The list of bands who survived a singer’s early death is a short one. So when AC/DC’s flamboyant frontman Bon Scott died Feb. 19, 1980 at the age of 33, no one was betting on the Australian hard rockers’ survival – much less for them to release their most successful, career-defining opus within the next six months.
Released 40 years ago on July 25, 1980, Back In Black found guitarist Angus Young, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd joining forces with new singer Brian Johnson (formerly of glam outfit Georgie) and re-teaming with Highway to Hell producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange in the Bahamas to pick up the pieces. Starting with a couple early drafts Scott had been working on prior to his untimely death, the band churned out 10 stripped-down but hyper-polished hard rock classics.
While the album title tipped to the band’s loss, you wouldn’t know it was a funerary affair if you rolled up to the party cold: From thunderous opener “Hells Bells” to raucous closer “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” Back In Black is 42 minutes of razor-sharp metal precision. Peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, Back In Black was the band’s first top 10 album, spending 420 (*rips bong*) weeks on that chart in total. Additionally, it produced their first top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “You Shook Me All Night Long” (No. 35 peak).
In honor of 40 years of Back In Black, we’re ranking the album’s 10 tracks, from least to greatest.
10. “What Do You Do for Money Honey”
Definitely one of the album’s filler tracks, you could listen to this one dozens of times and still struggle to remember exactly how it goes. Still, it’s a testament to the band’s sonic efficiency and Lange’s meticulous production on Back In Black that even the least memorable moment maintains the flow and energy level.
9. “Shake a Leg”
You wouldn’t call the guitar riffage here complex per se, but by AC/DC standards, it’s practically baroque. With a ferocious, vertiginous solo paired with a strictly uniform drum beat, this is exactly the kind of song that belongs in the penultimate position on a perfect rock album; just enough fuel to keep the train a’chooglin’ while leaving plenty of room for the closing track to roll into the station and take all the glory.
8. “Have a Drink on Me”
The studio precision flaunted on Back In Black gave little space for AC/DC’s loose, bluesy roots, sometimes smoothing them out into oblivion. But the boozy “Have a Drink on Me” represents nicely for that side of the band, harking back to their early days and reminding people this Aussie band’s musical DNA stretches back to the blues of the Delta and Chicago.
7. “Let Me Put My Love Into You”
With a baleful bass line and haunted desperation in the vocal, there’s a level of sordid menace about “Let Me Put My Love Into You” that you don’t find elsewhere on Back In Black. Is it anyone’s favorite song on the album? Hell no, but it’s a much-needed change in tempo and atmosphere, providing a libidinous valley to what is otherwise an album stuffed with orgasmic peaks.
6. “Shoot to Thrill”
AC/DC songs tend to chug along at a fairly workmanlike pace, but “Shoot to Thrill” is one of their rare tunes where the Young Bros. sound like they’re actually holding back… at first. The initial half of the song has a simmering energy twitching beneath the surface, and after slowing it down to a rolling boil at the halfway point, the band erupts into a cataclysmic supernova during the last minute.
5. “Givin’ the Dog a Bone”
Also listed as “Given the Dog a Bone” and “Giving the Dog a Bone” on some releases, it’s clear that the rigorous streamlining AC/DC applied to the album’s songcraft didn’t extend to details like a consistent track list, which is perhaps not surprising given the forehead-smacking obviousness of this double entendre (which really might as well be a single entendre). All the same, this crotch-thrusting exercise in preteen male humor manages to soar thanks to a vocal from Johnson that is more winking than lecherous and a chugging guitar riff that’s hard not to get caught up in.
4. “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”
“Rock n’ roll ain’t no riddle, man / To me, it makes good, good sense,” Johnson yowls at the start of the album’s final track, a slow, bluesy build to climax borne by one of Young’s nastiest (and most underrated) guitar licks. “Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution / rock and roll is just rock and roll” is either the most profound lyric the band ever committed to paper or the dumbest… or perhaps both at the same time? And really, isn’t that dichotomy what rock is all about?
3. “Back In Black”
With his flippant sneer and devilish charm, Bon Scott left some big hell-child hooves to fill when he died. And while Brian Johnson may not have been able to match him in the bewitchment department, he was every bit the equal when it came to occupying that rarified vocal territory where a high-pitched banshee wail meets blue-collar growl. Over one of the most irresistible headbanging riffs ever committed to tape, Johnson’s manic wail is unleashed on the title track, demonstrating an unexpectedly bright future for the black-clad band in mourning.
2. “Hells Bells”
Kicking off a metal song with church bells – ahem, excuse me, HELLS bells – is a tradition about as old as metal itself, but AC/DC has never been a band to mess with a winning formula, and the opener of Back In Black is a masterclass in the ominous hard rock slow burn. As the dour atmosphere of the first minute gives way to a relentless, mechanical march into the band’s future, Brian Johnson shreds his vocal cords as if he’s singing to Scott up in Valhalla; it’s an effective way of tipping to the incalculable loss without getting bogged down in boring ole sadness — which would be a very un-AC/DC thing to do, even when staring death straight in the face.
1. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
Naming this the best song on Back In Black probably won’t leave anyone sh00k for even a second, but sometimes the obvious answer is right one — and there are few recordings this flawlessly executed. The opening 30 seconds are a brilliant bait-and-switch, with some casual guitar noodling leading in to one of the meanest, leanest guitar/drum pairings of all time. That crunchy G-C-D is tough enough that the band actually gets away with their poppiest sing-along chorus (at least up until that point) without losing one sweaty ounce of credibility. Even before the chorus arrives, though, it’s already the best damn thing on the album – hell, lyrics were never this band’s strong suit, but “she told me to come but I was already there” is one of the best double entendres of the classic rock era (and shockingly restrained for a band who thought “Big Balls” was clever enough to justify an entire song). Built to last, this exercise in manicured metal is the kind of classic that will endure even after (hey hey, my my) rock n’ roll finally dies.