Death, monsoons and Tibetan bells: how AC/DC's Back in Black saved heavy metal

Before tragedy struck: AC/DC together in London, 1976
Before tragedy struck: AC/DC together in London, 1976

Tony Platt still remembers the shock. AC/DC’s sound engineer was sitting with the band’s producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange in a recording studio in Willesden, north west London, on a drab February day in 1980.

The duo had worked on the Australian rock band’s Highway to Hell album the previous year but were at the console desk that day on more mundane business: mixing an album by a here-today-gone-tomorrow band called Broken Home. There was a knock at the door. Someone was on the phone for Lange down at reception. “When he got back into the control room he was noticeably shaken,” recalls Platt. “He said, ‘You’re not going to believe it but Bon’s died.’”

Bon Scott, AC/DC’s hard-living singer, had been found dead in a car in East Dulwich the morning after a bender, aged just 33. Platt and Lange sat in silence. “It hit us like a train,” Platt tells me. The moment will stay with him “to his dying day”.

By all logic, Scott’s death should have marked the end of AC/DC. Although Highway to Hell had – finally – seen the band make inroads in the notoriously tricky American rock market, their prospects seemed bleak without the talismanic frontman with the ear-shattering voice. But logic and rock ‘n’ roll have never been natural bedfellows. Instead, within weeks of Scott’s passing, the band had recruited an unknown new singer and decamped to the Bahamas to record what would become their defining statement. Back in Black has gone on to sell an estimated 50 million copies, which, according to music industry number crunchers, makes it the best-selling album by any band ever, even outstripping the eye-popping sales of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Released exactly 40 years ago, on 25 July 1980, Back in Black remains one of music’s most unlikely success stories. Mournful and heavy, with a black cover and angle grinder vocals from newbie Brian Johnson, it might reasonably have been expected to appeal to the band’s core base as a fitting requiem to fallen idol Scott. But Back in Black catapulted AC/DC to worldwide fame and created a stadium-filling hard rock behemoth. The album’s legacy endures. The song Back in Black has been covered by everyone from Shakira to Muse. Its sleeve has been co-opted or lampooned by everyone from Metallica to Spinal Tap. And when hip hop superstar Jay-Z controversially headlined Glastonbury in 2008 he opened his set with an explosive mash-up of 99 Problems and Wonderwall spliced with a Back in Black guitar riff, the rap-rock crossover acting as both a two-fingered salute to those who put musical genres in boxes and a testament to the song’s universal appeal.

So just how did AC/DC manage to grab victory from the jaws of defeat? What makes Back in Black such a masterpiece? And why – despite alighting on a winning formula – did AC/DC never quite recapture the album’s magic?

Formed in 1973, AC/DC had released six albums prior to Scott’s death. The Scottish-born but Australian-dwelling group was essentially the domain of the Young brothers, with Angus on lead guitar, Malcolm on rhythm guitar and older brother George acting as co-producer on their first five albums along with his musical partner Harry Vanda. (The versatile pair of Vanda & Young, as they were known, would also co-wrote John Paul Young’s disco classic Love Is In The Air, among other hits). AC/DC described themselves as a punk band but they really played hard, blues-y rock. Signed to Led Zeppelin’s label Atlantic outside Australia, they were hard working and successful but not huge. Mainstream fame beckoned when production duo Lange and Platt teased out a more crisp and minimalist sound on Highway to Hell. And then tragedy struck.

The decision to replace Scott was made surprisingly quickly by the band. Malcolm Young said it was Scott’s father Chick who urged them to carry on shortly after his son’s funeral. Malcolm also told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that he didn’t want to “sit around mopin’ all f***in’ year”. As Angus Young put it to Fricke, “I’m sure if it had been one of us, Bon would have done the same.” The search for the replacement was on. Australian singers such as Rose Tattoo’s Angry Anderson were rumoured and Slade’s Noddy Holder was briefly considered. But serious auditions began in earnest in a London studio in March 1980. Lange and Platt, now considered AC/DC insiders, were sent tapes of the auditions and asked to provide their feedback.

Rock spirit: Angus Young with AC/DC - Michael Ochs Archives
Rock spirit: Angus Young with AC/DC - Michael Ochs Archives

Platt says there were around a week and a half of auditions. “Some of them didn’t make it past the first post, others did,” he says. One name was piquing interest. Brian Johnson, the singer in a mildly successful Newcastle band called Geordie, had been put on a longlist by Lange. Angus Young also remembered that Scott had once favourably compared Johnson’s singing style to Little Richard’s. (The plain-speaking Malcolm’s apparent dismissal of Johnson as “a big fat c*nt” was overridden). So without telling Johnson who they were, the band phoned him and asked him down for an audition. The cap-wearing singer was initially reluctant to travel to London from the North-East as he had no spare cash and had good work fitting vinyl roofs on cars.

But they flew him down for the day and he belted out Nutbush City Limits. Impressed, the band flew Johnson back down a few days later for a second audition. He was late as, bizarrely, he’d taken a diversion – on AC/DC’s money – to record the voiceover song for a new Hoover TV advert (“The new high power Compact from Hoover, it’s a beautiful mover…”). It was at this second audition that the band asked Johnson to freestyle over a simple riff they had for a song called Back in Black. “Back in Black, I hit the sack,” Johnson howled. The job was his.

