Highway to Hell is an album by Australian hard rock band AC/DC. It was the band's fifth internationally released studio album and the sixth to be released in Australia. It was the last album featuring lead singerBon Scott, who died early the following year from over-consumption of alcohol.
By 1978, AC/DC had released five albums internationally and had toured Australia and Europe extensively. In 1977, they landed in America and, with virtually no radio support, began to amass a live following. The band's most recent album, the live If You Want Blood, had reached #13 in Britain, and the two albums previous to that, 1977's Let There Be Rock and 1978's Powerage, had seen the band find their raging, rhythm and blues-based hard rock sound. Although the American branch of Atlantic Records had rejected the group's 1976 LP Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, it now believed the band was poised to strike it big in the States if only they would work with a producer who could give them a radio-friendly sound. Since their 1975 Australian debut High Voltage, all of AC/DC's albums had been produced by George Young and Harry Vanda. According to the book AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll, the band was not enthusiastic about the idea, especially guitarists Angus Young and Malcolm Young, who felt a strong sense of loyalty to their older brother George:
Being told what to do was bad enough but what really pissed off Malcolm and Angus was they felt that George was being treated disrespectfully by Atlantic, like an amateur with no great track record when it came to production...Malcolm seemed less pleased with the situation and went so far as to tell Radio 2JJ in Sydney that the band had been virtually "forced" top go with an outside producer. Losing Harry was one thing. Losing George was almost literally like losing a sixth member of the band, and much more.
The producer Atlantic paired the band up with was South African-born Eddie Kramer, best known for his pioneering work as engineer for Jimi Hendrix but also for mega-bands Led Zeppelin and Kiss. Kramer met the band at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida but, by all accounts, they did not get on. Geoff Barton quotes Malcolm Young in Guitar Legends magazine: "Kramer was a bit of a prat. He looked at Bon and said to us, 'Can your guy sing?' He mightive sat behind the knobs for Hendrix, but he's certainly not Hendrix, I can tell you that much." Former AC/DC manager Michael Browning recalls in the 1994 book Highway to Hell: The Life and Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott, "I got a phone call from Malcolm in Florida, to say, 'This guy's hopeless, do something, he's trying to talk us into recording that Spencer Davis song,' 'Gimme Some Loving,' 'I'm a Man,' whatever it was..." Browning turned to Zambian-born producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange to step in. Lange was best known for producing the Boomtown Rats #1 hit "Rat Trap" and post-pub rock bands like Clover, City Boy, and Graham Parker. In 1979 singer Bon Scott told RAM magazine, "Three weeks in Miami and we hadn't written a thing with Kramer. So one day we told him we were going to have a day off and not to bother coming in. This was Saturday, and we snuck into the studio and on that one day we put down six songs, sent the tape to Lange and said, 'Will you work with us?'" The band had also signed up with new management, firing Michael Browning and hiring Peter Mensch, an aggressive American who had helped develop the careers of Aerosmith and Ted Nugent.
Recording commenced at the Roundhouse Studios in Chalk Farm, north London in March 1979. In his book Highway to Hell, Clinton Walker writes, "The band virtually moved into the Roundhouse Studios in Chalk Farm, spending the best part of three months there. That, to start with, was a shock to AC/DC, who had never previously spent more than three weeks on any one album...Sessions for the album - 15 hours a day, day-in day-out, for over two months - were grueling. Songs were worked and reworked." Lange's no-nonsense approach was appreciated by the band, whose own work ethic had always been solid. In an article by Mojo's Sylvie Simmons, Malcolm Young stated that Lange "liked the simplicity of a band. We were all minimalist. We felt it was the best way to be...He knew we were all dedicated so he sort of got it. But he made sure the tracks were solid, and he could hear if a snare just went off." In the same article Angus Young added, "He was meticulous about sound, getting right guitars and drums. He would zero in - and he was good too on the vocal side. Even Bon was impressed with how he could get his voice to sound." In AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll, Arnaud Durieux writes that Lange, a trained singer, showed Scott how to breathe so he could be a technically better singer on songs like "Touch Too Much" and would join in on background vocals himself, having to stand on the other side of the studio because his own voice was so distinctive. The melodic backing vocals was a new element to the band's sound, but the polish that Lange added did not detract from the band's characteristic crunch, thereby satisfying the band and Atlantic Records at the same time.
