Standing in line one day waiting for coffee, I overheard a girl in front of me talking to the guy behind the counter. “We were listening to AC-DC,” she was saying, “and this guy walks by and says, “That stuff will rot your brain.’” It seemed to me that the girl was surprised at this unbidden criticism of the pleasures of her friends, enough so to share the anecdote with another friend, as if seeking commiseration to help with an affront. What’s wrong with AC-DC, she seemed to want to know.
The answer is that there’s nothing wrong with AC-DC. The guy who attempted to edify the youngsters with his admonition instead showed, as it were, his ass. AC-DC does what they do with expertise and imagination, which is all we can ultimately ask of artists. And hereby lays the point of this post: Ask if something is well done and done with imagination is a more useful critique than that which supposes a universal and perfect standard of “good” versus “bad,” one which the scolding adult probably subscribes to. And I think this idea of a new critique justifies this little digression of Bookfly from books into music.
The girl’s experience reminded me of one of my own. One day I was driving in my car listening to a classical music station. They were playing Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto,” and I was enjoying it. I love Bach. When the piece ended and the station went to commercial, I hit a button to listen to something else, and landed on a Rock station playing AC-DC’s song “Back In Black.” I came in during the outro solo by lead guitarist Angus Young, which I particularly enjoy. I love AC-DC, too.
My brain did no double-take; I felt no lurching as I went from the 18th century Baroque composer to a 1980 four chord hard rock song made by a band from Australia, one member of which wears a schoolboy costume while performing. I enjoy both kinds of music equally. This is not to say they aren’t different; even at the time I had to wonder why I didn’t mind the switch. My conclusion was that it’s because of imagination: both Bach and AC-DC, particularly guitarist Angus Young, are creative. Both work inside certain forms yet both somehow make music that surprises, that lasts and always sounds fresh.
Why do we remember Bach and not all those hundreds of other composers of his day? I suspect it’s because they, unlike Bach, wrote formulaic pieces that gave their audiences what they expected, and no more. Bach, on the other hand, used a precise, rather mathematical structure that nevertheless had wonderful arrangements and elegant melody. Listen to “Air for the G-string.” It’s both familiar and surprising, simple yet sophisticated. The same could be said of AC-DC’s “Back In Black” both the single and the entire 1980 album of the same name. Remember many other hard rock bands from that period? Do you still enjoy them, even buying a record of them again on CD? Or how about other artists from then? Are you still humming along to that ABBA album? How about Rose Royce, or Sky? Not me. I don’t even remember the last two. Yet all three artists outsold AC-DC that year. In fact, “Back In Black” didn’t even make the top ten list of that year. It’s gone on to sell over 16 million copies in the United States alone, however. Why is it so popular? I think for the same reasons as “The Brandenburg Concerto” still is. It’s not because of the form or the genre. Its because they are both imaginative.
Listen for example to the guitar solo I mentioned earlier, near the end of “Back In Black.” As the vocals are ending, Young begins in the twelfth position, high on the neck, bending from a C to a D, then uses some expressive vibrato, before moving on to bending a B to a C# before slowing releasing it and playing an A note, the chord of that bar. Then he does a pick slide and moves to the solo proper, which begins low on the neck, in the third position. The change is unexpected. Most guitarists would probably have stayed in one place for the solo, or used a couple positions at most, or some obvious up and down pattern with one or two attempts at expressive touches. But Young moves all around the neck, uses slides, bends and vibrato, while always staying within the song itself, never existing for its own sake. He plays fast and then slower, milking a note then throwing out a flurry of them, tossing in squeaking artificial harmonics like sparks. It’s a tour de force not only of technique but of invention.
It’s creative and expertly done–again, the only useful criteria to evaluate any piece of art. AC-DC should not be dismissed because they play loud to thousands of people, or even because their songs are often about sex, drinking, and Rock music itself. To do so is nothing but cultural arrogance. After all, what should these four working-class guys supposed to sing about? Sex, booze, and Rock music is quite likely what they grew up with and is therefore what they know. To expect them to step out of their experiences and into something else is to expect the impossible, if not remove the point of art itself, which is an expression of one’s existence. And besides, within these influences and a handful of chords, AC-DC has shown uncanny ability to surprise with one distinct song after another. You can party to “Back In Black,” and you can also put on headphones and marvel at some excellent musicianship.
No, Virginia, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Within the context of their respective times and musical forms, then, I conclude both Bach and AC-DC are equally valid. Both show mind and spirit, the combining of craft with inspiration, which keeps their music fresh, as if it were existing for the first time as you listen to it. It doesn’t age. Therefore, the question for me to ask about any work of art is not where or when it was made, or what style it is, or to query the conventional wisdom, but instead to ask, “Is it alive?”
If it has imagination, it is. And it is good.
Lastly, I suspect that the guy who was so concerned with the brains of his younger citizens wouldn’t have criticized the kids if they were playing Bach, whom he would probably assumes is “good” because it’s “classical,” i.e., “approved.” Like many others he believes (as opposed to understanding) that Bach is an untouchable, a well-scrubbed and pious master, floating serene and sober above the flotsam of the common life. But the guy would likely be surprised to know that Bach was frequently at odds with his employers, and once got into a street fight with a bassoon player.
How very Rock ‘n Roll.