Behind the Album: ‘Back in Black,’ AC/DC’s Monumental Tribute to a Fallen Friend that Carried Them to Rock Immortality

When faced with a tragedy that could easily have ended the group, the remaining members of AC/DC simply put their heads down and rocked like they’d always done before. With the help of a new member, they emerged with their greatest triumph, the monumental 1980 album Back in Black.

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Few hard rock albums have made even a fraction of the impact as this beast. That it happened just months after the death of lead singer Bon Scott only makes the story of this LP more unlikely.

An Unexpected Tragedy

Entering 1980, AC/DC seemed bound for their greatest success yet. The Australian band had just enjoyed their biggest commercial hit with the 1979 album Highway to Hell, as their collaboration with producer Mutt Lange brought them closer to the mainstream without sacrificing any of their hard-rock heft. Guitar-playing brothers Angus and Malcolm Young had already begun composing tracks for their next record.

But on February 19, the band’s inimitable lead singer Bon Scott, whose insinuating vocals and cheeky lyrical innuendos had been so integral to their sound to that point, lost consciousness in a parked car following a night out at a London pub. A friend who was with him thought he was just sleeping off his bender, but Scott was found unresponsive the next morning, and then pronounced dead at 33 years old.

At his funeral a few weeks later, Scott’s parents took the Young brothers aside and told them their son would have wanted them to carry on with their careers. If there were any doubts inside the band, that seemed to quell them. AC/DC would continue, but not without first finding a suitable replacement for Scott, which seemed, at the time, a nigh-impossible task.

The Right Guy for the Job

The annals of rock and roll are littered with examples of bands whose career momentum stalled, never to restart again, after having to replace a lead singer. AC/DC’s task seemed even more daunting. For one, Scott was such a unique frontman. On top of that, there were time constraints, as the band wanted to quickly release their next album, perhaps because they worried any prolonged delay might become permanent.

Amazingly, they found their guy almost right off the bat. Brian Johnson had been the lead singer of a British band called Geordie that had charted a few times in the early ’70s. Johnson had been a fan of AC/DC anyway, and he also had some lyric-writing experience, which would be needed with Scott gone. His audition wowed the other members of the group (which, besides the Youngs also included bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd). After enduring a few more desultory tryouts with other candidates, AC/DC quickly asked Johnson to join.

He was soon en route to the Bahamas to record what would become Back in Black. The scenery was nice, but recording conditions were somewhat primitive. On top of that, the stormy weather caused power issues, although it also helped Johnson come up with the lines that open the album (I’m-a rolling thunder, pouring rain / I’m coming on like a hurricane.) Producer Lange’s perfectionism pushed Johnson to the hilt, but the album was completed for a July 1980 release, complete with a black cover as a tribute to Scott.

The Brilliance of Back in Black

From the opening toll of “Hells Bells,” listeners could tell they were in for something special with Back in Black. The song immediately sends a message of defiance, that not even death could stand up to the resilience of rock and roll. The musical hooks, concocted by the Young brothers and polished to a fine sheen by Lange, just keep coming, song after song.

As for Johnson, his guttural shrieks added an element of fury and power to AC/DC. Considering the seriousness of the moment in the band’s history, it was just the right touch. The title song is a marvel of riffing and funky rhythmic shifts, while “You Shook Me All Night Long” is all strut and swagger. Don’t look for any dirges on Back in Black. Rudd keeps goosing the tempo as if he’d come straight from a disco.

Back in Black closes out with the triumphant “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” The band knew whereof they spoke, as the music had provided for them a distraction, a balm, and a life raft, anything but a pollutant. Millions of listeners have known the feeling ever since.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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