AC / DC’s Back in Black at 40: Establishing Rock Bands as Brands


The list of the best-selling albums of all time is somewhat fluid depending on when and how the counting is done. But AC / DC’s Back in Black, released 40 years ago, is definitely one of them. Certified 25 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America and with, by some estimates, worldwide sales of around 50 million, it occupies a perennial place in the Top 10.

For such a commercial juggernaut and such a creative power, the circumstances leading up to the recording were not favorable. AC / DC had steadily gained ground during the 1970s, first from their Australian base and then from London, to finally break into the international market in 1979 with Highway to Hell, their first record to appear on the Billboard. American Top 100. In February 1980, however, they suffered the loss of their charismatic singer, Bon Scott, who died as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.

Very shaken, the leaders of the group – brothers Malcolm and Angus Young – persevere and seek a new singer. Scott was replaced by Newcastle-based Brian Johnson, who had had some success in the 1970s with the group Geordie. However, at the time, Johnason primarily supported the installation of windshields and roofs on sports cars. He only made the trip to London for the audition as it coincided with a singing session on an advertisement for Hoovers.

Groups as brands

Back in Black was therefore a rebirth for the group. It also helped establish the power of rock bands as brands for good.

The AC / DC brand was based on the foundation of the Young brothers on guitar. The unique interplay of Malcolm’s economical, monolithic rhythm playing and Angus’ sharp, jerky lead lines was a distinctive musical signature. This was reinforced by the visual iconography of little Angus wearing a school uniform on stage as well as the spiky typeface and love at first sight of their logo. Created by American typographer Gerard Huerta in 1977, the typeface conveyed the sense of electricity implicit in their name.

As Ceros Originals described decades later, “Huerta was only 22 when he started doing lettering at Columbia Records. But because it was in the ’70s – when a hit rock album sold for millions – and he was designing album covers, Huerta’s work had a durability that it never could have. predict… At the time, it was just another job: he drew it, his client signed the lettering and it went into production. “No one would think the logo would still exist 40 years from now,” he says.

Thinking more about the logo, Huerta said, “It has become the graphic image of the group. I wouldn’t have known that a piece of lettering I made for an album cover would still be around 41 years later. It’s a testament to their longevity as a band more than any contribution I’ve made. I mean, I designed an album cover. I like to say that this is the only lettering I have ever designed that is made up of all straight lines, which is not the hallmark of a good lettering designer.

AC / DC weren’t the first band to replace their lead singer or find success after doing so. But in many previous cases, it had led to a change of direction or focus (like when Pink Floyd lost Syd Barrett, or Peter Gabriel resigned from Genesis). There were, of course, some important differences between Scott and Johnson as singers and lyricists.

As Angus Young said, “We weren’t looking for a clone or a copy. You have to find someone who has their own character.

Scott’s call came from a seemingly effortless delivery that was one piece with the sly witticisms in its lyrics. Johnson, on the other hand, displayed greater reach and power. Lacking the hint of threat in Scott’s lyrics and voice, his style was more over the top and worked with a larger brush. But the basic musical model – minimal, riff-based and deceptively simple – has remained in place.

Recorded in the Bahamas between April and May 1980, the album struck a fine balance between the triumphalism and machismo of the genre and a tribute to the late singer. But Johnson’s powerful, almost cartoonish performances – which make up for the undeniable sexism of the lyrics – and the tense riffs of the instrumentalists have placed him at the center of a musical milieu of the burgeoning heavy metal scene, the established popularity of the blues. -rock and punk energy.

Precision engineering

Basically, Back in Black set the standard for rock production as well. Producer Robert “Mutt” Lange had worked with the band on Highway to Hell and led the follow-up sessions. His success lies in how he crossed the line between recreating the dynamics of the band’s live sound and establishing a sound space that allowed the songs to be heard on vinyl and on the radio.

Lange’s approach was marked by an eye for detail and repeated takes that prompted the group – especially nervous newcomer Johnson – to imbue the power of their performances with an unprecedented level of precision. Sessions sound engineer Tony Platt recalled the constant adjustments: “It was like setting up a photo set, where the photographer keeps making small adjustments to the lighting and the way the subject is posing until. ‘at some point he clicks the shutter button and says, “This is the picture I want.”

Lange thus gave raw music a commercial sparkle that helped create an “arena rock” sound and has had a long-standing impact on commercial rock recording ever since. He would later oversee huge hits for Def Leppard including Pyromania and Hysteria, and repeat the tour with country music on Shania Twain’s Come on Over, which is by far the best-selling country album to date.

Black’s enduring success therefore lies in the way he rides rock mythology – pulling triumph out of adversity – with brutal energy and commercially-oriented finesse. It catapulted hard rock sound into the mainstream, setting aesthetic standards for decades to follow and, in the process, marking the potential for a band’s sound to survive and surpass its origins.

Adam behr is Senior Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music at the University of Newcastle. (Added excerpt from Ceros Original courtesy of TFL).

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