AC/DC singer Brian Johnson says that he still can’t wrap his head around the fact that it’s been 40 years since the band recorded its classic “Back In Black” album.
On July 25, 1980, AC/DC released “Back In Black” in the U.S., followed by the album’s U.K. release on July 31. It was the band’s first album without lead singer Bon Scott, who had died a few months earlier after passing out and choking on his own vomit following a long night of drinking.
The group quickly decided to press on and hired Johnson from the band GEORDIE to take over on vocals, and they headed to the Bahamas for about six weeks to do the album. AC/DC had made some serious headway in America before Scott’s death, but no one knew how “Back In Black” would be received.
Asked in a new interview with WMMR‘s Pierre Robert how he reflects on the incredible success of “Back In Black” — with the record having been certified by the Recording Industry Association Of America for U.S. shipments of 25 million copies — Johnson said (hear audio below): “It’s a little frightening. I was just a working boy. When I got to the Bahamas, [AC/DC guitarists] Malcolm and Angus [Young] came to me and said, ‘Hey, by the way, can you write lyrics?’ And I went, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot.’ And the first night, they brought me a legal pad — yellow legal pad — and a pen, and a little cassette player. And they said, ‘Well, this song, it’s a very basic track.’ It was ‘[You] Shook Me All Night Long’. They gave me the title — they said, ‘It’s called ‘Shook Me All Night Long’.’ And I said, ‘Bugger, that’s a long one.’ And it was just a basic track of it there. But to this day, Angus argues it was ‘Back In Black’ [that we worked on first]. [Laughs] But I remember it being ‘Shook Me All Night Long’. I don’t know… And I remember just sitting there [and thinking], ‘What have I got to lose? I’ve got a week’s holiday in the Bahamas, at least.’ I wrote it down in about 20 minutes — honestly — and I went, ‘That’s it.’ And I took it to ’em next day, and they said, ‘Sing what you’ve written.’ And what you hear is basically [what I sang] that first day. And as soon as it finished, I went, ‘I like that. That’s a good little song.’ And then ‘Back In Black’ came, which was fascinating, because I never knew that I could sustain notes like that. That was Mutt Lange, the producer, who said, ‘Sing it higher. I’ve heard you do it.’ And I went, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try.’ And it was just like being set free from a strait jacket — once I found out I could do it, I went, ‘Wow! This is just [amazing].’ And I just wanted to do it all the time. [But] he had to keep pulling us back down. But it was a wonderful thing to discover that you could do — even at the age of 32. To me, I was way past it, and I didn’t think I would ever get a job with a rock and roll band at the age of 32. But the age of Bon when he passed. And it just kept getting better as the weeks went by with these new songs.”
Johnson also recalled the first time he heard the finished “Back In Black” album several weeks after he completed his vocal tracks.
“We were on a very tight budget, and I had to get out of [the studio in the Bahamas] in about six weeks,” he said. “So as soon as you were finished, they put you on a plane to save money with the facilities we were staying at. And I got back home, and I just went, ‘Well, I think I’ve just made a record.’ ‘Cause it wasn’t even mixed yet. And it was another six weeks to two months before I actually got a copy of it that came with the mailman. And I didn’t have a record player in the house. I took it to a friend’s — the guitarist in GEORDIE; he had a record player — and we put on ‘Hells Bells’, and I think it was a few bars in, and he went, ‘No, that’s never gonna fly. C’mon, let’s have a pint.’ He said, ‘You’re singing way too high. That’s not you.’ [Laughs] And I was heartbroken. I just went, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ So I went to the pub and drowned my sorrows, and he said, ‘Never mind.’ But it all worked out fantastically well.
“I still can’t get me head around the fact that it’s been 40 years since we did that,” Brian added. “And we can still sing [those songs] on stage. That’s the wonderful thing.”
“Back in Black” first went platinum in October 1980. The RIAA lists “Back In Black” as the fourth biggest-selling album of all time.
“Back In Black” included the singles “You Shook Me All Night Long”, which peaked at No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Back In Black”, which peaked at No. 37.
Despite its massive success, it never got higher than No. 4 on the album charts. The band’s next album, “For Those About To Rock”, reached No. 1.
“Back In Black” was produced by Robert “Mutt” Lange, who went on to produce DEF LEPPARD, FOREIGNER, THE CARS, and BRYAN ADAMS.
In 2012, “Back In Black” was added to The Recording Academy‘s legendary Grammy Hall Of Fame collection.
Last year, AC/DC launched a range of new merchandise to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Back In Black”.