Time Capsule: AC/DC, Highway to Hell

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at AC/DC’s measure of raunchy apostasy that few rock rebels have ever achieved so meteorically, as the five-piece was knocking on the door of tragedy.

Music Reviews AC/DC
Time Capsule: AC/DC, Highway to Hell

“I’ve got big balls, they’re such big balls and they’re dirty balls. And he’s got big balls and she’s got big balls, but we’ve got the biggest balls of them all!” Those lines filtered through the speakers of my Magnavox CD player in my childhood bedroom when I was six years old. I was not yet truly aware of what they meant; I had balls but I didn’t know who else had balls, but AC/DC seemed to know and wanted to let everyone in on the secret. I poured over my copy of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (the American release, which heartbreakingly omitted the original, 1976 Australian version’s closing track, “Jailbreak”), scratched the disc up from being seven or eight and having no tangible understanding of what it meant to take care of your possessions. Even when the CD began to skip, I still blared “Big Balls” at full-blast until my parents yelled at me to turn it down and rarely listened. No parental displeasure could interrupt me from fulfilling my destiny of getting forever stoked on a song about testicles and its spectrum of possession.

I’d sit at my grandparents’ dining table and draw the Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap album cover—designed by Hipgnosis (who also came up with the cover of a few underground records like Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy and Wings at the Speed of Sound)—over and over again from memory, and I’d even make up my own self-portraits and throw a black box over my eyes, too. My dad used to drive a Dodge pickup truck that still had a tape-deck in it, and we’d listen to a cassette of Stiff Upper Lip nearly every time we shared a ride together. I was young and fascinated by the effort it took to rewind the tape every time, just so we could go back and hear the title track bleed into a song called “Meltdown” again. I think, if I had to guess, that was when I fell in love with AC/DC for real, ditching my attraction to the Beatles and Elvis for stone-cold rock ‘n’ roll. The band would become my personality until I was knocking on the doorstep of teenagerdom, and it was a passionate, generational love affair.

But, really, all of this immersion started with an album cover. It was five Australian men looking disaffected in five different ways. In the very back was bassist Cliff Williams, who couldn’t quite seem to figure out what was going on. There’s Malcolm Young, giving a subtle pursed lip-look that puts blue steel to shame. Peeking his head up next to Malcolm is drummer Phil Rudd and, on the very far right of the portrait is Bon Scott cracking a million-dollar smile and sporting an all black outfit bedecked with gold chains. But front-and-center is Angus Young, the proverbial shredder of the Baby Boomer Generation, with his hair perfectly quaffed and a set of devil horns sticking clean out of his news cap. He’s holding a devil’s tail while coiling his lip into a snarl and donning the schoolboy outfit he’s worn (in blue, red, green and black iterations, respectively) for 50 years. There’s nothing larger-than-life about this album cover, but the songs behind it would change the world of rock music forever.

I used to have a poster of the Highway to Hell cover image on my bedroom wall and, feeling inspired by it, I’d steal my mom’s blank CD-ROM jewel cases and draw my own album covers for the front jacket. I’d walk around the house toting my new “studio album” packed with a tracklist of fake songs and all, even playing a tune called “The Backdoor” for my dad on my baby acoustic guitar and making up the words and melody on the spot. I was something of a rock star; the lead singer and guitarist of a band called Power Chord of the Shock Rock (abbreviated to the acronym PC/SR to match the name-styling of my heroes, with a lightning bolt in place of the slash). One morning, I’d even recruited a few friends at school to be in PC/SR, and we rehearsed on the playground after lunch—banging sticks against rocks and plotting out our World Tour—only for them to quit before the 3 PM dismissal bell. In my head, I’d already made a dozen platinum albums, because I could shred on my cherry-red Fender squire (despite only knowing the riff to “Smoke on the Water,” which my dad taught me how to play incorrectly).

