Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: AC/DC & the Legend of ‘Back in Black’

How they forged ahead through a devastating loss to produce the greatest hard-rock album in history.

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Angus Young in 1980. Credit: Michael Putland/Courtesy of Sony Music Legacy.

Heavy metal has long been impervious to cataclysmic intra-band events. One could argue that’s because most metal bands are forced to live in the moment: no sense daydreaming about chart success — there won’t be any. And stadium gigs are completely out of reach for all but a select few groups. Music videos? Pffft. So the problems that normally sidetrack rock and pop acts are dealt with by metal bands swiftly and efficiently.  

There’s no better example of this fact than the Australian band AC/DC who, 40 years ago, released the most unexpected and important album in hard-rock and heavy-metal history: the appropriately titled Back in Black, which has sold upwards of 50 million copies worldwide. It also made a group of untelegenic-to-the-max musicians into radio and MTV darlings, while allowing them to become one of music’s most successful live acts.

Considering the circumstances that had all but consumed the band in the months prior to Back in Black’s release, expectations were low. After a 1979 world tour supporting the successful Highway to Hell album, band members were blindsided by the alcohol-related death of sleazy, soulful singer Bon Scott on Feb. 19, 1980. In any other genre, there were only two possible ways it could’ve played out: AC/DC could’ve released a self-pitying, angry or morose record; or they could have packed up and gone home. However, metal being metal, the band chose a third option: have a laugh.

At its heart, AC/DC is a goodtime band, with a back catalog that features no fewer than two songs about venereal disease and more than a dozen euphemisms for intercourse. Not to mention, lead guitarist Angus Young has now spent five decades duck-walking across the stage like a naughty schoolboy. In other words, regardless of the tragic end of their colorful lead singer, there was to be no Magic and Loss in their discography.

AC/DC were working class the way Black Sabbath were working class, and the rest of the band — bassist Cliff Williams, drummer Phil Rudd and the Young brothers, Angus and rhythm guitarist Malcolm — soon sent word to the trades that a) they had found a new lead singer; and b) were readying a new album, scheduled for release later that same year.

Brian Johnson and Angus Young in November 1980. Credit: Michael Putland/Courtesy of Sony Music Legacy.

And so it came to pass that a brawny Englishman named Brian Johnson, with a voice as distinctive as Scott’s, entered a Bahamas studio with the band in the spring, wrote many of the album’s lyrics on the fly and made it possible for AC/DC to drop Back in Black on July 25 — just five short months after Bon Scott’s death.

The album cover was matte black, with the band’s logo barely visible in a charcoal gray knockout stencil. The packaging seemed funereal, and the opening track, “Hells Bells,” may also have given a false impression of what was to come. One of its features was indeed a tolling bell, reverberating like a metronome behind the signature riff, and the song was one of the few that featured lyrics alluding to the stormy weather in the band’s recent past.

I’m a rolling thunder, a pouring rain
I’m comin’ on like a hurricane
My lightning’s flashing across the sky
You’re only young but you’re gonna die

The rest of Back in Black showed the bar-band blues dexterity that AC/DC had honed through five internationally released studio records, each one better than its predecessor. AC/DC were determined to keep to their proven three-chords-and-a-smirking-chorus formula on tracks like “Shoot to Thrill” and the mega smash hit “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which lit a commercial path for other hard-rock bands to follow.

The title track, again, could have been laden with sorrow and frustration, but metal bands are different than other musicians, grieving personally but soldiering on professionally without mercy. They lose key members, whether through death or disillusion, and then simply plug the hole. It was the same for bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer, Metallica, Black Sabbath and Anthrax, just to name a few. With Back in Black, AC/DC may have stunned the larger music world with their approach, but not metal fans.

Consider the lyrics to the album’s title track:

Yes, I’m let loose
From the noose
That’s kept me hanging about
I’ve been looking at the sky

’Cause it’s gettin’ me high
Forget the hearse ’cause I never die


That, in just a few short lines, sums up the genre’s most vaunted quality: You cannot kill heavy metal. Literally cannot.

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