On July 27, 1979 an album called “Highway To Hell” was released in America from an Australian rock group that called themselves AC/DC.
Although this entry is solely about their 1979 breakthrough, I talk about their origin. I do not assume everyone will know about their history.
Formed by brothers Angus & Malcolm, produced by their brother George, the record was licensed to Atlantic records for release in the US.
The entire Young family lived in Scotland until 1963 when the worst freeze in history dropped 8 feet of snow. The Young clan emigrated to South Wales, Australia.
Everything about them would seem unremarkable until you hear their blues boogie driven by memorable riffs and solid backing rhythm. Angus Young likes to hit his audience directly with memorable riffs.
I think their music is deceptively simple. Harking back to the origins of rock n roll their music was influenced by their brother George who scored hits with his group, The Easy Beats. Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Pete Townsend, Jimi Hendrix, and The Kinks were their idols.
The brothers Young had a sister named Margaret who saw ac/dc on her sewing machine. The lightning bolt between the letters signifying alternate and direct current denoted high voltage. She gave them their name. This moniker would prove genuine as the group was a personification of high energy electric rock n roll.
Angus Young went through a few ideas for his stage look. The funniest was a parody of Superman called Super Angus. Again, Margaret suggested he just wear his old schoolboy uniform.
My first encounter with this Aussie quintet was in 1979 at a store in Cross County Shopping Mall in Yonkers, NY. Pickwick Village was a shop that sold rock music memorabilia. T Shirts, posters, framed photographic images of bands, and lots of other goodies.
I came across an image in a frame unlike any being previously seen. His scowl was not scary but kind of cool. The frame had a simple label at the bottom that read: Angus Young of AC/DC (the band’s name was in logo form). Although I did not buy the item since I had never heard of him, it still made an impression.
Because of the band’s high place in rock history today it’s important to remember how most bands endure hardship to earn this status.
“Highway To Hell”, the sixth studio album from AC/DC, was produced by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange. Bon Scott on vocals, Angus Young on lead guitar, Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, Cliff Williams on Bass and Phil Rudd on drums.
It was the first time they recorded outside of Australia. The studio was in London. All 10 tracks were written by Angus, Malcolm, and Bon. Sadly, this would prove to be the final recordings of Bon Scott as lead vocalist/frontman for the group.
Despite Atlantic records not being happy with the band’s choice of title they released “Highway To Hell” with a photograph by Jim Houghton on the cover different from the Australian release.
They subtracted the image of the group engulfed in flame to a portrait. Angus wears his devil horns for the first time becoming the eternal problem child. Below on the left is the album cover in Australia. To the right a t-shirt with the American album cover.
In America, AC/DC broke into the top 40, hitting #17 on Billboard’s albums chart (U.K. #5). This put the band’s image in the spotlight in a culture that had many detractors.
The satanic implications were attacked by various authorities in America. This enabled the record to get more coverage. In fact, Atlantic Records embraced the commercial success of the album in print ads with copy that declared “an album worth selling your soul for.”
You may have noticed Angus is holding a tail! The song titles set the course for future releases. AC/DC became famous for their prankster approach to simple lyrics. This hard rock music was new at the time. The melodic strains would influence the coming decade’s groups like Van Halen and Motley Crue.
If you think hard rock is just purile and sexist you are missing the devil may care attitude of most artists. Along with the lust driven “Touch Too Much” is the counterpoint of “Shot Down In Flames”. Mischief is their midas touch.
In 1979 there was a heavy metal movement in Britain that brought Iron Maiden and Def Leppard to these shores. AC/DC’s image was assumed to be part of this culture. I know they are a solid hard rock outfit. This is fine. They were never a metal band.
Listening back to “Highway To Hell” for the first time in years I was surprised to find I heard how similar Def Leppard are in their sound to AC/DC. Sharing the same producer gave them a mutual vibe. On this album producer Lange instructed them to use backing vocals. This approach added new layers to their sound.
