The Ridiculous Zen Art of AC/DC


I’ve been obsessed with AC/DC lately.  I want to try to explain why to those of you that might not get them.  I also think they demonstrate how powerful minimalism can be.

AC/DC albums are kind of the opposite of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album.  I love well orchestrated ornate pop music, but I love its opposite just as much.  The arrangements on AC/DC albums rarely go beyond what can be reproduced live by a four piece rock band other than backup vocals, occasional percussion, and Angus Young’s lead guitar.  There are some minimal guitar overdubs, an additional guitar in the chorus or whatnot, but rarely more than that.  Their records musically are usually just bass, drums, and one electric guitar in each speaker.  However, as Lou Reed said about Kanye West’s Yeezus album, “the arrangements are minimal, but the parts are maximal.”  It’s hard to sound bigger than AC/DC, they often play to packed stadiums, but they achieve this sound with only a couple of instruments.  Their sound is created by the way each musician plays and, more importantly, the way that they play together.  For instance, Angus and Malcolm Young, the guitar players and brothers that run the band, perfectly compliment each other in parts and sound so that their guitars sound infinitely bigger together than either one could on their own.  Malcolm, who is in the left speaker, plays a Gretsch guitar and has a thicker cleaner sound.  Angus, whose rhythm guitar is in the right speaker, plays a SG and his has a more distorted and biting tone.  The frequencies created by each insturment perfectly compliment each other, creating a gigantic sound.

They also use space in a way that each instrument achieves maximum impact.  On their mega-hit You Shook Me All Night Long, the bass does not come in till the chorus, which is unusual for a pop or rock record.  By withholding it that long, when it does come in, the listener really feels it.  The riffs that the brother’s write also often have large gaps in them.  By having moments of silence in between their riffs, you feel the full impact of each scrape across the strings.  Much like how a Zen garden, through being minimal, forces one to focus on what is there, they too pull the listener in by knowing what to hold back.  Even their drummer for most of their career, Phil Rudd, rarely plays the usual rock n roll drum fills.  He makes every cymbal crash count.  Except for when Angus’s lead guitar explodes, which again is so powerful because it is restrained until just the right part of the song, AC/DC does so much with so little.  A lot of other bands couldn’t get that kind of emotional impact with their music with twice the musicians.

One of the misconceptions in the media is that AC/DC make the same record over and over.  They do have a set of rules in place that can often make their music sound the same to the casual listener.  But there is actually a lot of diversity if you compare the rock n roll boogie of their earlier records to the more melodic rock of something like Blow Up Your Video.  Their records are always driving guitar based hard rock records that feature typical rock n roll subject matter in the lyrics.  There are no guitar effects used other than amp based distortion.  It’s like they set a frame and a subject matter, like a painter that only paints certain sized water color landscapes.  But as you know, there are a lot of different landscapes one can paint even within a certain sized frame using a certain medium.  By limiting themselves they achieve their unique sound.  They also must figure out how to be creative while limiting themselves.  Even on one album, lets take their famous Back in Black album, there is a lot of difference between the sound of Hells Bells and You Shook Me All Night Long.  One has a foreboding quality, while the other one is celebratory.  The devil is in the details with this band.  If you are willing to explore their music they have a lot to offer.

Now I know that some of you will think that it is ridiculous to take a band seriously that often only sings about sex, explosions, rock n roll, and more sex.  Forgetting that their original singer was actually pretty clever within the confines of those topics, I think one can take what they do seriously and think they are charmingly ridiculous at the same time.  Even the sexism that is apparent in so many of their songs is taken to such a ridiculous level that it is comic.  This is stuff that is meant as release and as fun.  There is a reason they can fill up stadiums and give so many people a great time.  I think you can listen to their stuff on several levels.  On one hand it is just fun ridiculous music, but if you pay attention to the craft they put into creating this stuff, it is pretty interesting as well.

Also, if you take their career as a whole, in their refusal to change thematically if not musically, their is a certain noble defiance in it.  Where other bands try to reflect their lives in their lyrics, AC/DC has almost made an art out of being an immovable object.  They are the mountain that has not been eroded through time.  Their biggest hit album, Back in Black, was written after the alcohol related death of Bon Scott and features a song called Have a Drink On Me.  Their new album, Rock or Bust, was recorded after founding member Malcolm Young had to retire because he was diagnosed with dementia.  Yet as they grow older and life thins their herd, they remain as they always have been thematically, unchanged, Mount Fuji in the background of the changing seasons.  Like the last sentence at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, they are grinning horribly and thumbing their nose at You Know Who.


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