Highway to Hell
ATCO, 1979
Producer: Robert John Lange

Side one:
Highway To Hell
2. Girls Got Rhythm
3. Walk All Over You
4. Touch Too Much
5. Beating Around The Bush
Side two:
Shot Down In Flames
2. Get It Hot
3. If You Want Blood (You Got It)
4. Love Hungry Man
5. Night Prowler


An old, familiar road


There are countless studies that try to figure out what makes people act the way they do. Twin studies try to see whether or not behavior is genetic, parents wonder where they went wrong, and neighbors mutter under their breath that little Timmy down the street was just a bad egg from day one. While I don’t claim to be an expert in this field, it seems like there will never be consensus in this area. Still, there is something to be said for questioning why people like what they like, in no uncertain terms. Why, for example, do I cringe every time someone plays Whitesnake, The Bravery, or, less understandably, U2? So I’ve decided to delve into the dusty sleeves that formed my once-malleable audiophile’s taste – my record collection.

Highway to Hell was the first AC/DC album I owned, and I loved it from the moment I saw it. I was nurturing my newborn record affection, digging through the hit-or-miss bins of Listen Up! in Natick, Mass., when I first spotted Angus Young’s immortal sneer, his loosened tie. The album was basement-marked, water stained, cardboard veins stretched into Bon Scott’s face, the record itself was coated with grime. I was young and naïve, and had no idea that such things should matter. I whipped out $3.99, and that baby was mine.

Purists will scoff that I didn’t know the lurid details of countless lineup changes, or that I had no idea about the bourbon and speed and other band antics. Honestly, my teenaged mind was entranced from the first track, with or without a back story. The idea of movement of any kind is irresistible to the person who is trapped, and for me, it just sparked my combustible craving to escape. Even before responsibility becomes soul crushing, the wise have the instinct to try to abandon it, to live easy and free. AC/DC inspired the question in countless young minds: how can I find Satan to sell my soul? Making Hell the Promised Land made it seem less important to make the honor roll each and every semester, and I rebelled through those iconic lyrics. I might have been the six millionth person to do so, more than two decades after the album’s release, but it still felt new to me.

Since his death, music fans and writers have spent a considerable amount of time trying to uncover the “real” Bon Scott – an international past time that should be abandoned as quickly as pogs or nanopets. According to Glenn A. Baker,

“I encountered Bon Scott a number of times during the '70s and each meeting served to increase my incredulity that performer's public image could be so at odds with his real personality. Bon really was a sweet man. He was warm, friendly and uncommonly funny. He did not breathe fire, pluck wings off flies or eat children whole. And while his daunting stage persona of lascivious leers and blood curdling howls was by no means fraudulent, it was most certainly a professional cloak that could be worn at convenient moments."

I wish that we had the decency to let our celebrities rest in whatever cloaks they chose to wear while they were living. We have too many disrobed icons in tell-all specials. What I wanted, and got, in this album was a badass with a voice like a desert sandstorm. I wanted a sound that would do nothing to hide my blush; that would sink into my pores and ooze out hours later in caustic comments. AC/DC was just the sort of haboob that would make a lesser listener hide her face.

The physical response to this album is, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a lot like being electrocuted. Your chest tightens, your throat constricts, your limbs start to pump of their own accord. This is a band that came to blows with Deep Purple and got into a knife fight with Black Sabbath. I love Brian Johnson as much as the next girl, but there is nothing quite like the version of AC/DC that reigned from 1974-1980 with only minor shifts in rotation. While AC/DC wasn’t punk, in fact repudiated the punk label, they were still as strident and spellbinding as any screaming skinhead.

Since the bridge has already been built, we may as well cross it: rumor has it that Bon Scott was road-weary by the time his blood became too bourbon-thick to pump. His letters and his friends have revealed that the rock & roll lifestyle he lauded so effectively had begun to bring him down. The truth is the road is a lonely, depressing place more often than not, leading to a shocking number of broken marriages, addictions and suicides. There’s almost something stoic (or malevolent) in the desire to mask that hard-won truth on this ultimate album. The Young brothers’ driving guitars herd the juvenile bawdiness of the lyrics into a pen of plausibility. This album may as well be a pamphlet promising potential settlers that the rivers of California are lined with gold. If you are looking for a blatant, glorious lie, put Highway to Hell on your turntable. It’s the kind of cover-up that makes us dream of a different world, and ultimately helps us appreciate the one we have.

Jan. 28, 2008

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