Ten songs and barely 42 minutes in length, Highway to Hell is a masterwork of taut, precise songwriting and no-frills production — a start-to-finish listening experience that more than holds up today, 40 years since its July 27th, 1979, release date. The album changed everything for AC/DC, making them bona fide rock stars in the U.S. and solidifying their abilities as songwriters and musicians. It also changed everything for rock & roll at large, and for the lives of many younger artists to follow in the band and the album's wake.
One of those artists is Rob Zombie guitarist and solo artist John 5. We talked to him about his favorite High to Hell tracks, the album's wickedly cool cover photo, and how the Aussie juggernaut made him the six-string hero he is today.
TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD AC/DC'S HIGHWAY TO HELL AND HOW YOU DISCOVERED IT.
Oh boy, how do I remember that? I don't really remember the first time I got it or anything like that, but I do remember that, of course, I would listen to it all the time. I was really into AC/DC at the time — super, super into them — and that was my whole go-to album. I loved the cover. I always though Malcolm looked so crazy on that record for some reason. I don't know why, I just thought he looked so cool with the long hair and that snarl on his face. Then, of course, the production of it.
I think I got it for my birthday, and I was really young, maybe nine years old. I was so obsessed with music and already playing guitar for a few years. I learned the whole record on the guitar, and my favorite I think is "Girls Got Rhythm," or "Beating Around the Bush." You know, I'm really sick of "Highway to Hell" now, but there's so many great songs. Every song on that is album is a great song to me.
WHAT DOES THE ALBUM MEAN TO YOU NOW?
I think it pretty much taught me, you know, educated me on guitar playing. I remember playing that album, the whole record, and it really taught me how you play with a drummer and a bass player. I would just have it on repeat and just play and play and play. You know, you talk to people and they say, "It really changed my life," but it really educated me on how to be a better guitar player.
YOU MENTIONED TWO SONGS ALREADY, BUT DO YOU HAVE A DEFINITIVE FAVORITE SONG FROM THE ALBUM?
Yeah, "Girls Got Rhythm" and "Beating Around the Bush," and then you know "If You Want Love," "Flames," I'm just going through in my head now. I would have to say "Girl's Got Rhythm" and "Beating Around the Bush" because the guitar riffs are just so great. I mean, all the songs on that record are just incredible. And then they came a year later with Back in Black and it's like, God! Unbelievable.
WHAT MADE BON SCOTT SUCH A SPECIAL SINGER FOR YOU?
What it was for me was, he had such a unique voice. There's a lot of people with great voices out there, a lot of people can sing on key and have beautiful vibrato and phrasing and all that stuff, but to have a unique voice is so rare. I think Bon Scott had such a unique voice that really could not be imitated. You know, when you hear someone that's imitating Bon Scott and you're like, "Whoa!" Because it's shocking if you hear someone that sounds like Bon Scott. If you hear someone imitating Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, it's like, "OK, cool," but you're shocked if someone sounds like Bon Scott. He had unique tone and it's almost impossible to imitate that.
HOW ABOUT HIS PERFORMANCE AS A FRONTMAN?
I think a lot of people related to him because he just wore what everybody else wore, and everybody could relate to him. He could have been a guy that got up out of the crowd — he didn't have a shirt on, but a lot of people don't at concerts — with blue jeans, and he could have just got up onstage, but his talent was second to none. That's what was so cool to see. "He's like me!" And that's what people really liked.
YOU MOSTLY TALKED ABOUT THIS ALREADY, BUT DID AC/DC HAVE ANY IMPACT ON YOUR CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT THAT YOU HAVEN'T MENTIONED YET?
Actually, another thing I learned is how they played live. I noticed this when I was a kid, I'd be like, "Why do they sound so good?" I would go to concerts when I was really young, and AC/DC always sounded amazing live. Later in life, I figured it out: They didn't have a lot of distortion on the guitar, so it made it a lot more clear. It wasn't as harsh when you're were going to see them play these massive places.
I read an interview, and Angus would just plug straight into a Marshall. It's very difficult to play like that! It's not forgiving at all, but they were so good and it sounded so good and loud! Really loud. That's something I learned from AC/DC for sure.
IS HIGHWAY TO HELL SOMETHING YOU GO BACK AND REVISIT REGULARLY, OR DOES IT REPRESENT A SPECIFIC TIME PERIOD FOR YOU?
When we're getting ready for a show, that's definitely one of the go-to albums for me. It's a great record and it does not age at all. They'll be talking about it a hundred years from now — just massive. And there's not a weird thing on the record, like, not a weird song or weird title or weird picture. Everything just worked.