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Sunday, April 24, 2011

AC/DC "Back In Black" Song Analysis

Reader Efarmosmenos Stokos requested a song analysis from AC/DC's seminal Back In Black album, so here's the title song - "Back In Black." This was actually the 6th album by the band, but the first without singer Bon Scott. The band considered disbanding following his death, then hired Brian Johnson as their new lead singer and lyricist. Mutt Lange, who had previously worked with AC/DC on Highway to Hell, was again brought in to produce. The recordings were made at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, and Electric Lady Studios in New York, where the album was also mixed.

What most people don't know is that Back In Black is the 2nd biggest selling album of all time, with 49 million copies sold world-wide (22 million in the US alone). As all song analysis, we'll look at the song itself, the arrangement, the sound and the performance.

The Song
"Back In Black" is a very typical rock song form-wise. It uses mostly arrangement techniques to develop the song rather than varying too much from the form. It looks like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse/Solo, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Verse/Solo

As you can see, it's basically two sections - a verse and chorus. The solo happens over a verse, and a line is added to a verse later to change it into a bridge.

The Arrangement
In their typical style, AC/DC keeps this song as pure as possible with almost no overdubs, and just relies upon a few changes in the verse part to keep it interesting. First of all, listen to the turn around  between 8 bar phrases during the solos. It's still a verse, but it sounds different thanks to this slight change of bass and rhythm guitar. There's nothing added to the 2nd verse to develop it, which is unusual, but it still works great, and background answer vocals are added to the last chorus.

The arrangement elements look like this:

  * The Foundation - like most songs, it's the bass and drums, with the addition of the rhythm guitar/lead guitar.

  * The Pad - none in this song.

  * The Rhythm - this is unusual for a rock song, but the vocal is in double time to the pulse of the song in the verse so it adds motion.

  * The Lead - The lead vocal and solo guitar.

  * The Fills - The lead guitar between the vocal lines in the verse

The other thing that's interesting is the dual countoff, first with a guitar and then the high-hat. Countoffs are almost always cut off from a song (they're the sure sign of a demo), but it just adds to the live feel here.

The Sound
The sound of this record is great - big, pristine, very real and in your face. But there's a lot more going on beneath the surface than it seems. Although the record seems bone dry, the rhythm guitar has a long reverb tail that only appears on the same side (the right) and the lead guitar has a short double that's panned to about 1 o'clock of the rhythm guitar side.

Brian Johnson's vocal also sounds like it's doubled, but the second voice is not at the same level, instead just there for a bit of support. The snare has a nice room ambiance, but also an ever so slight bit of delayed reverb as well. Angus Young's solo guitar is overdubbed and placed up the middle.

The Performance
"Back In Black" is such a band oriented song in that what you hear live is exactly what you hear on the record, with just a couple extra parts for support. In order to pull this off, the band has to be exceptionally tight during recording, which AC/DC certainly is.

The thing to listen for is how disciplined the band is. They play only what's necessary, with no extra ghost notes, slides or other things that you'll hear most copy bands play when doing this song. Also note the way the attacks and releases are played by the bass and two guitars. They're perfectly in sync.

I especially love how drummer Phil Rudd plays on this song. Listen how far behind the beat he is, giving it that tension that the song needs to really work well.

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1 comment:

LoNero said...

Great post! Being a HUGE AC/DC fan I've followed everything they've done. One thing to note is that the guitars are actually more clean than distorted. A lot of people think that AC/DC uses heavily distorted guitars when in fact their guitars are quite clean. It's the volume of the amps that makes the tone start to break up and distort. This is still one of the heaviest albums ever recorded.

Also what I like about AC/DC is they prove that simple sells. A million notes does not a great album make. AC/DC has stuck to their guns and did it their way and have outsold almost all other artists.


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