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 other artists to follow in the band and the album's wake.
One of those artists is Polyphia's Clay Gober. We talked to the bassist about his favorite track, what Bon Scott so special, and why the album is "therapy" to him.
TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD AC/DC'S HIGHWAY TO HELL, AND HOW YOU DISCOVERED IT.
CLAY GOBER Well, rewind all the way back to maybe 2005 or 2006. It was before YouTube had really popped off, or at least before I'd heard of it. I was freshly turned onto hard rock and had such a wild hair up my ass to just find this stuff. I don't think my parents were fully warmed up to me being so obsessed with it, and I mean I was obsessed! I didn't even have a decent CD player at that point, just this heinous atom bomb of a boombox. I would sit there listening to the radio, just waiting and praying to hear some AC/DC, with an empty cassette tape I'd loaded up to record songs I heard just so I could possess them! One day I turned on the radio and they were playing this fucking badass song … Keep in mind, I'm hearing all this shit for the first time. About 90 seconds in I was able to place Bon's voice, and was like "Oh my god." It was "Shot Down in Flames." I pressed the "record" button so fucking hard, I must have broken the thing. Even recollecting those moments 15 odd years later gives me goosebumps.
WHAT DOES HIGHWAY TO HELL MEAN TO YOU?
For me it was such an important, formative record. And I'm grateful for its conviction. It exudes all of AC/DC's trademark qualities — it's straightforward and to the point, highly suggestive, naughty in all the right ways, and just honest. I always thought that's what rock & roll should be. I mean, look at the damn cover! You got four guys standing there, looking like a gang of total sleazebags, Angus Young just snarling at you. What I'm saying is the beauty of this album — and AC/DC — is that what you see is what you get. Sonically, the whole thing is like sticking your head in a fucking jet turbine.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE SONG ON HIGHWAY TO HELL?
My favorite is definitely "If You Want Blood (You Got It)." I think it just convey's the rawness and vitality they offered as a band. The riffle is pure unabashed excellence. They never really tried to be anything they weren't. It was just this constant flowing state of good, authentic blues-influenced hard rock. I thought the story of how it got its title was cool. Apparently, some press guy asked Bon what to expect from their performance that night, and all he said was "blood …"
WHAT MADE BON SCOTT SO SPECIAL AS A SINGER AND FRONTMAN?
That's so easy. The reason why Bon's approach worked was because of his charisma. There was something very endearing and inviting about his body language and demeanor, both on and off stage. I think being inviting is the best thing you can possibly be as a frontman, because it gives everyone a sense of power. The job description can get pretty skewed these days. To me, a good rock show is a party where everyone not just participates, but wants to participate. There's this mutuality to it. When you have a show that doesn't go off properly, a lot of times the tendency is to want to blame the crowd. "Well, the crowd was weak" or "Well, the crowd wasn't big enough" or "They just didn't get it." As a frontman I think the most important thing you can do is take responsibility, and to extend an invitation. You have to make people want to lose their fucking minds, but first you have to invite them to do so. Bon had the patience to do that and the charisma to pull it off seamlessly.
HOW, IF AT ALL, DID AC/DC AND THE ALBUM INFLUENCE YOUR CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT AS A MUSICIAN, OR THE WAY YOU THOUGHT ABOUT MAKING MUSIC, OR YOUR ATTITUDE AS AN ARTIST?
AC/DC's endurance proves that even despite the glitter, the clutter and all of the unnecessary fronts of complexity people put up, what matters most is authenticity. Growing up, I always wanted to be just like Angus. I loved the ugliness, the sweat, the primal energy, the power. I still do. You never got any apologies from those guys, or any second guesses. They've always been true to themselves, all the time. Just a bunch of beer-drinking, whiskey-chugging, headbanging motherfuckers. They're like a force of fucking nature, man.
IS HIGHWAY TO HELL SOMETHING YOU REGULAR TO BACK AND LISTEN TO? OR DOES IT REPRESENT A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME IN YOUR LIFE?
I've always tried to stay in touch with my roots. You could say that my style is largely just one big shout-out to the art and music that sparked this whole journey for me. No shit, I've been jamming Highway nonstop since I was 10 or 11 years old, and I don't think I'll ever stop. It's kind of a way to stay in touch with who I am, and why. A lot of guys out there really lose themselves in getting clout, money, shit like that. And that's OK, I'm not calling out anyone in particular. But I think that you have to keep spinning those records that started it for you, those gateway drugs, or you get lost. Maybe it's just me, but AC/DC and the spirit that album conveyed are just such a part of who I am at this point … It's always been therapy for me.