AC/DC are one of the biggest bands in history, having sold over 200 million records worldwide, and like some other bestselling bands, they held out from the digital download market until quite recently. Led Zeppelin‘s music was unavailable on iTunes until 2007, and the Beatles kept out of it until 2009. AC/DC, however, remained absent on the digital front, which is disappointing, since I feel ill-equipped to discuss Highway to Hell without having heard Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976), their other pre-Back in Black (1980) masterpiece. I never could find Highway to Hell at the library, and given that retailers like Best Buy barely carry any CDs in stock anymore, I eventually ordered Highway to Hell off of Amazon.
I wasn’t motivated to do so, however, until I actually heard the first half of it in my friend’s car last summer. We were just messing around in his driveway, playing music to disturb the peace. We had been fooling around on his guitar earlier, playing Alice in Chains and stuff. (I remember he was trying to learn “Nutshell” from their Jar of Flies EP, a song I actually know how to play.) When we got to his car, we hooked up our phones to the car stereo and started playing stuff. I remember playing some Pearl Jam for a bit, and then he put on Highway to Hell, and damn it if we didn’t sit there and listen to it for like twenty minutes. You see, we had just been playing thirty seconds of this or a minute and a half of that and weren’t really thinking of listening to anything continuously.
I just remember thinking, “Jesus, how come I’ve never listened to this thing?” I had begun making this list by that point and Highway to Hell was an album I had always wanted to hear for years but had never gotten my hands on. When I got home I immediately ordered the album on Amazon, and when it showed up, it was on a Saturday morning, and college football season had just started. I popped in the CD in my computer and imported the songs into my iTunes library, and then, well, I proceeded to listen to Highway to Hell somewhere between eight and ten times in a row. I just sat there in front of the TV watching football from like ten in the morning until sometime in the evening, listening to Highway to Hell on repeat. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before with any album, not even when I was a kid. I have long listening sessions all the time, but they’re never that long, nor do they ever consist entirely of listening to the same album over and over.
Somehow Highway to Hell just struck a chord with me, and as great as Back in Black is, Highway to Hell is livelier despite the fact that Back in Black is the world’s biggest party album. Unlike with Back in Black, you can actually get under the surface of the songs on Highway to Hell. The atmosphere’s looser and the band’s exterior hasn’t been hardened by vocalist Bon Scott‘s death yet. There’s something really organic about it. It’s too bad AC/DC didn’t become superstars until Back in Black, since Highway to Hell was such a turning point for them. It’s their first album that sold well in the US, achieving a platinum certification a month after Scott’s death. As for Bon Scott, I suppose choking on his own vomit in early 1980 was the price he paid for sinning on the cheap all decade long.
Back in Black was recorded with Brian Johnson, who sounds almost exactly like Scott, and was a global smash that finally gave them success outside of Australia. Back in Black is one of my favorites, as well, but with Scott you know the sleaziness, the venom in his voice, and the casual misogyny wasn’t a put on. That’s what gives Highway to Hell such an incredible edginess — an edginess that cost Scott his life.