‘Back in Black’ Turns 40: How the Landmark AC/DC Album Was Viewed in 1980

A look back at what people were saying about the album when it was released

July 22, 2020

There’s certain works of art that unequivocally represent a genre. Although most art gets viewed through a subjective lens, some pieces stand alone under a collective agreement that it best depicts a specific style.

In music, this gets to be an ever-evolving debate when it comes to defining a certain type of sound. It’s an art form that continually builds off what came before it, stretching so far back that you can hear faint representations in the foundations. That’s also part of the fun of music. Hearing the roots of a genre and how it has evolved into what you’re hearing today.

Who gets to decide when an album receives this landmark status? When does it get decided that an album best reflects a genre? Is it in the moment? Is it years later?

The answer is murky. Pieces considered masterful works of art seemingly have different timelines to when they are given that lofty status.

One such album that’s been universally considered a defining hard rock and heavy metal record is AC/DC’s Back in Black. July 25, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the album. It helped launch AC/DC into another level and its influence is still felt to this day.

Instead of diving into why the album is considered a quintessential hard rock record, we have to go back and see how it got to this point. Was it an instant classic when it was released? What were people saying about it at the time? Did the band know they had a genre-defining record on their hands?

To find out these answers, we have to go back to 1980 and see what people were saying at the time.

Bon Scott
Photo credit (Photo by FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images)

Part I: Bon Voyage Bon

The world was shocked on February 19, 1980 to find out AC/DC frontman Bon Scott had passed away at the age of 33. Scott had spent the night drinking with friends, but the evening took a dark turn when he passed out and ultimately choked to death on his vomit.

“When I first heard the news we didn’t believe it… It still never sunk in,” lead guitarist Angus Young said in an interview provided by Columbia Records..

The young group had just caught a major break as their 1979 album Highway to Hell finally made it onto the Top 100 charts in America. Scott’s death was a big blow to the band and their momentum.

Following his death, Angus and Malcolm Young found themselves in a situation they hadn’t been in before. As they were grieving, the brothers found solace in music and used it as an opportunity to help them move forward. “For Malcolm and myself, we had always done a lot together with Bon,” Angus said. The brothers asked themselves, “what do we do from here?”

Initially, Angus attributed their desire to write songs in order to “keep our minds away from it [Scott’s death].”

“We got back to England and after two weeks my brother rang me up and said, ‘well do you want to start writing on this? It’ll give us something to do.’”

“It worked great,” Angus remembers. “It was great therapy.”

Malcolm admits, “A lot of special music came through that because that was something we had never experienced before. All of a sudden we were sitting there and playing things with different emotions coming through.”

The band buried themselves in the album. “We even went in on the weekends,” Angus said. “I don’t want to sit around in the flat on the weekend and he [Malcolm] said ‘let’s keep going.’”

As the band got deeper into the songwriting process, their manager offered to bring vocalists in for auditions. At first the Young brothers were skeptical. “Malcolm’s a very strong character,” Angus explained. “He said, ‘no, no, no. Just leave us for awhile and we’ll let you know when we’re up for something like that.’”

Little did the band know that when that time finally came, they would find someone that would alter their legacy.

Brian Johnson
Photo credit (Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Part II: A New Beginning

“When Bon died and we found Brian. Again, we caught something special then,” Malcolm Young said in an interview about the addition of Brian Johnson.

The chemistry was instant and the band became big believers in Johnson from the beginning. The tricky part lay ahead. Winning over the fans.

AC/DC wanted Back in Black to simultaneously honor the late Bon Scott, but also serve as a way to move the band forward. Despite claims that calling the record Back in Black was morbid, the band didn’t see it that way. “For us, it was the memory of Bon,” Angus said.

“We didn’t want to put on the album ‘in memoriam,’ just some cheap little line at the bottom. We didn’t want to preach to people and go ‘look at the tragedy of it.’ We didn’t want to draw attention to it.”

The band had a similar mindset when it came to debuting their new vocalist in the live setting. “I remember the first gig I did was in Belgium,” Johnson recalled. “It was like a warm up gig. I think the hole the boys played before, there was about 2,000 capacity in there.”

“We thought for Brian it’d be good to do something small,” Angus said. “We didn’t even advertise it or anything.”

Naturally, Johnson was feeling nervous before stepping out on stage. After all, the band just endured an unthinkable tragedy and here he was having to step into the spot fans associated with another person.

However, Johnson was immediately met with support from the AC/DC faithful. “You just saw banners everywhere with ‘good luck Brian,’” Angus remembered.

“The kids, the audience, they were just great,” Johnson added.

After the Belgium show, Johnson’s welcome party continued throughout the tour. “For that whole tour, there were always signs like ‘good luck Brian!” Angus said.

While this may not be the exact moment, it does represent a significant point in time in the band’s history. That moment is the undying loyalty between Johnson & AC/DC, and their fans. Something that as we’ll soon see, helped make Back in Black the seminal album it is today, despite critics' objections at the time.

Brian Johnson and Angus Young
Photo credit (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

Part III: “I’m Comin’ On Like A Hurricane”

“Every gig I’m doing now is the first gig. Every audience is a new audience around the world and the audience has already seen the band before with Bon,” Brian Johnson said during a 1980 interview with a Swedish magazine.

That mindset gives you a look into why Brian Johnson and AC/DC resonated so well in front of a live audience. They were out to prove something.

Countless reviews of the band in 1980 suggested the same.

“If the crowd reaction is any indication, AC/DC is a force to be reckoned with,” a 1980 concert review from The Morning Call read.

