AC/DC iTunes experiment – results

Thanks to all who listed their Top 10 AC/DC songs – the ones they’d buy from iTunes. The query was, of course, a generational one. Bon Scott vs Brian Johnson, but with a twist. Let me explain.

I’ve never given AC/DC much specific thought. They’re a bit like the walls of your house – they’re always there. They’ve never needed much specific thought. You didn’t have to go out and find their music, it was always around, always enjoyed. In high school, the first rock band I played in had a repertoire consisting of AC/DC, the Beatles and Dio. Odd mix, I know, but it worked.

Buying those songs from iTunes was the first time I’d really given any specific thought to AC/DC’s catalog and as I did, it occurred to me that I wasn’t really interested in anything after Back in Black. I know all band members are credited with songwriting on their albums, but could the ghost of Bon Scott have inhabited their songwriting on that first post-Bon album and departed thereafter?

I thought I’d post here and see if others felt the same – and you do.

I asked people which AC/DC songs they’d pick if they were buying them from iTunes and were limited to just 10 songs (for budgetary reasons, or whatever).

The Results

  • There were 87 songs listed, many of them more than once. Of those 87 songs, 53 of them were sung by Bon Scott and 34 of them were sung by Brian Johnson.
  • 74 out of 87 songs were either sung by Bon Scott or appeared on Back in Black. That is, only 13 of the songs listed were from the post-Back in Black era.
  • There were 37 individual songs listed. Of those, 23 songs were sung by Bon Scott. 14 were sung by Brian Johnson. 6 of those 14 songs by Brian Johnson were from Back in Black.
  • The most popular songs listed, with 6 listings each, were Back in Black, Highway to Hell and Dirty Deeds. Thunderstruck, Shoot to Thrill and Let There Be Rock had 5 listings each and Jailbreak had 4 listings.
  • Back in Black was the album with the most songs listed, with 21. This was followed by Dirty Deeds (16), TNT (12) and Highway to Hell (11).
  • ——

    The Bottom Line

    It’s hardly scientific, but this small survey seems to represent AC/DC’s pretty well.

    Back in Black was undoubtedly the most popular individual album and it was a massive commercial success, as well. There’s been little to crow about for the Brian Johnson era after that, however, with just a few very successful singles but no real hit albums. The Bon Scott era, on the other hand, produced a swag of great albums with song after song showing some serious stickability and character.

    Is it the songwriting, the frontman, or simply the ageing of a rock institution? Would AC/DC have done Back in Black and all that came after it if Bon Scott had lived rather than died so young? Who knows? What’s done is done. I still love their work and it’s been on high rotation on my iPod in the gym.

    Let There Be Rock, indeed.

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    1. Following certain smallish genres of popular music is a fairly serious hobby for me. I have a catalog of about 3000 titles in CD and LP with only a handful more on MP3 only. I’ve studied this phenomenon before, and I can say with certainty that neither the addition of Mr. Johnson nor the subtraction of Mr. Scott had much, if anything to do with the popularity of records after ‘Back in Black’.

      First of all, take it on face value: AC/DC had their finest hour and most commercial success with Brian Johnson at the mic. That’s the best counter argument that I can make.

      Second, and more to the point, if AC/DC are like 90% of the other bands out there, here’s why the records after ‘Back in Black’ didn’t fare as well: its overwhelming commercial success. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? One hit should follow the next, etc. Not with bands like AC/DC it doesn’t. Why? I knew that you’d ask that.

      There are many factors at play here, and the following ranking is my unscientific take on the reasons why most music acts/bands can’t follow a blockbuster with much of anything afterwards. In descending order:
      1. Complacency. After a huge hit like ‘Back in Black’, the musicians are rich and they’ve gotten everything they ever strived for: validation, fame, recognition, etc. It’s the peak in every way. So, thereafter, they either a) make records with their own artistic goals in mind (see: Neil Young) or b) they simply mail in the subsequent recordings to make a few more bucks (see: Asia, the Beach Boys, etc.).
      2. Fickle fashions. With a band like AC/DC, this one really hurts. They are really a one-trick pony. Bands with staying power like U2, REM, the Beatles, even the Rolling Stones make a ‘different’ record to follow up the huge successes. It may not be the best record (sometimes it’s out-and-out bad, e.g. “Monster” by REM), but it’s different. In many ways, listening to any AC/DC record after ‘Back in Black’ was seen as a different version of ‘last year’s model’, and with some good reason.
      3. Fatigue. A hit record like ‘Back in Black’ takes a lot out of musicians. Constantly on the road for two-three years. Everyone wants them to be ‘on’ when they are in their town, etc. Tough.
      4. Resentment/contempt for the requirements and lifestyle that hit records generate: How often do you hear of people becoming semi-reclusive after huge success in music? Pink Floyd, Axl Rose (Guns ‘n Roses), Tom Scholz (Boston), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Cat Stevens, etc. The list is very, very long. In most cases, the artists stop cooperating with the record companies, stop touring as much and stop writing to make a ‘hit’ (see: Bob Dylan).

      So, with that in mind, here’s my take: AC/DC was working like slaves to ‘make it’ in the music business. Working so hard that even the death of their lead singer couldn’t stand in their way. They achieved exactly what they’d set out to do with “Back in Black” and had little or nothing left in the tank for another record right away. When they did follow it up, it was with less work, less cooperation with the record labels and it was too late to capitalize on their previous success; that train passed them by while they were recovering. When that record didn’t do very well, AC/DC and the market became even less interested in the next, etc.

