AC/DC was at a real crossroads in 1979 when it came to breaking into America. The Australian five piece led by Bon Scott on the mic and Young brothers Angus and Malcolm on lead and rhythm guitar, respectively, were gaining an audience with a unique brand of punked up blues rock, but no matter how brilliant tracks like “Sin City” (Powerage, 1978) or “Overdose” (Let There Be Rock, 1977) might have been, there wasn’t much that would apply to the mainstream.
Linking up with producer Eddie Kramer, he of Jimi Hendrix and Kiss fame, turned out to be a disaster. He wanted the lads out of bed and recording way sooner than early afternoon and took issue with Scott’s imbibing of alcohol. After sacking Kramer, Boomtown Rats producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange was brought on-board and the entire scheme of things changed.
Lange took the band’s riffs, of which the Youngs had plenty, and made them more immediate, building the track around them. He had them start doing backing vocals more, adding depth to the songs and making them catchier; all without washing away the grime and raunchiness AC/DC had spent so much of the ’70s building upon.
Highway to Hell would be the swan song for singer Bon Scott, who died less than seven months later under somewhat mysterious circumstances which are attributed to either alcohol poisoning or the growingly popular “death by misadventure.”
But the success of the album opened the door for the group, and it almost didn’t matter who ended up in the lead singer slot because the momentum was so strong. Luckily, AC/DC found in Brian Johnson a capable singer who sounded just enough like Bon Scott to keep the wheels in motion for decades to come.
That might not have happened had it not been for Highway to Hell, which turns 35 this Sunday, August 3, making it the perfect time to get New Ordered on it and rank its songs from best to worst.
1. “Highway to Hell”
Yes, it’s hideously overplayed, but it’s still a classic no matter how many times classic rock radio stations spin it in a tired attempt at morning drive time humor or as a way to [insert lame, overly enthusiastic disc jockey voice], “Kick off your weekend AC/DC-style… on the Highway. To. Helllllll!” The simplistic guitar riff Malcolm Young created is right up there with Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” that every guitar wunderkind hopeful spends hours in his bedroom learning.
Lyrically, it’s got everything parents used to fear about rock and roll with Satan, partying, speeding down a metaphorical highway and not only knowing the consequences are pending doom, but embracing them because, well, it’s “party time.”
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2. “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”
When Jim Morrison sang about “blood in the streets” on the Morrison Hotel gem “Peace Frog,” it was tempered by a distorted Robbie Krieger guitar hook, funky bass line and a happy, borderline poppy organ salvo. Cut to a decade later, dispense with the wah-wah, add Bon Scott’s snarl, and you’ve got a song just as catchy but much more direct about hemoglobin. There’s blood on the streets, the rocks, the sky, the sheets, in the gutter – fuck – “every last drop” is accounted for! And who’s got it? AC/DC of course.
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3. “Night Prowler”
Like Charles Manson stole “Helter Skelter” from The Beatles, “Night Stalker” serial killer Richard Ramirez stole “Night Prowler” from AC/DC. Unfortunately, they haven’t had someone like Bono to steal it back, and to this day it remains one of two songs from Highway to Hell never performed live by the band (the other being “Love Hungry Man”). That’s a pity because it’s such a fantastic example of how much of their early sound was derived from the blues, much like its companion, though less sinister piece “Ride On” from 1976 and almost the entirety of the Powerage album.
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4. “Touch Too Much”
Here’s a perfect example of Mutt Lange’s influence; the breakdown at 2:40 with the band delivering the chorus as a backing to Scott nearly delivering his lines as spoken word is something that never would’ve been considered prior.
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5. “Shot Down in Flames”
A basic riff spirals into a frenetic solo by Angus that Scott compliments with an almost tongue in cheek, “That’s nice!” It’s about as dirty as the Young brothers get while at ground level, Chuck Berry style.
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6. “Girls Got Rhythm”
Scott’s ode to his favorite topic, women, is full of stripper sleaze that would go on to inspire an entire generation of horny yet insipid youth who would try to recreate the feeling on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles the next decade.
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7. “Walk All Over You”
Slightly lost in the production of Highway to Hell is the sound of drummer Phil Rudd. The languid beginning section here gives him the opportunity to set the pace, which even when it picks up it’s like the rest of the band are following his and bassist Cliff Williams’ lead.
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8. “Get It Hot”
The shortest song on the album is hardly a throwaway. Scott is on fire here with his double entendre, “Gonna bend you like a G string,” but the best line is when he sings, “Nobody’s playing Manilow.”
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9. “Beating Around the Bush”
The interplay between Scott and Angus here, with the latter imitating the singer’s cadence, has them circling round and round each other like two angry dogs in pen. The hyped up pace never slows with neither backing down. It’s an old blues trick, but it still sounds fresh.
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10. “Love Hungry Man”
About as close to a ballad as the Scott-fronted version would ever get. Yeah, he wants sex, but at least he’s passionate about it. The downside is how repetitive it becomes with no real payoff.