“It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N Roll)” — AC/DC
(With the sad news of Malcolm Young passing away at the weekend, this seemed like a good time to talk about my favourite AC/DC song.)
AC/DC is one of those bands I probably ought to like, but generally don’t. They’ve got a stripped-down style, which I usually love, and one…arguably two…of the world’s finest rock guitarists. If you knew me even a little, you’d imagine AC/DC was firmly on my favourites list.
But I find their hard edge just a little bit too hard sometimes.
On the other hand, ZZ Top, another very stripped-down band often mentioned in the same breath as AC/DC, is one of my long-time favourites.
Billy Gibbons’ laid-back guitar style is more bluesy and gentler on the ear. Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, on rhythm and lead guitar respectively, have more of a hard-edged, pile-driving style…although if pile-driving is what you like, AC/DC are admittedly the best in the world…
That’s always been my position on AC/DC until a friend drew my attention to an early hit of theirs the other day.
This song goes back to the mid-1970s when Bon Scott was the band’s lead singer. Bon Scott passed away in 1980 after a heavy night on the booze to be replaced by Brian Johnson…until very recently. Most people have forgotten there was another vocalist in AC/DC before Brian Johnson as he has become so much a part of the band’s image over the years in his Andy Capp-style hat…a look very few rock stars have pulled off…or even tried…
Sadlt, during all the recent fuss about Brian Johnson leaving the band and Axl Rose coming out of retirement to front AC/DC’s most recent tour, I didn’t see a single mention of Bon Scott.
However, Bon Scott co-wrote today’s song, along with Malcolm and Angus Young, as the launch track for AC/DC’s 1975 album TNT. Of all the AC/DC songs over the years, this is the one that for me has the missing elements that make a great song, including a sense of humour, a really well-written story, fantastic musicianship and, for extra bonus points, a bagpipe band.
The lyrics are excellent. They’re a sideways look at the long years on the road in Australia, painstakingly building up a following in small towns and tiny pubs.
Ridin’ down the highway
Goin’ to a show
Stop in all the byways
Playin’ rock and roll
Yep, that’s life on the road alright. Like a lot of things in life, when you’re in amongst it, the experience is a lot less glamorous than people on the outside think it is.
But the lyrics for today’s song are quite upfront about the band’s experiences trucking round Australia…
Gettin’ beat up
I tell you folks
It’s harder than it looks
In just 22 words, AC/DC give you the complete story of their early years on the road. As ever, I greatly admire writers who can express complex stories in very few words. And this is one of those songs.
There may have been a better set of lyrics written about a rock band’s life on the road…or in fact clawing your way up to the top of any profession…but if there is, I haven’t come across them.
From start to finish, the lyrics relay the story of years of thankless drudgery pursuing your one-in-a-million chance to be recognised as one of the world’s best at what you do…whether that’s selling out stadiums for your concerts or developing new tech companies worth billions.
I’d probably have recognised the many great qualities of today’s song years ago if I hadn’t set my AC/DC radar to the “a band I don’t like very much” setting. Which just shows we can all be wrong sometimes…
But what makes today’s song so great is not just the lyrics.
As ever, Malcolm Young stays in the background, doing what he does best. His clipped chords and the intensity of his playing hold the song together. Just for a change Angus Young in his schoolboy uniform isn’t the centre of attention like he usually is on lead guitar. It’s all about the riff. It’s all about Malcolm Young driving the song from the back.
I also like that AC/DC approached their experiences with a dose of humour and the sort of laddish wink that you’d expect from a lovable rogue like Bon Scott.
In the video below you can see Bon Scott’s playful nature, which makes me think he probably brought the playfulness to the band that’s been much less in evidence since his passing. I don’t know, of course, and I might have misjudged everyone involved. Certainly, I’ve seen no other member of the band play the bagpipes, so that’s at least one thing that Bon Scott brought all by himself.
With Axl Rose as their new front man, AC/DC’s might be embarking on a more playful path once more. Interestingly, Axl Rose is not entirely unwilling to wield a set of bagpipes himself. Maybe that’s significant in cosmic way…
But in the meantime, I’ve found a great video for today’s song. Performed on a flatbed truck driving around Melbourne, which I’m sure was popular with the workers in all the offices they drove past with the amps turned up to 11…there’s nothing quite like a rock band playing at full volume outside your office window to help you concentrate, I always find…
From their 1975 album TNT, here’s a powerful, pulsating, pipe-band infused crowd pleaser. And my tribute to one of the finest songwriters and rhythm guitar players in rock music history, Malcolm Young, who recently passed away. (His hand strumming a guitar is the first thing you see in the video, and his face is the first face you see as well…very appropriate in the circumstances. In the long shots he’s the guy wearing a white T-shirt standing behind the drums.)
Written by Bon Scottt, Angus Young and the now sadly departed Malcolm Young, here’s my favourite AC/DC song…”It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N Roll)”…
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find it here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7nemcVsXVFZF01iqpIIo2Y