For all you vinyl fetishists out there, here are a couple of catalog numbers to look up in your collection of vintage 45s: Atlantic 3761, and Atlantic 3787.
From what classic, hit-single-producing Atlantic act could those be? Aretha Franklin, you’re thinking? Maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash? Phil Collins?
Try AC/DC—those are the U.S. release numbers for the 7-inch singles of “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Back in Black.” Both were relased in 1980; both charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Which is proof that they were, in fact, released as singles—songs weren’t allowed to appear on the Hot 100 prior to 1998 unless the public could buy them at retail for a buck or two.
Of course, as you’ve been reading in the press for the past few weeks, Angus Young and his gang of perpetual adolescents aren’t big fans of buck-a-songs anymore. In fact, they view their albums—the latest of which, Black Ice, hits Wal-Mart shelves exclusively on Monday—as indivisible works of art. That’s why they’ve resisted not only Apple’s industry-dominating iTunes Store and its 99-cent-songs policy, but also all requests to release a greatest-hits album.
Accepting, with a straight face, a comparison of the band’s studio albums to Picasso’s oeuvre means buying into the idea that AC/DC can only be appreciated at album length. But a study of the Aussie-Scottish band’s U.S. sales and chart history suggests that AC/DC thrive on hit songs. And their disinclination to release their most beloved songs either a la carte or on a compilation is likely motivated not by pride but by plain fear of the free market.
The line on AC/DC, as parroted by Robert Levine’s recent Sunday New York Times profile, is that their music is so consistent in approach, tempo and (ahem) artistic temperament—no ballads, no experiments—that fans can pick up pretty much any of their albums for the fix they need. Why release a greatest-hits disc when Flick of the Switch and The Razors Edge are essentially variations on the same theme?
There’s some baseline truth to this: AC/DC’s sales history has a platinum-coated floor. Nothing the band has released since its U.S. breakthrough with 1979’s Highway to Hell has been certified for less than a million copies, including forgettable titles like 1985’s Fly on the Wall or 1988’s Blow Up Your Video.
But a consistent minimum doesn’t mean consistent sales. The idea that AC/DC’s albums are so beloved by fans that they all sell about the same amount is belied by history.
Most obviously, at 22 million copies, Back in Black, with those two mighty rock singles as well as near-classics like “Hells Bells,” is certified at more than triple the sales of any of the band’s other titles.
To be even more specific, Black has shifted virtually the same as the band’s next four best-sellers combined. Those runners-up are Highway to Hell (7 million), Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (6 million), Who Made Who (5 million) and The Razors Edge (5 million). Once you get below this top five, most of the band’s studio albums are in the 1 to 2 million range.
So what made those five albums sell so well? In virtually every case, the answer is simple: hit songs.
It’s not easily to classify what a “hit” is for AC/DC: despite releasing about a dozen tracks as U.S. singles over its career, the band never reached our pop Top 20. Their 1990 single “Moneytalks” was the most successful, peaking at No. 23 on the Hot 100. As for the aforementioned hits from 1980’s Back in Black, each barely made the Top 40—No. 35 for “Shook,” No. 37 for “Black”—at a time when album-oriented rock (AOR) radio, then at the height of its influence, wasn’t factored into the Hot 100 radio panel.
Worse, Billboard doesn’t make it easy to track AC/DC’s early career as an AOR act. The magazine didn’t launch its first all-rock chart until March 1981, with a list sporting the vague title “Top Tracks” (over the years, it was redubbed “Top Rock Tracks” and “Album Rock Tracks” before finally becoming the “Mainstream Rock Tracks” list Al Shipley and I follow today). AC/DC appeared within the first month of “Top Tracks,” but by then, Back in Black was a nine-month-old album, and the band’s latest two charting songs were on their way off radio playlists: “Hells Bells” spent a lone week on the list at No. 50, and “Back in Black” spent just two, peaking at No. 51. Had the chart existed a year prior, it’s easy to imagine that “Shook” or “Black” would have topped it for at least a few weeks.
Still, despite a lack of consistent data, it’s pretty easy to explain the U.S. sales of AC/DC’s five biggest albums. Four of them owe their success to a burst of U.S. radio attention the band received for their catchiest songs from 1979 to 1981.
