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 Black’s 40th anniversary, we look back at 25 of their greatest songs. For those about to rock, we salute you.
It’s been covered by everyone from Lemmy to Lucinda Williams, Jack Black to Pat Boone. But the first song on AC/DC’s first U.S.-issued album will always belong to Bon Scott. Indeed, Brian Johnson refrained from performing it during his more than a quarter century with AC/DC out of respect for his predecessor. And for sure, despite its rock-hard riff, “It’s a Long Way to the Top” is a Bon tour de force, from the brilliantly blunt lyric that telegraphs the glory and grime of the rock & roll lifestyle (“Gettin’ had/Gettin’ took/I tell ya folks/It’s harder than it looks”), to his exuberant vocal delivery, to, of course, his not-so-skilled bagpipes playing. “Bon actually could play flute, not bagpipes,” Malcolm Young once admitted to Billboard. “So he played the melody, and then we did the drones separate and put it on and it sounded fantastic.” R.B.
The title track of the band’s second Australian album (which was also included on the international version of High Voltage, and later featured in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) is AC/DC boiled down to its rawest essence: The band thumps and grunts away on the song’s three-chord riff like cavemen hacking up a wooly mammoth, while Bon Scott paints a hilariously tongue-in-cheek portrait of himself as a “dirty, mean and mighty unclean” villain with explosive tendencies. When producer George Young heard Angus quietly chanting along to the song in the studio, he suggested that his little brother add his “Oi!” chants to the track. “I was never the greatest background singer in the world,” Angus recalled in Murray Englehart and Arnaud Derieux’s AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll. “So George said, ‘Hey, this is more your cup of tea.’” D.E.
This 1975 track from the Australia-only T.N.T. (released on High Voltage overseas the following year) was never a single, but it had such a killer groove and and a strong dose of Bon Scott’s madcap personality that it became the band’s standard set opener until the singer’s 1980 death. “It was loud, clean, deep, menacing and full of rhythm,” said bassist Mark Evans of the song. AC/DC dropped “Live Wire” from its repertoire in 1982, but as soon as Axl Rose stepped in as frontman in the summer of 2016, the song made its glorious return. A.G.
Despite the lascivious, violent, and even murderous services Bon Scott offers to commit for a reasonable fee on this stomping title track from AC/DC’s third Australian album — which would finally become a U.S. hit five years after its original release — the song actually began as something of an homage to the animated children’s TV series Beany and Cecil. “It was a cartoon when I was a kid,” Angus Young told Guitar World in 2009. “There’s a character in it called Dishonest John. He used to carry this card with ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap — Special Rates, Holidays’ written on it. I stored up a lot of these things in my brain. I picked out the things I liked best.” D.E.
Ever the generous host, Bon Scott, sounding both stately and smashed, boasts about his event-planning expertise in “Big Balls.” Or is he talking about something else? The tune, which first appeared on 1976’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and subsequently became a classic-rock radio staple, was the Scotsman’s cheekiest (or perhaps ballsiest) display of double-entendre. “My balls are always bouncing/My ballroom’s always full/And everybody comes and comes again,” goes one line, while another explains, “Some balls are held for charity/And some for fancy dress/But when they’re held for pleasure, they’re the balls that I like best.” Best of all, Scott says he’s “just itching” to tell you about his big balls. But even he couldn’t keep wordplay going for too long: In a 1976 interview with Rock Australia Magazine, Scott pierced the veil of irony by retorting to an interviewer, “I have too [got big balls] … I just checked.” K.G.
First released in Australia in 1976, “Jailbreak” was not readily available on these shores until eight years later, when it kicked off the odds-‘n’-sods EP ’74 Jailbreak, a compilation issued to capitalize on AC/DC’s newfound American success. Since then, it’s become one of the band’s most beloved songs, and it’s not hard to see why. Starting with a clanging, endlessly repeating riff and Bon Scott drawling, “There was a friend of mine on murder …,” “Jailbreak” embarks on a slow build until it hits the chorus and explodes into a full-on outlaw anthem — albeit one where the outlaw ends up “with a bullet in his back.” According to Angus, the idea for the lyric came to Bon after he was arrested at a pre-AC/DC gig in Perth. “He was singing about somebody he met while a guest of her majesty’s prison,” the guitarist recounted with a laugh. R.B.
The title track to AC/DC’s fourth studio album is pure statement of purpose: Bon Scott casts rock & roll as something passed down from the heavens (“Let there be light … sound … drums … geetah!“) and the rest of the band tears into the hopped-up boogie-blues riffs and rhythms as if they are indeed doing God’s work. It’s a thrilling and, in true AC/DC fashion, often amusing, six-minute rollercoaster ride that telegraphs the magic, mythology, and electricity of rock & roll as well as any song before or since. “Let There Be Rock” is also a show-stopping staple of the band’s live sets, with Angus’ solo spot often stretching upwards of 10 minutes as he thrashes his guitar and body around the stage. Things were seemingly just as intense in the studio, where, reportedly, Angus’ amp exploded during the recording of the song. But, recalled older brother and Let There Be Rock co-producer George Young, “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” R.B.
