AC/DC stormed onto the international stage with a song called "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll). The song was an incendiary introduction to the Australian band's brand of overdriven razor-boogie, and vocalist Bon Scott's nasally shriek cataloged a life of hedonistic melancholy that ended with his death from alcohol poisoning in 1980.
It is rare for a group to write a song so prophetic of the challenges that lay ahead of them, even rarer for an outfit to suffer the loss of a charismatic frontperson and continue to exist. Less than six months after Scott's tragic death, AC/DC got to the top. Recruiting singer Brian Johnson, the combo released Back in Black (Atlantic, 1980), a smash-hit record that went on to become the second-best-selling album of all time.
Towering pinnacles of success often have unintended consequences. Musicians accustomed to the travails of the industry suddenly find themselves with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of fan support, and enjoy the unquestioning indulgence of every creative whim. The desire to reinvent to cast off cloying expectations of past success and established image can be irresistible. This tendency has given us Kiss' disco era, a Chris Cornell R&B album, and more iterations of Madonna than anyone cares to remember. Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines. The best-selling album of all time, the only one to beat out Back in Black, is Michael Jackson's Thriller (Epic, 1982). I think you can see where I'm going with that one.
AC/DC, by contrast, has stayed so doggedly true to its original concept that it's hard to imagine the band members even entertaining the idea of change if only to reject it. Their new album, Black Ice (Columbia), is the first in eight years, packed chock-full with the Young brothers' stuttering, bluesy guitar riffs and Phil Rudd's studiously unadorned drumming. The big surprise this time around, if you can call it that, is the inclusion of slide guitar on the track "Stormy May Day." The band's been around for more than three decades, and a largely technical change in instrumentation on a single song qualifies as news. That's sticking to your guns.
They're still writing tunes with "rock 'n' roll" in the title, and Black Ice clocks in with four quite an accomplishment in the field of writing rock songs about rock, which AC/DC more or less perfected. The quality of the tracks is neither here nor there, and it was fun reading the world's Important Rock Critics write circles around themselves trying to think of something clever to say about the latest disc. In fact, if AC/DC has a talent besides writing infectiously simple rock mega-hits, it is confounding music writers.
They may not conjure the same arena-shaking adrenaline of the glory years, but no one's really expecting that. The songs all sound the same, but that's always been true. Their craft is so finely honed that they avoid any blunders or clunkers, and their stubborn enmity toward innovation makes them immune to any ill-advised tinkering with songwriting or sound.
They won't even sell their stuff on iTunes, an anomaly that makes them a veritable dinosaur in the age of experimental "pay what you want" download ploys, when even the Napster-suing nofunskis in Metallica have been brought into the electronic fold. A lot of noise is made about AC/DC being an "album band," a commendable if quixotic adherence the mind reels at the amount of money they could make off frat boys looking to round out the keg party playlist with a little "You Shook Me All Night Long." Then again, when you've already sold 200 million-odd albums, what's left to buy? A plane for your plane? Maybe AC/DC could bailout the Big Three.
It's not every band that proclaims a long road to the top, and then proceeds to walk it.