A Deeper Look Behind the Story and Meaning of “Back in Black” by AC/DC

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It opens with the most recognizable guitar riff known to man. The song was a tribute to the band’s lead vocalist who died at the young age of 33, and the album of the same name became one of the best-selling albums to ever be released.

It’s “Back in Black” by rock legends AC/DC.

Now, over four decades after its initial release, we’re examining the circumstances that built this song. Here we’ll dive into the backstory, meaning, and legacy of the 1980 AC/DC track “Back in Black.”

The death of Bon Scott. 

“Back in Black” was released a few months after former AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott died. Scott had passed away on February 19, 1980, in London due to  “acute alcohol poisoning” according to the official coroner’s report.

The singer and songwriter had first joined AC/DC in 1974 after the previous lead singer, Dave Evans, started to head in a different direction from the band. Scott would create and perform with the rock group from ’74 until his death. His last public appearance with the band was documented on Spanish TV when AC/DC played “Highway to Hell” just 10 days before his “death by misadventure.”

Brian Johnson, founding member of rock band Geordie, became the third lead singer of AC/DC shortly after Scott’s passing. 

A tribute song. 

With Johnson on board, founding members Angus Young and Malcolm Young wrote “Back in Black” in honor of Scott. Johnson is also credited as a songwriter on the track.

“I remember Back in Black was particularly difficult because the boys were saying, ‘Listen we want this song in memory of Bon, but we don’t want it to be sad or maudlin, we want it to be a good thing, positive song’,” Johnson said in an interview with NME. “So it was pretty tough, but I think we managed it pretty good. It’s kinda slow but it’s got a great riff. It was a toughy, that one.”

Johnson added, “The guys wanted it to be a good rock record in memory of Bon but without all the slather, without all the mulch and the crap that usually goes with that. They wanted the album to be black and I filled it with lines like ‘Nine lives, cats eyes’ because Bon had lived on the edge for a long time and he’d always made it through.”

“Back in Black” is just that. It pays homage to the artist that played a crucial role in the band’s success without being overly sentimental. The song immortalizes Scott in its lyrics. 

Yes, I’m let loose
From the noose
That’s kept me hanging about
I’ve been looking at the sky
‘Cause it’s gettin’ me high
Forget the hearse ’cause I never die

Legacy. 

Fans and critics, rock music and metal music all welcomed “Back in Black” with open arms. It is a song that anyone and everyone has heard at least once. The song peaked at number 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped Back in Black the album reach over 50 million sales worldwide. Several other artists and bands have covered the song—including Colombian singer  Shakira—and the song was iconically part of the soundtrack for Marvel’s Iron Man 2 movie.

I got nine lives
Cat’s eyes
Abusin’ every one of them and running wild

Photo Credit: Columbia Records

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