Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Reviewed on this page:
High Voltage - T.N.T. - Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap - Let There Be Rock - If You Want Blood... You've Got It - Powerage - Highway To Hell - Back In Black - For Those About To Rock - Flick Of The Switch - Fly On The Wall - Who Made Who - Blow Up Your Video - The Razors Edge - Live - Ballbreaker - Stiff Upper Lip - Black Ice

Australia's gift to hard rock. Though lead guitarist Angus Young gets most of the attention for his energetic antics and too-small schoolboy uniform, he says it's his brother Malcolm who's chiefly responsible for the headbanging riffs that are the band's stock in trade. Angus is no virtuoso, but he's fun - crafting lengthy, entertaining solos without benefit of guitar effects - while Malcolm's power chords really carry the tunes. Nearly every song the band has recorded is credited to the two Youngs, and usually the vocalist at the time. The Youngs have about the best guitar tone ever recorded, and when they're not coasting on that, they're amazing. The Zep/Stones influence is obvious, but these boys never overreach: they're not trying to show off how many music lessons they've taken, they're not trying to be hip or intellectual, they're not paying tribute to the old blues masters, they're not trying to save the world - they're just playin' rock and roll.

Many of the band's partisans say the group went downhill with the early death of lead singer Bon Scott, but I don't see it. Once Scott got over his whiny glam-rock stage, he was a pretty good screamer, and his lyrics are a tiny bit more intelligent and his diction far more comprehensible than replacement Brian Johnson's, but Johnson's voice is far more powerful, and if you pay much attention to AC/DC's lyrics, you're in trouble anyway.

The band's done a remarkable job of staying focused and not flirting with dance or rockabilly or recording with symphony orchestras, so there's a certain comforting consistency to all their releases. For example, they've stuck with guitar-bass-drums arrangements for their whole career, with the only change being bagpipes (used once), and cannons (ditto). The other side of the coin is, there's often not much to distinguish one album from another except the number of spellbinding riffs contained therein, and as good as they are, I'm not sure how many AC/DC albums you really need, apart from Back In Black.

Note: The track listings for the band's mid-70s releases vary according to country of release. Because the US versions were assembled so haphazardly, I've tried to reconstruct the Down Under releases for reviewing purposes. (DBW)

Colin Burgess, drums; Dave Evans, vocals; Larry Van Kriedt, bass; Angus Young, lead guitar; Malcolm Young, rhythm guitar. During 1974 and early 1975, Burgess was replaced with a succession of drummers ending with Phil Rudd, Van Kriedt was followed by a number of short-lived bassists before Mark Evans came aboard, and Dave Evans was replaced by Bon Scott. Mark Evans left 1977, replaced by Cliff Williams. Scott died in 1980, replaced by Brian Johnson. Rudd fired in 1983, replaced by Simon Wright. Wright left 1989, replaced by Chris Slade. Rudd returned, 1995. (DBW)

High Voltage (1974)
Produced by Harry Vanda & George Young, as were all the band's albums until Highway To Hell. The band was still experimenting with personnel and discovering its sound, and hadn't figured out how to write consistently good tunes. So there's a lot of anonymous-sounding boogie-rock bluster ("Show Business," "Soul Stripper") - at times the band sounds like Australia's answer to ZZ Top. But when they succeed, they really succeed: the cover of Big Bill Broonzy's "Baby Please Don't Go" is a rip-roaring riff-fest, "Little Lover" has the thumping heartbeat tempo and low-down licks that would become a band trademark. Meanwhile, "She's Got Balls" is the blueprint for a zillion bands like Def Leppard. Only two songs here ("She's Got Balls," "Little Lover") made it onto the US release with the same title; "Stick Around" and "Love Song" haven't been released in the US to date. (DBW)

T.N.T (1975)
Early on, the band was occasionally characterized as glam rock, and I can hear why: the back-to-basics chugging rock and roll, the jokey accelerando ending of the title track, and especially Scott's sneering, half-spoken tenor vocals bring that late lamented genre to mind. Also, the guitars on "High Voltage" strongly recall T. Rex's "Bang A Gong," and have I mentioned that in the early days Scott occasionally wore a dress on stage? Anyway, aside from all the clowning around, the group sounds quite a bit surer of itself on this sophomore disc, and pounds out a bunch of respectable, conventional rock songs - "Rock & Roll Singer," "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock & Roll)" - and a blues-based dirty joke ("The Jack"). But they only hit upon the bludgeoning, syncopated guitar barrage that they're best known for on a couple of tunes, namely "Can I Sit Next To You Girl?" and the spellbinding "Live Wire." Seven of these nine tracks surfaced on the US High Voltage; the speedy but dull "Rocker" and a sloppy cover of Chuck Berry's "School Days" were left off. (DBW)

