Phil Sutcliffe: AC/DC – The Ultimate Illustrated History

Sutcliffe’s history of rock’s Down Under bad boys is lucidly written, with a rather reportorial remove. (Sutcliffe for instance is always careful to note whenever the attribution of a quote is difficult to definitively establish.) The book is clearly marked as “not licensed or approved by AC/DC,” but it’s scarcely adversarial. Sutcliffe will occasionally note when there are discrepancies around a particular event, but that’s about as controversial as it gets. The emphasis is on the band’s chronology, particularly as represented by its recording career. Each album gets a stand-alone essay-cum-encomium from one of the long list of guest contributors (more contributors also tackle other sidebar topics, like the band’s gear, and the band’s brief association with early punk). There are biographical introductions to the main players, and Sutcliffe waxes ecstatic about a gig he personally attended or a record he particularly loves a few times, but it’s not a deep-diving book.

Arguably, AC/DC’s story — certainly since 1980 — doesn’t afford many opportunities to dive deep. There’ve been the expected substance-abuse-related departures, some with eventual triumphant sober returns. The band earned a bit of Moral Majority outrage (although not as much as, say, Judas Priest). They’ve continued to release workmanlike albums, about which many of you can sense the contributors struggling to find good things to say. The still-living band members have a reputation for avoiding groupie shenanigans and don’t slag each other off in the press. Compared to the likes of Metallica or Pink Floyd, they offer little drama.

In 1980, of course, they lost Bon Scott, the frontman and lyricist behind all their classic seventies releases to “misadventure” (straight-up alcohol poisoning, Sutcliffe establishes, no vomit involved). After scant weeks they were in the studio with new singer Brian Johnson, recording Back in Black, an unassailable classic (not the best hard rock album, nor even the best AC/DC album, but if you’re only going to ever hear one hard rock album in your life, still the one you should chose). Sutcliffe gives no credence to longstanding rumors that Scott wrote some of Back in Black‘s lyrics; Johnson credits Scott’s spiritual presence with helping him craft songs like the mighty title track and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Those two songs have always seemed closer to me to Scott’s cheerful “gutter poetry” than anything else I ever heard with Johnson’s credits on it. (Confession: I’m pretty sure I bought Flick of the Switch in college, but it was the last AC/DC record I owned, so there are still Johnson-penned lyrics I haven’t heard.)

This is the thing about AC/DC that’s struck me as a bit sad for the past three decades. Johnson’s a capable singer and front man, but for me the enduring magic of AC/DC is split roughly half between those miraculously simple, dense, and catchy riffs, and Scott’s demented, puckish, persona. I can’t imagine Johnson ever coming up with anything as off-handedly brilliant as “Problem Child”‘s slurred aside, “even my mother hates me,” or making violence as funny (or alliterative) as “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” does. I think it’s telling that the nicest thing the essayists find to say about the several “comeback” albums is that some of the songs have a spirit similar to one of Scott’s songs (or something from Back in Black).

The book definitely delivers on the “ultimate illustrated” score, with plenty of album sleeves, tour ads, backstage passes, ticket stubs, and promo items to accompany the many, many live shots of Angus Young grimacing, and of the rest of the band too. (You might wonder if there’s a Dorian Gray-styled picture of Angus Young squirreled away somewhere, although excluding his hair.)

needs more demons?

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

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