The Epic Story of 'Back in Black': How AC/DC Rose From Tragedy Stronger Than All | Revolver

The Epic Story of 'Back in Black': How AC/DC Rose From Tragedy Stronger Than All

The making of the biggest hard-rock album in history
ac/dc 1982 GETTY, Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images
photograph by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

It's hard to imagine a time when AC/DC's Back in Black didn't exist. Most of the album's 10 tracks are so deeply embedded in our collective cultural DNA, it's almost as if they've always been there. Decades after the record's original release, strippers still work the pole to the tune of "You Shook Me All Night Long," major league relief pitchers still head for the mound with "Hells Bells" ringing over the ballpark P.A. system, rappers still sample the title track's funky-ass riff, and college kids (and younger) still party till they puke while "Shoot to Thrill" and "Have a Drink on Me" blare mockingly in the background. Even in the factionalized world of hard rock and heavy metal, headbangers of all persuasions can still agree on one thing: Back in Black kicks major ass.

In December 2019, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that Back in Black has sold 25 million copies in the U.S. alone — more than the Beatles' White Album, Billy Joel's Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, and Pink Floyd's The Wall. It's the best-selling hard-rock album of all time, right above Led Zeppelin IV. Though those stats are undeniably staggering, the really amazing thing to consider is that the whole thing was written, recorded, mixed, and released in only five months following the death of Bon Scott, the band's beloved lead singer. An unexpected tragedy of such magnitude would have easily finished a lesser band, but AC/DC's tireless work ethic — and bottomless supply of killer riffs — pulled them through. Conceived in sorrow and cranked in joy, Back in Black not only served as a fitting memorial to their fallen mate, but it also turned AC/DC into one of the biggest bands on the planet.

Never one to turn down a drink, Ronald "Bon" Scott had every reason to be in a celebratory mood on the evening of February 18th, 1980. Since joining AC/DC six years earlier, his humorously raunchy lyrics and charismatic stage presence had helped the band transcend their Australian suburban bar-band origins and become a well-respected rock act in Great Britain, Europe, and the United States. Highway to Hell, the band's most recent album, had actually made it all the way to No. 17 on the Billboard charts — an especially impressive feat given that none of their previous four U.S. releases (1976's High Voltage, 1977's Let There Be Rock, and 1978's Powerage and If You Want Blood You've Got It) had managed a higher position than No. 113. Following the commercial breakthrough of Highway to Hell, there was no question in anyone's mind — even at Atlantic Records, where certain suits had wanted to drop the band only two years earlier — that the next AC/DC record would be their biggest yet.

It's likely that Scott wanted to blow off a little steam before recording sessions for Highway to Hell's follow-up began. Though his whiskey-roached howl was one of the band's defining sonic features — and he was, by all accounts, a natural in front of the microphone — Scott found the recording process both stressful and tedious. So while brothers Malcolm and Angus Young were busy bashing out potential riffs for the new record, Scott simply enjoyed the down time — something which had been in precious little supply over the past few years. "Through Highway to Hell, it was kind of a never-ending cycle," Angus recalls. "You'd make an album, you'd tour — and sometimes you'd have to do both at the same time!"

As with all AC/DC albums before and since, Back in Black began life as a handful of spare guitar riffs. "Malcolm had a few ideas for, like, 'Back in Black' and 'Have a Drink on Me,'" Angus explains. "He already had those riffs when we were on tour for Highway to Hell. Going through those years, there was a lot of ideas that we'd had from other albums — ideas that we'd sat on, like a good chorus line or guitar riff, because we didn't quite know what to do with them."

According to Angus, Scott had yet to start seriously penning lyrics for the new songs, mostly because the songs' arrangements were still far from complete. "Ever since the early days, even with Bon, a lot of the titles and choruses would come from me and Malcolm," he says. "We always liked to get the basics together, you know? A track like 'TNT,' for example — we'd already have the hook lines, and maybe a few phrases, before Bon came in to write with us."

Scott still found ways to make himself useful, however. Just a few days before his death, he showed up at the band's rehearsal space and took over the drum stool. "The last time he'd come in, he'd come in to rehearsal with me and Malcolm," Angus remembers. "We were knocking around a couple of ideas, and he was banging away on the drum kit for us. We were trying different drum beats with different riffs, especially for 'Have a Drink on Me.'"

