We rev up again quickly. “Girls Got Rhythm” follows on the heels of the title track, and in its insistent four-on-the-floor drive and awesome, hip-shaking riff it feels as if the party’s headed in a different, no less risky direction. And it’s still early.

An unbridled riff of a song, “Girls Got Rhythm” is given ballsy swagger by an unhinged yet committed vocal from the helium-voiced Scott, propelled excitedly by the Youngs’ riffing and Williams’ eighth-notes. Two songs in and you can hear the difference that Lange has made: light virtually glints off of the shiny surface of this performance, so tactile is the mid-range, so compactly-made and energetically focused is the performance. An aspect of earlier records that Lange seems to have vetoed is the recording of the room’s atmosphere, studio details such as amp feedback, fingers on live strings, studio count-ins. In doing so he might’ve lost a bit of the band’s immediacy, but he compensated for it with an air-tight but punchy — and radio-ready — album sound. I can never think of “Girls Got Rhythm” without pairing it with the opening track, and when the album was released the two were usually played back-to-back on DC101 where I lived, and on hundreds of FM stations around the country. A perpetual motion machine, “Girls Got Rhythm” was made equally for boom-boxes at the public pool and for pounding systems in the back of cars transporting happily juiced-up guys downtown for a Friday night out.

Lyrically, Scott was mining his favorite source of inspiration. I thought that I knew who these girls with the backseat rhythm were, the ones who looked through me at school, the ones who after three o’clock would shed their regulation plaid skirt, white blouse, and saddle shoes to paint-on their makeup, feather their Sun-In hair and, defying the laws of physics, stuff a hairbrush down the ass pocket of their skin-tight Calvin Kleins to hang out and smoke at the park in Kemp Mill shopping center or the ice skating rink at Wheaton Regional, flirting with guys who were already shaving. Or: those prohibited girls at E. Brook Lee, the public school located over the hill feet away from St. Andrews, but culturally a continent-sized distance. When Scott sings about the girl moving like sin and then letting him in, the colloquialisms worked well enough for us boys, giddily tense as we were with the twin pulls of head-down piety and up-skirt peeking.. “It’s like liquid love,” Bon squeals, barely suppressing the grin that knows just how outrageous the line is.

The band is fantastically loud and tight by the end of the song, Malcolm the foreman steering the smirking riff as Williams and Rudd provide the solid chassis. Rock & roll rhythm! the guys shout seconds from the song’s end, and it’s that moment that I loved when I first heard the tune; these girls don’t just hang out in the back seat, they’re silhouettes for everything that rock & roll promises.

To young guys, at least. Bon Scott’s lyrics catalogue an epic sweep through the triumvirate of men’s needs: pussy; rock & roll; drink. There’s little room in his oeuvre for fealty, or subtlety, or sensitivity to the nuances of the male-female relationship dynamic, or for extended reflection on the tension between desire and conscience, surrender and smarts. There shouldn’t be. He knows what he wants, we know what he wants, she knows what he wants. The music makes it irresistibly so.

But that doesn’t mean that, Catholic-trained, I didn’t raise an eyebrow at some of Scott’s lyrics, even when as a hopeless teenager the language I spoke was equal parts English and Hormone. When Highway to Hell appeared in the summer of 1979 I had sex on the brain. The previous summer, the Rolling Stones had released Some Girls, and “Miss You” was in heavy-rotation on D.C.-area radio stations. Laying out at Wheaton Pool in the radiant, suburban sunshine, off of school for a few months, heady with the thump of “Miss You”’s filthy beat and the surrounding tableau of girls moist with Coppertone, the enduring, insistent tradition of rock & roll and sex was working its lasting way through me, and I was happily helpless in its grip. (That my 16-year old sister was among those innocently posing against the backdrop only complicated the pleasures.) Buzzing in the air the next few summers was the rumor that Joan Jett had gone to Wheaton High School a few years earlier and she comes to the pool sometimes! (She had indeed gone to Wheaton High. I looked eagerly for her bad reputation to strut onto the pool deck area in those years, but she never materialized.) There was sex in the breezes and the shimmering girl-curves, and though I hardly had much of it figured out or even named, the throb of “Miss You” (and of Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” and Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”) pulsed in my chest as a girl walked by me on her way to the snack stand and I rubbed my eyes and rising through the eyespots and glare was the mythic, long-off promise of sex.

Bon Scott was writing out of a tradition that we might charitably call the Penthouse School of Realism, but he was also writing within the time-tested conventions of Dirty Blues (no doubt with autobiographical inspiration — witness “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “She’s Got Balls,” “The Jack,” “Go Down,” et al). He’s hardly the first or the last musician to mine the blues for lyrical tropes as well as for chord changes, but his knowing humor and knack for memorable turns-of-phrase made him one of the best rock & roll lyricists of his era. “People began singing about sex as soon as they began singing,” writes rock & roll historian Jim Marshall. “Dirty ballads, lewd couplets, poems, limericks, rhymes, drinking songs, all ripe with sex, have always been an important if shunned part of western culture, from the first broadside balladeers to the most current heavy metal acts.” He adds, “Blues in general is a lyrically limited form — broads, booze and sex have a virtual stranglehold on the primitive blues singers’ mind, give or take a cameo appearance by the devil himself…and filthy blues records make up a large portion of the recorded body of work. Since that immortal day when Blind Lemon Jefferson beheld his pecker and decided it had the same leathery quality as a black snake, getting the biggest hit record of his career out of it — “Black Snake Moan” (which he recorded several times) — sex on blues discs sold.”