Obviously that goes for Black, which contains the band’s two most iconic songs and was produced by radio-friendly producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. So was 1979’s Highway to Hell, containing the band’s first charting U.S. pop hit, the title track—despite peaking at No. 47 on the Hot 100, it’s an inarguable rock-radio classic and a gold-certified single. Dirty Deeds, a 1976 Australian/European album that sold well as an import, was given a proper U.S. release by Atlantic in 1981 after the band had scored its first few hits here; its title track was a belated rock-radio smash in ’81, making the Top Five of Billboard’s Tracks chart a couple of months after that list launched.
The oddest album on the list is 1986’s quintuple-platinum Who Made Who, a hybrid soundtrack/studio/hits compilation released at the behest of Stephen King. The horror auteur scored Maximum Overdrive, his lone directorial effort, with AC/DC songs, and he got the band to record three new tracks on an LP accompanied by a half-dozen preexisting radio classics. The biggest song reissued was “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which gave the band an excuse to shoot a new video for the track and give it a shot at MTV immortality. (That new big-haired, bimbo-rific ’86 clip starts off looking working-class Brit, but screams Sunset Strip.) Who, a Frankenstein’s-monster cross between Meet the Beatles! and Catching Up With Depeche Mode, sold to late-’80s metalheads who wanted three or four of the band’s best hits on one nice-price LP. Yet again, it leaned mainly on the golden years of ’80 and ’81 for its best cuts.
So: four multiplatinum albums (I’ll get to the fifth one in a moment), a couple of them genuinely excellent as hard-rock discs go, but all arguably fueled by their best two or three radio cuts. Does this sound to you like the kind of band whose albums are indivisible and pure?
It’s one thing for AC/DC to try to artificially prop up their album catalog by refusing to make their best singles easier to acquire, but I’d go even further: they’re leaving money on the table. There’s little evidence that releasing singles has hurt them, or that issuing a greatest-hits would damage a band of their ilk.
Consider the band’s long malaise, which extends roughly from 1983’s poorly received Flick of the Switch through 2000’s short-lived, barely platinum Stiff Upper Lip. During this decade and a half, excluding live albums and the unclassifiable Who Made Who, their best-selling disc was 1990’s The Razors Edge.
That album peaked at No. 2, the band’s second-best U.S. chart performance (after the 1981 chart-topper For Those About to Rock, We Salute You), and it spent more than a year and a half on the charts, longer than any title except Back in Black. It went double-platinum within three months of release, the band’s fastest-ever multiplatinum seller. It’s now certified at five million copies.
And here’s the kicker: Razors achieved all this despite the band releasing its catchiest song, “Moneytalks,” as a cassingle in 1990. Let me put it another way: AC/DC’s only three U.S. Top 40 hits come from two of their best- and longest-selling albums, Black and Razors. Having a hit single didn’t damage sales of these albums; it enhanced them.
As for greatest-hits discs, they haven’t hurt the sales trajectory of any band you could fairly compare to AC/DC. Certainly not the equally singles-averse Led Zeppelin, who finally caved on their no-compilations rule in the 1990s, now have three platinum-or-better hits collections, and still sell another million copies of Zoso every couple of years. Or, to make a more apt comparison, Aerosmith: like AC/DC, they came up in the ’70s, hit their stride in the ’80s after nearly getting destroyed by addiction, and even in old age still release new material on a schedule roughly similar to AC/DC’s. The difference is, Aerosmith has released a positively idiotic number of compilations—from 1980’s Greatest Hits to 1994’s Big Ones to 2002’s O Yeah!—and yet every studio album since their 1987 post-addiction comeback has sold platinum, most of them multiplatinum. (The exception: The merely gold Honkin’ on Bobo.)
By next week, Black Ice is expected to sell well enough through Wal-Mart’s all-out promotional push to give AC/DC its second career No. 1 album, which I’m sure will be gratifying to both their egos and their wallets. But you have to wonder how much more in profits they could have drawn with a digital release, and how many more loyal fans they could have satisfied. The exceptional thing about AC/DC isn’t their refusal to give up the hits—it’s their total artistic and commercial self-delusion.