40 Years Ago: AC/DC Release Their First Masterpiece, ‘Let There Be Rock’
It might be difficult to wrap your head around this concept, but AC/DC's rise to global stardom was both deliberate and challenging. At times, it even required years of hard work and unfailing faith in their destiny.
But this painstaking, inexorable trajectory began looking inevitable once the Australian hard rockers unleashed their fourth studio album (and second in the U.S.), Let There Be Rock, on March 21, 1977.
And a lot of that inevitability arose from AC/DC's bloody-minded determination and pure rage after Atlantic Records' U.S. division elected not to release the group's third Australian (and second international) LP, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, deeming it sub-par. But, rather than feel discouraged, band leaders Malcolm and Angus Young simply channeled their anger into Let There Be Rock, as they entered Alberts Studios in Sydney in January 1977.
In their corner, as always, was big brother (and Easybeats veteran) George Young, acting as producer alongside partner and former bandmate Harry Vanda. In a familiar writing and recording process that was fast, furious and inspired, the entire album was completed in a matter of weeks.
As Mick Wall explained in his book Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be, "It sounded exactly like it was. Written and recorded fast, fast, fast, before the vibe had time to fade, full of blood and spittle and put-a f--- into it."
Bassist Mark Evans also told Wall, "All the albums I made with [AC/DC] were all done in the studio. We never did a demo recording."
Another eyewitness to the recording, Angels drummer Buzz Bidstrup, told Wall that "It was all to do with feel. It wasn't about perfection. They would play the riff until George said, 'I think you've got the groove there.' That might be five minutes, it might be 10 minutes. Remember there's no drum machines, no click tracks, nothing."
Even singer Bon Scott, when asked by Aussie magazine RAM (as quoted in Clinton Walker's book Highway to Hell: The Life and Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott) if fans should expect anything different from AC/DC after three straight rock 'n' roll albums, insisted everything was business as usual, saying "But that's all there is, there's no more than that. You play what you were brought up on, what you believe in."
Whether Scott was really unaware of it or simply playing coy, AC/DC's creative process was fundamentally unchanged, but their fires were stoked and their focus unprecedented. Among the oft-repeated stories handed down from the Let There Be Rock sessions, the one that best illustrates this relentless attitude has Angus Young playing the album's title track even when his amplifier overheated, caught fire and started melting.
George Young, quoted in Walker's book, remembered that "There was no way we were going to stop a s--- hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!" Confirmed studio hanger-on Bidstrup said to Wall, "If Angus was recording a solo, he would be climbing all over the amps and rolling around on the floor."
But Evans later opined to Wall that the real hero of "Let There Be Rock" was drummer Phil Rudd. "We did two takes of it," he recalled, "and at the end of the first one, I remember thinking, 'That's the end of Phil for a couple of hours.' But Phil said 'Let's go again now.' I thought the guy was gonna f---ing explode! From my memory, I'm pretty sure they used the second take."
For his part, Scott stepped up with some of his best lyrics, even if these generally consolidated his sex-starved bad-boy image. The album's bombastic first song, "Go Down," was inspired by the infamous Ruby Lips (immortalized as "super groupie" in Time magazine), and its last, "Whole Lotta Rosie," told the story of a large acquaintance of the singer and many other musicians on the circuit.
Listen to AC/DC's 'Whole Lotta Rosie'
As Evans explained in Wall's book, "The real-life Rosie was a Tasmanian mountain girl: A massive girl. Bigger than the lot of us put together!" Wall also quoted Angus as saying "Bon had this fetish about big women. He used to party around with these two girls who were called the Jumbo Jets." Or, as Scott himself honestly admitted, "Rosie had simply been 'too big to say no to.'"
Written along similar lines, but blessed with another batch of distinct three-chord riffs, "Bad Boy Boogie" was another devastating anthem mythologizing Angus' and Bon's scoundrel mystique. Evans told Wall that the song evolved from a soundcheck plaything as the band dug into it in the studio. By contrast, the slow, haunting, cult favorite "Overdose" represented, according to Wall, "the symbolic link Bon had established in his mind between love and drugs ... and Silver" -- Silver Smith being Scott's on-and-off-again partner during the final years of his life.
Let There Be Rock's first single, "Dog Eat Dog," was a classic dirty boogie and, when describing "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be," Evans told Wall, "The swagger that's on there, it still moves me every time I hear it." The bassist elaborated: "To me, it's like the band's 'Brown Sugar.' I mean, if you're a purist and like the guitars being completely in tune and things being completely studio sterile, that song's gonna kill you. Cos the guitarists are whomping all over the place out of tune. But it's just got that nasty gritty feel about it that says AC/DC."
In the U.S. (Atlantic put out Let There Be Rock immediately this time), the album's track listing was completed by Dirty Deeds' "Problem Child"; but back home in Australia (where the LP was released with a very different cover image), fans were presented with a curious, creeping ode to Gonorrhea called "Crabsody in Blue." Basically a weaker remake of "The Jack," this number was ultimately omitted from international pressings, becoming a collector's item, despite its musical shortcomings.
However, another outtake from the sessions, "Carry Me Home," would go down as one of die-hard fans' most treasured AC/DC rarities for decades to come. A raucous rocker capped with some of Scott's best hard-drinking poetry, the song was used as the B-side for the Australian "Dog Eat Dog" single and appeared on countless bootlegs, but wasn't officially released until 2009's Backtracks box set.
By then, Let There Be Rock had been recognized as AC/DC's first masterpiece, soon to be followed by at least three more in 1978's Powerage, 1979's Highway to Hell and 1980's Back in Black (four, if you count 1978's live If You Want Blood You've Got It). While it sold in unprecedented but comparatively modest quantities by latter-day AC/DC standards (peaking at No. 154 in the U.S., but going top 20 in the U.K. and Australia), Let There Be Rock made it possible for the band to tour America for the first time.
And the rest is history.
No other album, save Back in Black, has had more of its songs become mandatory staples of AC/DC's subsequent tours, and not even those other classic albums can compete with Let There Be Rock's wild, bordering-on-the-edge-of-chaos sonic excitement. Though the Young siblings have always rejected the notion of AC/DC being a heavy metal band, you can't blame fans for deducing they were one, based on the reckless abandon and kill-or-be-killed attitude that drives Let There Be Rock.
Like the title track suggested with its tongue-in-cheek lyrics, Let There Be Rock remains a religious experience.
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