Tag Archives: rock ‘n roll

Even in the darkest hour there is always a sparkle of light – the story behind AC/DC’s historic album Back in Black

What do you do as a band when your frontman dies tragically while you are on the verge of becoming world famous? Back in Black is much more than just a hard rock album. It is the story of the Australian band AC/DC who, in the middle of a mourning period, produce a record that goes down in history as one of the best-selling and hardest rock albums of all time.

The seventh album of the Australian rebels AC/DC Back in Black was released on the 25th of July 1980 and is one of the best-selling records ever. The album is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the best sold record by a non-American or British band in the United States. The band sold 50 million copies in total, of which 21 million in America. The story behind this record is one of sadness and joy.

Highway to Hell

At the end of the seventies there is a change in the musical field. Hard rock and metal acts such as Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath no longer dominate the terrain. They lose fans to emerging acts like Foreigner, Journey, and REO Speedwagon. With the beginning of the eighties a new genre is born: adult-oriented rock. It’s much softer, and more poppy than the hardrock which emerged in the seventies.

Between all this turmoil a raw sound comes from down under. AC/DC crashes through America for the first time with their record Highway to Hell. This is their moment. It seems as if the rock ‘n roll oriented hard rockers don’t care about the new trend. The fans share that opinion and the band’s tracks rise quickly in the charts with more and more people screaming: “I’m on a highway to hell!

Bon Scott

During the Highway to Hell-tour, brothers Angus and Malcolm Young–the founders of the band–write a lot of guitar riffs. All these ideas are ready to be worked out in the studio at the moment they are back from the road. In order to maintain the momentum of their last album, they decide not to waste any time and to jump right into the studio in London after the end of the tour.

Frontman Bon Scott is supposed to join the group later on. The planned day of his arrival is 20 February 1980. The evening before, Bon decides to dive into the London pub scene. The night progresses and the singer drinks a lot together with his friends.

When it’s finally time to go home, a buddy takes Bon home. Bon falls asleep in the car and his friend leaves him there. A few hours later the singer suffocates in his own vomit caused by acute alcohol poisoning.

Shock and sadness

Bon’s death is a shock to the band members. Guitarists Angus and Malcolm, together with drummer Phil Rudd and bass guitarist Cliff Williams, are considering quitting the band; their frontman is inimitable, in their eyes there is no AC/DC without him.

Bon Scott’s mother encourages the grieving boys. “You have to go on. Bon wouldn’t have wanted it any other way”, Malcolm recalls in a documentary about the band. And so, a few weeks after Bon Scott’s death, the search for a replacement begins. In the eyes of many fans an impossible task.

Brian Johnson

Angus and Malcolm know right away that they shouldn’t look for someone who would imitate Bon’s act. The new frontman should have his own charm, his own strengths. While the Young brothers are asking around, the management of AC/DC receives a tape from a fan who argues that the former singer of the British glamrock band Geordie, Brian Johnson, is the man for the task.

Car mechanic Johnson is totally caught off guard when he receives the call from his old management. “The woman on the phone didn’t want to tell me which band was asking me to audition,” says Johnson in an interview. “When I insisted, she said that she could only tell me the initials of the band name.” He laughs. “AC/DC. I was stunned, and not only by the stupidity of the woman on the other side of the line.”

Instant connection

When Brian shows up for his audition he meets the AC/DC road crew, but the band is nowhere to be found. He starts joking around with the guys. After a while Angus and Malcolm enter the room anxiously looking for him just to find Brian drinking beer and playing pool with their roadies.

“He was himself from the very beginning,” Malcolm says. “We found him chilling out with our crew. The connection was there right from the start so to say.” But drinking beer and partying was not what the singer came for. Johnson had to prove himself, and so he did. After Brian opened his throat during the audition the band just knew almost instantly that this was the guy they were looking for.

The real deal

After conquering his spot behind the mic the real work was just about to begin. The band moves to a studio in the Bahamas. London has left a bitter aftertaste after Bon’s death. And the climate is also much more pleasant at the new location than in the United Kingdom.

While Malcolm and Angus, together with Phil and Cliff, try to create the right sound in the studio, the new kid on the block Brian is left with the important task of writing kickass lyrics. And he’s struggling. “It’s difficult when you know you have to match someone who not only had a great voice, but who also was a great showman, and on top of all that was a brilliant poet,” says Brian referring to the late Scott.

