Australian band AC/DC had been in trenches for years, cranking out a series of high-voltage hard rock albums, and building a rabid audience of diehard fans that grew exponentially with each release.
The group finally broke through in a big way with 1979 LP, Highway to Hell. The album crashed the top 20 in America, and sold more than a million copies. Then, on February 19, 1980, tragedy struck. Bon Scott, the enigmatic AC/DC frontman, was found dead in East Dulwich, London after a night drinking with friends.
It was at Scott's funeral where the late singer's father, Chick, approached brothers Angus and Malcolm Young. He implored that that they carry on the band. The group set about trying to do the impossible: replace Bon Scott. Finally, they landed on a singer that Scott himself had raved about after his previous band, Fraternity, opened for an act called Geordie. The singer of that band: Brian Johnson. As Angus Young put it to Total Guitar, “It was rare that Bon ever raved about anything.”
Setting up shop at the famed Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with producer Robert "Mutt" Lange, AC/DC began recording Back in Black. “The whole point of the album was to celebrate Bon’s life," is how Brian Johnson explained it. “I was a little worried. Like, who am I to try to follow in the footsteps of this great poet? Bon really was a kind of poet. And something happened to me - a good thing.”
Back in Black was released on July 25, 1980, just over five months after the death of Bon Scott. The album was an immediate hit both critically and commercially, with AC/DC receiving some of its best reviews in years. Copies were flying off store shelves across the country, with reports of the band moving 10,000 units of the album per day at one point.
The album bounced around the top 10 in America for an astonishing 13 months, but never reached #1. Back in Black peaked at #4 for the week of December 20, 1980. The #1 album that week: Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits.
AC/DC hit the road, taking the new lineup and songs on tour. The band hit the United States in late July, wrapping up the American leg in Boston on October 11, 1980. By then, Back in Black had already gone platinum. The record was such a success that the Atlantic label finally and officially released Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap in the U.S. The release did so well that it outperformed Back in Black on the U.S. album charts, peaking at #3.
The band even scored some hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with Back in Black. "You Shook Me All Night" reached #35. The title track peaked right behind it at #37.
The group finally made its triumphant return to Australia in February 1981, a full year after the death of Bon Scott. When AC/DC played in Sydney, Bon Scott's mother, Isabelle, approached Brian Johnson with the ultimate praise: “Our Bon would have been proud of you, son.”
“Disco was huge and punk and new wave were ascendant, and along came this AC/DC record which just destroyed everybody," explained Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morrello, summing up the incalculable importance and influence of Back in Black. "It put hard rock music back on the throne, where it belongs!”