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Thursday, Sep. 1, 2016

Still on the 'Highway' after almost 30 years

Posted Friday, January 23, 2009, at 1:05 AM

When a band has been together for more than 35 years, recorded 17 studio albums and sold more than 200 million copies of those albums, choosing its "best" work might be considered a challenge.

But when that band is Australia's AC/DC, the discussion comes down to two albums: 1979's Highway to Hell or 1980's Back in Black.

Which essentially reduces the question even further: Which lead singer do you prefer, Bon Scott or Brian Johnson?

But for this critic, there has never been a question. The band was superior in the Scott era, and Highway is one of the crowning achievements, not simply of the band, but of hard rock.

The album that would ultimately prove to be the band's commercial breakthrough as well as Scott's swan song is very much a tribute to producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange.

The band's earlier recordings, and indeed many others in the genre, the quality of recording could be a problem. On Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, for example, there is no doubt about the power and energy of the music, but the clarity of sound is lacking.

Under Lange's direction, the twin guitars of brother Angus and Malcolm Young had never sounded more muscular, but they had also never sounded more crisp.

For a genre that was essentially about taking "dirty" blues songs and playing them at maximum volume, this was quite a breakthrough.

On no song is this more evident than the fourth track, "Touch too Much." Unlike most track's on the album, it starts (relatively) quietly, building to the chorus.

The apparent contradiction of the song is its sheer volume paired with its smooth sound. While neither the band's most celebrated nor most well-crafted song, it is it's most perfectly recorded.

The standout of the record, though, is obviously the title track, which opens the album. Simply the opening riff has become iconic. Whether a 1979 fan put the vinyl on for the first time or a modern listener has his first experience of it on an iPod, the first five seconds leave no doubt that these 10 tracks will be a wild ride.

And where else can you find such a well-known sing-along chorus about something so negative as "I'm on the highway to Hell?"

Oh, to know the number of teenage boys who've screamed that chorus while driving their first cars.

Other standout tracks include "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)," "Get It Hot" and the closer "Night Prowler."

This album has everything you'd expect from the boys from Sydney -- it's loud, it's unrelenting and it's terribly, terribly immature.

It's also a fun ride, all around.

Sure, the band would go on to much more renown for the 1980 release, but this album was the last we heard from one of hard rock's iconic voices before it was silenced forever in February 1980.

And at no time in the nearly 30 years since this release has this band sounded so good.

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...and the beat goes on...
Jared Jernagan
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Jared Jernagan is a 2003 graduate of Wabash College and has been in journalism since 2005.
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