What Marshall calls “the golden age of the double entendre and the crude metaphor” never ended, of course. From obscure 1950s R&B singers to Seventies hard rock to daring New Wave through last month’s R&B and Hip Hop: popular music has always made room for gutter thought, memorably expressed. A sliver of history’s badly behaved: Barrel House Annie’s “If It Don’t Fit (Don’t Force It);” Lil Johnson’s “Sam—The Hot Dog Man;” Art Fowler and his Ukulele’s “No Wonder She’s A Blushing Bride;” Louise Bogan’s infamous “Shave ‘Em Dry;” Bo Diddley’s “Greatest Lover in the World;” the Sonics’ “Dirty Old Man;” the Vandals’ really racy mid-Sixties ode to a one-night stand “I Saw Her In a Mustang;” Grand Funk Railroad’s paean to groupies, “We’re An American Band,” Naughty by Nature’s catchy, acronymic “O.P.P.” Etcetera, etcetera. Guilty even were the tidy Everly Brothers, whose “Wake Up Little Susie,” duly sanitized for Eisenhower’s America, nails the morning-after fears of a teenage couple waking up where they shouldn’t be. Common to these and other grinding songs are reliance on witty metaphors and an understanding that the listener’s in on the (dirty) joke. When Wynonie Harris sings “Keep on churning until the butter comes” or Bon howls about being “up to my neck in you,” you don’t have to have a second pair of eyes in the back of your head to see in two directions at once.

“There were always ways in which popular singers could be suggestive of sexual desire by subtle emphasis or inference,” blues historian Paul Oliver says. In the fall of 1979, as Highway to Hell was laying the foundation for its assault on the charts, the Knack were selling millions of copies of “My Sharona,” and later “Good Girls Don’t,” teaching suburban kids everywhere burdened with teenage madness and in-between sadness the Top 40 code for oral sex. She really got the rhythm.


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JOE BONOMO was born and raised in suburban Washington D.C. He’s the author of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Installations, a book of prose poems selected for the National Poetry Series. His essays and prose poems appear recently in The Normal School, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Hotel Amerika, Seneca Review, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere, and his work has twice been cited in “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays.

About Sweat, Nick Tosches said, “Joe Bonomo has written a fine book; a book not only about a band or times passed, but also about the rare virtue of endurance.”

MOJO called Sweat “one of the great music biographies,” and Entertainment Weekly listed it as “One Of The Top 5 Reasons To Live.”

Blurt said that with Lost and Found, “Bonomo has earned permanent shelf space in any vital music library.”

The recipient of fellowship awards in prose and poetry from the Illinois Arts Council, Bonomo’s at work on a collection of autobiographical essays and shorts. He lives in DeKalb, Illinois with the poet Amy Newman, and teaches in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University. He appears online at No Such Thing As Was.

5 responses to “AC/DC’s Highway to Hell: An Excerpt”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    Yay!

    Thank you for reminding us that AC/DC’s lyrics have a valid place in the conversation, and that the band works in a tradition as deep as any in rock and roll. That Young, Williams, Rudd rhythm is just pure evil, isn’t it? I love it.

    Art

  2. jmblaine says:

    For years I thought
    a Gibson SG must be an enormous
    guitar
    from the way it looked in Angus’
    hands.
    then, in my teens, I held one.
    Tiny. And I realized all
    that fury and rock and roll
    came out of that one little bloke.
    Awesome.

    “Thunderstruck” was on in the gym
    the other day & a middle aged woman
    told a group of teenage boys
    “Don’t matter if you’re in your
    50s, 40s, 30s, 20s or teens –
    everybody loves AC/DC.

    Love seeing this on TNB.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    I’m always torn between Powerage and Highway to Hell for my fave AC/DC album. They are among my favorite bands, but after Bon’s passing, even with the triumph of Back in Black, they never regained that dirty boogie sound that they redefined so perfectly.

    When you hear about Bon’s final days with Trust (his demo of “Ride On” with them is still pretty forking good), and what he had told Vince Lovegrove in the months prior, you definitely get the sense that AC/DC were on the brink of either breaking up, or maybe redefining their sound, but the fact that we’ll never know will always be massively unsatisfying. Still, as a final document, Highway to Hell, remains a perfect album, in my opinion.

    Well-written and loads of fun to read. Ride on!

  4. Erika Rae says:

    I love the idea of “Hormone” as its own language, transcending all others. Esperanto – whoever came up with *that* silly idea?

  5. Joe says:

    Thanks, all! And hey Erika, that’s it!

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