You have to love a band whose original singer and lyricist expired from alcohol poisoning, whose founding guitarist descended into full-on dementia before his death in 2017, and whose mainstay drummer has faced charges of contracting murder. Whatever you think about AC/DC’s music, you’ve got to admit: that is one badass rock group.
I’d put AC/DC at the head of a subcategory of acts known for straightforward guitar-based songs and a work-hard-play-harder sensibility – not psychedelic, not sensitive, and not sophisticated, but compelling all the same. Creedence Clearwater Revival may be the originator of the genre, emerging as they did in the late 1960s of concept albums, guitar heroes, and singer-songwriters with a sound, look, and stance more down-to-earth than anything else from the era. Other rock stars had magical mystery tours, crystal ships, and castles made of sand; CCR had meat and potatoes. Even if you’ve heard “Green River” and “Fortunate Son” over 12 million times – and who hasn’t – Creedence’s no-bullshit approach remains classic. A lot of people are in their debt.
Some artists – Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones – became so influential they pretty much belonged to everyone, no matter their personal roots, or songs like Dylan’s “North Country Blues” and the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth.” But others, from Bob Seger and Molly Hatchet to Ted Nugent and Thin Lizzy, became particularly identified with a working-class audience who disdained pretense of all kinds. Not everyone can qualify. Bruce Springsteen has a lot of fine records about ordinary folks, although he’s more a poet than a partier. The Stooges, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols? Too bohemian. Deep Purple and Jethro Tull? Too mystical. Stevie Ray Vaughan might not make the cut (too virtuosic), but George Thorogood fits right in. Notwithstanding their makeup and costumes, “Deuce” and “Detroit Rock City,” give Kiss entry; spandex bands like the Crüe and Van Halen, however, don’t count. I’ll take Alice Cooper, though – any man who devours Frank Zappa’s excrement, if only in rumor, is a true badass. ZZ Top yes; Tom Petty no. Mötorhead yes; Radiohead no. Nazareth yes; Santana no. Grand Funk yes; Fleetwood Mac no. Coked-out Aerosmith yes; cleaned-up Aerosmith no. They’re all great, but only some are righteous. Bon Jovi wishes they were blue-collar, but they’re just jock rock. Fuck Bon Jovi.
The twin titans of this denim demographic are AC/DC and Lynryd Skynyrd. With Bon Scott, AC/DC brought the booze-brawls-and-babes aesthetic of the Australian roadhouse to the world: “Live Wire,” “TNT,” “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “Sin CIty,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Shot Down In Flames,” et al – that’s gutter genius. Copies of Highway to Hell should be included in two-fours of beer. And while I could go an eternity without hearing “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” ever again, Skynyrd’s “The Needle and the Spoon,” “Gimme Back My Bullets,” “Simple Man,” “Saturday Night Special” and “That Smell” are indispensable down-home rebel raunch. Interestingly, AC/DC’s “Show Business” and Skynyrd’s “Workin’ For MCA” both articulate the bitterness of honest craftsmen in an often dishonest industry, while “Bad Boy Boogie” and “Double Trouble” are back-to-back celebrations of the lawlessness every twenty-year-old guy wants to believe is his fundamental identity. “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “Swamp Music” would bring out the badass in Anderson Cooper.
Now, all of this is completely subjective. Music is music. Why should my labels matter to other listeners? There were probably plenty of factory grunts who sparked a joint and cracked a brew to David Bowie’s Low after a shift, just as some university profs may have blared “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” while marking philosophy exams. But if you’re sorting your music collection by socio-economic significance, the unique genre of working man’s rock ‘n’ roll stands as a reminder of the years when we had both real working men and real rock ‘n’ roll.