It’s become as much of a Christmas tradition as refusing sprouts and losing gift vouchers among the wrapping paper.
Once again, that part of the UK music-loving population that views The X Factor as an abomination has sought to prevent the winner's first single from becoming Christmas No 1 by urging people to buy a hoary old classic instead. Edwyn Collins’s The Campaign for Real Rock could have been written for these people.
This year’s prime contender is AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, which was No 5 in the British midweek chart. And though it’s unlikely to pip X Factor winner Sam Bailey to the top spot (some bookmakers have started paying up on bets on her to be announced as the Christmas No 1 on Sunday), it’s still a remarkable achievement for AC/DC. Assuming it doesn’t suffer a catastrophic sales drop, Highway to Hell will be AC/DC’s first UK top 10 hit (it only reached No 40 on its initial release, in 1979, and the band’s highest ever chart position is No 12, for Heatseeker in 1988).
So why is Highway to Hell striking a chord now?
1. It’s not an X Factor winner
There’s no getting round the fact that there are people who would buy an unreleased demo of Faust banging their kitchen pots together if they thought it would hamper the progress of the all-devouring X Factor machine. Hence the fact that every year, several potential opponents to the Cowell monolith are floated, with varying degrees of success.
2. It brooks no doubt
What Highway to Hell has in common with the song that first mobilised the anti-Cowell brigades, Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name, is a sense of certainty. There’s no melancholy, no self-reflection, no hint of doubt about either of these songs. Both offer a single, simple message. For Rage, it was “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” For AC/DC, it’s – well, do you even need me to tell you? – that “I’m on a highway to hell.” You don’t need to even care about music very much to have these choruses imprinted on your brain within seconds. My 10-year-old son is not a reflective boy: not for nothing, I suspect, is AC/DC by a distance his favourite band. He gets the point in seconds. Perfect, then, to rally as wide an audience as possible.
3. It’s “real music” made by “real musicians”
If you take a look at the comments beneath the Guardian’s albums of the year, you’ll see scores of people complaining about how poor the albums are. Often, their complaints boil down to a record – especially pop or hip-hop albums – not being what they feel to be proper music. And it’s true that “proper music” – which in this context usually means music made by men, with guitars – is having a bit of a slump at the moment, especially the kind of “proper music” that can be categorised as “rock’n’roll”. The biggest modern rock bands – the likes of Muse and Biffy Clyro – don’t offer the kind of simple, chantalong message that a No 1 campaign requires.
For rock’n’roll fans, the past isn’t a foreign country so much as a lost paradise. Mind you, there’s an irony here – Highway to Hell was the first AC/DC album produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who might almost be considered the Simon Cowell of hard rock. Not only did he have a staggering track record of making enormous hits, he did so by having a very clear idea about how to do it: simplify, polish, make the chorus huge. Bands did what he wanted or they didn’t work with him. There are AC/DC purists who feel the three albums they made with Lange – Highway to Hell, Back in Black and For Those About to Rock … We Salute You – are too clean and tidy. Too – dare we say it – manufactured.
4. The riff
All that said, Highway to Hell is one of the great AC/DC riffs. While it’s lead guitarist Angus Young – twitching across the stage in his schoolboy uniform – who gets the attention, it’s his brother Malcolm – standing at the back, with a blank expression – who’s the powerhouse of the band, the source of their finest riffs.
The best AC/DC songs have a way of proving the band’s complete confidence in the riff. With Highway to Hell, that’s shown by it getting a complete runthrough, unaccompanied, before the drums kick in. Then another runthrough with drums before Bon Scott starts singing. And then letting the first first verse play out before the bass joins. The nearest thing to a complication is Phil Rudd adding a couple of hi-hat swishes in the second verse. The riff is by such a distance the most important thing in this song that they could have done without the verses entirely – play the riff four times, throw in a chorus, repeat the riff four times, repeat the chorus – and it would be no less effective.
5. People love AC/DC nowadays
You can’t really find anyone with a harsh word to say about AC/DC, which certainly wasn’t the case when Highway to Hell came out. Back then, in the UK at least, they were critical pariahs, consigned to praise only from the metal community (Whole Lotta Rosie was voted the greatest song ever in the first issue of Kerrang! magazine in 1980). But all the kids who loved them back then – people like me – grew up and didn’t stop loving them. Some of us got jobs in the media, where we were able to bang on about how much we loved them. Some of us got jobs in fashion, and made AC/DC T-shirts fashionable.
Loving AC/DC stopped being something to feel guilty about, and – especially as the boundaries between musical tribes were broken down as the internet made everything available to all, for free – and became normal (I’m betting the same will happen with nu-metal inside the next 10 years). These days, AC/DC are more like the Rolling Stones than any of the bands they used to feature alongside in Kerrang! – they are immovable, permanent, simply a fact of rock music life. If you love rock, you love AC/DC. There are songs from the same era just as suitable for a Facebook campaign to beat The X Factor, just as simple in their message, just as powerful in their riffing, which wouldn’t stand a chance, because people don’t feel the same way about the band. Take United by Judas Priest – right song, wrong band.
That said, a part of me wishes it wasn’t Highway to Hell that was standing as this statement of AC/DC’s greatness. For me, it’s a reductio ad absurdum: it’s so absurdly obvious in every respect, and so overplayed, that I find it hard to listen to with much pleasure any more. It’s not my favourite riff (Riff Raff), it’s not my favourite lyric (Ain’t No Fun) and it’s not from my favourite album (Powerage). But, still: AC/DC in the top 10? I can’t complain.
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