Rolling Thunder

The singer recalls the moment when a storm appears on the horizon while he is writing in his block note, tearing one page out after the other. With that storm closing in over the ocean Brian feels a bizarre presence. It’s as if Bon Scott himself is visiting his successor.

“It was really a very weird and special experience. That’s all I’m saying about it. Except that at the moment it happened I began writing like a madman. The words just started pouring out of my pen: A rolling thunder, a pouring rain, I’m coming on like a hurricane.” The rest of course is history.

Hells Bell

The bell you hear on the album’s opening track is a story in itself. During the recording of Back in Black Angus and Malcolm decide that they want to have a bell sounding, a la Black Sabbath, for the intro of Hells Bells. When their sound engineer sets out to record the Denison Bell in the Carillon Tower of the Loughborough War Museum, he encounters a problem.

Every time the bell is sounded dozens of pigeons fly away. He cannot get a recording without the fluttering of wings. When it becomes clear that the band wants that particular bell sound at any cost, AC/DC solves the wing-problem once and for all. The band orders John Taylor Bellfounders – the manufacturer of the original Carillon Tower of the Loughborough War Museum – to make an exact replica of the bell.

Special tour

The rock clock, however, gets a bonus; the band’s name and the name of the song are written on its surface. When the moment comes to record the carillon, the manufacturer himself rings the bell. That’s the sound you hear at the beginning of Hells Bells.

Fun fact: on their world tour the band took the 910 kilogram (2000 pounds) heavy carillon on stage. But even after AC/DC returned to the studio, the bell had a world tour of its own. The carillon was exposed in big cities all over the world where people could ring it and take a picture.

Back in Black

From the title to the cover and the songs the record Back in Black is a clear statement for the fans, which welcome both the band and its new frontman back on the stage after suffering a great loss. The album is full of references to the life of Bon Scott. Tracks like Hells Bells, Have a Drink on Me and of course the title track Back in Black with its epic main riff are all dedicated to the life of a friend.

Brian Johnson’s throat, lyrics and personality are certainly not inferior to those of the deceased frontman. And so with this historical album AC/DC proves that even in the darkest moments there is always a sparkle of light. A tiny little flame that, when you dare to believe, can turn into a ball of fire that inspires generations. Happy jamming!

Historic album of the month – Live Killers by Queen

One of the world’s most influential bands release their first live album at the apex of their musical abilities. This, we think, describes a more than suitable candidate for a glance into rock history’s rearview mirror. That’s why this month we shine a light on the celebrated Live Killers by Queen. This record has, since its release in 1979, changed the definition of a rock show.

Thirty nine years ago in June, one of the world’s most extravagant acts released their first live album. At that time they had already recorded seven studio albums over a span of nine years. Live Killers is a compilation of a multitude of shows that the band played during their tour in Europe at the beginning of 1979.

Queen

Before we zoom in on this historical record, let’s travel back in time to the year 1970. The year that the band Smile falls apart and its young guitarist Brian May, then midway through his doctorate in astrology at London’s Imperial College, wants to be a full time musician. May and Roger Taylor, drummer and dentistry student, decide to find a singer to accompany them. A good friend and fan of Smile catches their eye, Farrokh Bulsara, born between the palm trees of Zanzibar. Bulsara’s itching to start his career as the frontman of a rock band.

As an art student he conceptualizes the band’s image from the get go as full of grandeur, provocation, art and a thick guitar sound. The name of the band should catch this in one stroke. In this starting period Bulsara and May are separately working on tracks, one called March of the Black Queen, the other White Queen. All three artists agree that the word ‘queen’ has the powerful feel that they’re looking for.

Freddie Mercury

After joining the band Bulsara immediately changes his name. He was looking for something more in line with a band that’s called Queen. Chris Smith, keyboard player for  Smile remembers it well. In the documentary Days of Our Lives (2011) he recollects how, one night, his buddy Farrokh sits in a bar with his hands covering his face.

‘I asked him if something was the matter’, says Smith. ‘He looks at me and tragically announces that he can’t be a popstar anymore.’ Upon asking ‘why’ Farrokh stands up and shouts out: ‘Because I, Freddie Mercury, will be a legend!’ The keyboard player grins. ‘No one took Freddie serious back then.’

