Highway To Hell


Atlantic Records, 1979


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


There are certain albums in my collection that, for various reasons, have accumulated significant layers of dust, and are considered fortunate to be played once in a blue moon, if ever again.

And then, there are those which seemingly never leave the turntable, CD deck or my consciousness. Even when the stereo system is silent, I can hear every note playing in my head. One such disc is Highway To Hell, AC/DC’s 1979 masterpiece that not only introduced them to the production skills of Robert John “Mutt” Lange, but began the process of catapulting them into superstardom—only to have that dream temporarily crash down with the death of lead singer Bon Scott a few short months later.

It’s easy enough to suggest that, had Scott not succumbed to “death by misadventure” in February 1980, people wouldn’t look upon this album with the awe they currently do. To that, I’d say simply: hogwash. Highway To Hell took all the lessons that AC/DC had learned up to that point, paired them with a producer my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 par excellence, and made an album that was, to that point, their crowning glory.

You can hear the road weariness (or, if we’re completely honest, the effects of substance abuse) in Scott’s vocals, even on the opening title track. Yet his vocal delivery, along with the rock-solid rhythm section of guitarist Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd—not to mention the always tasty lead guitar from Angus Young—fits the mood perfectly. Scott’s vocals are both menacing and promising a good time simultaneously.

Highway To Hell is more than its title track, though. Undoubtedly two of the most underrated songs in AC/DC’s history, “Touch Too Much” and “Love Hungry Man” let the listener know that this band commands your attention, and they ain’t goin’ anywhere, even after they have you completely hooked. Even some of the “lesser” tracks that have gotten radio overplay over the years, like “Shot Down In Flames” and “Girls Got Rhythm,” fit the overall mood perfectly.

Most people’s attention—for a while, anyway—was drawn to the closing track “Night Prowler,” which saw AC/DC demonized (heh) thanks to the actions of Richard Ramirez, aka the “Night Stalker,” in 1985. Let’s get the facts out of the way right now: the song was not about murder, even if the overall feeling of the song remains sinister. Again, Scott’s vocal line—complete with the strained closing scream of “nothin’ you can do”—fits the mood perfectly. And Scott’s ad-lib “Mork & Mindy” quote at the end of the song returns the equilibrium back to normal.

Over the years, Angus Young has minimized the effect that Lange’s production work had on AC/DC’s overall sound. But the fact remains that Highway To Hell was the first album of their career to sound as polished as it did—and while such a sound might have diminished the power of some bands, it worked to AC/DC’s benefit, and would continue to do so for two more studio efforts.

If anyone were to ask me which album to start their educational journey of AC/DC with, I’d have to punt and tell them to spring for two discs. Obviously, Back In Black is a necessity. Highway To Hell is one, likewise, and serves as a sad but fitting farewell to Scott.

Rating: A

User Rating: A-



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