Rock and rote

Three decades in, AC/DC’s conservatism pays off
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  November 10, 2008

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Part I: Prologue
In my time on this charred rock I’ve met lots of people who fucking love music, and I’ve decided that the vast majority of them fit within two groups, one vastly outnumbering the other. The first group, the minority, is composed of people who really love music but don’t care where it’s from, or how they found it. They are responding to the sound, and the way it hits them, and nothing more. These people retain a certain purity of musical appreciation, and can listen to a song, or any piece of music, and immediately decide whether they like it or not, without questioning whether it is appropriate for them to like it. These people are called “infants.”

Everyone else falls in the other camp: They enjoy music that makes sense to them, and it is often just as important (if not more) for the people that make the music to also make some sense: what kind of music am I about to hear? What sort of audience is this aimed at? What style of music can I expect? What is the desired setting for enjoying this music? I think that there is definitive proof that no band of musicians in the history of the world has more successfully clarified the answers to these questions while still presenting a façade of force and a branding stamp of quality than the Australian group AC/DC.

Contradictory as it might seem for a band whose very name designates ambiguous sexuality (at least in the UK), AC/DC have managed to plow through the complicated emotional detritus of the last half of the 20th century and beyond, jackhammering minimalist anthems into the collective unconscious in a manner redolent of a mass-mind haiku. As the band once sang, in a phrase that is both tautologically retarded and Forrest Gump-ishly profound: “Rock and roll/is just rock and roll.”

AC/DC’s decision to release their new album, Black Ice (Columbia) exclusively to Wal-Mart might actually tip the scale to become the single most conservative moment of the band’s mythology (first will always be, to me, the story of US forces in 1989 getting Manuel Noriega to surrender by blasting Back in Black — although that story is somewhat more apocryphal than true, since a perusal of the actual playlist used by US forces suggests that Noriega’s breaking point could have just as easily been reached with Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” as the soundtrack). “Conservative”? Well, bear with me. I don’t necessarily mean it in a politically-loaded manner (although, quick: name me one band that you can guess Joe the Plumber has at least one disc of in his CD rack); but rock and roll ebbs and flows between radicalism and formalism, right? When rock fans, over the last three decades have had occasion to proclaim, “Enough with the weird stuff!”, they’ve been reliably able to retreat to the warm rocking bosom of AC/DC.

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