I’m actually kind of surprised that Back in Black has held up for me all these years, since it was one of the first classic rock albums I got into, and it’s arguably one of the most straightforward hard rock albums ever. But I’ve never grown tired of listening to it, probably because of its gargantuan, muscular riffs and breakneck pace. One of the neat things about albums is that there’s no one way they can be great. Usually I favor albums that feature a diverse lineup of songs, and while it is only fair to point out that all of the songs on Back in Black are more or less the same thing, I would argue that doesn’t work to the album’s detriment. I think it says a lot about Back in Black that AC/DC never feel the need to alter their attack. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Back in Black unfolds like a breathless adrenaline rush, galloping along with song after song of awesome energy. It’s not hard to understand why it connected with millions worldwide en route to selling close to 50 million copies, which is third most all-time, behind only Dark Side of the Moon and Thriller.
And while AC/DC never came anywhere close to duplicating that kind of zeitgeist-level success again, their producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, certainly has carried that torch. Lange first came on board with AC/DC’s previous album, Highway to Hell (1979, 7x multi-platinum), and later produced the following multi-platinum smashes: For Those About to Rock We Salute You by AC/DC (1981, 4x multi-platinum), 4 by Foreigner (1981, 6x multi-platinum), Pyromania by Def Leppard (1983, 10x multi-platinum), Heartbeat City by the Cars (1984, 4x multi-platinum), Hysteria by Def Leppard (1987, 12x multi-platinum), Waking Up the Neighbours by Bryan Adams (1991, 4x multi-platinum), The Woman in Me by Shania Twain (1995, 12x multi-platinum), Come on Over by Shania Twain (1997, 20x multi-platinum), Up! by Shania Twain (2002, 11x multi-platinum), and Dark Horse by Nickelback (2008, 3x multi-platinum).
That is truly jaw-dropping success. Six diamond albums? Two double-diamond albums? Yikes. And the truth is, with the exception of Highway to Hell, I don’t listen to any of those albums despite their clear populist appeal. The reason why I decided to profile Mr. Lange’s career is to show the trajectory that the music industry took after Back in Black. The late ’70s marked a decline in blues-oriented rock & roll in favor of the arena-ready corporate rock of Van Halen, Journey, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Boston, and Styx, to name a few. (The seemingly inexplicable Shania Twain connection, if I had to guess, is a result of post-’70s record label consolidation into Hollywood media conglomerates. Producers have had more opportunities to diversify, I would imagine.)
These bands, particularly Van Halen and their diamond-selling self-titled debut (1978), and Back in Black proved there was an audience for hard rock in the ’80s, when hair metal took off. But it’s a mistake to include AC/DC’s work with the godawful trash that is hair metal; there’s nothing self-indulgent about Back in Black. It is, after all, a tribute to their late singer Bon Scott. (Though for what it’s worth, their new singer Brian Johnson’s screechy yowl is pretty much indistinguishable from Scott’s.) It’s a party album through and through, exactly the kind of anthemic send-off the notoriously party-hearty Scott would appreciate.