By the time the band were due to cut their fifth album, Powerage, in January 1978, they had completed extensive tours in the UK and the US, but they had only a minor album hit in the UK with Let There Be Rock to show for it, and no hits in the US. Their fan base at home had dwindled and they hadn’t charted a local single since Jailbreak in 1974, their record company was again losing patience.Malcolm had loudly proclaimed his loathing for the unappreciative Americans who were ignoring AC/DC but lapping up FM radio-friendly acts such as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Boston, Steve Miller, ELO, Foreigner, Kiss, Heart, and Australia’s LRB and Air Supply. But he also knew that the band had to be more aware of US trends and better organized in the recording studio if they were to break into the biggest music market in the world. No longer could the band simply turn up to the Alberts studio and write songs on the fly like it was one big jam session with the Youngs’ riffing away while Bon picked up the pieces and tried to cobble together some dirty poems to make a hit song.
Powerage was initially rejected by Atlantic, they claimed it lacked a hit single that would satisfy FM radio in the US, the band gritted its teeth went back into the studio and added Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation. It was not standard AC/DC gritty, riffing, anthemic rock, more feel-good pop and featured handclaps, maraccas, tambourines and lacked a signature Angus guitar solo. It gave the band their first UK hit at #24, and they performed it on Top of the Pops, the album charted top 30 in the UK, and #19 in Australia, but failed in the US. There were however several classic tracks on this album which still retained a raw, gritty, under-produced sound that was evident on Down Payment Blues, the force 10 rocker Riff Raff, and Gone Shootin’, inspired by Bon’s on-off relationship with his girlfriend Silver Smith.The band followed up with a live album, If You Want Blood…You’ve Got It, which included all the band’s best songs to date, and became the band’s first UK top 20 hit album, when it climbed to #13, it was a minor hit at #37 in Australia, but stiffed in the US. In retrospect it would be rated as one of the great live albums of the era, right up there with Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous and Motorhead’s No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith Michael Browning (above) as manager, had to resolve the problem about the band’s failure to chart, particularly in the States, where feedback from Atlantic had been that Bon’s voice was not resonating with fans there, maybe a new lead singer was required. Browning knew that the Youngs’ were loyal to Bon, so this was not an option, but perhaps what the band really needed was a different producer from the Vanda /Young team that had curated their careers thus far, someone more cognizant of current US music trends and how to capitalize on them in the studio.Atlantic imposed their will on the band, appointed Eddie Kramer, above (Jimi Hendrix, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Beatles, etc) to replace George and Harry, and said that their next single release should be a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s 1966 hit Gimme Me Some Lovin, but the brothers rebelled, Kramer quickly knew that this was not going to work, Bon didn’t really get involved as he was inebriated most of the time. Mutt Lange (below), the former Rhodesian (now Zambian) guitar player and songwriter/producer, was about to bring his steady hand to the future production of AC/DC albums and Highway to Hell would be the first album produced for the band without the familiar presence of George and Harry.Lange had a reputation as a perfectionist, he had produced hits for the Boomtown Rats and Graham Parker and the Rumour, and in March 1979 Robert John “Mutt” Lange took AC/DC into the Roundhouse Studios in London to record their seventh album; his genius was to translate all the ballsy energy, and thuggish aggression of the band into swinging, rock steady, uppercuts that were delivered with precision, poise, and juddering impact. Walk All Over You, Touch Too Much and the full-on climax of If You Want Blood, were great tracks but it was the title track that would become an instant classic.
Before Lange began producing his ex-wife Shania Twain’s high-gloss country pop in the 1990’s he was the go-to producer for bad boy arena rock groups like Def Leppard and AC/DC; infusing their records with a definable power, menace, and ragged-edged finesse that was manifestly evident on Highway to Hell and would arguably be perfected a year later when AC/DC released – Back in Black. Just as the Easybeats had replaced Ted Albert with American Shel Talmy as their producer to create an international breakout hit record with Friday On My Mind, so too would AC/DC, with the agreement of their mentors Vanda and Young, do likewise with Lange. Highway to Hell is one of the great rock songs of all time, it has an instantly recognizable stop-start opening riff, reminiscent of English rock band Free’s All Right Now, it was also one of the last great AC/DC songs to be sung by Bon Scott who died in London the following year. The key opening riff by Angus was played on a Gibson SG and Mutt Lange coaxed a performance of great accuracy and precision from Angus who used a palm-muting technique to control his sound while still retaining the band’s idiosyncratic grit and potency. Malcolm Young was equally effective laying down the riffs with his Gretsch Jet Firebird and bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd delivered machine-like rhythm support.
Angus Young has said that the song was inspired by life on the tour bus which was “a f…ing highway to hell”, Deep South audiences in the USA interpreted the song and the associated album artwork featuring Angus in a pair of horns, as demonic or satanic homage. At the same time, Richard Ramirez, a serial killer known as the Night Stalker, had left an AC/DC devil’s horned cap at the scene of one of his crimes, and Al Gore’s wife Tipper started a campaign to outlaw records which her quaintly-named Parents Music Resource Centre group deemed to be raunchy or obscene, and one of the “Dirty 15” they would nominate the next year would be AC/DC’s Let Me Put My Love Into You off the Back in Black album. Angus delivered a surprisingly eloquent response aimed at the do-gooders who sought to censure free expression when he responded, “People who want to strangle other people rights are possessed by one of the worst devils around, the Satan in their souls which is called intolerance.”Memorable riffs, an anthemic chorus, it has become the go-to song for sporting events, TV shows and of course the movie School of Rock. AC/DC would score several other world class rock riffs on album tracks such as 1980’s Hells Bells and the seminal rocker Back in Black, and they rate right up there with other great riffmeisters like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath. Highway to Hell has been classified by the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.It would not be long before the rest of the world got behind the band, but for the moment this charted at #24 nationally and #47 in the US, it was their first million-selling album and sadly the last that Bon Scott would make; however the first post-Bon Scott album Back in Black, would dramatically change all that, sell over 50 million copies and become the second biggest-selling album in history, eclipsed only by Michael Jackson’s mega-hit Thriller.