But 26 years earlier, in New York in January 1979, executives at Atlantic Records held a meeting about how to remedy AC/DC’s continued failure to detonate properly in the United States. The band’s last record, Powerage, only peaked at #133 on the Billboard 200 and it didn’t minister a hit song of any kind—at least nothing that any rock stations were picking up on their rotations. Atlantic put out a live record, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, with the hopes of it offering the same success to AC/DC that an album like Alive! did for Kiss in 1975, but its sales numbers were even worse than Powerage’s. Why couldn’t AC/DC mirror their Australian and European popularity in North America? Was it Bon Scott’s rasping braggadocio, or something much less tangible? From a business perspective, a blame had to be thrown onto somebody—and it ended up being George Young, Angus and Malcom’s older brother, who’d produced the band’s first five albums, was a founding member of The Easybeats and co-wrote international hits like “Love Is in the Air” and “Friday on My Mind.”

The idea was to have Eddie Kramer captain AC/DC’s sixth studio album (if you, like me, consider High Voltage and T.N.T. separately), and the Cape Town-born producer was something of a legend in the music industry already—having engineered albums by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Peter Frampton, and having produced Carly Simon’s debut and Kiss’ four most-successful releases of the 1970s. But, the sessions Kramer held with AC/DC were massive failures. Bon Scott’s alcoholism had gotten worse, and there was a doomed energy in the air—likely a result of George Young’s ousting and Kramer’s sudden imposed presence in the studio. After Malcolm threatened violence if Kramer wasn’t fired, AC/DC’s manager Michael Browning canned the audio auteur for the up-and-coming, 31-year-old producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange and, together, he and the band stepped out and made Highway to Hell.

Highway to Hell is a measure of raunchy apostasy that few rock rebels have ever achieved so meteorically. Gret Knot said it best when reviewing the album for Rolling Stone in 2003: “The boys graduate from the back of the bar to the front of the arena.” That much is true; you can viscerally hear the five-piece turning into rock folklore in real-time across 10 loud, hip-thrusting, death-defying tracks. This wasn’t an ascension like that of Guns N’ Roses on Appetite for Destruction. No, the success wasn’t applicable from the jump. AC/DC had worked long hours to become the biggest rock band in the world. A year prior, Powerage was their most eclectic offering at the time—as the project brandished songs like “Down Payment Blues,” “Riff Raff” and “Up to My Neck in You,” fuse-blowers that didn’t kick up a fuss culturally (like those on Highway to Hell and Back in Black would over the next three years) but rattled the walls enough to bolster AC/DC into the hands of Lange and vault them into the echelons of rock immortality for good.

There will never be a world where “Highway to Hell” isn’t the most famous song on the album. You don’t have to like AC/DC to be able to recognize Angus Young’s opening riff, either. It’s synonymous with not just the 1970s, but with rock ‘n’ roll altogether. Atlantic Records advised against the band naming the record Highway to Hell (they also detested Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and, as a result, the album didn’t receive a United States release until 1981), but AC/DC were providing their own personal commentary for a life spent on the road—which had become topical, given how their explosion in America in 1977, on the back of no radio support, led to a live reputation and fandom that, in 2024, still rages on faithfully.

“A lot of it was bus and car touring, with no real break,” Angus told Guitar World. “You crawl off the bus at four o’clock in the morning, and some journalist is doing a story and he says, ‘What would you call an AC/DC tour?’ Well, it was a highway to Hell. It really was. When you’re sleeping with the singer’s socks two inches from your nose, that’s pretty close to Hell.” “Highway to Hell” came about when Angus and Malcolm were broke and holed up in a rehearsal studio in Miami. Angus played the opening riff and then, in a flash, Malcolm jumped on the drum kit and they demoed it together. The story goes that an engineer’s child messed around with the demo tape and unraveled it, but Bon Scott MacGyver’d it back to life and preserved the sketch of what would become one of rock music’s most ubiquitous tracks.