The tour for this record gave them exposure to arena sized audiences too. They opened for Styx, Kiss, Kansas, & ELO. Co-headlining a show with Cheap Trick was the next step up the ladder of rock stardom.
Prior to making the record Angus Young clarified that years spent on the road performing was its own kind of hell. Producer Mutt Lange (Def Leppard, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, et. al.) challenged them on every note. Their studio schedule was grueling.
Instead of their usual 3 weeks to record they spent 8 weeks at Roundhouse Studios. The now famous opening riff was almost lost. The demo of the track got damaged. Angus remembered it note for note. Each day was 16 hours of recording and re-recording.
Sexual innuendo has been a part of rock n roll since its inception. In the early 1970s, AC/DC had a glam image back home. In their pub gigs they were outfits of satan trousers. That would be stripped away to match their clothes with the raw power of their music.
Bon would don leather pants on occassion, but nothing glittery. Angus in his school uniform would prove to be the stuff of legend. AC/DC went through many changes before they got attention. They had a punk like attitude too. Bon in rough denims and no shirt.
“Girls Got Rhythm”, “Get It Hot”, “Touch Too Much”, and “Love Hungry Man” were all cut from similar cloth. Like Kiss, their music would be decried as too sexist and simple. Their response was to just play. The music was meant to be foreplay for a new generation.
They developed stage antics with Angus on Bon’s shoulders running all over while performing. Both would end up shirtless for the duration. In the middle of the show Angus would perform a striptease. Fans love them for their rock n roll bravado.
Their concerts would grow into spectacle. New songs would add props to the proceedings; better equipment would lead to lighting and sound unimaginable in the 70’s.
I read interviews Angus gave over the years in Circus magazine and Rolling Stone. He said the band always made the record they wanted to hear.
As long as they sold enough to satisfy the label they were happy. This humble approach paid off tremendously. Artists never know how a record will be received.
Alongside Queen, Kiss, Def Leppard, and Cheap Trick, the band hit the big time with this record. Because of significant sales their ability to make records without too much interference from their label continued to this day.
As of May 2005, the recording industry has certified “Highway To Hell” as 7x Platinum in America. This translates as 7 million copies sold.
The tour never played The Garden in New York. Their only stop here was up in Buffalo. Their fan following would soon enable them to play to larger audiences.
Like the other groups mentioned here, decades after their births in the 70’s, the Rock Hall Of Fame inducted them.
I did not start listening to AC/DC until my teen years in the 1980’s. Every record was on compact disc including this one. It was my 2nd AC/DC record. I have listened to them ever since seeing 4 concerts too.
The film “Let There Be Rock” played theaters in America in September of 1980, just 7 months after his death, it features Bon Scott’s final live performance in Paris on “The Highway To Hell” tour. This film is now a dvd/blu-ray set.
Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning in February 1980. There was speculation they were finished. They recorded the 7th album with Mutt Lange. In tribute to Bon, it was called “Back In Black”. That album now famously sits atop the rock n roll heap as the 2nd biggest studio album ever sold in America.
Today, the band are about to announce plans for a new world tour and album. The death of Angus’ brother Malcolm kept them silent for 2 years. With this anniversary the group are showing renewed signs of life.
Over the decades of recording and playing concerts around the world Angus Young’s image has been at the core of their album cover art.
The school uniform image has been refined to fancier silk suits. In their youth Angus also wore a satchel style backpack. He has evolved into a rock icon. He remains the sole founding member of the group.
A high school dropout who has had the same occupation for almost 50 years! He would be the first to tell you not to follow this example.
On the left is the refined version of the logo; On the right is the debut album, “High Voltage”, not available in the US until several years after the Australian release since there was no label interest.
AC/DC have never rested on their laurels. In their infancy the band recorded the track, “It’s A Long Way To The Top” (if you wanna rock n roll). Nearly 50 years on they are still exciting the world with their high voltage sound and image.
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August brings the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock. The music festival became a historical moment for many reasons. Time to celebrate this main event.