December 2008 – January 2009

Essays

Slippin’

By Robert Forster
AC/DC’s Black Ice

In the beginning, back in 1966, there was Harry Vanda and George Young. They were the songwriting team in The Easybeats, responsible for such riff-heavy pop classics as ‘Friday on My Mind', ‘Good Times'. George Young had two younger brothers, Malcolm and Angus, who in their early twenties wrote a series of riff-laden rock anthems, among them ‘Jailbreak', ‘High Voltage' and ‘It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock 'n' Roll)'. He knew the singer and larrikin supreme Bon Scott from Bon's '60s band, The Valentines, whose biggest hit, ‘My Old Man's a Groovy Old Man', Young co-wrote with Harry Vanda. George helped Bon join his younger brothers' band, AC/DC, a group built on the solid bricks of family, '60s pop history and the search for the perfect guitar riff. Young and Vanda's other service was to produce the first six AC/DC albums, before handing the job to the London-based ‘Mutt' Lange, who began a run of three albums with Highway to Hell (1979) - the last to feature Bon Scott as the band's singer and lyricist.

The death of Bon Scott, in February 1980, is the one stinging note of tragedy in the AC/DC story. The band has sold a phenomenal number of records, can headline stadiums at will, and has seen the cream of their songs enter rock history and then the history of our times. But when Bon died, the Young brothers lost a wild and wise older ‘brother', and a singer and stage performer who could ride the beefy riffage coming from their guitars. Back in Black (1980), which has now sold 22 million copies in the US alone, was then a tentative step out with a new singer, Brian Johnson, in tow. If there was a morsel of grace in Bon Scott's passing, it was that he lived long enough to help forge AC/DC's style and sound, but briefly enough to allow Malcolm and Angus, then in their mid twenties, to write some of the finest songs of their lives. Back in Black stands as the best AC/DC album and is central to the group's mythology of endurance and rejuvenation, of lean, tight rock 'n' roll and shaking All Night Long.

Black Ice comes 28 years later, and eight years after the last AC/DC album, Stiff Upper Lip. From the title and packaging's echo of Back in Black, the band, if not saying such a groundbreaking moment has arrived again, is at least signalling a significant career juncture. Perhaps it is seen as the start of stage three, after the Bon Scott years and the long run down since Back in Black. As with the arrival of ‘Mutt' Lange, in the late '70s, AC/DC has turned to a name producer, Brendan O'Brien, known for pop hooks and a chunky contemporary sound. Hailing from Atlanta, O'Brien has made Pearl Jam albums and worked with other hard-rocking bands, such as Velvet Revolver and Audioslave. He can also handle singer-songwriters, and gained further prominence for his work on the last couple of Bruce Springsteen albums - another artist who loves a big sound, even if at times it is to the detriment of his songs. So Black Ice sounds like an AC/DC record. The drums are higher in the mix and the singer may have come down a touch from the early '80s albums, but then, in O'Brien's hands everything sounds loud - and on an AC/DC record, that's how it should be.

One thing O'Brien has not been able to do - assuming he tried - is to maximise the album's impact by keeping it near the classic 40-minute mark. Black Ice is the longest AC/DC record ever; perhaps, after eight years, the Young brothers thought they had a huge cache of new ammunition to fire. They don't. Poor songwriting lets the album down. There has always been an if-it-ain't-broke ethos in the band that reflexively rejects any criticism of the simplicity and grunt of the melodies, or the limitations of the sound. But good AC/DC songs, besides their signature blend of guitar riff and chords, have hooks and originality, and in a lot of the '70s work humour and drama, and in something like ‘Hells Bells' (off Back in Black) a creeping progressiveness - all of which are in short supply on Black Ice's 15 songs. The reduction that goes into an AC/DC song, and the tight palette of influences the band has always worked with, gave the early work precision and power, but three decades later it acts less as liberator and more as noose, especially when the band is attempting late-career kick-off.

The strongest songs on the album are the first and last. ‘Rock 'n' Roll Train' is a great opening shot. There is air and dynamics here, as instruments tumble in knowing there's a classic song to deliver. It has the one anthemic chorus that is fresh and, with Angus Young's guitar solo rearing up before the second chorus, it is the one punch on the record that you don't see coming. The three songs that follow maintain the momentum, while gesturing towards a diversity that never materialises. ‘Skies on Fire' is built on a good grinding riff; ‘Big Jack' contains the other great chorus on the record; and ‘Anything Goes' is a pop song, the most un-AC/DC thing attempted this time around.

Then comes the tumble. Pack your bag with plenty of water for a long walk across the desert: tracks five through 14 are tough going. There is numbing predictability in melody, sound, instrumentation, song length, lyrical content, vocal delivery and everything else that goes into a rock song. Small, tantalising hints of variety are offered, then quickly snatched away. So we get a bit of slide guitar at the start of ‘Stormy May Day', and a verse of lower-register singing. ‘Rock 'n' Roll Dream', the album's only ballad, at least changes the tempo - at song 13. Nimbleness and invention finally return with the album's title track and closer. The previous half-hour of relentless chug and uninspired boogie is suddenly cut off by a snaky, Zeppelin-style riff that opens up the verse-chorus structure, giving the song a bounce and vigour the preceding ten songs lack.

Besides offering two tracks that could make it on to a best-of collection, the album's most endearing feature is a group photo inside the booklet. They look like a nice bunch of guys. There is openness and humility to their faces, and a sense of comfort with each other that doesn't come across in their music - not on this record, anyway. The 2008 AC/DC has wrought one good change: a noticeable toning down of the nasty degradation of women that was so prevalent on the early albums. Unlike Back in Black, there's no ‘Givin' the Dog a Bone' or ‘Let Me Put My Love into You', with its rape-fantasy chorus, "Don't you struggle, don't you fight, don't you worry because it's your turn tonight," and parting line, "Let me cut your cake with my knife." Still, in the lyrics that are decipherable - and because of Johnson's high-pitched, garbled wail, a lot aren't - there is little correlation between what's being sung and the lives of five middle-aged men. ‘Spoilin' for a Fight'? ‘Smash 'n' Grab'? A fantasy is being maintained and sold, and the fans expect it and love the band for it. But if AC/DC is looking for ways to grow and survive, which writing songs and releasing an album indicates, then words are needed that match the band members' hard-worn age lines, and their smiles.

There is someone in the photo who isn't smiling, of course. He's got his lips curled in a practised scowl. That schoolboy uniform he's worn since the band's early days is still there, although it's been subtly altered over time - a bit like the wearer. There's no satchel now, no school crest, as if the significance of the costume is slowly being bled out of it. If Angus Young is ever going to escape, though, at 53 he is leaving his run pretty late. From the stadium seats, the twitching legs and flailing arms coming out of the short pants and jacket are probably plausible, and so central to the AC/DC spectacle that they can never be dropped. And as rock 'n' roll gimmicks go, it's a great one. But it's also a trap, and the older Angus gets, the sillier it looks. A black T-shirt and a pair of jeans are waiting; so is the next great AC/DC album.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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