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AC/DC: Disco Punk Funk Glam Rock Brit Pop Superstars
Julian Marszalek , April 15th, 2009 04:47

AC/DC are often held up to be 100% rock & roll in it's purest form. This just isn't the case says Julian Marszalek after examining the evidence

It was the withering contempt of the music press that gave rise to the notion that AC/DC did little more than release the same album over again. Interviewed on the eve of their 1984 Monsters of Rock headliner by a sneering Andy Kershaw for the Old Grey Whistle Test, the soon-to-be champion of world music and recipient of several restraining orders was moved to ask Angus Young in contemptuous tone how it was that the band managed to differentiate themselves in the world of heavy metal and hard rock.

“A lot of people say we’ve made the same album eleven times,” replied the diminutive guitarist before adding, “and really they’re lying because it’s actually the twelfth time.”

And so the myth began that every AC/DC album sounds the same. Palpable nonsense, says The Quietus. Though the band has enjoyed a critical rehabilitation of sorts, the notion of musical change within the AC/DC camp is anathema to most of the gentlemen of the music press (and where AC/DC are concerned, it most certainly will be gentlemen). But these are cloth eared dolts, the kind of buffoons that would have you believe that AC/DC exist in a bubble that refuses to acknowledge outside influences.

Come join us, gentle reader, as we prove once and for all through a series of carefully monitored and scientifically-controlled, double blind tests with water-tight methodology (listening with the volume at full + air guitar x personal prejudice = opinion) that, despite the erroneous reputation attached to their voluminous output, AC/DC are a band very much of the times in which they live…

THE GLAM ROCK YEARS

ALBUMS: ’74 JAILBREAK, HIGH VOLTAGE, DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP

THE EVIDENCE: At the heart of the crunching ramalama that is AC/DC lies an unapologetic pop band and as these early recordings show, the influence of glam rock is never far way. Granted, as evidenced by TNT and its snotty chants of "Oi! Oi!", AC/DC owe less to the androgyny and sexual ambivalence of David Bowie and more to the brickie-in-heels/futurist aesthetic of Sweet and Gary Glitter but the glam influences are firmly in place. As are the nods to Bay City Rollers with ‘Can I Sit Next To You Girl’, a track that sails perilously close to ‘Shang-a-Lang’.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap follows in a similar vein. Phil Rudd’s beats on the title track are a pure glam stomp; the sound of a thousand stack heels brought down hard on the concrete terraces the world over. See also the breathing effect on the verses that double up as Glam’s secret weapon: handclaps. These albums are so glam that Mickie Most must have wondered where his production points were and for further evidence, check out Malcolm Young’s knee length boots on the back cover of High Voltage.

THE PUNK ROCK YEARS

ALBUMS: LET THERE BE ROCK

THE EVICENCE: Received wisdom has it that punk rock had absolutely no effect on AC/DC. This, of course, is total bollocks; the band’s reaction to the nascent punk scene is most keenly felt on Let There Be Rock. To the untrained ear, AC/DC’s fourth album is a tightened up version of what went on before but this is to miss punk’s influence on AC/DC’s activities.

Having moved to London in 1977, AC/DC were somewhat bemused to find themselves lumped in with punk rock. Finding little in common with the barrage of the Pistols, The Clash et al, the Antipodeans reacted against the prevailing winds by delivering an album of blistering rock’n’roll in its purest sense.

They may have reacted against punk, but also Let There Be Rock benefits from the same liberating force that other punk bands did.

THE DISCO YEARS

ALBUMS: POWERAGE, HIGHWAY TO HELL, BACK IN BLACK, FOR THOSE ABOUT TO ROCK

THE EVICENCE: Most metal scholars will, over the course of several pints, return to make the point in misty-eyed terms that Powerage is AC/DC’s best album and they’re not wrong. Featuring some of Bon Scott’s most poignant lyrics (see the junkie horror of ‘Gone Shootin’”, the street-blues of ‘Rock’n’Roll Damnation’), the album pushes and pulls with a rhythmic intensity that had been missing from their previous releases. Not without good reason is this Keith Richards’ favourite hard rock album. But there’s an extra element at play here that contributes to its deep grooves: disco.

By 1978, disco was impossible to ignore. Once the preserve of blacks, gays and other marginalised groups, the success of Saturday Night Fever ensured that disco went supernova in a very short space of time. The Rolling Stones, never a band to miss a passing bandwagon, soon hitched a ride and hit paydirt with ‘Miss You’.

