35 Years Ago: AC/DC Breaks Through With ‘Highway to Hell’
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Despite its rather ominous name, ‘Highway to Hell’ was the album that set AC/DC‘s career on a fast track to hard rock heaven when it was released on August 3, 1979. The project’s U.S. street date is significant (whereas it landed in Europe on July 27 and in Australia on November 8) because ‘Highway to Hell’ would become AC/DC’s first American million-seller — and breaking through the platinum plateau meant a long-overdue arrival to the big time.
Until then, brothers Angus and Malcolm Young, Bon Scott, Phil Rudd and relative new guy Cliff Williams had spent the better part of the ’70s methodically steamrolling their way toward success. Beginning with a pair of domestic Australian releases in ‘High Voltage’ and ‘T.N.T.’ (both 1975; both cherry-picked for the international version of ‘High Voltage’ released in ’76), and following by a brace of reliably stunning follow-ups in 1976’s ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap‘ (not released in America until 1981), 1977’s ‘Let There Be Rock’ and 1978’s ‘Powerage,’ the group backed up their amazing songs with even more amazing live performances.
Now, they were ready to take the next step, even if it meant trying something new, like replacing the longtime production team of Harry Vanda and big brother George Young with a rising young hot shot named Robert John “Mutt” Lange. Although his producing legend had yet to be confirmed (Foreigner‘s ‘4,’ Def Leppard‘s ‘Hysteria,’ and AC/DC’s own ‘Back in Black,’ after all, were yet to come), Lange showed remarkable awareness of his clients’ strengths.
A series of subtle contributions also helped make ‘Highway to Hell’ a commercial breakthrough — including Lange’s brightening of the familiar AC/DC sound, something done without sacrificing any of the group’s formidable power. Pushing both Bon Scott’s melodious rasp and his band-mates’ forceful backing vocals forward in the mix helped showcase potential singles such as ‘Touch Too Much,’ ‘Girls Got Rhythm,’ ‘Shot Down in Flames‘ and the instant-classic title track. But beyond that, Lange was wise enough to stay out of the way, and let the band rip through additional winning cuts like ‘Walk All Over You,’ ‘Beating Around the Bush’ and ‘If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)’ as only they knew how. Cap that with the demanding songwriting expectations of all involved, and remaining tunes like ‘Get it Hot,’ ‘Love Hungry Man’ and ‘Night Prowler’ all but ensured success for ‘Highway to Hell.’
Sure enough, the album wowed long-time fans even as it attracted new ones in droves. ‘Highway to Hell’ was followed, in this pre-MTV and pre-Internet era, with enthusiastic reviews in the specialized heavy music press, punishing road work across America and Europe, and passionate word-of-mouth from devotees and converts alike. AC/DC appeared to be an unstoppable force. Then, tragically, everything changed. Bon Scott would die in the early months of 1980 — and it was only through talent and tenacity that they somehow emerged triumphant with the celebrated ‘Back in Black’ that very same year.
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