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976)
Jogging in place this time, with more by-the-numbers 50's rock ("There's Gonna Be Some Rocking"), more self-conscious smut ("Big Balls," even stupider than you'd think), and even another "Bang A Gong" ripoff ("Ain't No Fun (Waiting Round To Be A Millionaire)"). As on T.N.T. there are several hard rockers pointing the way to their future success, but the riffs aren't memorable or engaging ("Squealer"). Even Angus's solos aren't particularly interesting, as for once he indulges in meaningless rapid note runs (title track). The two gems are "Ride On," a remarkably moving, sorrowful blues-rocker, and "Jailbreak," a thundering, exhilarating sonic assault (even if it is based on the "Gloria" riff) that was nonetheless left off the US release (delayed until 1981) in favor of the held-over "Rocker." "R.I.P." was also dropped to make room for "Love At First Feel" - the generic rocker hasn't been released in the US. (DBW)

'74 Jailbreak (rec. 1974-6, rel. 1984)
An EP of tracks previously unreleased in the US, four from High Voltage and one from Dirty Deeds. If you see it cheap, it's worth picking up for the hard-to-find versions of "Jailbreak" and "Baby Please Don't Go," though if you're a serious fan you'll want to track down the original Australian LPs anyway. (DBW)

Let There Be Rock (1977)
A breakthrough of sorts, as the band dropped the retro boogie in favor of stark power chords ("Bad Boy Boogie"), and Scott exchanged his arch half-spoken delivery for a full-out scream ("Overdose"). Even the Berry-style rocker "Whole Lotta Rosie" shows a new appreciation for empty space, which makes the loud passages seem even louder. About the only thing they hadn't figured out yet was how to write consistently memorable riffs: too many tunes are based on ordinary rock licks ("Go Down," "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be"). The US version replaced the sluggish "Crabsody In Blue" with "Problem Child," which also appeared on Dirty Deeds. Record companies.... (DBW)

Powerage (1978)
Their first terrific record, using the same no-nonsense approach as the previous disc with a hard-hitting, uniformly memorable batch of tunes: "Down Payment Blues," "What's Next To The Moon," and "Riff Raff" rock about as hard as anything I've ever heard. New bassist Cliff Williams arrived with this release, which may have contributed to the tighter sound. Plus, the Angus solos are downright crazy in places, as he either plays outside the changes or just plays incoherent strings of notes that are thrilling nonetheless. There's not a lot of variety, as every song has the same guitar sounds, the same instrumentation, and approximately the same tempo, and nothing has the hypnotic, absorbing quality that sets Back In Black apart, but if you're looking for just plain loud rock and roll, this is about as good as you're going to find. I believe that from this point on, albums were released in the same configurations on both sides of the Pacific, but the UK LP featured the powerful, anthemic "Cold Hearted Man" instead of "Rock 'N Roll Damnation." (DBW)

If You Want Blood... You've Got It (1978)
Recorded live in 1978, there are four songs from Let There Be Rock and a couple from each of the other albums (High Voltage excepted). The band has a lot of enthusiasm, kicking out extended versions of "Let There Be Rock" and "Bad Boy Boogie," but the tracks rely too heavily on early Chuck Berry-style three-chord boogie ("Rocker"), the guitars don't have the heavy edge of the studio recordings, and after a while the different songs all run together. As with High Voltage, the album title became a song on the subsequent album. (DBW)

Highway To Hell (1979)
After abortive exploratory sessions with Eddie Kramer as producer, the band made this record under the aegis of Robert John "Mutt" Lange; it was the first of many US releases to crack the Top 40, and went platinum. Lange blunts the band's low-down nastiness on several tracks by toning down the guitars and adding booming echoey choruses, resulting in a bland corporate rock sound ("Girls Got Rhythm," which truly sounds like Foreigner, and even the hit title track). Fortunately, Lange gets out of the way on several high-energy tracks with blistering hooks - "Beating Around The Bush," "Shot Down In Flames," "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)" - and a lovely slow blues piece ("Night Prowler," not as similar to "Midnight Rambler" as you might think). Fortunately, Scott doesn't resort to any of the stagy, half-spoken vocals of the first records, sticking with an enjoyable belt that occasionally rises to a scream. AOR sheen aside, there are still no audible outside players and hardly any production tricks (there is an artificially prolonged scream in "If You Want Blood"). (DBW)

