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Thursday, December 6, 2012

AC/DC "Back In Black" Song Analysis

"Back In Black" is by many accounts one of the greatest hard rock songs of all time, and it’s the title track from AC/DC's seminal Back In Black album, an album that’s one of the best sellers of all time (thanks David Gee for the request). This was actually the 6th album by the band, but the first without singer Bon Scott, who had died suddenly, causing the band to briefly consider disbanding. With the newly hired Brian Johnson as their new lead singer and lyricist, and Mutt Lange (who had previously on their Highway to Hell album) set to produce, the band was soon to reach heights that no one could have anticipated. 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).

"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 normal rock song form. It looks like this:

intro ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ verse (solo) ➞ 
chorus ➞ bridge ➞ chorus ➞ verse (solo)

As you can see, there’s basically only two sections - a verse and chorus. The solo happens over a verse, and a different guitar line with a variation on the chord changes of a verse is used to change it into a bridge.

In their typical style, AC/DC keeps this song as pure as possible with almost no overdubs except the lead guitar. 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, as do the background answer vocals added to the last chorus.

Arrangement Elements
  • The Foundation: bass, drums and rhythm guitars
  • The Pad: none 
  • The Rhythm: unusual for a rock song, the vocal is in double time to the pulse of the song in the verse so it adds motion 
  • The Lead: lead vocal and solo guitar
  • The Fills: lead guitar between the vocal lines in the verse, background vocal answers in the last chorus
The other thing that's interesting is the dual count off, first with muted guitar strings and then the high-hat. Countoffs are almost always cut off from a song (they're the sure sign of a demo), but here it just adds to the live feel.
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 channel) 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 is doubled, but the second voice is not at the same level and instead just there for a bit of support. The snare has a nice room ambiance, but also has an ever so slight bit of delayed reverb added to it as well. Angus Young's solo guitar is overdubbed and placed up the middle.

Finally, check out how the guitars are actually more clean than they are distorted, a point that's lost on many a guitar player.

"Back In Black" is such a band oriented song that except for a few extra parts for support, what you hear on the record is exactly what you hear live. In order to pull this off, the band has to be exceptionally tight during the 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. 

Finally, listen how far behind the beat drummer Phil Rudd is, giving it that tension that the song needs to really work well at that tempo.


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Unknown said...

Bobby, Thank you very very much for bringing this into light. It just so happens that I am taking Gary Burton (Jazz yes) Improvisational Class at Berk, and what he makes us do is exactly what you just did. Do blow-by-blow analysis of a song, and just came across this. Quickly, I bought the original BIB on iTunes, and listened to your analysis as each measure flowed through the my monitors, and gosh, you really opened up more appreciation to what go into these type of songs. This is not mention the greatness in the mix and mastering of this production. I've learned a whole lot. Thanks you for opening up my ears and eyes on this!

Manabu, Half Moon Bay, CA

Anonymous said...

I remember when this album came out, the spread and intertwining of the guitars seemed so magical. This is a great production as is the performance/writing.


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