Australian hard rock group AC/DC can be fairly hard to define for some people. It is easy enough to call their music rock and roll, but any attempts to go deeper than that are often somewhat conflicted. They have deep roots in R&B music, leading to the frequent classification of their music as blues rock; however, their aggressive tempo and outrageous stage presence has led many to declare that they were vital to the growth of 1970s heavy metal. Despite this disparity of subgenres, their music has generally maintained a consistent style from 1973 to 2014 (the year rhythm guitarist Malcom Young left the band).
AC/DC had a number of influences, many of them popular during the 1950s and 1960s. They were fans of the rock and roll sounds popularized by Chuck Berry, as well as the showmanship for which Elvis Presley was known. They wanted a band that knew how to be sexy while delivering raw and energetic rock beats at a high tempo. This concept of raw energy was what would ultimately inspire the band’s name.
Malcolm Young and his brother Angus were the original two members of the band, with the rest of the lineup changing over the years. However, some of the most notable members were drummer Phil Rudd, bassist Cliff Williams, and vocalist Bon Scott. This was the lineup of the band when they recorded one of their most popular albums of all time, Highway to Hell, in 1979. It was only the second album to include Cliff Williams. Earlier albums such as 1976’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and 1977’s Let There Be Rock had featured bassist Mark Evans. Even Mark Evans was not part of the original lineup, appearing on their second album, TNT, in 1975. He was, however, featured on the revised version of their debut album High Voltage, which did not receive international release until 1976.
Regardless of their lineup, the key to AC/DC’s sound was simplicity. They did not want the power and energy of their music to be overshadowed by musical complexity. As such, the Young brothers tended to focus on rhythmic guitar parts while the percussion and bassline drove the energy of the song. They then employed vocalists such as Bon Scott who were able to deliver their lyrics, which were often simple, catchy, and delivered in a relatively high-pitched baritone or tenor that matched the frenetic tempo of the instrumental parts.
The result of this musical style was a collection of hits that weren’t exactly funk or blues music, but that a listener could easily move their body to. Whether they wanted to dance or form a mosh pit, it was hard for fans to stand still when listening to songs such as “Highway to Hell,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).”
The additional benefit of AC/DC’s style was that it was timeless, and it didn’t hinge on the abilities of a single musician. After Bon Scott died, Brian Johnson was able to take his place because the songs never depended on Scott’s voice alone. Rather than try to experiment or focus on playing to the strengths of one musician, the band focused on creating hits with the potential to outlive every one of them. This approach to musicianship is easily one of the reasons that many know them as one of the greatest rock bands to have ever played.
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