I’ll never forget the first time I heard the AC/DC classic “T.N.T.” Some buddies and I were driving around when, all of a sudden, the radio took a break from sucking and played something good. Upon recognizing “T.N.T.’s” three-chord guitar riff and its “Oy! Oy!” chant, my friends went apeshit, headbanging like the buffoons they are. I braced myself, certain we would crash. But I must admit, though I’d never heard the song before, I too was banging and singing along by the end. Such is the power of AC/DC.
“T.N.T.” comes from the band’s 1976 debut album, High Voltage, a masterpiece of raw, stripped-down rock and roll. The band was in top form: Angus and Malcolm Young’s guitars were scorching, the rhythm section of Phil Rudd and Mark Evans was thunderous and who could forget the late, great Bon Scott. His high-pitched wail fit the band’s gritty sound better than any prissy “vocalist” ever could.
Of course, great songs are more important than good musicianship, and High Voltage delivers them in spades. Along with “T.N.T.,” the most recognizable tune here is definitely “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll),” a declaration of AC/DC’s aspirations of rock greatness. The band seemingly knew from the beginning that they would make it, even if it would be a long, sleazy road. The song’s use of bagpipes is truly inspired: The trade-off between the pipes and Angus’ guitar would be laughable if it didn’t work so well. Other numbers like “Rock and Roll Singer” and the title track reaffirm the band’s desire to rock at all costs.
AC/DC may have played louder and faster than their predecessors, but High Voltage is no-frills, old school rock. “Can I Sit Next to You Girl” sports a Chuck Berry-style riff, and “The Jack,” with its hilarious double entendres (now an AC/DC trademark), is pure blues-rock. Hell, “She’s Got Balls” contains one of the simplest guitar riffs in history.
AC/DC’s music isn’t high-minded or pretentious, and Bon’s lyrics, appropriately, aren’t either. No bastion of morality, Scott tells raunchy tales of drinking, fighting and getting laid. You can picture the trashy scenes of songs like “She’s Got Balls” and “Little Lover” without even hearing them. Sure, some (squares) might find them offensive, but these tasteless (and perhaps a little sexist) lyrics are as refreshing now as they must have been in the ’70s.
Its catchy tunes, down and dirty lyrics, powerful instrumentation and unrelenting energy make High Voltage a classic. The blueprint for all subsequent AC/DC records, Voltage would probably be more highly vaunted if the band hadn’t recorded so many great follow-ups. AC/DC wrote four more classics in the next five years: Let There Be Rock, Powerage, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and Highway to Hell.
Tragically, just months after singing about a “Highway to Hell,” Bon Scott ended up there. In one of rock’s most legendary deaths, Bon choked on his own vomit, inspiring numerous copycats over the years (including John Bonham) and an equally infamous song, Ozzy’s “Suicide Solution.” In the wake of it’s singer’s death, any other band would have packed it in and called it a career. This one would record one of the greatest albums in rock history.
AC/DC unleashed Back in Black in 1980, a flawless slab of rock and roll that would become the band’s crown jewel. Full of classics and not a single dud, it serves as a glorious tribute not only to Bon Scott, but also to the power of rock and roll. It also proved that new singer Brian Johnson was an inspired choice. His vocals are powerful and passionate, and the new lineup’s chemistry is almost tangible.
The band went on to record string of quality albums in the ’80s and ’90s, including For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), The Razor’s Edge and 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip. All of them sound essentially the same, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And now, after nearly three decades of rocking like no band before them, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame salutes AC/DC.