TO COMPARE ANY MODERN BAND TO THE BEATLES amounts to heresy of the highest order among the world’s self-appointed classic rock cognoscenti. In return for their electric overhaul of the American blues tradition and their subsequent forays into psychedelia, folk and experimentalism, the Fab Four enjoy peerless status as both the Alpha and the Omega of modern rock and roll, and while comparisons to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin inspire robust debate, die-hard Beatlemaniacs abide such discourse only with the express acknowledgement that the Beatles came first and that without them, there would be no rock and roll as we know and love it.
Beyond those three acts, what other artists have established a legacy and influence broad enough to be mentioned alongside the Holy Trinity of Rock and Roll? The Who, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple all stake claims as progenitors of some of music’s most inspired revolutions, and virtually all blues-based rock acts from the Seventies owe a substantial debt to the virtuosic sway of the young James Marshall Hendrix.
Rare however, is the debate that seriously entertains discussion as to AC/DC’s place among the top five rock acts in history, and yet no other band can credibly stake even half the claim of the Australian titans, who enter their fifth decade as one of the most universally celebrated rock bands since the Beatles. With the recent news that AC/DC might well be approaching retirement—if in fact, they are not already there—the Internet has brightly blazed with speculation, stories and tributes to their legacy, even as the notoriously tight-lipped band have issued a public statement confirming their intention to continue making music. While AC/DC have not officially toured or released new material since 2008’s Black Ice, the mere suggestion that they have already played their last show has kicked the rock world into a tailspin, steeped in rumors that founding guitarist Malcolm Young has fallen gravely ill—perhaps suffering a stroke—and that at least for the time being, he cannot carry on.
Some speculation is more suspect than other. Reports that AC/DC have maintained a pact whereby no band members will be replaced if they are forced to leave the band fly into the barbs of a rather imposing tangle of deeply-rooted historical evidence to the contrary. In addition to swapping out drummers and bassists with rhythmic frequency over the years, AC/DC carried on after the death of singer Bon Scott in 1980. Later, in the band’s 1988 Blow Up Your Video tour, AC/DC temporarily replaced Malcolm with his nephew Stevie, to allow Malcolm to focus on recovery from alcoholism. The existence of such a pact therefore, is dubious at best and if valid, would need to be fairly recent.
Stepping away from the future of AC/DC, there is no uncertainty as to their panoptic influence on all hard rock and heavy metal acts from the 80s and beyond. They remain a primal influence among today’s elder statesmen of rock; from the sleazy crunch of Guns ‘N Roses to the thrashy abandon of Metallica, straight through to extreme metal standard bearers like Machine Head, the influence of the propulsive onslaught the Young brothers’ double-barreled assault rings brightly in every note. By today’s standards, AC/DC qualify more as hard rock than heavy metal, and yet the latter genre could hardly exist in its current iteration without the iron foundation first poured by the Young brothers in 1973.
Commercially, “Acca Dacca” stand as the sixth highest-grossing act of all time, beating out The Rolling Stones, as well as Queen, ABBA and Aerosmith. With over 200 million albums sold over their forty-year career, AC/DC own the third highest-selling album of all time for a band (Back in Black), and no less than the Midas-fingered knob-twister Rick Rubin has hailed them as the greatest rock and roll band of all time. I not only agree with Rick, but I would add that Powerage ranks as the single greatest rock album of the Seventies.
Like many of my contemporaries, AC/DC formed the lynchpin of my musical development, an unwavering nod to rock’s dusty origins with a bracingly modern approach that suggested mind-blowing possibilities for not just AC/DC, but the future of music. While their influence on modern metal rings loudly, each successive release reaffirmed their commitment to the boogie woogie swagger of vintage Chuck Berry (Angus continues to duck walk during live shows), delivering no-bullshit rock at its very basic—the precise four-on-the-floor timekeeping of Phil Rudd fattened by Cliff Williams’ airtight bass to form a sturdy rhythmic undercarriage for the Youngs’ scorching fretboard heroics and the laddish vocals of Bon Scott and later Brian Johnson.
But it was never AC/DC’s technicality that defined their sound, but their unimpeachable ability to craft songs around mountain-rattling hooks and triumphant choruses that impelled listeners to shout out the lyrics whether in a teeming football stadium or alone in their car on the morning commute. From the snarl of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” to the pendulous grooving of “Highway to Hell,” the Bon Scott years offered a catalog of classics that to this day enjoy healthy lives on commercial radio. Brian Johnson’s chapter opened with Back in Black and has charted a sprawling number of subsequent modern rock classics that include that album’s title track, along with “You Shook Me,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” and even latter material like “Stiff Upper Lip.”
After first hearing “Back in Black” shortly after that song’s debut on Boston’s WBCN, I crumbled into impatient anxiety, fueled by the uncertainty as to how long I would have to wait to get my hands on that record. I was twelve years old and while my two paper routes afforded me plenty of scratch for new vinyl, getting to the record store across town would require parental assistance. The wait lasted three excruciating days, but the payoff continues to this day. In fact, I can’t recall any other album that I have owned for over thirty years that I still play with uninterrupted regularity.
Through the decades, some critics have lambasted the band for a perceived resistance to change, and such observations are admittedly grounded in truth—AC/DC have steadfastly ignored trends throughout their entire career, grinding out the same crunchy, hook-powered blend of rock and classic blues that they first played in the early-70s. While bands like KISS and the Stones caved to the temptations of disco, AC/DC only doubled down on the basics. Their refusal to tamper with their core sound only endeared them to a growing audience; AC/DC never explored new ways to relate to their fans, they simply continued to deliver songs that could make them forget everything else for as long as the show lasted or until the album stopped playing.
With the exception of the Rolling Stones, no band has maintained their vitality as long as AC/DC, and even the Stones never endured the loss of their frontman. The death of founding Stones member Brian Jones was undeniably tragic, but they had already kicked him out of the band by the time he was discovered at the bottom of his swimming pool. AC/DC lost frontman Bon Scott at the worst possible time—on the heels of Highway to Hell—their most successful album to date—just as they were preparing for its follow-up. Although Bon was quite a bit older than the other members of the band, his roguish charisma and irreverent lyrics offered the perfect face for AC/DC’s brand of rock and onstage, and he played the ideal foil to Angus’ manic schoolboy. Fans at the time of his death could be forgiven for fretting that perhaps the ride had ended. That the band would come back with a new and relatively unknown singer and release the unqualified masterpiece that is Back in Black—one of the highest-selling albums in human history—sets a bar that no band before or after has managed to clear.
Granted, AC/DC’s original output from the past fifteen years falls well short of their finest works, and yet each recent release has enjoyed towering commercial success, due in no small part to sprawling supporting tours that have sent the hard-rocking Aussies to nearly every square meter on planet Earth. The thrilling 2011 DVD documentary of their Black Ice tour, AC/DC: Live at River Plate, remains one of the finest concert films of the past decade and to this day, I enjoy throwing it into the Blu-ray player while I clean the house, cook dinner or just sit around rocking out with my dog.
While we’d all love at least one more chance to see AC/DC live, their immortal legacy has already been cemented and it extends far beyond the millions of albums and concert tickets sold. AC/DC’s enduring contribution to rock will be measured by the indelible potency of the hooks, choruses and anthems that have inspired generations of musicians to pick up an instrument, close the bedroom door and dedicate their lives to music. Get well, Malcolm, and hail, hail, rock and roll.
Weeklings Music Editor Joe Daly was a contributing researcher for Mick Wall’s 2012 AC/DC biography, AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be.