From the moment Bon begins singing “Living easy, loving free, season ticket on a one-way ride,” there’s a certain tenacity to the recording. If you’ve ever watched one of AC/DC’s live performances taped before Bon’s passing, you’re probably already well-familiar with the outline of his penis and how he sang each and every track as if it was about to burst through the seams of his too-tight denim pants. For all of the ways that Angus’ guitar-playing arrives with a pulverizing, hard-nosed energy, “Highway to Hell” is nothing without Bon’s bravado—a coat of demonic varnish pressurized from singing through clenched teeth about to shatter. And then, miraculously, Angus’ solo turns Bon’s unkempt vocal ugliness into a thing of chaotic beauty. There’s a ferocity here—a stoic, unbothered declaration of disregard for the five albums that came before Highway to Hell. AC/DC had finally made a commercial darling, effectively erasing the middling sales numbers of everything from High Voltage to Powerage. In a pan-flash so seismic its embers still flicker, “Highway to Hell” is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest exorcisms and introductions.

For all of the criticisms AC/DC has faced over the years for “making the same song over and over,” Highway to Hell is their most-ambitious and diverse selection of songs across the board (paralleled only by Back in Black a year later). The way the buoyant melody of a track like “Girls Got Rhythm” can melt into something so damning and so monstrous on “Walk All Over You,” the album is such an immediate document of Angus, Malcolm and Bon all at a songwriting apex—and Highway to Hell is the record where AC/DC’s sound first becomes so distinct that, 40 years later, internet personalities are arguing about whether or not everything that’s come after is a carbon-copy. AC/DC proved that “consistency” and “sameness” can exist in a conversation together without being so cumbersome, as their propensity for 4/4 drum measures and three-chord guitar progressions became not a crutch, but a lifelong muse.

Before helming Highway to Hell, Lange had previously worked with Graham Parker, the Boomtown Rats and City Boy—credits that didn’t immediately suggest that he had the chops to turn a rock band into generational superstars, though the Boomtown Rats found a #1 UK hit in “I Don’t Like Mondays” under Lange’s tutelage. But AC/DC’s cultural breakthrough in 1979 gave Lange access to artists like Foreigner, Def Leppard, the Cars and, in the 1990s, his future wife Shania Twain. He’s produced two of the 10 albums in music history that have sold more than 40 million copies. Bill Szymczyk, who piloted the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) and Hotel California, is the only other producer to achieve that same feat—though I am compelled to put an asterisk on Szymczyk’s achievement, given that the former was a greatest hits compilation.

It’s easy to look at Lange’s run with AC/DC—Highway to Hell, Back in Black and For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)—and say that, yes, he was at the wheel for their three best albums, commercially (Rolling Stone even went as far as to call For Those About to Rock the band’s very best record in their original 1981 review, which I disagree with). And it’s even easier to dismiss Lange’s contributions, given the Young brothers and Bon Scott/Brian Johnson’s steadfast commitment to writing each song on every album. But, it’s clear that Lange possessed a quality that AC/DC greatly needed going into Highway to Hell: balance.

You can look at their previous records—especially High Voltage, Let There Be Rock and Powerage—and find major inconsistencies across their tracklistings. An album like Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap especially, much to the dismay of six-year-old me, is littered with filler songs. But Highway to Hell is all-killer, no-filler (the only album in the band’s catalog that can claim such excellence)—and I chalk much of that up to Lange having a no-nonsense approach during the recording process that translated to taxing 15-hour sessions across two months. He saw AC/DC’s minimalism and dedication to their craft and funneled his own meticulousness about sound into a vision that would challenge the band greatly. Lange would sleep on the Roundhouse studio couch and continuously work on the record—even after everyone else went home for the night. I often think about this story recalled by tour manager Ian Jeffery in Louder:

“Mutt took them through so many changes. I remember one day Bon coming in with his lyrics to ‘If You Want Blood.’ He starts doing it and he’s struggling, you know? There’s more fucking breath than voice coming out. Mutt says to him, ‘Listen, you’ve got to coordinate your breathing.’ Bon was like, ‘You’re so fucking good, cunt, you do it!’ Mutt sat in his seat and did it without standing up! That was when they all went, ‘What the fucking hell we dealing with here?’”

