THE LATE ’70s and early ’80s were bleak years for rock, and most other things besides. One of those moments in history which seem to have had the joy sucked out of them with the slurping efficiency of a German vampire. Once punk had flared and dimmed it was all grey cerebral funk, angular art rock or worse, New Romanticism, a style of music so garishly effete only Little Richard-size dollops of rampant pervert hormone could have made it work.
In retrospect it looks like a chin-stroking, miserable and sexless era. Some people hold Margaret Thatcher responsible. Me, I blame higher education. What rock needed, has always needed, was a blast of unabashed idiocy. There are some things you just shouldn’t think about too much and AC/DC knew it instinctively. Their hour had come.
Being mostly young teenage boys, AC/DC’s fans knew all about being miserable and sexless, although it’s unlikely their hands ever strayed far enough north to stroke their chins. All that mattered was that their idols delivered what they required; a skullfucking rock-steady racket full of lyrics too obviously filthy to be classed as innuendo. This, to the minds of 13-year-old males, was the sound of what sex would be like when they eventually managed to get any. And it’s why AC/DC’s early albums will live on far beyond anything recorded by the Gang Of Four or Spandau Ballet.
You also have to give them credit for being the least squeamish band on the planet. Their singer Bon Scott, around whom this box set is constructed, punning title and all, died in his car in 1980, soaked to the gills in Bells whiskey. AC/DC responded with their greatest album, Back in Black, a mourning tribute to Bon featuring a singer even more ball-twistingly histrionic, which cracked opened like a chasm into the underworld with the vast, seething ‘Hells Bells’. Whatever jokes AC/DC have been the butt of, whatever scorn has been aimed in their direction, Back in Black is the answer to all of it. It’s a monolith, a record not even Black Sabbath, Motorhead or Metallica could surpass, and despite the fact it’s supposed to be part of this collection, it’s missing from my box and I am very, very disappointed.
The rest of this stuff, good though some of it is, just can’t make up for it. There are three live CDs, one recorded at Atlantic studios and released here for the first time, although many of the songs are repeated on the double-disc soundtrack to the live movie Let There Be Rock. More of a find is Volts, unreleased versions of AC/DC tracks, some of which date back to the days when they were unknown outside their home country, Australia. These will be fascinating to the true AC/DC devotee but to the likes of me they simply demonstrate how far the band had to go before they made first Highway to Hell and then Back in Black; they often sound plodding and thin. They would go on to put real meat on their bones, and countless other bands would feed off them.
If you haven’t got Back in Black and you have ever liked heavy rock then get yourself a copy. It’s not so much by way of education, more that it’ll make you feel like you’ve got an electric cattle prod stuck up your arse as far your adrenal gland. AC/DC fans will already own it, in which case they can buy an edition of this box set without it and we should all wish them the joy of it. Better to never grow up than to start listening to Counting Crows.
© David Bennun, The Guardian, November 1997