Groundbreakers: AC/DC – Let There Be Rock
There’s always been two separate branches on the hard rock family tree. Guns N’ Roses, like Aerosmith before them, represent the sleeker, more melodic branch. There’s a lot of great albums in both categories, and I’ll concede that Appetite for Destruction is the perfect album for the former group. For the latter – where volume alone is king, where ideas like “talent” and “technical acumen” may or may not have any practical application, where all and sundry bow down to the power of the almighty Riff – nobody will ever top AC/DC’s 1977 album Let There Be Rock.
Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way before we dive in too deeply. LTBR is big, fun, loud, and thoroughly juvenile. Among the offerings here we have a song about blowjobs, no less than three songs about generally being tough, and possibly the greatest ode to having sex with a fat Tasmanian woman ever written.
Listening to Bon Scott sing, it’s clear he was having the time of his life. The man reveled in sleaze. Filth was his native language. It’s difficult to imagine him recording the vocals to any of these songs without an amused smirk plastered on his face. In other, less talented hands, these lyrics would be the pit of gross stupidity. In his, they’re the peak of glorious, wonderful, brilliant stupidity. Outside of the Ramones it’s difficult to find another band that managed to sell being dumb as a way of life and an artistic statement this successfully.
That same attitude permeates the whole recording, right down to the production. Everything sounds like it’s about ten seconds away from melting down, and that’s because it was. The guitars were recorded through Marshall stacks turned up as high as they would go. If the primary participants are to be believed, Angus Young’s amp actually started to catch fire while recording the outro solo to the title track, filling the studio with smoke. Rather than cut the recording, producer George Young frantically screamed at him to keep playing and get that shit on tape. Even if that awesome story doesn’t turn out to be true, Angus’ solos on the song and the rest of the album absolutely rip. He’d have more famous solos later in his career, but they’d never be this maniacal or tossed off this casually again.
Despite these stellar qualities, on first glance LTBR is a strange pick from the AC/DC catalogue for the honor of perfect hard rock album. Highway to Hell is funnier and a better distillation of the band’s Bon Scott era, while Back in Black features their biggest hits and is also the album the band’s been carbon-copying every few years in the decades since its release. No, LTBR reigns supreme because of one all-important reason: Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar.
Malcolm has always been the foundation of AC/DC’s sound. His songwriting, rhythm work, and backing vocals were the band’s anchor from its founding in 1973 until dementia forced him to retire in 2014. But more than any other, LTBR is his album. Every song is based around his primal chording and incredibly heavy right hand attack. The album has almost no intros – damn near every song starts by leaping into the song’s main riff, anchored by Malcolm’s heavy tone.
Check out the lead-off track, “Go Down.” You hear that squeak in the guitar tone? There’s a few factors that go into producing that sound, but the most important one is Malcolm digging furiously into the strings with every down stroke. You can hear a similar effect on any given Anthrax song when you listen to Scott Ian’s rhythm tracks. Malcolm nailed that sound without apparently even trying to. Judging by his tone you’d think the guy was practicing for a bar fight rather than recording music. Sadly, that technique that would largely be gone within the span of two albums, disappearing into the band’s increasingly slick production values.
Even if it was only there for one album, that method of rhythm work proved to be massively influential. But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can ask Dave Mustaine who’s gone on record to state that LTBR is the album that most influenced his playing. He’s also repeatedly said that Malcolm Young is one of the best rhythm guitarists on the planet along with himself and James Hetfield, another LTBR disciple. If you or someone you know listened to Metallica or Megadeth and got inspired to pick up a guitar and wield it like a weapon, you can thank Malcolm Young. A genre as thoroughly guitar dependent as heavy metal wouldn’t exist in the form we know today without people like him who actively changed the very way the instrument is played – any idiot can play fast, but only a very special idiot can come up with an entire sound just by punishing an old Gretsch.
In terms of songwriting and presentation, you won’t see many bands that will openly emulate this record. In lesser hands, these songs could all have been awful. Even now they aren’t far removed. There isn’t much melody beyond the Young brothers’ power chords, drummer Phil Rudd sticks exclusively to keeping time, and if bassist Mark Evans actually plays on every song you’d be hard pressed to notice. But that’s half the appeal. AC/DC stripped their sound down to what they considered the bare essentials – vocal melody, riffs, solos. They would go on to write more popular albums with more concise songs, but never again would they find their inner rock and roll idiot savants like they did here.
Put simply, in sonic terms modern rock and metal simply wouldn’t be the same without LTBR. There’s strands of its DNA in every album that has two guitarists pounding away at a badass unison riff. It’s the voice inside you that tells you to say “fuck it,” crack a beer, turn the amps up to eleven, and just let the noise take over. Top that, Axl Rose.
Groundbreakers is the Toilet ov Hell’s Hall ov Fame where we induct some of the most important and influential metal albums of all time. Catch up on previous entries into this hallowed bowl.
Neurosis – Souls at Zero
Death – Symbolic
Fear Factory – Demanufacture
Voivod – Killing Technology
Today is the Day – Temple of the Morning Star
Avenged Sevenfold – City of Evil
The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed
Acid Bath – When the Kite String Pops
Ministry – The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste
Vulcano – Bloody Vengeance
Sleep – Holy Mountain
Kreator – Pleasure to Kill
Kayo Dot – Choirs of the eye
Thin Lizzy – Thunder and Lightning
Type O Negative – Bloody Kisses
Bathory – Hammerheart
Blind Guardian – Imaginations from the Other Side
Black Flag – My War
Brujería – Matando Güeros
Guns & Roses – Appetite for Destruction