One of AC/DC’s seediest songs was inspired by an encounter Bon Scott had with what he once described as a Tasmanian devil — an Aussie groupie named Rosie whom he estimated was about six-foot-two, weighed 305 pounds, and had measurements he made famous: “42-39-56.” “She was so big, she sort of closed the door and put it on your body, and she was too big to say no to,” he once said. “So I had to succumb. I had to do it. My god. I wish I hadn’t.” The band had been playing a song called “Dirty Eyes” that they’d been tooling around with, and, after meeting Rosie, he threw out the lyrics he had and wrote new ones about the tryst (admitting he liked it) for what became “Whole Lotta Rosie.” Musically, Malcolm Young said the band was going for “a feel like Little Richard, a good old steamin’ rock feel,” which they achieved — the song became a concert staple for the band, bolstered in recent years by a supersized inflatable Rosie. And like Rosie, its legend has continued to grow as artists from Guns N’ Roses to Kenny Chesney have covered it. K.G.
One of the standout tracks from 1978’s underrated Powerage, “Sin City” is built around one of AC/DC’s most dramatic three-chord riffs, and surges into overdrive thanks to one of Angus Young’s most unhinged guitar solos. It also features some of Bon Scott’s most venomous lyrics, vividly painting a fantasy of the riches and luxuries that await big winners in Las Vegas (or any other high-rolling town), while simultaneously acknowledging that the deck is inevitably stacked against the hapless gambler. “Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,” he growls during the song’s breakdown, “ain’t got a hope in hell, that’s my belief.” D.E.
Bon Scott had been playing in bands for almost a decade before he joined AC/DC, and by the time of 1978’s Powerage, despite doing some touring with Black Sabbath in Europe and in the U.S. on their own, the band still hadn’t truly broken through. So the struggle of “rock & roller welfare” that the singer details on “Down Payment Blues” was likely all too real to him. What made Bon truly a great lyricist, however, is how vivid and, at times, funny, all the depressing imagery is — “Can’t even feed my cat,” he spits at one point. Behind him, meanwhile, Angus and Malcolm bash out one of their most simplistic yet cathartic riffs to date, essentially a two-chord pattern that travels around the fretboard, consistently building tension until abruptly stopping as Bon howls the title phrase. Being a “50-cent millionaire” never sounded so good. R.B.
The opening 40 seconds of “Riff Raff,” filled primarily with Angus’ largely unaccompanied guitar, are some of the most tension-filled and anticipatory in all of rock & roll. Once the rest of the band comes slamming in, the song rockets off in an explosion of truly awesome force and energy — from Angus’ slinky, finger-twisting riffing to then-new bassist Cliff Williams’ propulsive, metronomic bass, Malcolm and drummer Phil Rudd’s head-bashing guitar-and-cymbal accents, and Bon Scott’s fevered howling. A song seemingly built for the stage (as exemplified by the particularly hot 1978 performance seen above) “Riff Raff” was brought back into live sets when AC/DC hit the road with Axl Rose in 2016, reportedly reinstated at the request of the super-fan Guns N’ Roses singer himself. R.B.
With its Satan-hailing lyrics and rowdy air of incorrigible blasphemy, the title track of AC/DC’s sixth studio album (along with Angus Young’s devilish appearance on the cover) offended self-appointed guardians of morality everywhere, despite the fact that the crowd-pleasing anthem was actually about life on a tour bus. “When you’re sleeping with the singer’s socks two inches from your nose,” Angus told Guitar World in 1993, “that’s pretty close to hell.” Sadly, the first U.S. hit for the band would also become an epitaph for Bon Scott, who died just two months after it peaked at Number 47 on the Billboard singles chart. D.E.
As AC/DC proved with “High Voltage,” if you have a great album title, why not turn it into a song? The track “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” appeared on Highway to Hell a year after it served as the title of AC/DC’s first live album. “The title came from a gig we did in America, Day on the Green festival, 80,000 people turned up,” Angus Young once recalled. “We were on at 10:30 in the morning, and most of us hadn’t even been to bed. This guy from a film crew got hold of me and Bon and asked what kind of show it was gonna be. Bon said, ‘You remember when the Christians went to the lions? Well, we’re the Christians.’ Then he asked me and I said, ‘If they want blood they’re gonna get it.’” The song delivered on both musicians’ promises with a shit-kicking Angus riff, a danceable beat, and Scott bleating about “feeling like a Christian locked in a cage, thrown to the lions.” It had been a self-fulfilling prophecy. K.G.
Axl Rose has called “Touch Too Much” his favorite AC/DC song, and it’s easy to hear why — between its slinky verses, explosive choruses, Angus Young’s stabbing guitar solo, and Bon Scott’s comically leering lyrics about a night of romance with a woman who had “a body of Venus … with arms,” this Highway to Hell cut delivers on every level. Oddly, aside from a lip-synched performance on Britain’s Top of the Pops less than two weeks before Bon’s death, the band never performed it live until Axl came on board for their 2016 tour. —D.E.
According to Brian Johnson, AC/DC were recording Back in Black in the Bahamas when he saw a couple of beautiful American women on the television. “I’d always wanted to fuck one!” he said. “They just looked fab. Everything pointed north on them.” It inspired him to write some of the most memorable lyrics in AC/DC’s catalog, including “knocking me out with those American thighs” and “she told me to come, but I was already there.” (Some AC/DC conspiracy theorists have speculated that some of these came from one of Bon Scott’s notebooks.) Whatever the truth, the song became the first single from Back in Black and remains perhaps AC/DC’s best-known song to this day. —A.G.
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’ 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.
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.
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’s water-tight guitar partnership, “Shoot” swings like the IndieLands in hyper-drive, 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.
AC/DC had the attention of the entire rock world in December of 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.