All images courtesy of Getty Images
By Andrew Daly
I’ve been an ACϟDC fan for most of my life. In my younger years, I was more of a casual fan. I most definitely appreciated the work of ACϟDC, but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to realize just how seminal of a group ACϟDC truly is.
Present-day, ACϟDC now comfortably resides in my top-three all-time bands along with KISS, and Oasis. While ACϟDC’s critics will deride them for being “overly simplistic,” or “too primitive,” in reality, ACϟDC may well be the greatest Hard Rock band of them all. Their Blues-inspired brand of Rock music is subtly nuanced, and the group itself is a shining example of Rock ‘N’ Roll symbiosis paired with just a little bit of magic that only the Scottish transplants from down under can replicate.
After a tumultuous few years, and an extended hiatus, last year, the lineup of Angus Young, Cliff Williams, Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd, and Stevie Young (who replaced the fallen Malcolm Young in 2014) regrouped to record, and release the standout album, PWRϟUP. In time, I know tracks such as “Through The Mists Of Time,” “Systems Down,” “Code Red,” and the soon-to-be classic, “Money Shot” will become staples that rival anything ACϟDC put out prior.
While we wait for ACϟDC to officially get back on the road in 2022, I felt it was the perfect time to revisit some of ACϟDC’s most underrated tracks — with a twist. The focus of Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution: Uncovering Ten Underrated ACϟDC Tracks will be strictly on what I feel are ACϟDC’s four most underrated albums — Powerage (1978), Flick Of The Switch (1983), Fly On The Wall (1985), and Ballbreaker (1995).
For one reason, or another, these albums have been perpetually underrated by fans, and generally devalued by critics. It could be due to their being sandwiched in between more commercially successful albums, it could be due to lineup changes which all of these were subject to, or it could be due to changing musical landscapes which were being ushered in at the time of these albums release dates. Regardless of the reasons, it’s time for these deep cuts to finally see the light of day, and break the surface. Let’s get started with…
“Hail Caesar” from Balbreaker (1995)
After a brief swoon in the mid to late 80s, ACϟDC was on absolute fire after the multi-platinum success of their 1990 record, The Razors Edge. During a time when many of their Hard Rock, and Heavy Metal contemporaries were struggling due to the emergence of Grunge, and Alternative Rock, ACϟDC seemed completely immune to the sonic turbulence of the times, and were busy contributing tracks such as “Big Gun” to Hollywood movies soundtracks, and topping the charts worldwide. On the heels of The Razors Edge, ACϟDC toured the world, and it was during this trek that they recorded several shows for the also outstanding ACϟDC Live album, released in 1992, an album that is considered one of the best live Hard Rock documents of the decade. During this period (1989-1993), ACϟDC had the always solid, and truly professional Chris Slade behind the drum kit, who had replaced the forgettably vanilla Simon Wright, in 1989. While Chris Slade got on with the boys in ACϟDC quite well, as was the case since Phil Rudd’s departure in 1983 — something was missing. And so, in 1993, ACϟDC formally welcomed back Phil “The Human Metronome” Rudd to the band, and then proceeded to record a monster of an album in Ballbreaker. A lot of people will champion The Razors Edge (as they should), but Ballbreaker is ACϟDC’s best record since Flick Of The Switch. The record is everything we had come to love and expect from ACϟDC to that point. With Phil Rudd back in the fold, ACϟDC’s music just sounded right again, and when it comes to “Hail Caesar,” we see the band recapturing a form we hadn’t seen them fully take on since their early-80s run to world domination. The track is sinister, grimy, and Phil Rudd beats on his drums as if they owe him money.
“Landslide” from Flick Of The Switch (1983)
Flick Of The Switch is an important sign marker for ACϟDC. Having been recorded on the heels of the group’s world-beating Back In Black and For Those About To Rock albums, which saw ACϟDC breaking records, and completely subjugating the world, expectations were high going into the recording sessions. Still, there were issues — the band had been working with producer Mutt Lange dating back to Highway To Hell (1979) and were experiencing the greatest success of their career’s beyond anything they could have possibly imagined, but for whatever reason, ACϟDC wanted to make a change, and simplify things. Other lingering issues included both Phil Rudd, and Malcolm Young descending into substance, and alcohol abuse respectively. Further complicating matters, Phil Rudd was reportedly heavily at odds with Malcolm Young during the sessions for Flick Of The Switch. All of this culminated in Phil Rudd leaving ACϟDC after he had finished recording his drums parts, a void the band would find themselves trying to fill to varying success until Rudd’s return, in 1993. Many people relegate Flick Of The Switch, and the band’s record label at the time (Atlantic Records) even claimed there were no potential hit singles. Clearly, they weren’t listening, as “Landslide” finds ACϟDC at their full octane glory akin to their late-70s Bon Scott era. Brian Johnson really sends this one home, but still, “Landslide” is a track that I could have easily seen coming out of ACϟDC’s Bon Scott-led Let There Be Rock/Powerage era.