Frustrated with the provincial attitudes of the Australian music scene, AC/DC had relocated to England in 1977, where their rowdy anthems and Angus's psychotic schoolboy persona were embraced by British punks and hard rockers alike. Scott had since become quite acclimated to London's nightlife, and he went out on the evening of February 18th, 1980, to catch a few bands and have a few drinks. With him was Alistair Kinnear, an acquaintance of Scott's ex-girlfriend Silver Smith. The pair took Kinnear's Renault to the Music Machine in Camden Town, where they wound up getting completely ripped on Scotch, with Scott allegedly drinking quadruple shots straight from a tall glass.

As the night got longer and blurrier, Kinnear drove Scott home, but by the time they arrived at Scott's apartment complex, the singer was passed out in the passenger seat and completely unresponsive. Unable to pull him from the car, Kinnear called Smith and asked for advice. She suggested driving Scott to Kinnear's apartment. Unfortunately, Scott was still out cold when they got there, and Kinnear placed another call to Smith.

"He said, 'What'll I do?'" Smith later recounted in Clinton Walker's Highway to Hell: The Life & Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott. "And this had happened many, many, many times, so I just said, 'Just take some blankets down to him.' Bon had never been to this place, it was in South London, and so I said, 'Leave a note for him, saying which flat's yours, so when he comes to, he can come up.' And of course, he didn't come up ..."

The next day, Kinnear awoke with a blinding hangover. Not seeing Scott in his apartment, he figured that the singer must have woken up and wandered home. But when Kinnear went down to check on his car, he found Bon still inside, his body twisted around the gearshift and cold to the touch. Scott was pronounced dead on arrival at Kings College Hospital; the coroner's final verdict was "Death by misadventure: acute alcohol poisoning." He was 33 years old.

The surviving members of AC/DC — the Young brothers, bassist Cliff Williams, and drummer Phil Rudd — received the news of Scott's untimely demise with shock and disbelief. Sure, Bon liked to party, but no one expected him to lose his life in the process. "He always reminded me of a pirate," Angus says. "He had his wild nights, and he could have a lot of good times out there, but he wasn't the sort of person who enjoyed surfing out of airplanes without a parachute, or something. So when Bon died, it was like, 'What do we do now?' "

Scott's body was flown to Fremantle, Australia, for burial. At the funeral, his father Chick took the Youngs aside and urged them to keep rocking. "It was Bon's dad who more or less convinced us to get back into it," Angus recounts. "He said to me and Malcolm, 'Listen — Bon always loved what you two guys did. It was the first time I ever saw him truly happy and loving what he was doing. I'm sure if something had happened to one of you two guys that Bon would have carried on. You guys should get out there and find someone, and just keep going.'"

Finding a replacement for Scott didn't figure to be an easy task, however. As the AC/DC DVD collection Family Jewels attests, Scott was a master showman who could more than hold his own onstage amid Angus's manic antics. Scott personified AC/DC's down-to-earth, working-class image, and his witty way with a randy lyric lent a distinctively charming edge to such sleazy musical tales as "Touch Too Much," "Love At First Feel," and "Beating Around the Bush."

"Bon always referred to what he did as 'toilet poetry,'" Angus says with a laugh. "But I suppose his talent with his lyrics was that he was always able to find something new in the subject matter. It's in hindsight that you look at it, but you see that it's really a very rare gift."

Initially, the Youngs resisted pressure from their management and record company to audition new singers, deciding that it would be better to hash out their new material before bringing someone else into the mix. "Our management at the time, they kept recommending people, asking if we wanted to see anyone or listen to them," Angus remembers. "But Malcolm kept saying to me, 'We'll do it when we feel we've got all our music together. The rest of it can wait!' We didn't want to be rushed into anything. We knew that we were never gonna find a clone of Bon. We wanted someone who would be their own character."

