It’s Rock or…Busted Eardrums

What do you get when a rising rock band meets an untimely tragedy only to respond by unleashing one of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling albums in the history of the world?

Brian Johnson.

Never has a vocalist so deftly swooped into a dire dilemma and dramatically turned the tide. On July 27, 1979 Australian hard rockers AC/DC released their breakthrough album, Highway to Hell, which climbed to number 17 on the Billboard album charts. Helmed by famed producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the album propelled AC/DC to fame beyond Australian and UK borders. After the successful Highway to Hell Tour plans were underway to record an explosive follow-up. But less than one month after the tour ended lead singer Bon Scott was found dead in a car in London. He had choked to death on his own vomit after a night of heavy drinking.

Successful bands are generally the result of synergistic personalities coming together. Regardless of audience approval, most reconstructed bands fail to replicate the spirit of the original. It’s a nearly impossible task when the absent member is the singer. The surviving members of AC/DC were aware of this. Scott was a particularly charismatic vocalist and acted as the de facto leader of the group. Founding members Malcolm and Angus Young considered dissolving AC/DC. It was only after encouragement from Scott’s parents thay they chose to press on.

Dealing with the problem of finding a suitable replacement, Angus Young recalled a story Scott once told of an English singer from Newcastle who had impressed him at a local show one night. That singer was ex-Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson.

History unfolded fortuitously; AC/DC hired Johnson who promptly contributed lyrics and vocals to Back in Black. The album, released on July 25, 1980, was a smash success launching AC/DC into global super-stardom. With worldwide sales estimates at 50 million units, Back in Black became the second best-selling album of all time.

Thus it has come as a shock to many fans that after 36 years of tenure with AC/DC¬† Johnson is now on indefinite hiatus, and that Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose will be completing the final shows of the band’s Rock or Bust Tour.

While some controversy exists over the true nature of Johnson’s departure, officially he has left the band voluntarily after being diagnosed with severe hearing damage that could result in permanent deafness should he resume touring. Johnson cited his resignation as the “darkest day of my professional life,” a sentiment shared undoubtedly by countless fans around the world. In honor of the raspy-voiced wailer Retrobacktive presents the Top 10 Brian Johnson Moments of Kick-ass-ery!

1) It’s all because of that jacket and those boots. Pre-AC/DC, Johnson shows off his pipes from hell.

2) One of his earliest interviews demonstrates an awesome-because-it’s-barely-understandable speaking voice.

3) Angus may be the rare guitar playing frontman, but Johnson’s look is equally as iconic. You’ve likely heard this one before, but it’s one of the greatest recordings ever captured and always worth another listen.

4) The title track from AC/DC’s first #1 album.

5) After two lackluster albums AC/DC bounced back in 1986 with Who Made Who, the soundtrack to the Stephen King film Maximum Overdrive. Is it just me, or does Brian’s hat keep getting bigger?

6) When your band’s history spans over 40 years you can believe there were numerous peaks and valleys. This may be AC/DC’s apex, the Monsters of Rock Festival at Donington where they just fucking owned it.

7) AC/DC/s first number 1 song on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock list. While the band has never performed the song live, this video at least gives us Arnie on stage with Johnson and crew.

8) One of Johnson’s most endearing aspects is his willingness to interact with fans. Here he relays a story involving one of his idols, Chuck Berry, that aptly represents the Englishman’s natural aplomb.

9) It isn’t all just rock and roll for Johnson, an avid race car enthusiast. His popular guest spot on Top Gear shows he can grind out impressive turns while crooning Louis Jordan.

10) Although they are one of the best selling bands of all time, 2015 marked the first year AC/DC performed on the Grammy Award Show. Nothing quiet as satisfying as seeing the look on all the snooty artists’ faces that collectively says, “oh yeah, this is what rock and roll is supposed to sound like.”