“Up To My Neck In You” from Powerage (1978)
I’ll get this out of the way now — Powerage is not only ACϟDC’s most underrated album, but it’s also their best album period. Casual fans, poseurs, detractors, and non-believers will disagree, but true fans of ACϟDC know this. I stand by it, and I will defend this stance to the hilt. It has nothing to do with Bon Scott vs. Brian Johnson, as I love both vocalists, and their contributions to ACϟDC equally. No, it’s simply that ACϟDC brought the heat with Powerage. At the time, ACϟDC was an angry band that was tired of touring to no avail. They couldn’t break the American market, and their label (Atlantic Records) was ignoring them despite the fact that they released an absolute rager of a record in Let There Be Rock, in 1977. With the release of Powerage, Bon Scott was found lamenting his place in life with lyrics such as, “I’ve been up to my neck in whiskey. I’ve been up to my neck in wine. I’ve been up to my neck in wishin’ that this neck wasn’t mine,” in “Up To My Neck,” which clearly showcased where the groups headspace was at the time. The entire record documents the more serious side of ACϟDC wrapped up in their typical bone-crunching, foot-stomping cock-rock. It worked — Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith loved Powerage so much that they took ACϟDC out on tour with them. Audiences agreed, ACϟDC fired their manager, and then sought out Mutt Lange to produce their next record (Highway To Hell). The rest, as they say, is history.
“Shake Your Foundations” from Fly On The Wall (1985)
As I mentioned earlier, Phil Rudd sadly departed ACϟDC after the recording of Flick Of The Switch, in 1983. Also sad was the hiring of Simon Wright to replace Rudd, in 1983. To be blunt — Simon Wright is a good drummer, but he wasn’t right for ACϟDC. For those that do not know, Phil Rudd is integral to the sound of ACϟDC. His no-frills, skin-pounding style has a certain swing and boogie to it, and thus with Phil behind his trusty Sonor kit, ACϟDC simply sounds right. With Simon Wright handling drum duties, ACϟDC instantly became more generic. Wright’s style completely changed the musical dynamic of ACϟDC. That said, while Fly On The Wall has its issues, it’s still a very undervalued album. Angus Young’s guitar tone is really, truly fantastic, and Brian Johnson wrote some of his best songs here…if only his vocals weren’t turned down so low in the mix seeing as his screech would go on to be imitated by countless bands throughout the decade. Anyway, “Shake Your Foundations” is a really hard rocking track, and it’s one I wish ACϟDC would re-introduce into their setlist so that Phil Rudd could put his classic spin on the track.
“Kicked In The Teeth” from Powerage (1978)
Circling back to the monstrous Powerage now, we have another absolute barnburner in “Kicked In The Teeth.” ACϟDC’s music inherently carries a certain level of machismo. In “Kicked In The Teeth,” we find an absolute battleax of a track, where Bon Scott searingly recounts a woman who’s done him wrong. Bon Scott was always incredibly skillful at portraying characters who were down on their luck or in a hard place in life. With lyrics such as, “Two-faced woman with the two-faced lies, I hope your two-faced living made you satisfied. Told me, baby, I was your only one, while you’ve been running around town with every mother’s son.” One of the best parts of ACϟDC’s early music was the relatable lyrics. Powerage is loaded with them, and “Kicked In The Teeth” is no exception. Bon Scott will always be defined by his shirtless, tattoo-covered, hard-drinking, rebel-without-a-cause attitude, and image. This song is more or less a living tribute to that motif. It’s a hill that Bon Scott literally died on. Some people simply aren’t meant to go the distance. Bon Scott was one of those people. Give “Kicked In The Teeth” a listen, and tell me you can’t help but think of Bon Scott wildly grinning like a madman possessed. Is there anything more Rock “N Roll than that?
