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AC/DC: 25 Essential Songs

The Aussie legends’ rude and raucous best, from “Big Balls” to “Back in Black”

In honor of the 40th anniversary of 'Back in Black,' we look back at 25 of AC/DC's greatest songs.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bulldozing rock-hard riffs, more double entendres than you can shake a stick at, and one comically snug schoolboy uniform: These are just a few of the ingredients that have made AC/DC one of the most iconic rock & roll bands of the past 45 years. Songs like “Highway to Hell” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” are classic-rock radio staples, and their 1980 LP, Back in Black, would be the bestselling album of all time if Thriller didn’t exist.

The secret to their success has always been their authenticity. When they exploded out of Sydney in the mid-Seventies, AC/DC’s scrappy original frontman Bon Scott sang about the group’s personal holy trinity — sex, drinking, and rock & roll — and ever since gravelly voiced Brian Johnson took the reins after Scott’s death, they’ve kept right on worshipping at the same altar. “We’ve been accused of making the same album over and over 12 times,” guitarist Angus Young once said. “The truth is, we’ve made the same album over and over 15 times.”

The best AC/DC songs overdose on crude, raucous riffs and offensive turns of phrase, whether its Scott bragging about his “Big Balls” or Young speeding down the “Highway to Hell” spewing out bluesy, high-voltage solos. As a band, they’re unrelenting and freewheeling; nobody has ever had to wonder if AC/DC were having a good time. So in recognition of Back in Blacks 40th anniversary, we look back at 25 of their greatest songs. For those about to rock, we salute you.

From Rolling Stone US

16

“Hells Bells” (1980)

Released just five months after Bon Scott’s untimely death, Back in Black features two overt references to the deceased frontman — the all-black album cover and the series of massive tolls (courtesy of a custom-made bell) that kick off the opening track. Angus Young’s iconic descending guitar lick, which eventually joins those knells, is similarly ominous and elegiac. But from there, “Hells Bells” (no apostrophe required) becomes a chugging, anthemic rocker — onstage, Brian Johnson would often swing from a rope as the giant, AC/DC-emblazoned bell tolled throughout the arena and crowds went wild. As for the iconic opening line, “I’m rolling thunder/Pouring rain,” Johnson recalled that during the recording sessions in the Bahamas, “the weather was shite and there was this huge clap of thunder across the sky, and [producer] Mutt [Lange] came in and went, ‘I’ve got an idea for you, Brian.…’” —R.B.

17

“Back in Black” (1980)

Sung by Brian Johnson and recorded in tribute to the fallen Bon Scott, the title track of AC/DC’s seventh studio album has become one of the band’s signature anthems. But according to Angus Young, his brother Malcolm was initially unsure of whether the song’s bluesy, swaggering guitar riff — which has since been sampled by everyone from the Beastie Boys to Eminem — was actually any good. “Malcolm had that riff for about three weeks,” Angus told Classic Rock in 2000. “He came in one night and said, ‘You got your cassette here? Can I put this down? It’s been driving me mad. I won’t be getting any sleep until I put it on cassette.’ He sat down and played it all. The funniest thing is he said to me, ‘What do you think? I don’t know if it’s crap or not.’” —D.E.

18

“Shoot to Thrill” (1980)

It speaks to the hit-packed strength of Back in Black that the studio version of “Shoot to Thrill” — a song so badass that most hard-rock bands of the era would have happily traded their leather and studs for a tune half as killer — was never released as a single. A textbook example of Angus and Malcolm Young’s water-tight guitar partnership, “Shoot” swings like the Rolling Stones in hyperdrive, with Angus pulling the trigger on not one but two ferocious solos. A staple of the band’s live sets since 1980, the song was introduced to a new audience in 2010, thanks to its inclusion on the Iron Man 2 soundtrack. —D.E.

19

“Let’s Get It Up” (1981)

AC/DC had the attention of the entire rock world in December 1981 when they released “Let’s Get It Up,” the first single from Back in Black follow-up For Those About to Rock (We Salute You). They decided to use the occasion to showcase a song about the glories of erections. “Loose wires cause fires,” growls Brian Johnson. “Getting tangled in my desires/So, screw him up and plug him in.” He didn’t even try to hide the inspiration for the words. “Feelth, pure feelth!” he said in 1982. “We’re a filthy band.” —A.G.

