33 1/3 Odyssey: Highway To Hell

At first, I questioned covering this volume of the 33 1/3 series on the KEXP Blog. But then I remembered. When I was growing up in a “teenage wasteland,” AC/DC was as subversive and divisive as the Sex Pistols. Seen as drink-celebrating sexaholic bruisers by the more technical heavy metal fans I knew and most rock critics I read, and written off as dumb by my punk pals in the city, I kept my enthusiasm for the band between my first love and I. Not saying I wasn’t conscious of the difference in tone between the ornery horniness of “The Jack” and the vicious cultural anomie of say, “Pretty Vacant,” but they both walked the line between insecure machismo and petulant lust. Both seemed dirty and bad and liable to frighten girls and parents. We blasted both AC/DC’s first LP High Voltage and Never Mind The Bullocks in between committing petty crimes and stealing liquor from our parents.

It turns out I was the one who was confused when I’d start to run into young women who loved the Pistols, and older dudes who loved punk and who admired the Australian hard rock band for creating “sonic touchstone(s) for directness and simplicity.” This line is from Joe Bonomo’s dedication to AC/DC’s sixth album and first major breakthrough in the States, Highway To Hell. His book in the 33 1/3 series tells the story of drummer demon-schoolboy guitarist Angus Young (one of the most noteworthy visual icons in rock), his brother and band leader Malcolm Young, extremely influential drummer Phil Rudd, bassist Cliff Williams, and the doomed, delirious, hilarious, and vexed singer Bon Scott. The 1970s stadium rock of celebrity bands was starting to bore and the music business needed a ferocious shot of adrenaline. Scott’s band seemed likely to kick it over into the 80s, but it would take getting hooked up with Robert John “Mutt” Lange, known in my bedroom for producing Graham Parker’s itchy, rowdy soul-punk Heat Treatment LP.

Bonomo describes the first conquering US attack of the band from opening for the MC5 to a couple thousand kids in Detroit to hitting CBGB’s in an after-hours assault and confusing the fashionable hangers-on with their short man’s testosterone rage and Stooges-inspired guitar shredding. Whilst here this time through, they were buying up multiple supplies of American cigarettes they smoked in insane amounts and smashed each other with Arby’s roast beef sandwiches in the tour ride, letting reporters get them confused with punks because they sure didn’t want to “play scales” like Led Zeppelin (who they deemed as lacking spontaneity) ... and trying to keep Scott out of jail. They worked around the short, crowd-stoking trickster’s love for pills and lager enough to keep creating music that caught as much derision as adoration. But that audience-worship grew due to an astonishing level in America due to blitzkrieg, almost-comedically over-the-top performances as on the American late night concert program Midnight Special. And in spite of the fact that a serial killer in Los Angeles would seem inspired by the final song on Highway To Hell, leaving behind a baseball cap with their logo at one of his scenes of slaughter.

The several-minute-long “Night Prowler” disturbs Bonomo, and his Catholic-bred conscience allows him to admit it. Though I doubt his fan-love for the band was ever shook by Tipper Gore and the Washington wives and suburbanites who ended up making AC/DC one of the very first targets of their attempt at a rock-crushing witch-hunt of censorship through the 80s. Meanwhile, Highway To Hell achieved getting three somewhat successful singles into the charts here (“Girls Got Rhythm,” the almost-new wave “Touch Too Much,” and the “London Calling” of hard rock title track) but more importantly got the fierce outlaw spirit of Bon Scott into the bloodstream of rebellious American youths at exactly the right time, who could identify with the LP’s hilariously self-deprecative “Shot Down In Flames” because he could also tell them he knows exactly how hard they’ve been kicked in the balls by life with “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It).” I’ll stop here and let you take the rest of the band’s journey to the top and into the heart of darkness via Bonono’s excellent telling of the tale.

Should you doubt the punk-blues aesthetics of AC/DC, remember that Keith Richards was once quoted as keeping a copy of their previous platter, Powerage, near the board whenever he mixed. That was before they started working with powerhouse Lange, and before American kids started to understand what the gatekeepers still hadn’t figured out yet. My guess is that if you’re interested enough in the band’s music to have read this far, you need to get a copy of Highway To Hell, both album and 33 1/3.

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One Comment

  1. Roy
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I grew up hating AC/DC. It wasn’t so much the band as it was their crowd. After I graduated high school and got some distance between me and the people I used to have to endure that loved the band (well, at least they liked the record “Back in Black”), I began to really appreciate AC/DC. I wouldn’t say they are regular rotators in my music collection but some times AC/DC is what you need.

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