“Brain Shake” from Flick Of The Switch (1983)
When it comes to underrated ACϟDC records, Flick Of The Switch takes the cake. I’ve heard many remark that the “production is too dry,” and as I mentioned before — there are simply “no hit-worthy songs,” but I simply don’t hear it. The hallmark of the Highway To Hell, Back In Black, and For Those About To Rock era albums is the intensely still production which showcases the explosively bombastic sound of ACϟDC, and for me, Flick Of The Switch carries on with that. While it’s true that Flick Of The Switch did not top the charts in the same way that it’s predecessors did, it was not due to a lack of hit-worthy songs — “Brain Shake” is a track that serves as a prime example of that. I challenge anyone to go back and listen to this track, and tell me it couldn’t have easily been sandwiched in between “Shoot To Thrill,” and “What Do You Do For Your Money Honey” from Back In Black. “Brain Shake” is a high-octane speeding bullet of a track. It should have been a chart-topper, and it deserves to be a concert staple, and yet, no one remembers it, and Flick Of The Switch is labeled as “boring,” and “directionless.” While I won’t say that Flick Of The Switch is better than the transcendent Back In Black (it isn’t), I will say that it is better than For Those About To Rock, and it’s not even close. In Flick Of The Switch, we find a record that simply got lost in the burgeoning Hair Metal and Glam Rock scene which ACϟDC refused to participate in and simply chose to ride out instead. ACϟDC has always been a Hard Rock band who refused to compromise, and when it comes to Flick Of The Switch if you’ve been sleeping on this record — it’s time to wake up.
“Playing With Girls” from Fly On The Wall (1985)
I mentioned earlier that Fly On The Wall suffered from a serious lack of Phil Rudd. That said, it is a good record, and it does have some standout moments, and “Playing With Girls” is one of them. I also mentioned earlier that ACϟDC made the decision to hire Simon Wright to play drums for them prior to the recording of this record. ACϟDC haters, when doing their hating, will site the “simplicity” of Phil Rudd’s drumming. I’ve heard particularly uneducated folks say things to the effect of, “A Highschooler could play better than Phil Rudd.” To say that this is wrong would be a massive understatement. Case in point — why is it that a by all accounts “more accomplished,” and “better drummer” in Chris Slade was outright unable to replicate what Phil Rudd was, and is able to do? The answer is simple — people need to open their eyes to how good, and accomplished a drummer Phil Rudd is. That aside, on “Playing With Girls,” Simon Wright actually manages his best Phil Rudd impression, and probably lays down one of his best performances for not only ACϟDC but perhaps his entire career. Again, I respect Simon Wright as a drummer in general, but one of the biggest issues with the drum sound on Fly On The Wall, and its more successful followup, Blow Up Your Video (1988) was the fact that Simon Wright both endorses, and uses DW Drums. This will be an unpopular opinion, but as a drummer myself, I have always maintained that while DW Drums are “high quality,” they are completely soulless. Their tin-laden, artificial, and sterile sound left the music of ACϟDC feeling a bit gutless (I also felt the same way about Peter Criss using them during his return to KISS, but that’s another story, for another article). Yes, give me “cheap,” “discount-bin” Sonar Drums any day, all day. They simply sound like home and exude a certain power, and warmth that supposed “higher quality” sets don’t. Sonar Drums rock; they’re meant to be taken out in the back of the alley and beat on. They’re best when grimy, grungy, sweat-soaked, and paired with heavy-duty Paiste Cymbals. That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll. At the end of the day, if they’re good enough for Phil Rudd — they’re good enough for me.
“Down Payment Blues” from Powerage (1978)
We’re back to Powerage again AKA — ACϟDC’s best record. “Down Payment Blues” is one of the deepest of all the ACϟDC deep cuts. I’ve actually found that even some of the band’s most stalwart fans don’t seem to be too familiar with it. Its biggest claim to “fame” might be comedian and ACϟDC superfan, Marc Maron’s use of it in early opening sequences of his now-famous podcast, WTF With Marc Maron. While ACϟDC is known for their riff-coated, Blues-tinged uptempo rockers, “Down Payment Blues” is more a midtempo jaunt, but make no mistake — this song absolutely smokes. The song itself is drenched in the power chords which would come to define ACϟDC. The lyrics show Bon Scott to be the master storyteller that he was — “I ain’t doing much, doing nothing means a lot to me. Living on a shoestring, a fifty-cent millionaire. Open to charity, rock ‘n’ roller welfare. Get myself a steady job, some responsibility. Can’t even feed my cat, on social security. Hiding from the rent man, oh it makes me want to cry. Sheriff knocking on my door, ain’t it funny how the time flies.” If you’ve ever had nothing to eat but cold canned beans…if you ever sat in a broken, splinter-infested chair, in the corner of a dingy one-room apartment, lit by one dim, half-broken lamp…no TV…no money, and nothing but potato chip crumbs to feed your flea-infested, junk-yard cat — “Down Payment Blues” is for you. It’s a vibe. Catch it.