20

“For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” (1981)

How do you top an album-opening song that begins with tolling bells? Start the next record with one that climaxes with blasting cannons. That artillery-firing song is also one of AC/DC’s most epic and gargantuan compositions; whereas the majority of the band’s tunes throttle the listener with bone-breaking riffs and boogie-rock rhythms, “For Those About to Rock” seems to slither over and smother everything in its sight like an enormous serpent. Its deliberate pacing would seem to make it an unusual choice for not just an album opener but also a show closer; yet, it’s been proven to work perfectly in both slots. “For Those About to Rock” has been AC/DC’s live finale almost since the day it was released, with a battalion of onstage cannons providing the closing salvo. As for the appeal of that firepower? “I just wanted something strong,” Angus Young recalled. “Something masculine, and rock & roll. And what’s more masculine than a cannon, you know? I mean, it gets loaded, it fires, and it destroys.” —R.B.

21

“Sink the Pink” (1985)

Admittedly, even for a band that titled a song “Given the Dog a Bone,” “Sink the Pink” is pretty clunky and crude sexual innuendo. But damn if the song isn’t one of AC/DC’s most rowdy and rocking anthems, all crash-‘n’-bash rhythms and singalong, gang-vocal–assisted choruses, with some tasty fingerpicked guitar lines and a smoking solo from Angus to boot. Fly on the Wall, and the mid-Eighties overall, are generally seen as a low point in AC/DC’s career. And indeed, “Sink the Pink” evidences some (unusual for AC/DC) concessions to the era’s trends, such as heavily reverbed drums and a ridiculous, dance-off–themed music video. But the song also demonstrates that AC/DC still, as the chorus goes, knew how to “show you a good time” better than pretty much any rock & roll band in existence. —R.B.

22

“Who Made Who” (1986)

Given that their lyrical concerns were usually a little earthier than dystopian visions of machines rising up to subjugate their human creators, AC/DC seemed an odd choice to write the theme song for Stephen King’s 1986 gore-camp classic Maximum Overdrive. But King — who supposedly proved his fandom to the band by serenading them with an a cappella rendition of “Ain’t No Fun Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire” — insisted that they provide the film’s soundtrack, and the band repaid the writer-director’s faith in them by penning one of their strongest songs of the Eighties. A hard-marching singalong spiked with some of Angus Young’s Van Halen–style tapping flourishes, “Who Made Who” also gave the band its first radio hit since 1983’s “Flick of the Switch.” —D.E.

23

“Thunderstruck” (1990)

In the middle of a tour supporting Blow Up Your Video in 1988, Angus Young decided to visit his wife’s parents in Holland. Afterward, he boarded a small plane to take him to a Berlin gig, and the aircraft was struck by lightning midflight. Young thought he was going to die, and when he didn’t, he decided to write “Thunderstruck.” “It started off from a little trick that I had on guitar,” Young once recalled. “I played it to Mal and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a good rhythm idea that will sit well in the back.’ We built the song up from that.… We came up with this thunder thing, and it seemed to have a good ring to it. AC/DC = power. That’s the basic idea.” They did several takes of the song in the studio, but mixer Mike Fraser says the one that made the cut featured Angus playing the tune’s iconic lightning-speed guitar lead in one take, the whole way through the song. It was so catchy it became a staple of the band’s concerts for years to come. —K.G.

24

“Rock the Blues Away” (2014)

The third and final single from Rock or Bust is an ode to the simple pleasures of hanging out at a bar with your buddies. “Shootin’ pool with my friends,” Johnson sings. “Smokin’ cigarettes/Tellin’ jokes out loud/Laughin’ with the crowd.” But at the time, things were far from happy-go-lucky in the world of AC/DC, with drummer Phil Rudd under house arrest in New Zealand and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young in a nursing facility due to premature dementia. Midway through the Rock or Bust tour, singer Brian Johnson left the band due to hearing problems. For a while it looked like “Rock the Blues” might be their final single, but there are credible reports that Johnson is back and a new album is in the works. If that’s true, expect another collection of songs not all that dissimilar to “Rock the Blues Away.” The fans would expect nothing less. —A.G.

25

“Big Gun” (1993)

AC/DC’s brilliant contribution to the soundtrack for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lackluster Last Action Hero movie was a muscular blues rocker that owed a debt to AC/DC’s early days, thanks to a boogie-woogie verse riff and a swinging Angus Young lead throughout the chorus. It was the band’s first attempt at working with producer Rick Rubin, and it went well enough that he worked with them again on 1995’s Ballbreaker. Although the Schwarzenegger film underperformed at the box office, the future Governator gave the song a boost by appearing in its video dressed like Angus and even doing the guitarist’s duck walk next to him, capping it off by telling the camera, “Now that’s what I call action.” —K.G.