Exactly how Brian Johnson came to the band's attention is still something of a mystery. Johnson had spent most of the previous decade singing with Geordie, a Newcastle-based rock band who had hit the British charts in the early Seventies with the Slade-influenced "Can You Do It" and "All Because of You." But by 1980, Johnson was out of the game and working in a Newcastle garage. Allegedly, a teenage AC/DC fan in Chicago sent AC/DC's management a tape of a Geordie album, along with a note suggesting that Johnson would be an appropriate replacement for Scott. Mutt Lange, who'd produced Highway to Hell and was signed on to helm the next one, heard the tape and agreed.

Another story is that Scott had actually seen a Geordie gig several years earlier, and had been impressed with the way Johnson spent most of the show screaming and rolling around on the floor. Unbeknownst to Scott, however, Johnson was actually writhing in pain brought on by appendicitis, and was rushed to the nearest hospital immediately after the gig.

In any case, all parties agree that Johnson's initial AC/DC audition was a success. The band had already tried out several other singers ("No one you'd have heard of," Angus says today), but only Johnson had the Bon-like combination of powerful pipes and down-to-earth attitude. "We were looking for someone who was just like ourselves," Angus explains. "Someone who could have a beer or play a game of pool, you know? Someone who could have a laugh and could tell a joke. We didn't want anyone who was psychologically deep, or somebody leading the revolution."

It also didn't hurt that Johnson was a true AC/DC fan, and not just a singer-for-hire looking for a paycheck. "The first song we did was 'Whole Lotta Rosie,' because I love that song and I used to do it with Geordie," Johnson recalls. "I was a huge fan of Bon Scott's — a real sleazy voice, the sneakiest voice ever for blues."

"We'd done a few tracks with Brian in rehearsal and recorded it onto a cassette," Angus remembers. "When we sat and listened to it later, we knew he had a good voice and could work with what material he had. Mutt said, 'He's got the range.'" On April 8th, just a little over six weeks on from Bon's fatal drinking binge, Brian Johnson was introduced to the media as AC/DC's new lead singer.

"You know what was the first thing Angus and Malcolm said to me when I joined this band?" says Johnson. "They said, 'Do you mind if your feelings get hurt?' I said, 'Why?' They said, 'Because if you join this band you're going to get fucking stick because we've been slagged off by every fucking reporter since we left Australia.' I said, 'Well, I'm going to have to take stick anyway taking this lad's place, and you've just had a big hit with Highway to Hell.' But they never made me feel like I was standing in a dead man's shoes."

Recording sessions for Back in Black began a week later at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. "Compass Point was Mutt's suggestion," Angus explains. "He thought it was better to get us away from home and from outside pressures and things. You could sit there and have a bit of space and freedom with no prying eyes ...

"Mutt had done a couple of projects there, and he felt we could get a good sound there. He was familiar with it, and he said they kept everything in good maintenance. He said it would be a good vibe for us. He said the studio had this great little echo chamber, which I found out was a toilet," Angus says with a laugh. "But it did the job, you know? It gave you that 'brown' sound!"

Likewise, the rest of the band's Bahamian excursion didn't exactly live up to its "fun in the sun" billing. Right as recording was about to commence, tropical storms blacked out the island's power for three straight days. "They had power generators in the studio, which was fine for just running through the songs," Angus says, "but Mutt didn't want to start recording until we could be sure of the normal power."

Making matters additionally tense were rumors — helpfully passed along by Lily, the island woman who'd been engaged to do the band's cooking during their stay — that machete-wielding maniacs were running amok on the beaches and beheading hapless tourists. "Well, sometimes you hear stories," Angus shrugs. "There's always somebody who tells you something — keep your eyes out for people that kidnap you on the beach, and things like that. It's like any island you go to, I suppose. Bring your cookery book, because you might be lunch!"

With most of the beaches therefore off-limits, there wasn't much else to do but concentrate on making a record — at least when the power was working. "We were all in a little house together," Angus recalls. "For amusement, we'd get up every morning, and we had a big stick, and we'd see who could get the stick out furthest into the water without getting swamped by a wave." He laughs. "And I think there was a pinball table and one of those hand football things — that was about it for recreation. But with all that lack of stuff to do, there's pretty much only one thing you can do, which is work. You maybe got the odd afternoon, when Brian was doing a vocal or Mutt was patching up a bass line. But you've gotta be there for the birth, you know?"