“Riff Raff” from Powerage (1978)
The final track on this list from Powerage — no one can ever accuse me of not repping this brain melter of a record. As is the case with the majority of Powerage, “Riff Raff” speaks to the band’s blue-collar roots and focuses on the underbelly of where they came from, as well as the darker side of the Rock ‘N’ Roll lifestyle. “Riff Raff” takes everything we love about “Whole Lotta Rosie,” and amplifies it to the absolute max. Multiple Angus Young guitar solos — check. Skillful riff/power chord interplay between Angus, and Malcolm Young — check. Phil Rudd absolutely decimating his Sonar drumkit — check. Bon Scott out in front, pounding his chest, and breathing fire — check. Also of note, and supreme importance — Powerage is Cliff Williams’s first official record as ACϟDC’s bassist having replaced Mark Evans shortly before recording began. While Cliff was supposedly initially hired for his good looks, he soon proved his worth musically and has gone on to form one of the tightest and most earthshaking rhythm sections in all of Rock music alongside Phil Rudd. “Riff Raff” is a turgid example of everything the Bon Scott era of ACϟDC was all about — pairing the Blues with bombastic Hard Rock and in doing so, an undeniably singular sound was created, one that will never be replicated by any other group of musicians. This track is the audible definition of Blues-steeped Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“Burnin’ Alive” from Ballbreaker (1995)
I started this off with a track from ACϟDC’s mid-90s masterpiece, Ballbreaker, and I’ll finish it off there as well. After Phil Rudd rejoined ACϟDC it’s been well documented how thankful the other members of the band were to have him back. The classic Back In Black era lineup, or the band’s “second classic line up” had chemistry like no other band I’ve ever seen. That chemistry was on full display during the recording of Ballbreaker, and the subsequent tour was handily one of their best, and most energetic, and that’s really saying something for a band like ACϟDC who are hardworking masters of their craft both in the studio, and especially in the live setting. My personal favorite track off of Ballbreaker, and one of my favorite tracks by ACϟDC in general is “Burnin Alive.” I’ve chosen this song as ACϟDC’s most underrated track for many reasons. As far as subject matter, it’s not standard ACϟDC fare — the track is about cult members from Waco, Texas who were literally burned alive during a raid by authorities, in 1993. Musically, this is a track that amplifies what ACϟDC (especially the Brian Johnson era) is all about — heavy riffing and fierce soloing by Angus Young, low gain power chords that only Malcolm Young could conjure, choking on glass and gravel style vocals that dozens have imitated, but only Brain Johnson can replicate, a driving Cliff Williams bassline and Phil Rudd seismically mutilating his drums with sticks the size of tree trunks. If you’re a casual ACϟDC fan, and are looking to take the next step, “Burnin’ Alive” is the place to start
So, that rounds out my list of Ten Underrated ACϟDC Tracks. While it’s commonplace for critics, and music snobs to bash them, true fans of the band know the truth — ACϟDC is perhaps the greatest Hard Rock band of all time. Their music has come to define the last five decades (and beyond) in terms of Rock music.
If you’re a casual fan of ACϟDC, my hope is that this list has unearthed some tracks that you may have never heard. If you’re a diehard, perhaps this list will remind you of some tracks you may have forgotten, or spark some conversation and/or friendly debate. If you’ve never listened to ACϟDC at all, then this list could be a springboard to your future fandom. And if you’re a hater — perhaps this list will change your mind, and serve as a reminder that ACϟDC is so much more than their perhaps most famous tracks which we all know from Back In Black, and The Razors Edge.
The music of ACϟDC is far more than “simple, redundant fodder.” The music of ACϟDC is seminal, genre-defining, and will never be duplicated. Critics and detractors will always ridicule them for their steadfast refusal to “experiment,” but the boys in ACϟDC are ahead of the curve. They learned a simple lesson early on — don’t fix what’s not broken. So, what’s your favorite, underrated ACϟDC track?