    2. Eggs, although I don’t quite buy entirely all of your hypothesis, there is plenty there to admire in the breadth of its construction. Nevertheless, they peaked in many ways in 1980, even though they’ve made truckloads of money since.

      On a related note, I would put forward the view that Brian replaced Bon more easily than Chris Slade did Phil Rudd (drums), underlining the fact that great rock drummers tend to swing a bit. If you want a rock band to rock, get a jazz rhythm section: IMHO.

    3. Eggs, great theory on what actually did happen. Hard to find a hole there at all. They’d paid their dues and they made a bunch of coin and got happy.

      It still leaves me wondering about the alternate reality where Bon Scott is still alive, though. Would they have made Back in Black if he was alive at the time? Somehow I doubt it. I can’t imagine him singing (m)any of those songs.

      And then there’s the issue of character. Bon Scott was cheeky and injected more of himself into AC/DC’s music IMHO. There are songs that only particular people can write (The Jack, Big Balls, Jailbreak) and then there are songs that anyone with a decent turn of phrase could have written (Shook Me All Night Long).

      It’s a bit like Van Halen with Roth vs Hagar. Hagar was a better singer (stronger voice, bigger range) but Roth was always the better frontman and injected more of himself into the songs. Hot for Teacher couldn’t have been written by anyone else, for instance. Poundcake, whilst a good song and one that I enjoy, pales in comparison.

      Michael Hutchence vs anyone-that-fronted-INXS-after-him is another example (though he was probably a better musician than any of them, to be honest, as well as having the bigger personality).

      It’s all guesswork, anyway. We’ll never know. But I think you’ve summed up what actually DID happen pretty well.

      Maybe Iron Maiden provide the best indication of what would have happened – a few more strong albums, respectable adulthoods and endless memorial tours.

      1. Oh man, I forgot about Jailbreak. That is another cracking tune and great performance by Bon Scott. Sounds a bit like The Who (not a bad thing).

        I must admit that while I do love ACDC, they are for me a bit like The Ramones (another band I love). They kinda have one furrow, but they plough it hard and get awesome results. But with Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, you get the whole farm.

    4. BTW Swade: you postulate above about the ghost of Bon Scott…did you really mean inhibited or should it have been inhabited? Crucial difference as you’ll appreciate.

    5. I’ll agree with your take on the difference between Bon Scott v. Brian Johnson. I dislike most of ‘Back in Black’ for the reason that you’ve cited: its bland lyrics and always-at-full-volume vocal performance. It’s the rock-n-roll version of NASCAR, if you will. ‘Dirty Deeds’ is a great example of Bon Scott’s cunning and theatrical ability. Much more concerned with conveying the mood and message than hitting all the right notes. Much more road race/rally with variations and narrative.

      I also agree that with Bon Scott, things would have worked out differently for AC/DC. In my view, they wouldn’t have made ‘Back in Black’, but they would have made a record with much of the success. They’d have also been much stronger in the follow-up because they certainly wouldn’t have made ‘For Those About to Rock, We Salute You’. I can’t imagine Bon Scott ever sucking up to anyone, particularly his record-buying public, quite that much.

    6. Additionally, I agree with you re: Hutchence and Van Halen.

      I am not a big fan of INXS, but I’ll say that the parts that do appeal to me are directly related to Michael Hutchence. “Don’t Change” could perhaps be the best recording of the early 1980’s. Period.

      There are myriad other examples of how one person changed the course of a band forever, and it would be foolish to think that Bon Scott’s absence made no difference.

    7. I guess this happens often… An artist springs to life and stake out their own territory (songwriting, harmonies, sound…). If it successful, then there is a big chance the artist will continue with doing about the same. Problem is that most (even really good) artists burn their real talent in staked out area the first few albums. They can go on performing, but what people will remember (and like) will always be those first albums. And if an act goes on for decades, then it is kind of safe to say that those first albums were in fact really good – and it will be really hard to outshine those.

      I have tried to think about anyone (in pop/rock) that defies that rule, but can’t… It may just be that I’m too tired (just woke up, -12 outside, lots of snow) or still too ****** off by yesterdays news that the receivers in the Saab bankruptcy have asked the court for a staggering 129 MILLION SEK for their work so far… One thing is for sure: the flow of Saab related news that irritate the heck out of people here in Sweden never seems to stop.

    8. I’ve always considered AC/DC to be more of an album band, which isn’t a format that’s compatible with iTunes. That’s especially true of the Brian Johnson era.

      Re: “You didn’t have to go out and find their music, it was always around”
      Is AC/DC to Australia what Jimmy Buffet is to Florida? What I mean is, does their music seem like it’s piped-in through the plumbing, to the point where you hear them 20 times a day without even trying?

      I find that avoiding the local “classic rock” station helps keep music fresh. They’re still running the same playlist from 1985 (and will continue until Baby Boomers stop being a significant market).

    9. Hi Guys – huge AC/DC fan here in the states, and I think all of the points are valid. I have always preferred Bon to Brian, and the comment about Bon’s albums being great all the way through versus spotty hits for Brian’s is spot on.

      AC/DC knows, and admits, that they are a one trick pony – which to me is an asset. They do one thing, and they do it better than anyone IMHO.

      Finally, yes almost everything after Back in Black is fairly subpar, but their latest album, Black Ice, has some gems on it. It’s too long with too much filler, but War Machine, Big Jack, Anything Goes, and Rock N Roll Train are all very strong. There is one main reason why this album stands out more than any since BIB – the producer actually got Brian Johnson to ‘sing’ instead of yell. Apparently he was so embarrassed to ‘sing’ at first he would only do it by himself in the studio until he realized he was acttually pretty good at it.

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