Lange’s trained singing voice was crucial in helping Bon learn how to properly breathe while singing. Look at songs like “Touch Too Much” and “Love Hungry Man” and you can hear that upgrade immediately. Not to mention, Malcolm and Cliff (and sometimes Mutt) were doing melodic background singing that was a brand-new inclusion in AC/DC’s oeuvre but never rid them of their trademark grit. I argue that Highway to Hell is the moment where Bon Scott became rock music’s most important lead vocalist of the 1970s, as he finally honed in on his pure, wailing talents as a belter by embracing the polish that he and AC/DC had long fought tooth-and-nail to avoid. I revisit songs like “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” and “Get It Hot” and I am just beside myself, because he sounds like a more vibrant, bombastic version of the Bon Scott we got on tracks like “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” and “Whole Lotta Rosie.”

And, furthermore, Lange was responsible for the “Highway to Hell” guitar solo, as he shepherded Angus towards parts of the fretboard and got immediate, historic results from the Aussies. Jeffery said it best, that Lange never asked Angus and Bon to do anything he couldn’t do himself. “He really massaged them into what became that album,” he’d go on. Word on the street is that Atlantic Records was grateful to Lange for making AC/DC more palatable to the masses, but what’s obvious is that he sensed just how well the band could play and pointed them towards the heights they needed to ascend to in order to break big in the States. And that’s exactly what happened and then some.

While Highway to Hell would have its cultural hiccups—namely the damning association of its finale song “Night Prowler” with serial killer Richard Ramirez (who professed that AC/DC was his favorite band) in the 1980s, and the Los Angeles police’s claim that an AC/DC hat was found at one of Ramirez’s crime scenes—the band jettisoned the momentary heaviness of a song like “Gone Shootin’” and “Ride On,” where Bon was exploring darker themes like addiction and loneliness, for a smorgasbord of its own carnal tendencies—flaunting tawdry tracks about lust, sex, partying, sex and sex.

In terms of albums that reap the rewards of the male-gaze, Highway to Hell is one of the greatest feats of seduction that never flirts with problematic language—at least not beyond the root of the album’s own sometimes-lethal idealizations. Lines like “You know she move like sin and when she let me in, it’s like liquid love” and “Gonna bend you like a G-string, conduct you like a choir / So get your body in right place, we’ll set the world on fire” and “All I wanna do is make a meal out of you” are so melodramatically erotic that it makes sense that the guy with one of the greatest on-stage bulges in the history of rock ‘n’ roll is the one who wrote them.

Instrumentally, too, Highway to Hell finds Angus, Malcolm, Cliff and Phil flourishing and, as David Berman would say, approaching perfection. On “Get It Hot,” Angus plays an uncharacteristically sunny riff that blends copious amounts of blues rhythm with fits of glam rock; he and the band soundtrack Bon’s double-entendres on “Touch Too Much” with bawdy ardor; though now synonymous with its recent inclusion in the season two finale of The Bear, “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” (named after AC/DC’s 1978 live album) features razor’s edge guitar chords from Angus and a bleating, gravel-throated ruckus from Bon—and the chorus of “Blood on the streets, blood on the rocks, blood in the gutter, every last drop” is diabolical, frenzied and, perhaps, the best musical moment on Highway to Hell altogether.

On “Beating Around the Bush,” Angus plays an opening riff that either lampoons (or pays homage to, depending on how you hear it) Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”—and it’s one of AC/DC’s last great marks of blues-rock, something they’d practically abandon fully by the time they made For Those About to Rock. Pop eminence came a-knocking on “Shot Down in Flames,” and Bon’s embrace of fleshly bar floundering—as he tries to hit on a woman and finds out she’s taken by another man—compliment Angus’ licks with resounding walkover. “Hey, you, Angus,” Bon demands, “shoot me,” and that’s exactly what the axeman does, cutting up the rug on his own filthy chords and lasering them into a stadium-ready solo.