When You Could Rock in the Free World

If there is one cultural component of the 80s that has suffered more unilateral derision than any other, it’s music. Okay, a case could be made for fashion, but the playing field is uneven; those who considered themselves fashionistas are decidedly outnumbered by music lovers. And those who woke up in the 90s and realized their Cameo fade wasn’t as bitchin’ as they thought quickly disassociated themselves from previous musical inclinations with denial, denouncement, and ridicule.

“Hey, you remember that band Extreme? What a bunch of candies!”

“Um, yeah; you were just listening to Pornograffitti for, like, three months straight.”

Despite what anyone would like to forget, the decade did make a rather significant contribution to the recording arts and sciences: the two best-selling albums of all time were released in the 80s.

The average contemporary music fan either knows or could easily deduce that Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the best-selling album of all time. And more than a few are under the impression it’s the runaway leader. The race, however, might be closer than you think. Although so many people own it, AC/DC’s Back in Black isn’t widely recognized for being as hot on the heels of Jackson’s 1983 smash hit as it arguably is. Thriller is still ahead, but the gap’s disparity is questionable. Claims of Thriller sales in excess of 100 million copies are uncorroborated; the Guinness Book of World Records puts the number at 51 million, while figures for back Back in Black total about 50 million.*

Both albums are undisputed classics, having countless times been praised, commemorated, reissued, analyzed, and imitated. Yet while these lauded opuses share a common bond of success, their critical comparison is lacking. And originally that was the intent of this post – which is the better album: Thriller or Back in Black?

In short time, however, the incompatibilities of this battle became obvious. Both albums serve polarized functions. What one album does, the other doesn’t. The few similarities are superficial. Nonetheless, they’re worth noting:

ac_dc_back_in_black

Back in Black:

Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Highway to Hell).

Produced by a renowned studio genius (Robert John “Mutt” Lange).

Thriller

Thriller:

Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Off the Wall).

Produced by a renowned studio genius (Quincy Jones).

And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The differences, though, range from the obvious to the interesting. Obviously, these are two distinct artists from unique backgrounds. Jackson was a child prodigy and American product of 50s and 60s do-wop, soul, and R&B. He incorporated elements of disco, motown, and rock music to create his signature, dance-friendly style of pop. Later albums would develop an edgier pop-rock sound, but Thriller was favorably R&B.

On the other side of the world, AC/DC found its genesis at the hands of guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, two Scottish brothers who immigrated with their family to Australia in the 60s. The Brothers Young were almost exclusively inspired through the blues and rock idioms, but they’re tastes were not as contemporary as their Jimi-Hendrix-and-Led-Zeppelin-loving peers. The Youngs cut their teeth on Chuck Berry and the boogie-woogie rockers of the 50s. Thus, AC/DC’s sound developed an elemental timelessness few associative acts have successfully captured. Back in Black is often praised for not only aptly showcasing AC/DC’s raw fundamental appeal, but also exhibiting remarkably balanced production and sound engineering. Simply, it is one of the best aural experiences in recorded music.

That these two masterpieces were released only two years apart and have gone on to dominate album sales in their nearly 30-plus year lives is telling of the era that welcomed their releases. There will never be another album that will reach either level of success. The recording industry has adapted to the digital age, and the single has replaced the album as the preferred musical delivery device. The fervor that once accompanied the album – a book of songs that detailed 40-60 minute narratives – is gone. The 80s were the apex of the album’s popularity. And that Back in Black and Thriller are so different might suggest they sated two distinct palates. There’s no point in arguing which album is “better.” People who bought Back in Black were not as likely to buy Thriller, and vice versa.

But one thing is certain: that’s a lot of album sales for a decade that produced “terrible” music.

*Defining worldwide albums sales is not an exact science. Various recording industries record sales by copy or disc differently. General estimates for Thriller put total sales around 51-65 million. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon supposedly has sold close to 50 million copies, but Back in Black has a distinct advantage in established RIAA sales.