When the record landed in stores in August 1980, there was no picture of the band on the LP sleeve. In fact, there was no picture at all. Just an ominous black 12-inch square embossed with the name AC/DC and the words Back in Black
. The somber-looking package contained one of the greatest rock albums of the ’80s—an album that, 35 years later, still makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, even more so if you know the story of how Back in Black came to be.
A new decade had dawned and AC/DC were riding high on the success of 1979’s Highway to Hell
. Six months after its release, a gap in their hectic touring schedule found AC/DC back in London, the Australian band’s adopted home base, where they began to write the follow-up album.
It was in London, during the writing sessions, on February 19, 1980, when lead guitarist Angus Young got a phone call from one of singer Bon Scott’s many lady friends. “She was hysterical and trying to get some information,” Young says. “She’d heard Bon was dead.”
Bon dead? Young didn’t believe it. Everyone knew Scott was indestructible. From their early days playing the tough bar circuit in Australia where Bon out-battled the clientele, to the recent incident when he’d dived out a four-story window and into a pool on a $10 dare, he always emerged with a grin on his face, a girl on his arm, and a drink in his hand. And then the guitarist's phone rang again. The band’s manager was calling from a South London hospital—he’d just identified Bon’s body. After a night on the town with friends, the hard partying, happy Scott had passed out and choked on his vomit. The coroner’s report would later say that he had “drunk himself to death.” Young was devastated.
Later, at the funeral, Bon’s parents told the band that they had to find a new singer and carry on. But the band members weren’t interested in carrying on. They weren’t interested in anything. As Angus recalls, “Everyone was walking around in silence. Nobody knew what to do. It was hard to take in. We were so depressed.” Angus’ brother and AC/DC rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young agrees. A pall of depression hung over them all.
For several weeks, the brothers couldn’t bring themselves to even pick up their guitars. Then finally, just to take their minds off the loss, they decided to book a rehearsal studio and play some of the bits and pieces they’d been working on with Bon. Which led to them thinking about the wishes of Scott’s parents and discussion of finding a singer.
AC/DC's manager had put together a list of potential new vocalists, which up until then they had refused to look at. But then they noticed that one of those names was of a singer that Bon had been raving about for months: Brian Johnson from the Northern England band Geordie.
When Angus and Malcolm invited Johnson to come hang out for a while and sing, there was no hesitation. Johnson was a huge AC/DC fan. His chemistry with the band was instant, and he left with a new job and a plane ticket to the Bahamas, where producer Mutt Lange was waiting for them at Compass Point Studio. Recalls Malcolm, “We got the title for the album before we’d even written a tune. Angus said, ‘Why not call it Back in Black?
Make a black album cover and then it’s for Bon.’”
But Back in Black
wasn’t just a tribute album, a wake for their much-missed friend—it was a declaration of intent that they’d decided to go on. Not to replace him—Bon was irreplaceable—but to start a new phase with a singer whose powerful high wail worked just as well with AC/DC’s trademark sound as Bon’s sleazy, bluesy growl.
It’s that multi-faceted mix of intension and tensions, anger and spirit that makes Back in Black
so lethally good—all that turbulence, the barely suppressed anger and pain and the fierce will to continue.
When AC/DC first heard the playbacks, their reaction, says Malcolm, was, “This is a monster!” Sure enough, it was. Not just the tone of the album and its lean power but its songs, which include three of the best rock anthems ever: the rousing title track, the brooding “Hell’s Bells,” and the ultimate party song “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
If Highway to Hell
had made AC/DC famous, Back in Black
made them superstars. Released a mere five months after Bon Scott’s heartbreaking death, it hit No. 1 in the U.K.—a first—and No. 4 in the U.S., spending more than five weeks in the American Top Ten. It remains one of rock and roll's most popular--and powerful--albums, a rowdy memorial to Bon Scott and the raucous rebirth of one of the greatest bands of all time.
If you’re not one of the ten million-plus people who have bought Back in Black
, you owe it to yourself to get it now. It’s a masterpiece.