The album's most famous song is the title track. From the very beginning, Atlantic Records hated the idea of using the song as the album title, with Angus recalling to Guitar World's Alan Di Perna in 1993:
...just because you call an album Highway to Hell you get all kinds of grief. And all we'd done is describe what it's like to be on the road for four years, like we'd been. A lot of of it was bus and car touring, with no real break. You crawl off the bus at four o'clock in the morning, and some journalist's doing a story and he says, 'What would you call an AC/DC tour?' Well, it was a highway to hell. It really was. When you're sleeping with the singer's socks two inches from your nose, that's pretty close to hell.
In a 2003 interview with Bill Crandall of Rolling Stone, Angus Young recalls the genesis of the song:
We were in Miami and we were flat broke. Malcolm and I were playing guitars in a rehearsal studio, and I said, "I think I have a good idea for an intro," which was the beginning of "Highway to Hell." And he hopped on a drum kit and he banged out the beat for me. There was a guy in there working with us and he took the cassette we had it on home and gave it to his kid, and his kid unraveled it [laughs]. Bon was good at fixing broken cassettes, and he pasted it back together. So at least we didn't lose the tune.
The words to "Highway to Hell" took on a new resonance when Scott drank himself to death in 1980. AllMusic's Steve Huey observes:
The lyrics displayed a fierce, stubborn independence in his choice of lifestyle ("Askin' nothin', leave me be"; "nobody's gonna slow me down"), but not really loneliness (of hell: "goin' down! party time! my friends are gonna be there too"). It's ironic that Scott seems most alive when facing death with the fearless bravado of "Highway to Hell," yet it's undeniably true, especially given his positively unhinged performance. The untutored ugliness of his voice; the playfulness with which he used it to his advantage; the wails, growls, screeches, and scratches - all these qualities combine to give the song an unbridled enthusiasm without which it might take on an air of ambivalence.
Bon Scott's lyrics on Highway to Hell deal almost exclusively with lust ("Love Hungry Man," "Girls Got Rhythm"), sex ("Beating Around the Bush," Touch Too Much", "Walk All Over You"), and partying on the town ("Get It Hot," "Shot Down in Flames"). In his 2006 band memoir, Murray Engelheart reveals that Scott felt the lyrics of songs like "Gone Shootin'" from the previous album Powerage were "simply too serious." "Touch Too Much" had been first recorded in July 1977 and features a radically different arrangement and lyrics from the Highway to Hell version. The final version of the song was performed by Scott and AC/DC on the BBC music show Top of the Pops a few days before his death in 1980. The song "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)" was the title of the band's live album from the previous year and stemmed from Scott's response to a journalist at the Day on the Green festival in July 1978 who asked what they could expect from the band and Scott replied, "Blood." Perhaps the album's most infamous song is "Night Prowler," mainly due to its association with serial killerRichard Ramírez. In June 1985, a highly publicized murder case began revolving around Ramírez, who was responsible for several brutal killings in Los Angeles. Nicknamed the "Night Stalker", Ramírez was a fan of AC/DC, particularly the song "Night Prowler". Police also claimed that Ramirez was wearing an AC/DC shirt and left an AC/DC hat at one of the crime scenes. During the trial, Ramírez often muttered "Hail Satan" and showed off the pentagram carved into his palm. This brought extremely bad publicity to AC/DC, whose concerts and albums faced protests by parents in Los Angeles. On VH1's Behind the Music on AC/DC, the band maintained that the song had been given a murderous connotation by Ramírez, but is actually about a boy sneaking into his girlfriend's bedroom at night while her parents are asleep, in spite of the song having lyrics such as "And you don't feel the steel, till it's hanging out your back". Musically, the song is similar to the band's previous song "Ride On" from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," which is itself strikingly similar to ZZ Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago." The final words spoken by Scott on the song are "Shazbot, na-nu na-nu", phrases used on the then-popular American sitcom, Mork and Mindy, by lead character Mork (a visiting extraterrestrial played by Robin Williams). The phrase closed the album.
