J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Long Player #1 :
AC/DC - Back in Black

Welcome to Long Player. Once a week, give or take some holidays, for the foreseeable future (read: years?), I will be proceeding through my vinyl music collection in alphabetical order. Some of these records will be painfully obscure, others painfully well known. With most artists, I will actually devote a different column to each album I have of theirs. In some cases, I may lump several records together for one entry. Or none. I don’t know. I’ll decide as I go and will have logic to go along with it.  
In some ways, I feel like starting off with AC/DC’s Back in Black is an intimidating thing to do. In other ways, it's the most appropriate thing that could happen. Here's why. I’m taking a long, thorough dive through my vinyl collection, something more interesting to me than it could possibly be to anyone else. My LP collection is an oddity in some ways. It's not the primary way I have ever bought music, but it's not insubstantial in amount. I've gone deep on collecting certain things, and then have spartan examples of other catalogues that I managed to get cheaply. Back in Black is a perfect example of that as it's the only AC/DC album I have on vinyl. I've had chances to buy others. I haven't yet done that.
It's also an album that has been written about a million times over and the odds of me saying anything new or interesting about it border on the infinitesimal. But since I've already admitted that this writing exercise is more for me than anything else - and I'm truly hoping that people enjoy it along the way, though that's not the point - then why not tackle one of the monoliths of rock and roll?
Back in Black is of course a strange record in rock's history because of its placement at the front of the second half of the Bon Scott/Brian Johnson eras of the band. You'd be hard pressed to think of another band that lost one of its key members (especially a lead singer) only to come back immediately with a record that would become its most successful to date at the time and one that defines the band to this day.
One thing I certainly like about the vinyl era of music was the physical limitation. If you wanted to avoid spreading out onto a second LP, you were limited to around 45 minutes of music or less. This made albums fairly compact and to someone who grew up in the age of cassettes (60 minutes) and CDs (80 minutes), the smaller scale punch really stands out. I noticed that most of my favorite albums of 2016 were in the 30 – 40 minute range. And that’s not a surprise. Albums that length tend to hit with their best songs and get out before wearing you down and also prompt repeat listening as a result.
Back in Black is a masterclass in this kind of thinking. It clocks in at 42 minutes and each side basically rolls from barnstorming opener (“Hells Bells” on side 1; the title track on side 2) into hellacious rockers and fist pumping giants before settling into the slowest respective song on each side. Which is not to be mistaken for a ballad. “Let Me Put My Love Into You” at the end of side 1 is really all about setting you up for the monumental “Back in Black” on the opening of the next side. “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” at the end of the record is just a nice, heavy sigh by way of winding things up.
My 21-month old daughter came home about a month ago singing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” I have no idea who taught her this or why, but it eventually lead me to bring up the video for the song on YouTube for her to see. Now of course I’m stuck playing that video, or the song itself on Spotify, over and over for her. (On the plus side, with the percussion instrument set I got her for Christmas, I’ve managed to get her to imitate the iconic thump-thump-pop of the song. She’s the next Janet Weiss, guys, I’m serious.) But in doing so, I’ve been forced to re-evaluate a song that I’d long cordoned off in the same part of the world as Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” and, well, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” from the same album as “We Will Rock You.” And in doing so rediscovered what’s so engaging about it in the first place.
Same with Back in Black. The big hits on the album are massive. To have escaped “Back in Black,” “Hells Bells” or the gigantic “You Shook Me All Night Long” somehow implies a level of purposeful cultural ignorance that I would tip my hat to. Even “Shoot to Thrill,” never a single, has appeared in too many big move soundtracks to count. All of these songs come back to life within the context of the album. “Hells Bells” is an opener with few peers in rock. “Back in Black” is the same for the second side.
And “You Shook Me All Night Long” is the poppiest song on the album, earning its ubiquitous presence in our culture. I find myself singing along with it in a way that would seem tedious if I ran across it on classic rock radio. Context is everything in the case of a lot of these songs. But it’s interesting to think about in comparison with the bloated modern album. Do big singles regain anything within the span of albums like Drake’s VIEWS? Or are their purposeful single-hood pointed out all the more? And is this an effect of the era-of-bloat or more about Back in Black’s status as an unimpeachable album from front to back? Clearly the answer is the latter, but the svelte size of Back in Black doesn’t hurt.
And it is pretty perfect. Even the deep cuts (god, “Shake a Leg,” y’all – for real) are golden and carry the album along transcendentally. I read a listener review of the album over at AllMusic where they basically said “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is the worst song on the album but only because its slow, winding-down throb just suffers a bit by comparison after the previous 37-and-a-half minutes of lightning. I find that a legitimate argument, but if that song is the worst on your album, you’re doing something right.
Plus, also, Veruca Salt’s American Thighs. I do really enjoy band lyric references in other bands’ album titles.
And, what the hell, let’s just rank the songs on this album for the fun of it. I may do this with every album, or I may not.
10. Let Me Put My Love Into You
9. Have a Drink on Me
8. Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution
7. Given the Dog a Bone
6. Shoot to Thrill
5. What Do You Do For Money Honey
4. Hells Bells
3. You Shook Me All Night Long
2. Shake a Leg
1. Back in Black

Next Week on Long Player: Ryan Adams - 29

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