Angus Young in particular had an uncanny ability to rile up the crowd. “From what I saw of him, AC/DC lead guitarist Angus Young has an unending source of energy. I managed to catch glimpses of him bouncing up and down on the stage like an enraged kangaroo. However, this did not do me any good because his antics only inspired a guy next to me to do the same thing. He bowled me over,” The Morning Call review added.

A New York Times article called “AC/DC Equates Music With War” reflected much of the same sentiment. Fans love it, critics don’t care for it.

“But while there's absolutely nothing original about AC/DC's brand of rock, at Sunday's show one could at least appreciate the skill with which it worked tried-and-true heavy-metal formulas,” the review read.

“More than any other bestselling rock group, AC/DC explicitly equates making music with making war. And at Sunday's concert, it was perfectly clear that such unabashed aggressiveness offered a genuine catharsis for the maledominated teen-age audience.”

The band knew the loyalty their fans had would ultimately drive their success. From the band’s point of view, their live shows weren’t just a concert. It was an experience. “The kids don’t want to just come. They want to be part of it. They want a T-shirt that says ‘I like AC/DC, and I’ll fight anybody who says different,” Brian Johnson told David Fricke.

The connection with their audience helped ignite the band’s popularity. “The most important thing is, the band poses no threat to the kids,” Johnson said. “They know it would be so easy for those roles to be reversed, for Brian Johnson to be in that audience, for Malcolm Young to be in that audience and for those kids to be in Malcolm’s or my place.”

Dogged by bad reviews, Fricke admitted “the group has been mercilessly slagged as heavy-metal morons and their audience as tasteless cretins.”

That didn’t seem to bother AC/DC. In what may be the best example of “silencing the haters” in 1980, Johnson said in his Swedish magazine interview “the true fans are the ones that come to the concerts.”

In their home of Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald echoed the excitement over their live performances calling AC/DC “the hottest rock act in the world at the moment” and saying their string of shows will “be one of the biggest concert tours of 1981!”

In 1980, the proof was in the pudding. An AC/DC concert is an experience unlike any other with the band and their fans having a shared loyalty to one another. This was only strengthened by the debut of Brian Johnson and the songs on Back in Black.

The album had won over the fans, but its legacy as a hard rock staple was not yet determined.

AC/DC
Photo credit (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Part IV: The Aftermath

In 1980, AC/DC was at the forefront of the heavy-metal renaissance alongside groups like Van Halen and Judas Priest. Back in Black certainly gave the band additional spotlight as it came during a period of tragedy for the group.

Despite a record that was born out of extenuating circumstances, some critics were giving AC/DC the same messages about their music they’ve received in their career up to that point.

“There’s no real polish to any of the tracks here, just bombast and furry, and the lyrics aren’t exceptional,” read a Chicago Sun-Times review.

Music journalist Robert Christgau gave the album a B- when it was released. “Replacing Aerosmith as primitives of choice among admirers of heavy machinery, these Aussies are a little too archetypal for my tastes,” he wrote. He also ripped into Brian Johnson as someone who “sings like there’s a cattle prod at his scrotum.”

“The trouble with bands like AC/DC is that they are too popular. This can be very unfortunate,” The Morning Call said.

Amongst the negativity, universal themes began to emerge that helped define the album and the band into what they are known for today. Power, catchy riffs, energy, and a sense of excitement that arises from danger.

“Compared to the boorish, macho plodding of most heavy-metal heathens, the AC/DC sound is nothing more and nothing less than aggressively catchy song hooks brutalized by a revved-up boogie rhythm, Malcolm’s jackhammer riffing, Angus’ guitar histrionics and Johnson’s bloodcurdling bawl,” David Fricke wrote.

Even Christgau, who was less than thrilled with the record in his review, praised Angus Young for coming up with “killer riffs.”

The Chicago Sun-Times said “there is energy - and excitement,” which is especially present in “Hell’s Bells” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.”

A journalist for Copley Press claimed “One thing is clear: Angus Young hasn't turned down the volume which is calculated to raise Scott and the other dead from their graves."

Excitement was already running high when it was announced AC/DC had a new vocalist and an album on the way.

“I remember the anticipation of hearing the new lead singer of AC/DC,” Vince Richards, Director of Programming and Operations for Entercom Sacramento said.

“The minute I dropped the needle on Side 1 and heard 'Hell's Bells' and 'Shoot to Thrill,' I was cautiously optimistic… I immediately flipped the album to Side 2 then heard 'Back in Black,' 'You Shook Me all Night Long,' 'Have Drink on Me' and 'Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution' and was blown away. To this day I still crank up all those songs as I did 40 years ago.”

“I was in college at the time. Boston. As much as Punk and New Wave were the flavors of the day, this was the soundtrack of the campus, and certainly on the radio,” Dave Richards, Entercom’s Senior Vice President of Programming and Operations and Director of Rock and Classic Rock Formats recalls.

“It seemed no matter who you were, how cool you were, or what trendsetting clique you hung around with, everyone knew every note of this album. I was one of those Punk hipsters, and I had no idea that 40 years later, we’d be talking about how Back in Black is the biggest selling Rock album, ever.”

In 1980, no one could deny the sheer power of AC/DC’s music. To this day, that message still rings true.

For all the complaints about the band’s sound being formulaic and primitive, the band knew what their fans wanted and were more than happy to oblige. In fact, it may have been by design.

“The lucky thing about AC/DC is the fact that we’re basic rock and roll and we believe that will never go out of fashion,” Brian Johnson said in the Swedish magazine interview. “It’s not so much something you listen to, it’s something you feel.”

That ethos drove AC/DC and helped give Back in Black the landmark status it has today. Perhaps the best summation of the band and the album comes from the Copley Press, “You’ve probably heard of AC/DC. If not, just put your ear to the ground and listen to the rumble.”

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