"Back in Black" was the first song the band put down, and they ran through several takes in order to get the proper guitar and drum tones dialed in. "We were pretty locked in on this one before we went in, with the guitars and everything," Angus says. "We felt so confident in it. You just hear that little count-in noise coming off Malcolm's guitar, and it's like, 'Who else could that be?'

"We knew we were going to call the album Back in Black, even before we were going to the Bahamas," Angus continues. "Malcolm and myself pretty much agreed that we wanted the cover black, as a reference to Bon. We didn't want some kind of soppy thing, because he was not a soppy guy; we felt this would probably be a better way of showing him respect."

"Hells Bells," the album's slashing opening track, also reflected the dark mood of the band, as if they'd finally found a way to release all the anger and frustration they'd bottled up in the wake of Bon's death. "We were looking for something that would bring a bit of drama," says Angus of the song. Adding to the song's intense vibe was the toll of the Denison Bell, a four-ton carillon bell later recorded by engineer Tony Platt at a war memorial in Leicestershire, England. The band had a one and a half ton replica of the bell cast for their live shows, which they still use to this day.

One of the more controversial tracks on Back in Black was "Have a Drink on Me." In light of how Bon died, the song was interpreted by some listeners as a disrespectful or even ghoulish statement. "Well, the title was there before Bon died," explains Angus. "And hey, he'd be looking at it like, 'Cheers!', you know? A salute. And he was always a person who liked a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor."

Bon surely would have also appreciated "Givin the Dog a Bone" and "Let Me Put My Love Into You," both of which set new standards for priapic lewdness on an AC/DC record. As with the ringing "You Shook Me All Night Long," they showed that, while Brian Johnson wasn't quite Bon's equal on the lyrical front, he could still get off a few good lines of his own. "The line '...knocking me out with the American thighs...' — I hadn't even been in America at the time," Johnson told the Finnish webzine No Nonsense in 2001. "But we were in Bahamas, and I had seen couple of American girls, they were just so beautiful. They were blond, bronzed, tall ... I've never seen girls that beautiful. So I was just using my imagination, what I would do if I could."

"Shoot to Thrill," "What Do You Do For Money Honey," and "Shake a Leg" followed in quick succession, leaving room on the album for one more song. " 'Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution,' that was the only track we actually wrote in the Bahamas," Angus reveals. "Mutt said it would be cool if we had one more track that was as solid as the rest. So the other guys had a day off, and me and Malcolm went into the studio in the morning and knocked out a few riffs. We had one of the local engineers come in and lay down a simple beat, and we tried a few ideas off of that. When Mutt came in that night, we played him what we had, and he said, 'Yeah, that's cookin'!" And thus, with Johnson's strangled cry of "rock and roll is rock and roll, yeaaah!!!," AC/DC's creative sojourn in the Bahamas came to a roaring close.

Released on July 21st, 1980, Back In Black soared to the No. 4 position on the U.S. charts. It cemented AC/DC's status as a major arena draw and launched the lucrative second phase of the band's existence, which continues to this day.

While many AC/DC diehards still prefer Scott's recorded vocals to Johnson's, they've largely accepted Johnson as an invaluable part of the AC/DC family. "There was a lot of support for us keeping going," Angus says. "Probably the hardest thing was going into our home country, Australia, because they were used to seeing us all those years with Bon. But Brian had the support of all of us — it was like, 'Look, we're here, too!' You can't bring Bon back, and you can only go out and say, 'This is where we're at now.' And you can only do your best from there."

As for Back in Black itself, says Angus, "it wasn't really until about a year and a half later that we realized how big it was. I had been in Australia for a while with my family, and when I got to England, one of the guys who worked for us said, 'You know, Back in Black sold a million and a half.' And I said, 'Oh, yeah?' And he said, 'That's just in Los Angeles alone.'"

Back in Black continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year, an undeniable testament to the visceral immediacy of its riffs and the sheer timelessness of its sound. "It's one of those albums that kind of pulled you back in — you played it once, and then you had to play it again, you know?" Angus reflects. "It never loses its charm, I think. Well, that's from my point of view." He laughs. "And my bank manager's!"