Bombastic glam rock

The rock ‘n roll guitar riffs by Brian May, the stringent drumming by Roger Taylor and the exceptional vocal reach of Freddie Mercury, all fall right into place from start. When the group is complemented by bass guitarist John Deacon in 1971, who also appears to have a voice of gold, Queen is ready for liftoff.

With songs like Seven Seas of Rhye, Now I’m Here, Love My Life and of course Bohemian Rhapsody of their first three albums the band is creating a whole new sound. It’s rock, but with some new flavors, a special sauce of opera, theater and ballet. The different layers in the vocals sound like Brian Wilson’s wall of sound on steroids. In the instrumental pieces the piano and guitar are on a par with each other, which in most rock music is unheard-of at that time.

Punk era

At the end of the seventies the band’s popularity is receding, because they cannot connect with the younger audiences. The media also doesn’t hold the band in high regard anymore, on the contrary they print (extremely) critical articles and reviews. For example when Freddie Mercury muses about a combination of rock ‘n roll and ballet, this becomes the pinnacle for a negative article with the telling title: “Is This Man a Prat?”

It’s a period that’s characterized by a growing popularity for punk rock in the United Kingdom. Bands like the Sex Pistols and black Flag are slowly moving into the mainstream. Queen’s bombastic rock is not the pleasure trove it once was for the big audience. Nevertheless there is a big faithful group of fans that keep supporting the band.

In a reaction to these developments Freddie Mercury and Brian May are each working on a song that will immortalize them and make them into legends. We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You are going to be Queen’s answer to the changing musical landscape of the western world. Both songs have gathered a larger than life status over the years, and they have intrinsically altered rock music.

Stadium rockers

At the end of the seventies the act has grown so popular that they standardly perform for a sold-out stadium. This is when the usage of the term stadium rock comes into full swing. Their whole show and performance are adapted to the grandeur of the stadium. Everything is bigger, more bombastic, and has more extravagance. From the lighting to the outfits and the way Freddie addresses the public.

Along the way Mercury learns not be fazed by the huge audiences that move like waves in front of him. On the contrary, he starts to play games with them. One his favorite activities in between the songs is to engage the public in a play of call and answer. A skill that would later be adopted by bands like Guns ‘n Roses, Pantera, Nirvana and Faith No More.

Live Killers

This is the period that Queen records the album Live Killers. It’s a snapshot of a group that is full of passion and growing towards the top. They’re at the height of their potential and their eagerness, spirit and will to proof themselves is noticeable in every tone, riff and vocal punch. They have the raw energy, musical hunger and theatrical complacency of a band that’s at the top of their game.  

The album is put together from of a mixture of different performances taken from their European tour from January until March in 1979. The band mixed the tracks themselves in their then recently bought Mountain Studio in Montreux, Switzerland. In an interview Brian May and Roger Taylor later proclaimed the adrenaline rush to be so intense during those shows that they had trouble recollecting which song belonged to which show.

Remarkable

While the album went double platinum in America and shined at the top of the British charts, the band was not at all pleased with the sound and the mix. Nonetheless it’s a record full of remarkable compositions and melodies.

The opening for instance is a faster version of We Will Rock You. The songs Killer Queen, Death on Two Legs and Bicycle Race have been put into one medley seamlessly melts them together. Mercury’s voice is clear and deep, like we’re used to from their  studio albums. The band plays rigidly and doesn’t defer from using different kinds of effects that we also hear on the record, like heavy echoes and delays.

End of an era

Over the course of the eighties Queen matured into one of the biggest and most renowned bands of the world. But, after a gig in Sun City, South Africa they were accused of supporting apartheid, which made for a undeserved blot on their image. Their big revival for the public eye came with their appearance at the immense charity drive Live Aid in Wembley Stadium in 1985.

The show that Freddie Mercury puts on here is of such a high caliber that all the performing artists, from Phil Collins to David Bowie and Elton John bow their heads for the kings of arena rock. It comes as no surprise that this show was chosen by the BBC as the best live performance of all time. But we shouldn’t forget that the band made their first steps on the path to true stardom with the Live Killers record. A historical moment to be cherished. happy jamming!