AC/DC’s flirtation with disco was less obvious though no less keenly felt. Powerage is a triumph of the groove. Cliff Williams’ minimalist and Zen-like bass playing harks back to disco’s forebear Northern Soul (compare the bass lines of ‘Down Payment Blues’ with Mr Bloe’s ‘Grooving With Mr Bloe’) as elsewhere, Phil Rudd’s signature 4/4 beats are more in keeping with the times than keeping time.

But it was the arrival of Robert John “Mutt” Lange that sealed AC/DC’s disco credentials. Lange had already propelled the otherwise unremarkable City Boy into the pop charts with ‘5705’, a track that combined the overblown harmonising of AOR with a chart friendly sheen, as well as aiding The Boomtown Rats in securing pole position with the Springsteen tribute that was ‘Rat Trap’. The resulting Highway To Hell album is a dance monster of epic proportions. The title track’s disco credentials are sealed thanks to a dynamic that finds Phil Rudd taking centre stage once more as Angus Young weaves in and out of those infectious dance beats. Their appearance on Top Of The Pops to promote ‘Touch To Much’ is one of the most surreal TV appearances ever as their usual headbanging constituency is replaced by teenage girls employing the same moves they’d use to Odyssey’s ‘Native New Yorker’ at the youth club disco.

Despite the death of Bon Scott, 1980s Back In Black became a planet-shagging success. With Lange twiddling the knobs again to songs that were infinitely more streamlined than anything they’d recorded before, AC/DC had reached a state of disco nirvana. ‘You Shook Me All Night’ proved to be such a colossal example of the genre that Celine Dion and Anastacia were moved to the cover the songs in one the most bizarrely misguided duets of all time. Consider also that new vocalist Brian Johnson auditioned for the band by singing Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘Nutbush City Limits’. Coincidence or evidence of a dance element that had always been in their music? We know which way we’re swinging.

THE MULLET YEARS

ALBUMS: FLICK OF THE SWITCH, FLY ON THE WALL, BLOW UP YOUR VIDEO, THE RAZORS EDGE

THE EVICENCE: The 1980s were an unkind time to many a band of a certain vintage and AC/DC were no exception. Bereft of drummer Phil Rudd, the lumpen contribution of his replacement Simon Wright only added to the rubbish that was filling their albums. Meanwhile, the fall-out from Live Aid rehabilitated some of the worst dinosaurs from the previous two decades as the cruise control switch was flicked and the cash poured in.

AC/DC’s concession to 80s was for Angus Young to sport a dodgy-looking mullet that at least ensured a high profile for the band in the American mid-West, a territory unconcerned with matters of taste and what the rest of the world was up to. The rest of the world reciprocated in a similar fashion.

THE BRITPOP YEARS

ALBUM: BALLBREAKER

THE EVIDENCE: Where previous generations of rock & rollers were only too happy to apply iconoclastic methods in a bid to get themselves noticed, the Class of ’94-95 were so reverent and in thrall to past masters such as Ray Davies and The Beatles that it seemed as if the tribute bands were finally taking over. Who needed The Bootleg Beatles when Oasis were so readily available?

Clearly, AC/DC were paying close attention. Rehiring drummer Phil Rudd and placing uber-fan Rick Rubin in the producer’s chair, the band effectively became a tribute to themselves and released their strongest album since 1981’s For Those About To Rock.

THE HERITAGE YEARS

ALBUMS: STIFF UPPER LIP, BLACK ICE

THE EVICENCE: It was no less an authority than The Rolling Stones who discovered that it was perfectly feasible to continue to release album in order to promote a tour, rather than vice-versa. So it was that AC/DC set out on the epic Stiff Upper Lip tour on the back of another pretty weak album. Tellingly, AC/DC played only the title song and ‘Safe In New York City’ before the latter track was quietly dropped in favour of more material from the Bon Scott era. Little wonder that the two bands shared a bill in 2003.

Yet the current Black Ice tour shows all the signs of reversing this trend. Five cuts from the new album are making it into the set list but this is hardly surprising. With their strongest album in over 25 years, AC/DC really have re-discovered their mojo. As rumoured, it may well be their last hurrah, and if it is, they’ve taken significant steps to ensuring that they’re to be remembered for pushing ever-onwards.

In doing so, AC/DC join a log list of artists ranging from Leonard Cohen to Brian Wilson to Bruce Springsteen who have all enjoyed a renaissance of sorts over the last few years. The reasons have varied from artist to artist yet the desire to leave something of worth is the common thread that binds them all together. AC/DC are no different, and in doing so, have proved once again that, far from churning out the same album time and again, outside influences continue to play a discernable impact on their activities.

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