Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Bell Tolls for Sacred Cows: AC/DC’s Back in Black (1980)

So many copies, highest-selling this and that, all-time flotsam and jetsam. AC/DC’s renown Back in Black is unjustly hallowed for the milestones it consecrated and the levees it decimated, not justly exposed for its contents. Well, is it not? I have no particular aversion to hard rock, rather an affinity, but nothing of AC/DC’s output has thus far resonated with me. I cannot help but regard the group, especially the album Back in Black, as decidedly mediocre – as neither good nor bad, but as a lame dog that refuses to die. This album stands precisely on an obscure divide, evocations of good emotions on the one hand, bad emotions on the other – a destitute abyss of ambivalence and irrelevance.
I wish my dispassion for the album was a conundrum but it is not. Back in Black has undoubtedly infiltrated a the expansive canon of popular hard-rock albums, alongside the likes of Led Zeppelin IV, Van Halen, Paranoid and even Who’s Next. I find no redemption in an album which provides me no inlet to its composition, concept, lyrics or disposition. The aforementioned milestones are entirely detached from any form of veritable or noteworthy merit. To me, the commercially successful hard rock albums are, in general, exceedingly concerned with appeasing popular, or dull, taste. Therefore I am especially beset by the non-descript character of Back in Black, a collection of simple songs that imitate one another. I cannot discern any semblance of artistic innovation or daring, of true spirit and ambition. The album exists outside its own self – it is suitable as background noise, as a live rendition or as a musical cue during sports matches. My intent listening of the album marred me with an imprint of acute tediousness.
The Young brothers, incorrigible 'riffmongers'. © Thomas Weschler
How does this simplicity manifest itself? On its most basic level it is a function of opposition to complexity. The title track has a whopping three guitar riffs, two pentatonic solos and a bridge lick some ten seconds in duration. Hells Bells has an astonishing two guitar riffs, a bridge and an outro lick and the mandatory pentatonic solo. You Shook Me All Night Long has a dazzling three riffs and a solo. Critics and fans alike laud the apparently exorbitant proficiency of the guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, whose “riffmongering” somehow lends credence the band’s musical variety, feigned or not. Christian Hoard of Rolling Stone magazine wrote in 2005 about the reissue: “Synergistically soused brothers Angus and Malcolm Young conceived the songs' riffs first, defining each track with adrenalized blues blurts so archetypal that the sheet music ought to be chiseled on stone tablets.” Seen from my vantage point, this is a concise critical remark, not unabashed praise, which was Hoard’s intention. This album is indeed so unsophisticated that it might have well been fashioned by primeval cavemen.
The crux of Back in Black is roaring rhythm, a musical MacGuffin. If it does not appeal to instrumental substance then it sure does to man’s innate militancy. Those hoping for profound political, social or philosophical reflections by way of the lyrics are bound for disappointment, because lines such as “Back in the back / of a Cadillac. / Number one with a bullet / I'm a power pack. / Yes, I'm in a bang / with a gang.” abound throughout this exceptional album. When the extraneous musical layers and components are cast aside, what is left is nothing but a discharge of chest-thumping to arouse and pique the simple mind – a universal and timeless message for the uninitiated. The barbaric howling of vocalist Brian Johnson only serves to assert such a hollow message, something not a message at all.

            It confounds me that something so wearisome has been lavished with such acclaim. I have given AC/DC numerous chances but they have not yet captured me and I doubt they ever will. Naturally it is related to tastes, expectations and standards but it is not that Back in Black is a simple album. ‘Simple’ in form can still yield much emotion, response and content. It is that Back in Black is so simplistic that I feel personally insulted. And I am helpless to regard it as something else than a one-track album for a one-track mind. So much brilliance in dimness.


bv said...

Guess that makes them the ultimate "normcore" band...

Karl-Gerhard Lille said...

This also appeared in the news a few weeks back:

No ill health to none but I will shed no tears if the world proceeds without AC/DC.