“I always liked AC/DC, alright?" – Keith Richards (2004)
I have been following AC/DC’s career since seeing them (with Bon Scott) in 1978. This was nothing more than good luck on my part, as I had never heard of them before. Highway To Hell was still a few months away from release, and the band were playing every gig they could get.
This one happened to be one of those great Seventies triple bills, featuring Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick, and AC/DC. The crowd buzz on AC/DC was that they were a punk band. It sounds hilarious today, but at the time it made a certain amount of sense. After all, they didn’t look or act like any of the stereotypical heavy metal bands of the era. You gotta remember, in 1978 even Tom Petty was considered "punk" by some.
Anyway, what I remember most about that show was how the band completely won over the crowd. This was an audience who started out indifferent at best, and outright hostile to these perceived “punks” at worst. By the end of their 40-minute set, AC/DC owned Seattle. So much so that when Highway To Hell was released, the Pacific Northwest became one of their key U.S. markets.
Bon Scott barely had a chance to enjoy the band’s first flush of success, drinking himself to death in 1980. As even the most casual rock fan can tell you, AC/DC recruited Brian Johnson, and went on to massive multi-platinum triumphs with albums such as Back In Black, For Those About To Rock, and The Razor's Edge, among others.
I have seen AC/DC with Brian Johnson a number of times, and the band’s shows are always great. The spectacle they are able to mount as one of the biggest bands in the world is impressive to say the least. But there always seems to be that moment in the bar before the show, or standing in line, when The Question comes up: “So who do you like better, Bon or Brian?“
Curmudgeon that I am, I have always stuck by Bon, even though he was only in the band for six years, while Johnson has been around for nearly 30. When pinned down my stock answer has been simple: "Only Bon Scott could write lyrics as twisted as those of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” as funny as “Big Balls,” or as scary as “Jailbreak.”
So when I found myself more impressed with some of Brian’s material than Bon’s on the new AC/DC rarities box, Backtracks, it came as a real surprise to me. I know, I know, blasphemy right? But there are some real gems here.
Disc one features 12 studio rarities, dating all the way back to 1974. The earliest track is “Stick Around,” which was originally only available on the Australian version of High Voltage. The strangest song on the entire set has to be another off the Aussie High Voltage record: “Love Song.” AC/DC doing a power ballad? Unheard of, and yet here it is, with vocals by that master of sensitivity, Mr. Bon Scott.
Thankfully they shake off this momentary lapse of reason quickly with “R.I.P. (Rock In Peace),” another Australia-only release, from the original Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap LP.
The Brian Johnson era is well represented by another Aussie-only release, from 1990, “Down On The Borderline.” This was the B-side to the “Moneytalks” single, and it is a powerhouse. Another great Brian song comes from the overlooked soundtrack to The Last Action Hero, with “Big Gun.”
The last song on this collection, “Cyberspace,” is another strange one. It is just really weird to hear them sing about computers; the band is so old-school it does not seem right. Appropriately enough, the song originally appeared as an Australian B-side. “Cyberspace” backed another totally out-of-character AC/DC cut: “Safe In New York City.”
“Safe In New York City” is the final track on the second disc of this set, Live Rarities. It is odd to hear these guys singing about anyplace besides Australia, especially New York. Sure they are and have been an international band for years, but there is just no context at all for them to be singing about NYC. I know, I should have made this complaint back in 2000 when it originally came out. The song totally rocks, though, and that is really the only criteria that matters with AC/DC’s music.
There are only four Bon Scott live songs included among the 15 total: “Dirty Deeds,” “Dog Eat Dog,” “Live Wire,” and "Shot Down In Flames.” They are all very good versions, but the sound quality is nowhere near as good as it gets with some of the later material.
The centerpiece of the live disc has to be the 13-minute extravaganza of “Jailbreak.” Although this is one of Bon’s classic lyrics, Brian performs it admirably. But it is Angus’ guitar that really makes this version pop. The guy is such an underrated guitar player it is ridiculous. Listen to any of his solos—especially the extended ones he takes on “Jailbreak”—to hear for yourself.
The live material closes out with some great (hoarse) versions of classic tunes such as “Highway To Hell,” and “For Those About To Rock.”
The third disc in the set is a DVD titled Family Jewels, and features videos from AC/DC’s three most recent recordings: Black Ice, Stiff Upper Lip, and Ballbreaker. These are cool, but the real fun is in the rare “Bonus” section which features some great early footage of the band with Bon doing “Jailbreak,” “It’s A Long Way To The Top,” and “Highway To Hell.”
Angus looks about 14 in the “Jailbreak” video, Bon breaks out the bagpipes on “It’s A Long Way,” and the band are poised at the brink of superstardom with their “Highway To Hell” clip.
“Highway To Hell” appears with Brian Johnson on vocals at the end of the set, neatly wrapping up the band footage. Also included are later-era vids for “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Guns For Hire,” and a live version of “Dirty Deeds,” all with Johnson.
The DVD finishes up with two bonus features: “The Making of ‘Hard As A Rock,’ and ‘Rock N Roll Train.”
A lot of times, sets like these seem to promise the moon, and wind up delivering substantially less. Backtracks is very much an exception to this rule as there are some real gems here that are just waiting to be discovered.
Backtracks is available in a number of formats; the one I reviewed is the Standard Edition. The Collector’s Edition contains a little more material; there is a third CD of live and studio rarities, a second DVD of videos, and a vinyl LP of studio rarities included. The Deluxe Collector‘s Limited Edition contains all of this, plus a coffee-table book, and tons of memorabilia, all housed in an actual working guitar amplifier! It is available only through the band’s website.
There really is something for every AC/DC fan on Backtracks. I am happy to report that some really worthy material was pulled out of the vaults for this one, giving fans of all types something to look forward to.