Highway to Hell was originally released on 27 July 1979 by Albert Productions, who licensed the album to Atlantic Records for release outside of Australia, and was then re-released by Epic Records in 2003 as part of the AC/DC Remasters series. On 25 May 2006, Highway to Hell was certified 7x Platinum by the RIAA. In Australia, Highway to Hell was originally released with a slightly different album cover, featuring flames and a drawing of a bass guitar neck superimposed over the same group photo used on the international cover. Also, the AC/DC logo is a darker shade of maroon, but the accents are a bit lighter. Additionally, the East German release had different and much plainer designs on the front and back, apparently because the authorities were not happy with the sleeve as released elsewhere. Two songs from the album, "Highway to Hell" and "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)" are included on the soundtrack album for Iron Man 2, with the former also being played during the final scenes of the movie. The song "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)" is also featured in five films; Empire Records, The Longest Yard, Shoot Em Up, Final Destination 5 and finally, The Dukes of Hazzard (film). The song "Walk All Over You" is featured in the movie Grown Ups. "Touch Too Much" is featured on the soundtrack for the video game Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned. In October 2010, Highway to Hell was listed in the top 50 in the book, 100 Best Australian Albums with Back in Black at No. 2. The guitars and bass in this album are tuned down 1/4 step except for "Night Prowler", "Love Hungry Man" and "Get It Hot" which are tuned down whole half step or ½ step.
Highway to Hell became AC/DC's first LP to break the US Top 100, eventually reaching #17, and it propelled the band into the top ranks of hard rock acts. It is the second highest selling AC/DC album (behind Back in Black) and is generally considered one of the greatest hard rock albums ever made. Gret Kot of Rolling Stone writes, "The songs are more compact, the choruses fattened by rugby-team harmonies. The prize moment: Scott closes the hip-grinding 'Shot Down in Flames' with a cackle worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West." In a 2008 Rolling Stone cover story, David Fricke notes: "Superproducer 'Mutt' Lange sculpted AC/DC's rough-granite rock into chart-smart boogie on this album." AllMusic calls the song "Highway to Hell" "one of hard rock's all-time anthems." Amazon.com: "What Highway to Hell has that Back in Black doesn't is Bon Scott, AC/DC's original lead singer who died just months after this album was released. Scott had a rusty, raspy, scream of a voice, like he might break into a coughing fit at any moment. In other words, on crunchy, hook-heavy metal classics like the title track, and on 'Get It Hot' which is more roadhouse rock than metal, he had the perfect instrument for such wild-living anthems. Too perfect, it turned out." In 2003, the album was ranked number 200 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
In 2013, AC/DC fans Steevi Diamond and Jon Morter (who was behind the Rage Against the Machine Facebook campaign in 2009) spearheaded a Facebook campaign to get the title track to become a UK Christmas #1 in the UK Singles Chart, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of AC/DC, and to prevent The X Factor from achieving another #1 hit single The campaign raised proceeds to Feel Yourself, a testicular cancer awareness charity. The single peaked at #4 in the Official UK Charts, scoring AC/DC's first ever UK Top 10 single.
On February 20, 1980, 33 year old Bon Scott was found dead. He had spent the previous evening drinking heavily in the Music Machine, a club in Camden Town. Scott, who had passed out, was driven home by a man named Alistair Kinnear. "I left him in my car and rang his doorbell," Kinnear told Maggie Montalbano in 2005's Metal Hammer and Classic Rock present AC/DC magazine, "but his current live-in girlfriend didn't answer. I took Bon's key and let myself into the flat, but no-one was at home. I was unable to wake Bon, so I rang up Silver [Smith, Scott's ex-girlfriend] for advice. She said that he passed out frequently, and it was best just to leave him be to sleep it off." Kinnear then explained that he drove Scott to his own home but, finding the singer too heavy to lift, placed a blanket over him and staggered up to bed. Scott's body was discovered at 11 am the next morning. During the night, Scott had apparently vomited in his sleep and choked to death. Angus was the first to find out, who called Malcolm, who took it upon himself to call Scott's mother before the press could. The AC/DC camp was stunned and devastated by Scott's death, who had seen him drink copious amounts of alcohol and yet never miss a show or perform badly, which gave him an air of invincibility. At Scott's funeral, Scott's father insisted the group carry on, and barely four months later the band played it first concerts with new singer Brian Johnson. Angus admitted to Behind the Music in 2000, "When you're younger, you don't really think that something like death will ever touch you. I'd never really had a tragedy that close..." In 2008, bassist Cliff Williams commented to Rolling Stone's David Fricke that he suspects the Youngs were seriously shaken by Scott's death "but didn't show it. It's not in their characters. They carried their grief with them and just got down to business." In the same interview, Malcolm explained Scott was "like the dad. He was only a few years older than us, but he had that thing - he could sort something out with two words."