40 Years On: Revisiting AC/DC's Let There Be Rock
, March 27th, 2017 11:32
AC/DC released plenty of good albums, but Let There Be Rock in 1977 was their first truly great long player, says Julian Marszalek
Now that the ol’ Highway To Hell/Back In Black debate has been done and dusted with the establishment of Powerage as AC/DC’s best album, it’s now worth contextualising that position from the point of view of its predecessor. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Let There Be Rock is the album that, while paving the way for Powerage, has somehow managed to slip down the cracks of both history and affection. In short, Let There Be Rock is the John The Baptist to Powerage’s Jesus Christ and it’s about time that position was given the praise it so richly deserves.
But let’s go over the salient facts. Powerage’s messianic position is down to two crucial factors that, when added up, are far greater than the sum of their parts. The first of these is the perfection of rhythm. This is a watertight album and the relationship between rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, drummer Phil Rudd and new bassist Cliff Williams is almost telepathic. These are simple rhythms, yes, built on economic chord sequences and precise riffs, bass lines played at the root note and locked in with those 4/4 beats, but crucially they roll just as much as they rock. This goes beyond elemental head banging; this is music you can dance to.
The second vital factor is Bon Scott’s lyrics. Sure, there’s the Jack the Lad swagger (‘Rock’n’Roll Damnation’) but behind the glimmering and winking eyes is a lachrymose and creeping darkness in his words that suggests a man for whom playtime may be coming to an end. He was almost 32-years-old by the time of the album’s release – and old man by the standards of the 1970s - and AC/DC were still to hit the big time and his frustration at money worries is evident in ‘Down Payment Blues (“Hiding from the rent man…”). Elsewhere, the company he was keeping and the habits they were maintaining elicited some of his most evocative yet disturbing lyrics (see “She stirred her coffee with the same spoon” from the grimly punned ‘Gone Shootin’’).
But for all of its elevated status, Powerage was the result of an evolution, not a revolution, and a crucial part of that journey is Let There Be Rock, an album that’s a stepping stone from the glam rock and toilet wall poetry of its predecessors to the gelling and building of their sound while Bon Scott was still on board. And though it’s an album that occasionally looks over its shoulder, this is one that also consolidates, jettisons the flab and girds itself for the future. Consequently, things become more focussed, sharper and, somewhat ironically, more sophisticated, if such a thing can be considered where these reprobates are concerned. The net result is AC/DC’s first truly great album.
What’s immediately apparent about Let There Be Rock is its mood of defiance. Despite scoring hits in their native Australia and gathering momentum in Europe on the back of increasingly memorable live shows based as much on showmanship as their pile-driving music, AC/DC were yet to be given a sniff of the United States. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap had been rejected by their label, Atlantic, in the US citing problems with Bon Scott’s voice and thin production as their main reasons. This was the point that the band would hit back and break through.
Certainly, those massive chords that come slashing in to usher opener ‘Go Down’ make the convincing case that there’s a new sheriff in town. The Young brothers were after a big sound and that’s exactly what they got. Let There Be Rock is the album where AC/DC get their sound down pat – these are fat, heavy guitars, frequently in the verge of feeding back and delivering a heavy payload from a massive height.
Another contribution to that huge sound is the band all playing together in the same room. The guitars would therefore leak into the drum and vocal mics and it was difficult to escape the Young’s sonic attack. Not that anyone wanted to; this was a huge move forward for the band, and playing together in close proximity is always going to result in additional sparks, power and inspiration.
What’s also interesting to note is the playing relationship between Angus and Malcolm Young. As evidenced by that opening track, the guitars are weaving together closer than they had been on their predecessors and the way their guitars emanate from opposite channels feel less like two separate instruments and more like one continuous bounce from one side to another. But here’s the thing: while the older brother holds that rhythm down, you can’t help but feel that Angus is chomping at the bit to break free of the repetition in order to fly. He’s perhaps a microsecond out from his sibling but it’s precisely that just warped sense of timing that adds to the charm and it becomes evident when he goes for the lead break. Again, he’s just ahead and the result is akin to letting a tugging and excited dog off its lead to run riot and rut with furious abandon.
