A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: 1981 album by Australian hard-rock quintet. Follow-up to the massively successful “Back In Black” album. Reached Number One in the States and spawned two Top 20 singles in the U.K.
And here’s what makes it great …
1. It’s one for the faithful. Everybody knows “Back In Black.” It’s sold roughly 20 squidillion copies worldwide. Even chicks sometimes buy “Back In Black” — which is quite a feat in the he-man woman-haters’ world that AC/DC occupies.
The downside of that, though, is that the songs on “Back In Black” are so inescapable to the average suburban teen (at least in my day, and in my neighborhood) that they come to wear thin. I was getting tired of “Back In Black” before I was old enough to register for Selective Service. And in the past 20 years I doubt I’ve played the album three times.
“For Those About To Rock” is different. You don’t hear “Snowballed” or “Let’s Get It Up” as pump-’em-up music at sporting events. And you certainly don’t hear “Night Of The Long Knives” or “C.O.D.” on rock radio of any stripe.
“FTATRWSY” (as it shall henceforth be known — the record’s not worth getting tendonitis for) is by no means an obscure album. It became AC/DC’s first U.S. Number One album as 1981 turned to 1982, and has sold something like seven million copies worldwide.
But it’s not a phenomenon or a cultural presence in the same way as, say, “Frampton Comes Alive” — or “Back In Black,” for that matter. It’s a decent to very good bedrock hard-rock album, one you probably don’t know well unless you really like the band.
In other words — for all the platinum it’s racked up — “FTATRWSY” is a slightly more secret and exclusive club than “Back In Black,” without giving much ground in the way of earthshaking riffs or single-entendre lyrics.
And really, isn’t finding your way into a more secret and exclusive club what pop culture is all about?
2. The cannon on the cover. They haven’t done as much as they could to exploit it … but few bands have ever stumbled upon as perfect an exemplar of their sound as AC/DC’s cannon.
A cannon is a big, heavy, ponderous, graceless piece of ordnance, capable of plowing a smoking chunk of metal great distances through the air and straight into somebody’s gut.
Ask anyone who saw AC/DC from the cheap seats in Providence in December ’81 how that description compares to their experience.
Of course, now that we make missiles that see their way through windows and down chimneys, a cannon is also an outdated relic. You see missile launchers on battlefields; you see cannons in graveyards.
(I imagine AC/DC prefers to think of itself as “deep-rooted” or “consistent.” Those are nicer than “obsolete.”)
3. Angus Young reads? According to Wikipedia — not that I couldn’t have guessed — the album’s title was inspired by a book Angus Young read about the Roman gladiators who said, “Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you.” (They were almost as good at sloganeering as the Young-Young-Johnson songwriting team.)
It came as a surprise to think of Angus Young reading for pleasure. AC/DC’s public persona — Angus’ schoolboy uniform aside — has never betrayed any literary aspirations. And since the band has always been relatively media-shy, their public image has always been pretty well defined by what they’ve put down on vinyl.
It’s kinda funny to imagine Angus’ other cultural interests. It could be that he raises heirloom roses, or collects Titians.
I think any comparisons between Venus of Urbino and “Whole Lotta Rosie” are strictly coincidental, though.
4. “Breakin’ The Rules.” Like many pop-culture bloggers of my approximate age, height, weight and life experience, I am torn between two opposing personalities.
There’s the 16-year-old longhair who gleefully and guilelessly enjoys the music handed him by large corporations that buy vinyl and cardboard by the ton. And then there’s the jaded 38-year-old who sees pretty much all mass-market entertainment as a shuck to some greater or lesser degree.
“FTATRWSY”‘s eighth track, “Breakin’ The Rules,” brings these diverse personalities together to hold hands and headbang like few other songs can.
The 38-year-old enjoys it as a feast of delicious irony. He knows that million-selling major-label hard-rock bands don’t break rules, unless they’re jaywalking from their hotel to the convenience store across the street for a late-night Pepsi.
And he knows that, if any band were to break rules, it wouldn’t be AC/DC — who have been firmly locked since 1974 into a stylistic blueprint so rigid it makes the Reinheitsgebot look liberal. These guys don’t even allow the use of wah-wah pedals, for Christ’s sake.
The 16-year-old, meanwhile, hears the mid-tempo stomp and the anthemic chorus and Malcolm Young’s beefy, insistent rhythm guitar and Angus Young soloing with that tight, distinctive Angus finger vibrato.
And he says the only thing appropriate to the situation: “Fuck yeah.”
Ain’t understanding mellow?
5. Phil Rudd. It is no great coincidence that AC/DC’s finest albums feature the former Philip Rudzevecuis on drums.
Nor is it a shock that, after his acrimonious departure in 1983, the band pretty much descended into complete pointlessness for the remainder of the decade. (Some might argue they’ve never made it back out.)
And it’s no surprise that the Young brothers rehired Rudd in the mid-’90s after he straightened out some personal problems.
Bands don’t often praise people they’re firing. But when they made way for Rudd’s return, AC/DC said departing hired-gun drummer Chris Slade was a superb musician with only one weakness: He wasn’t Phil Rudd.
Rudd, anyway, is one of those dirt-simple, not-a-stroke-wasted drummers, sort of the Charlie Watts of hard rock. He is absolutely and completely the ideal drummer for his band. And he’s in fine form throughout “FTATRWSY” — as solid and unassuming as a stone wall.
You won’t listen to the record just to hear Phil Rudd, the way I sometimes listen to “Quadrophenia” just to hear John Entwistle. But after you’ve heard enough of Brian Johnson’s wail and Angus’ soloing, you’ll start to recognize who’s really loading AC/DC’s cannon.