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Were they metal? Boogie? Punk? Rock ‘n’ roll? It was hard to put your finger on just which style of rock AC/DC specialized in throughout their first few studio offerings with singer Bon Scott. But one thing was for certain — they were rapidly building a large and loyal fanbase throughout the world, and it seemed to all coalesce in what would turn out to be the band’s last album with Scott, 1979’s Highway to Hell.
Already stars back home in their native Australia, AC/DC — who were comprised of Scott, the brother/guitar duo of Angus and Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams (who replaced Mark Evans in ’77), and drummer Phil Rudd — were several albums into their recording career. While their early albums would be issued under different titles and varied track listings, AC/DC’s stateside discography included 1976’s High Voltage, 1977’s Let There Be Rock, plus 1978’s Powerage and If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (another album from ’76, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, would not see the light of day in the United States until ’81).
The quintet certainly had the tunes (heck, they’d already unleashed the likes of “TNT”, “Whole Lotta Rosie”, and “Sin City”, for crying out loud!), but production-wise, it was still a bit rough around the edges (as the band had worked exclusively with the production duo of Harry Vanda and George Young — yep, another Young brother — up to this point). And all you had to do was give a listen to FM radio, at the time, to discover that you needed a major league-sounding production to gain entry onto the airwaves (Boston, Queen, The Cars, Styx, Pink Floyd, etc.). And it just so happened that AC/DC had found their man — Robert John “Mutt” Lange.
Now considered one of rock’s all-time great producers due to his impeccable track record of churning out mega-sellers with the biggest names of rock and pop (Def Leppard, Bryan Adams, Shania Twain, Muse, etc.), at the time, Mutt had yet to make the jump to the big time — having worked with the likes of Graham Parker, The Outlaws, and the Boomtown Rats. But from the first notes of the album-opening title track of Highway to Hell, it was undeniable that this was the best-sounding AC/DC album yet — powerful and clear, without forfeiting any of the raunch of the group’s earlier work (Bon’s vocal delivery and lyrics made sure of the latter). Also, unlike many other rock acts at the time that were opting to reach the mainstream via either a ballad or a disco tune, AC/DC was one of the few — perhaps other than only the Ramones — that offered 100% rawk.
In the book AC/DC: Album by Album by Martin Popoff, former Guitar World Editor-in-Chief Brad Tolinski explained, “That higher level of discipline on Highway to Hell, that sort of lifts them from being this great little high-energy pub rock band into something worthier of the arenas. And that little bit of spit and polish on the choruses, like you hear on [the song] ‘Highway to Hell’, makes it just a little bit better for radio, too.”
And while the anthemic title track and it’s instantly recognizable guitar chord progression remains the album’s best-known tune — with its lyrics recounting what it was like being in a touring rock band — the album is chock full of other prime cuts. Case in point, a song that would gain repeated performances onstage (“Shot Down in Flames”), as well as tunes that dip deep into Bon’s trademark lyrical sleaze (“Girls Got Rhythm”, “Walk All Over You”, “Touch Too Much”, “Beating Around the Bush”, “Love Hungry Man”). Admittedly, the second side of the album is padded with filler (namely “Get It Hot” and “If You Want Blood”), and also contains one of AC/DC’s most notorious tunes of all-time.
The lyrics of the album-closing tune, “Night Prowler”, detail the thoughts of a deranged stalker/murderer, and upon the album’s release and for a few years afterwards, didn’t receive much attention (because, quite frankly, it was not one of the band’s better nor more memorable tunes). But all that changed in 1985, when serial killer Richard Ramirez was nicknamed the “Night Stalker” (turns out he was a big-time AC/DC fan) — after carrying out multiple grisly murders, before being apprehended and eventually, incarcerated. Interestingly, the last words Scott ever spoke on an AC/DC album were in tribute to Mork from Ork (a character portrayed by Robin Williams, from the TV comedy Mork and Mindy) –“Shazbot” and “Nanu Nanu.”
Released on July 27, 1979, and sporting an album cover that featured a painting of the band staring and sneering (with Angus transformed into a devil), Highway to Hell became AC/DC’s first Top 20 album in the U.S., peaking at No. 17 (chart-wise, it was a quantum leap for the group, as their previous two albums, Powerage and Blood, topped out at No. 133 and No. 113, respectively), and at last count, was certified 7-times platinum. As a result of the album’s success, AC/DC became one of the most sought-after opening acts by rock’s biggest names at the time — including sharing stages with Ted Nugent on an arena tour (including the group’s first-ever appearance at Madison Square Garden), The Who (stadiums in Europe), and as part of the Bill Graham’s Day on the Green Festival in Oakland.
But as stated earlier, Highway to Hell would sadly prove to be Bon’s last album with AC/DC, as he would die on February 19, 1980 at the age of 33, from alcohol poisoning (as is officially reported) — although author Jesse Fink claims in the book Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC’s Back In Black that it was a heroin overdose. The surviving members of AC/DC would opt to carry on — enlisting singer Brian Johnson, uniting once more with Mutt behind the board, and issuing the blockbuster Back in Black just five months after Bon’s passing. That album has been certified 22-times platinum in the U.S. alone.
Highway to Hell certainly left its mark on subsequent rockers — including former Iron Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno, who recounted in the book Iron Maiden ’80 ’81, that Bon Scott was an influence on him vocally. “I went to Bon’s grave about five years ago in Perth, and I cried like a baby,” Di’Anno recounted. “I just couldn’t deal with it. And I was even more upset when I got to Fremantle, and there’s a statue of him. You can’t say nothing bad about Bon Scott in front of me — I’ll punch ya!”
Although it is four decades old, Highway to Hell still rocks, ferociously — as Keith Roth, host of the Sirius XM channel Ozzy’s Boneyard host stated, “Hard to believe it’s been 40 years since the release of Highway to Hell. AC/DC started building a lot of traction amongst my keg party comrades. We were licking our lips after Powerage, and what they delivered was from another planet. Sounds as fresh and exciting today as the first time you heard it. Bon Scott left us with the ultimate parting gift!”