their back catalogue, my OCD collector’s attitude urged me onto buying their albums in order, so naturally I started with this, their (international) debut.

On first listen, I remember thinking that compared to the crunch and bombast of Live, that it sounded pretty weak. Each successive album gets closer to that raw live sound, but here it almost sounds like a different band – like a poorly produced bad covers band playing AC/DC material through cheap instruments. It does have a certain charm though.

To give you an idea of how formative this album was for me, The Jack was the first song I learnt to play on the guitar. I didn’t start with something by Aerosmith – who I’d been listening to for a few years by then – I started with a Blues in E, by AC/DC. To this day, I can’t listen to the song without picking up my guitar and ripping through the solo.

As far as album covers go, the front cover of this is a classic – with a nice drawing of Angus clutching his SG, and an early version of the band’s logo evident in the top left corner – but the back cover is slightly disconcerting. Alongside publicity photos of each band member are fictional letters from the likes of worried parents and school teachers, concerned about the band’s latest exploits with their teenage daughters. At the time, I’m sure this made them sound edgy and dangerous, but in the 21st century with a touch of added hindsight it makes the band sound like a group or marauding paedophiles, parading through Australian suburbs just as the school bells ring out. To further add fuel to this fire, Bon Scott namechecks Gary Glitter in the banal lyrics to Little Lover; and of course the album cover features the band’s lead guitarist dressed as a schoolboy. Oh dear.

Hit: T.N.T.

Hidden Gem: Live Wire

Rocks In The Attic #86: The Wildhearts – ‘Earth Vs. The Wildhearts’ (1993)

Rocks In The Attic #86: The Wildhearts - ‘Earth Vs. The Wildhearts’ (1993)Aside from older bands – Aerosmith and AC/DC specifically – The Wildhearts were probably my favourite contemporary band when I first started listening to music. I really don’t remember why but I bought the Suckerpunch CD single – still one of my all-time favourite singles mainly due to the strength of its B-sides – and I was hooked.

I could never understand – as you never do when you’re young and you don’t really understand the music business – why The Wildhearts weren’t more popular than they were. In the mid-nineties, they were the darlings of the British rock press, and their singles were sold in enough quantities to usually make the Top 10, securing them a spot on Top Of The Pops. Fans didn’t just like The Wildhearts – they loved The Wildhearts. Once at Rio’s in Bradford, I was let into the club for free by the bouncer, simply because I was wearing a Wildhearts T-shirt.

When touring this album, their set at 1994’s Reading Festival was memorable when their bass player – Danny McCormack – dislocated his knee doing a star jump during the first song Caffeine Bomb. Instead of stopping, he was propped up onto a flight case, and played the rest of the set (in blinding pain). I think it’s things like that which really made them real. Can you imagine Jack White doing that? Or the Kings Of Leon?

Their other big draw is that their B-sides were just as good – if not better – as the material they would put on their albums. So fans were rewarded by decent songs every time they released something, whether it was a full album or a single (or even a fan-club only album like the very limited original version of Fishing For Luckies, which I still have on CD and always look up in Record Collector to see how much it’s worth these days).

In that decade, out of all the bands I liked, I must have seen this band play live the most. I rushed out and bought tickets to their tours, even when they didn’t have an album out to support. Unlike most bands, they used to tour continually, and their gigs were always well attended by fans in black smiley-bones T-shirts with the ironic catchphrase ‘Demand The Right To Be Unique’ scrawled across the back in white lettering. I can’t remember how many times I saw them, but it must have been something like 6 or 7 times within the space of 3 or 4 years.

I even had a pen-pal (a pen-pal!) around this time – who I met (I don’t know where) through our mutual love for the band. Unfortunately for her, living in the USA, she didn’t get to see them play live too often – if at all – so I used to report back to her every time I saw the band play, and we would share bootleg tapes of their shows. Ultimately I think we lost touch when the internet replaced such archaic forms of communication.

When I went to University, and my musical tastes broadened, I fell out of touch with what the band were doing. I still bought their stuff, but 1997’s industrial-sounding Endless, Nameless turned me off them completely. I saw them live again in the early 2000s, and thankfully they had gone back to their early days, wearing leather jackets on stage and playing material from their early years.

Just listening to this album brings back so many memories – probably just because I went to see them play live so often. I remember driving to Warrington to see them play once – at Parr Hall – and we pulled over to ask a couple of locals who looked like rockers for directions. They said they didn’t know where the venue was, so we eventually found it ourselves, and ended up standing in the queue behind the guys we had just asked for directions (seems that Warringtonians either aren’t too friendly, or they’re not great at giving directions). Another time, I saw them support AC/DC in Manchester – one of my all-time favourite gig line-ups – and I was amongst a very small group of people (there were maybe 5 or 6 of us) moshing to them amongst the older AC/DC fans.

This album is dedicated to Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, who died not long after it was recorded. He plays a guitar solo on the great My Baby Is A Headf*ck – his final recorded appearance.

Hit: TV Tan

Hidden Gem: Everlone