CD Review: AC/DC, “Backtracks”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

It’s rather pointless to review an AC/DC box set—you either love the band and have the thing already ordered or on your Christmas list, or you’re not going to bother. Since I am nothing if not a sucker for lost causes, I therefore direct this review to the uninitiated—those who might not “get” how a hard rock band can parlay a single, simple equation (4/4 rhythm + cool riff + screaming vocals x songs about sex) into a 35-year career. Please let me explain. Also, since the band is the collective king of the double-entendre, and such wordplay may be a bit confusing, I shall translate the song titles contained herein, so the uninitiated may better grasp of the meat of the music.

AC/DC songs live and die by the riff—that distinctive, distorted, wicked cool Angus Young guitar figure, roughly the aural equivalent of a he-wolf stalking his mate while thinking about all the other mates he’s going to do later on that night, after he and the other he-wolves have a few beers. Young got better at coming up with these riffs over the years, which leaves lacking some of the previously unreleased Bon Scott-era material collected here on Disc 1.

“Poster I Use for Masturbation” (i.e., “Stick Around”), for example, is built around a snoozer; only Scott’s leering vocal keeps the thing interesting. “Leave Me Alone So I Can Masturbate” (“R.I.P. [Rock in Peace]”) bears no riff whatsoever, unless you count the basic I-IV-V blues chords that chug behind the singer.

Scott could always shine on a slow blues, though, and “My Pubic Lice is Really Bothering Me Today” (“Crabsody in Blue”) gives him plenty of space to testify. The most striking/disturbing track in the box (and possibly in the whole of AC/DC’s career) is “Jean, I’d Like to Have Sex with You” (“Love Song”), an honest-to-God power ballad, the only such song I’m aware of in the band’s long oeuvre. It’s the type of track that, had it ever made it out of Australia, could have ended the group before it ever really started.

Better served here are the tracks sung by Brian Johnson, who took the mic from Scott’s cold, dead fingers in 1980. Whereas Scott could use his voice to belt a banshee wail or purr a come-hither line, Johnson is all caterwaul, quite often to comical effect. Imagine being on a date with someone—perhaps in a nice restaurant, enjoying a little brie appetizer and some white wine—and your date spends the entire meal screaming to the ceiling about how sexually potent he/she is, how much fun it is to sexually gratify oneself, and how the greatest activities in the world are getting intoxicated on alcohol and having rough intercourse. Brian Johnson is that kind of date.

Fortunately, one is often sufficiently distracted by Angus Young’s monster riffage to notice the lyrics until the chorus. For example, you barely notice that “My Penis’ Meatus” (“Snake Eye”) sounds like a date rape anthem, or that “I’m Going to Ejaculate Any Second Now” (“Borrowed Time”) makes little sense. Young’s guitar work on both is amazing—Chuck Berry on anabolic steroids, turned into pure electricity and sent through a half-dozen Marshall stacks. And how “I Would Like to Place My Hand Inside Your Underwear While You Are Wearing It” (“Down on the Borderline”) never made it to an album (it was the “Moneytalks” b-side) is beyond me.

The live stuff on Disc 2 does not disappoint, either. A bit of advice, though—with the exception of “Highway to Hell” (“Highway to Hell”), it’s best to avoid the Bon Scott tracks that Brian Johnson sings. The comparisons are not flattering to Johnson, particularly when juxtaposed with several incendiary Scott performances. “Life Isn’t Fair, but It Is a Lot like Cunnilingus” (“Dog Eat Dog”), recorded in Glasgow in 1978, is the early band at the height of its power. “I Am Available for a Tryst at Your Convenience” (“Live Wire”), though hampered a bit by muddy sound, is pure sweaty ecstasy—that Hammersmith Odeon crowd in ’79 must’ve gotten a hell of a show.

When set loose in a live setting, though, Johnson’s roar can stop an oncoming armed incursion, were one to break out in whatever stadium the band happens to be playing at. The period from perhaps 1982 to 1985, however, was a fallow one for AC/DC—two of their more underrated records (Flick of the Switch and Fly on the Wall) were released and all but ignored. This document proves, however, that they could still bring the thunder live, when the thunder was called for.

The Detroit audience in 1983 that witnessed the included versions of “I Am a Male Escort and Would Like to Have You as a Client for my Services” (“Guns for Hire”) and “If I am Not Mistaken, I Believe You Have a Venereal Disease” (“This House is on Fire”) never stood a chance. The band’s rock-ribbed rhythm section pounds out the pulse of the songs, while Angus Young flings riffs and solos around like a Shriner throwing candy at a parade. Of course, what would any compilation be without the classic “Our Evening of Lovemaking was Quite Satisfying” (“You Shook Me All Night Long”)? So entrenched is the song on rock radio, nearly 30 years removed from its initial release, that to exclude it would be something akin to sacrilege.

Later-period live cuts are fine and fun, if more or less inessential, but if you survive the devastating effects of those Detroit tracks and Bon Scott’s ghost howling from the great beyond, you’ll have something to return to time and again to have your mind melted and eardrums abused. It’s rock and roll, boyz ‘n’ girlz—if you ain’t crankin’ it up, you ain’t doin’ it right. Take that meat and grasp it.