Back In Black (1980)
Like many a fine rock and roller, Bon Scott choked to death on vomit; he was rapidly replaced by Brian Johnson, and the revamped band had something to prove. Though they basically stuck with the previous record's formula, they did it a lot better, mainly because every single riff is memorable ("Hells Bells," "Given The Dog A Bone," "Have A Drink On Me") and the rhythm section is fearsomely tight (the AOR staple "You Shook Me All Night Long"). Johnson picks up where Scott had left off, except that he's even more high-pitched and piercing. Lange doesn't make any of the mistakes he'd made last time around: the sound is spare but rough-edged, and never thin. And there seems to be more care taken here than on the band's other releases, with more bridges, more complicated riffs, and more lead/rhythm interplay. Hell, I didn't even mention the title track, perhaps the band's peak. Tied with Sticky Fingers as the ass-kickingest record in the history of rock and roll. ("Ass-kickingest" is different from "best," but they're closely related.) (DBW)

For Those About To Rock... We Salute You (1981)
The last Lange production, and it went all the way to #1 in the US powered by the success of Back In Black. Unfortunately, it sounds like a collection of outtakes from that record: identical sonically, but missing all the unpredictable syncopation and off-handed riffery. Instead, there's just lots and lots of power chords, and while it's well done ("Put The Finger On You," "Evil Walks") it's never particularly compelling. The most ambitious cut, the title track, is one of the weakest: it wanders from mediocre lick to mediocre lick before going completely over the top with an actual cannon salute. (DBW)

Flick Of The Switch (1983)
A significant drop saleswise - it didn't hit the Top Ten or go platinum on first release - but it's a lot of fun, as the Youngs took the time to write some quality riff tunes: "Rising Power," "Deep In The Hole," the title track. Even the tunes based on familiar blues licks are mindless good fun ("Badlands"). And "Bedlam In Belgium" is a damn good title, considering how dumb their lyrics usually are. The arrangements and production - by the band - are exactly the same as on the previous two releases, and in this case that's a good thing, because they'd already figured out just how hard rock is supposed to sound ("Nervous Shakedown"). (DBW)

Fly On The Wall (1985)
Most of the band's fans hate this one, and I can't figure out why. Sure, there's nearly no variety, Johnson's voice is beginning to fade, and the hooks aren't particularly imaginative ("Danger"). But the guitars still sound great ("Playing With Girls"), and one ragged rocker after another ("Hell Or High Water," title track) soars above the dreck that was clogging rock airwaves in this sorry decade. Produced by Angus and Malcolm, this was drummer Simon Wright's debut with the band. (DBW)

Who Made Who (1986)
What a ripoff. Soundtrack to the film Maximum Overdrive, mixing old material with three new songs: the title track is dull corporate rock, though the instrumental "D.T." has fine playing and a groovy, dramatic dynamics change. For some reason, the old tracks include two tunes from Fly On The Wall, released just the year before; older successes like "Hells Bells" and "Ride On" just point out how bland the new material is. Avoid. (DBW)

Blow Up Your Video (1988)
Vanda and George Young came back to produce this one, but rather than a return to the early 70s sound, this is a dreary exercise in corporate rock, with perfunctory power chords and metronomic bass and drums ("Heatseeker," "Ruff Stuff," "Two's Up," which sounds just like Hagar-era Van Halen). Even when the hooks are solid ("Kissin' Dynamite," "That's The Way I Wanna Rock And Roll") the too-smooth production fends off any potential excitement. They do experiment a bit, resulting in an annoying uptempo metal bashfest ("This Means War") and the album's one excellent cut ("Meanstreak"), squalling funk-rock that puts the Red Hot Chili Peppers to shame. (DBW)