But if AC/DC were aiming to make their point in the studio, then they were simultaneously keeping their eye on the stage. It’s impossible to listen to say, ‘Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be’, ‘Bad Boy Boogie’ and of course the title track without thinking those songs were specifically written as much for how they’d be performed live – and in frequently elongated versions that would allow for extended solos or showmanship such as Angus’ regular mid-set striptease – as they’d be captured in the studio. Little wonder that these tracks and more from the album became the bedrock of any AC/DC live set from then until the present day.
Given the siege mentality surrounding the recording of the album, it comes as little surprise that Bon Scott’s lyrics take a darker and harder edge. The seaside postcard humour of something like ‘Big Balls’ or ‘Love At First Feel’ was gone and Scott was beginning to face up to the harsh commercial realities of the music business. You can feel his suspicion and rage and he turns out empty pockets once more as he sings on ‘Dog Eat Dog’: "Businessman, when you make a deal/Do you know who you can trust?/Do you sign your life away?/Do you write your name in dust?" Someone’s going to get fucked over and Scott suspects that it’s going to be himself again.
It’s a theme that recurs during the magisterial title track. Rock & roll has always been in love with its own mythology. And why the hell not? It’s the main reason that any young male picks up a guitar or microphone – the glory, the adulation, the hedonism – but here Scott is canny enough to peel away the layers of artifice to show another, darker side. Yet its true lyrical genius is that he still manages to celebrate that mythology despite knowing a harsher truth.
Giving the song a biblical edge (“In the beginning/Back in nineteen fifty-five…/And it came to pass/That rock’n’roll is born…”), Scott preaches with the evangelical fervour of the convert. It’s a gloriously absurd angle but the best rock & roll always is, yet among Scott’s eulogising lies caution: "All across the land every rockin' band/Was blowing up a storm/And the guitar man got famous/The businessman got rich/And in every bar there was a super star/With a seven year itch."
It all comes together under some of the band’s most brutal and primal playing. Reportedly caught on the second take straight after the first, the band is absolutely cooking as they drive through that elemental and primordial riff. Phil Rudd and bassist Mark Evans are totally locked in and are the glue that holds it all in place but again it’s the interaction between the guitars that really grabs the attention.
So much 70s rock is based around the power trio format but here it’s the use of the second guitar that really brings this – and AC/DC as a whole – to life. Malcolm’s playing is utterly ruthless; this is a groove that will not stop, that is timed with a lethal precision and, as in his position within the band, is the foundation upon which everything else is built. In common with the Stones or Led Zeppelin, what’s most interesting is not the displays of virtuosity but the groove. It puts the head in a trance and it unlocks the feet. It’s music for below the neck and they really do become that 92-decibel rocking band.
It’s certainly most evident on ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’. The song’s inspiration has been told a thousand times over elsewhere but what it does do is revel in that stimulus. It cribs a few moves from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ – the title, the riff - but where it differs is in its evocation of carnality. Whereas the earlier track is rooted in a teasing sensuality, ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ pulls its pants down and fucks from the off. This is grinding lust, breathless abandon, a total release of pressure and it sounds like the best fun you could ever have.
Let There Be Rock became AC/DC’s ticket out of Australia. The UK and Europe embraced the album a lot quicker than America did as it entered charts across the continent. It’s the point where AC/DC became an album band and one not especially concerned with wrapping hit singles with filler. The band’s ribald and bawdy humour is tempered by experience and an acknowledgment of the outside world. This is the sound of miscreants and older brothers leading younger siblings and their impressionable friends astray with Bon Scott playing the part of a mischievous Pied Piper. Consequently, this is perfect music for adolescents with rampant hormones and for those who view arrested development as a lifestyle option rather than an affliction.
But most importantly, it’s the album that makes you want to be at The Shaking Hand and be the singer that turns to crowd and says… well, you know the rest, don’t you? Now go spread the word…