The vacuum had been filled. AC/DC would live on with the help of a little-known singer who “looked like a cross between Albert Steptoe and Andy Capp”, as writer Mick Wall memorably put it. Even Johnson was surprised. “I’m sure a lot of people were left shaking their heads,” he said. But Platt says Johnson’s “extraordinary” voice was the perfect fit. While Scott had a virtuosic delivery that thundered above and around the music, Johnson’s voice was more like a dependable instrument in itself: slotting in with the drums and guitars like a chainsaw metronome. Not only did this make the music sound more complete, but it allowed Angus Young – peacocking around the stage in his trademark schoolboy outfit – to assume the role as AC/DC’s de facto frontman, says Platt. (AC/DC had a singer before Scott, Dave Evans, and they recently toured with Axl Rose, suggesting that the singer has never really been the band’s linchpin).

After two weeks of rehearsals, the band flew to Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau in the Bahamas to record the album. Things didn’t start well. The band’s instruments were confiscated by customs officials, and a terrible storm had battered the island. Bandmembers’ bedrooms in the residential complex were basic, and Haitian bandits had undertaken a crime spree in the area. Singer Robert Palmer, who lived nearby, had recently had his parents held hostage and his dog shot. Johnson recalled how the housekeeper gave the band six-feet fishing spears to keep by their doors as protection.

In the studio, Platt and Lange were aiming for the same precise sound they got on Highway to Hell. They set up the studio in the same configuration as an AC/DC stage show (drums in the middle, Malcolm to their left), used screens and blankets to prevent sonic leakage between instruments, and recorded the backing tracks live. “The basic premise for the sound of rock is that it should sound big and detailed at any level,” explains Platt. “So when you play it quiet it should encourage you to turn it up, and when you play it loud it should be smashing you over the head.”

Johnson recorded the lyrics separately with “pretty much all the lights off”, says Platt. The singer has admitted to feeling a fish out of water in Nassau. But scared witless, he was “absolutely amazing”, the band’s engineer says. Not only did he write the majority of the lyrics – aided, Johnson has suggested, by a night time visitation from Scott’s ghost – but he sang at the top of his range with full power.

Album opener Hell’s Bells encapsulated just how meticulous Lange and Platt were in their pursuit of perfection. A tribute to Scott, Hell’s Bells opens with a doleful tolling bell. With most of the music in the can and the production duo reluctant to use a pre-recorded sample, Lange suggested that Platt return to England to record a bell. The band had already commissioned a bellmaker called Mike Milsom from the John Taylor & Co bell foundry in Loughborough to make a vast bell emblazoned with the AC/DC logo for their upcoming live shows. But arriving in the Midlands, Platt found that the bell was still cooling in its mould.

Mike Milsom and Tony Platt recording the bell on Hell’s Bells - David Humphrey
Mike Milsom and Tony Platt recording the bell on Hell’s Bells - David Humphrey

So he took The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio to a local church with the same sized bell and miked it up. “What we’d not taken into account was that the other things that inhabit a bell tower – apart from bells – are birds,” Platt says. Every time they struck the bell, a flock of birds would flutter away, ruining the sound. Luckily, shortly after, the Taylors creation was sufficiently cool and they were able to hoist it up and record it (using Ronnie Lane’s Airstream mobile studio this time). Platt, who understood bell harmonics having produced an entire album of Tibetan bell music years before, recorded the hulking thing on 24 separate tracks, getting Milsom to hit it with rubber hammers then wood, on the inside and out, to achieve a range of tones. Never let it be said that hard rock is low art.

Back in Black sounded massive. “F***ing hell. This is a monster,” was Malcolm Young’s reaction when he heard the mix in New York, according to Mick Wall’s AC/DC book Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be. Fans agreed. The album went straight to number one in the UK, Austria, Canada and France. It led the charge in a heavy metal revival, with debut albums by Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, as well as breakthrough LPs by Judas Priest and Motörhead, also released in 1980. Although Back in Black only entered the US charts at number 189, a spate of hard touring saw it rise to number four by February 1981. It stayed in the top 10 for nearly six months and has now sold 25 million copies in the States alone.

“Albums have a moment. There’s a certain amount of alchemy involved,” says Platt. This was partly down to AC/DC’s team at the time; as well as being produced by Lange – who became the1980s rock producer of choice, later working with Def Leppard, Bryan Adams and Foreigner – they were managed by the hotshot Peter Mensch (future husband of one-time Conservative MP Louise Mensch) until 1981. But the alchemy sat mainly on the turntable. People associate hard rock with noise but Back in Black relished the spaces in between the notes. It was a thundering machine with exquisitely calibrated cogs. It showcased an almighty new voice while celebrating an old one. And, crucially, it had tunes you could hum.

AC/DC’s next album, For Those About To Rock We Salute You, sold just four million copies in the US. By no means a flop, it simply didn’t have its predecessor’s raw appeal. To a large degree AC/DC’s eight studio albums since have been in the same musical holding pattern. It’s inevitable. When you so successfully boil music down to is basic elements, it’s hard to take it anywhere else without torpedoing what made you successful in the first place.

Platt agrees. Back in Black was perfect, and it’s impossible to improve on perfection. “Where do you go from there? You’ve created effectively the perfect rock band. AC/DC’s music wasn’t like David Bowie’s music where you could go off on another tangent. There wasn’t another tangent for AC/DC to go on. They just had to continue being the best rock band in the world. So they were kind of hoisted on their own petard in that respect,” he says.

But 40 years on, Back in Black remains a monument. To a fallen brother. To the benefits of perseverance. To the elemental power of rock.