The Razors Edge (1990)
Produced by Bruce Fairbairn of Bon Jovi fame, but instead of that group's teen-idol arena rock, he led the Young brothers back to the no-frills sound of days gone by. At times the prostration at the altar of "You Shook Me" is a bit much ("Let's Make It"), but damn if the formula doesn't still work: "Moneytalks" explodes out of your speakers, and much as I hate to admit that a tune called "Got You By The Balls" is brilliant, it is. There are a fair number of forgettable numbers, though ("Shot Of Love"), and the radio hit "Thunderstruck" has the "Money For Nothing" problem: the pompous, portentous introduction is so long that by the time the actual song starts, you've stopped paying attention. "If You Dare" is based on an old Hendrix riff, though I can't squawk too much about that because I borrowed the same riff myself once. This time all the lyrics are by Angus & Malcolm, not that it makes any perceptible difference; new drummer Chris Slade is admirably crisp, but so straight-down-the-middle that he sounds like a drum machine on the faster numbers ("Fire Your Guns"). (DBW)

Live (1992)
AC/DC's a great band for a live record, because the rougher they sound, the better they are - any studio effects they've used over the years have basically backfired - and because they avoid lengthy, self-indulgent solos and weepy ballads, keeping the energy level high. This was recorded in 1990-1, and the setlist is pretty predictable: four tunes from Back In Back, the hits from their most recent release, and a bunch of songs that were the title tracks of their respective albums. The band has really figured out its sound, but somehow isn't yet bored with itself, so nearly every track hits hard: "Highway To Hell" and "T.N.T." both sound far better than the studio renditions. Angus even plays a lovely guitar solo on "The Jack," which here has Bon Scott's original atrocious VD lyrics that were rejected by the record company. The only real problems are a couple of irredeemably lousy tunes ("Who Made Who" and "Heatseeker," which represent the lame mid-80s period), and Brian Johnson's voice, which has completely lost its upper register. "Back In Black" suffers most from Johnson's incredible shrinking range; at this point, he's able to sing Scott's songs better than his own. Oh, and I still think the cannons in "For Those About To Rock" are silly. Produced by Fairbairn. This was released in both one- and two-disc configurations; I have the single 70-minute disc, but I'll pick up the full package if I see it for a decent price. (DBW)

Ballbreaker (1995)
Produced by Rick Rubin, and for some reason he toned down the group's sound considerably. On most of the tracks - "Cover You In Oil," "The Furor" - the guitars and vocals are turned way down, allowing or rather forcing you to focus on the mechanical rhythm section, and the fabled Young guitar tone is nowhere to be heard. Plus, only a handful of tunes have the powerful riffs we expect from these guys ("Whiskey On The Rocks," "Boogie Man, "The Honey Roll"). Meanwhile, Johnson's voice is just a hoarse pitchless yell, and the lyrics (by the Youngs again) lack the slightest pretence to wit or intelligence - they read like they were written by a 12 year old boy in the throes of, well, you know ("Caught With Your Pants Down," "Hard As A Rock"). Not as cynically commercial as Blow Up Your Video, but even less powerful. (DBW)

Bonfire (1997)
A boxed set in tribute to Scott, this contains two CDs of previously unreleased live material, a two CD set of rarities and outtakes, and another copy of Back In Black, as if there was a fan who didn't already own a copy. (DBW)

Stiff Upper Lip (2000)
Produced by George Young, and he stuck with the bare essentials: familiar-sounding three-chord rockers and the same hard-hitting sonic approach on every track. It sounds a lot better than Ballbreaker ("Meltdown"), but the tunes are even more obvious: too many songs use the same lick for verse and chorus, and repeat the song title endlessly ("Safe In New York City," "Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll" - unfortunately). The band finally sounds like they're bored with their narrow musical and lyrical focus (title track), and even the best riff tunes are merely entertaining ("House Of Jazz"). If this is the best they can do after five years off, they're probably out of steam. (DBW)

Black Ice (2008)
If you've heard the single "Rock 'N' Roll Train" you've heard the album: the classic AC/DC sound, with familiar-sounding vamps you can't quite place, rock-solid rhythm section, and Angus solos where he wrings each note for ages. There are some great hooks ("War Machine"; title track) and some lame retreads ("Stormy May Day" rips off "In My Time Of Dying"; "Wheels," meet "Givin' The Dog A Bone") but every track has the same arrangement, tone and structure. The best news is that Johnson's full-throated shrieking is back ("Big Jack"): I thought his voice was blown out permanently, but I'm glad to be wrong about that. The record's fun but so predictable in every respect ("She Likes Rock 'N' Roll" - ya think?) it never knocks your socks off... Of course, the band has set the bar so low for so long that this is still their best album in at least seventeen years. Produced by Brendan O'Brien. (DBW)

On this week's show: Rock and roll - is it noise pollution?

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