While, in hindsight, it looks like AC/DC’s climb up rock ‘n’ roll’s ladder of success happened overnight, it’s impossible to think otherwise when you remember that, before Highway to Hell went platinum in the United States, the band had still been relegated to serving as the opening act on tours with Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick and UFO. In 2024, their libidinous gusto hasn’t aged nearly as poorly as that of their peers, like Aerosmith. AC/DC found a niche in making cutting-edge hard rock while maintaining their own harmless lineage. Angus Young and Bon Scott were sleazeballs making perverted, anthemic, head-splitting guitar music—but they were never offensive about it.

That is why a song like “Big Balls” remains the kind of all-inclusive, cartoonish jam that artists like Alice Cooper, KISS and Twisted Sister—these degenerates who strutted around stages in makeup and used flamboyancy to move records, only to double-down on transphobia 40 years later—couldn’t sell authentically if they tried. The AC/DC we got in the 1970s is a gift that no discourse about recycled chord progressions—or, as Pitchfork called it, “one long, loud, continuous mid-tempo guitar riff spanning five decades”—or a discography of the same album done 17 times over, could ever dismantle. AC/DC arrived built to last, it simply just took a few years and a few records for the paint to dry.

Bon Scott would die suddenly in a car’s passenger seat in London in February 1980, having asphyxiated on his own vomit after a night of binge-drinking (a tragedy that would forever change the contextual meaning of “Highway to Hell”’s lyrics). Though the Rolling Stones carried on after the death of Brian Jones, groups like Led Zeppelin and the Doors ceased to continue after John Bonham and Jim Morrison passed away. For an act like AC/DC, whose style and popularity that feverishly hit an uptick on Highway to Hell was largely because of Bon Scott’s artistic metamorphosis, losing your lead vocalist should have been a death knell.

But Bon’s utterance of “Shazbot, nanu nanu” (the phrase for “Goodbye” used in Mork and Mindy by Robin Williams’ titular character) at the end of Highway to Hell wasn’t an epitaph for AC/DC. Instead, Angus and Malcolm—with the blessing of Bon’s family—went searching for a replacement and, after a month of auditions, came upon the only singer in the world who could have successfully (and almost completely) reinforced the fractures left by Bon’s death: Brian Johnson, the one-time lead singer of a glam band called Geordie who was living with his parents in Newcastle.

I don’t have an opinion on the Brian Johnson era of AC/DC these days. While I’ve spent various chapters of my life adoring Back in Black, For Those About to Rock, The Razors Edge, Ballbreaker and Stiff Upper Lip in various measures—and there’s no doubt that the change from Bon to Brian was the greatest make-or-break, mid-career success-story in rock ‘n’ roll history—I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what could have been, had Bon lived long enough to capitalize on the successes of Highway to Hell with his brothers.

While those five albums are standouts in a 20-year run where AC/DC was at their most-commercial and symbolical and, perhaps, monotonous, the six years that preceded that clip fascinate me far more. And much of that is because Highway to Hell was basic rock ‘n’ roll done so brilliantly. Making a masterpiece like that helps when you have the grandeur of a vocalist like Bon Scott or the stage tenacity of a shredder like Angus Young. The latter’s schoolboy schtick no longer felt like a gimmick; those five Aussies finally made everyone notice just how majorly they could wail.

I recently found a photo of myself from when I was about eight years old. In the picture, I am wearing an AC/DC headband and matching pajama pants. I’m clearly trying to mimic the same snarl Angus made on the Highway to Hell album cover, but my gross mouth full of soda-rotted baby teeth is killing the effort and the effect. Highway to Hell, beyond the millions of copies sold, is hard rock’s The Velvet Underground & Nico—in that it dared a whole mess of people to go out and start a band of their own. Power Chord of the Shock Rock didn’t last quite as long as AC/DC has, but it existed once and, when I play “Girls Got Rhythm” and “Touch Too Much” and “Love Hungry Man” now, I remember why I felt so alive when it was all mine.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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