Analysis: AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell”

Back in the early 80’s, I was in a band that was signed to a record label run by Michael Browning, who had for many years been the manager of AC/DC. One night, we were on tour in Adelaide, and Michael turned up with two dishevelled-looking guys who he brought backstage afterwards. They turned out to be Malcolm and Angus Young. Even that long ago they were rock royalty and megastars, so it was a big deal to have them there, though thank god we didn’t know beforehand! What they actually made of us, a new wave pop band with a cute girl singer, I’ll never know, they were much too polite to say.

Original Clip:

 

Polite is not a word I’d use for them and their music, though they’re so well-known and have carved out such a distinctive place in the history of rock music, it’s hardly necessary to go looking for descriptions. They’re the definition of power rock, even hard rock (though perhaps not by today’s standards.) Their songs, their arrangements, their playing, even their recordings, are all about making and playing rock music as powerfully as possible. Anything extraneous or unnecessary is dispensed with, and everything is stripped to the bare bones, including the chords. They’re the 3-chord band by which all 3-chord bands are judged – and quite a few who use more than 3 chords as well.

But there’s a difference between keeping things simple, and being simplistic, and what makes these songs work so well is some very sophisticated work around content, form, and arrangement. It’s all very well stripping everything away, but then you have almost no room for any shortcomings in what’s left. Everything has to work.

Highway to Hell, released in 1979, is one of AC/DC’s biggest hits, though in reality, AC/DC never really had individual hits, they’ve just had huge tours and shipped full albums and CD’s by the bucketload. But while we’re not talking about an international number 1 here, we are talking about one of the most iconic and memorable songs in rock.

Quincy Jones, when he was producing Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, knew that he wanted 4 bars of solo drums at the beginning and that those bars had to be memorable and distinctive. I don’t know of many moments in music that are as distinctive and instantly recognisable as those first three chords of Highway to Hell. Three open position A chords played with successive downbeats by a guy wearing a school uniform.

Those three chords establish the rhythm for the verse, and the rhythm is repeated the same way throughout the 4 bar pattern, except for the last repeat of the cycle. Here, the second chord is omitted, but we have an extra chord added to finish. This extra chord, which then becomes the first chord of the following pattern, is the only chord in the verse which is on the beat, all other chords are pushed, coming before and across the beat.

Once we get through the first 4-bar cycle, this is just repeated, joined by first the drums, then on the following cycle, the vocals. The vocals are melodically simple, with only a handful of notes, but like the guitar, they’re all across the beat. All. The vocals don’t even use the downbeat which the guitar does to start each cycle. At that point in the cycle, (e.g. the word “ride” in the first cycle), the vocals are still ahead of the beat.

So, one guitar, drums, a single vocalist. And that’s it. It’s also it for the second verse. None of this “let’s add an extra guitar part in the second verse”. The minimalist Zen of rock, which both Malcolm Young and Cliff Williams get plenty of time to meditate upon because they don’t have anything else to do in the verses. Certainly not any playing.

Just before the chorus, all that comes to an end, and everyone joins in on an open E chord. This comes on the last bar of the 4 cycles, at bar 16, but this chord is then held an extra bar, to give us a 17 bar verse pattern. Sometimes people think about straight-ahead bands like AC/DC as using the simplest, even the most formulaic approach. In part that’s true. Angus once commented that Cliff Williams plays the same bass part in every song. But a 17 bar verse is not the kind of thing you’ll find in that many Radiohead (for example) songs. When the content gets pushed out into more complex areas, for example harmonically, then the structures that hold those kinds of songs together are often very simple as the songs need that solidity to support their flights of fancy. Here, it’s the reverse. The content, at least harmonically, is fairly straightforward, even basic. So because the harmonic movement is so readable and doesn’t need much formal underpinning, we have a lot more leeway with the structure, which means that we can mix things up to generate tension and interest.

Which is what’s happening here. This “hold and repeat the last chord for an extra bar” is a standard trick, and still works as well today as it did back in 1979. You usually find it in one of two places in a song. Here, just before the chorus, or in the last bar of the middle 8, which is also before a chorus, the last one. In both these usages, it builds tension, and heightens the impact of the chorus when it hits in. Dylan does something similar in Like A Rolling Stone which I looked at elsewhere here, but he builds his two bar held G into the structure, without adding any bars.

In both these cases, the chord is also the dominant. No chord has such a powerful leading effect going into the tonic of the chorus as the dominant, and it’s no accident that both Dylan and AC/DC do exactly the same thing at this point of the song.

So, everyone to the front of the stage, big E chord for a couple of bars, and then … the chorus. Or, THE chorus.

Here in comparison with what we saw in the verse, everything switches around. Remembering that this is a “less is more” approach to music-making, we’re never going to get any big key changes or radical shifts in direction, and the changes such as they are are minimal. But they’re also exactly what the song needs.

Firstly, the overall rhythm “squares off”. Gone is the across the beat rhythm that dominated both the singing and guitar in the verse. Here, almost all the material is not just squarely on the beat, but on the strong beats, 1 and 3. The High-Way of the singing is on beats 1 and 3, the chords don’t change for the whole of the first bar which is just the tonic, A, and we then get chords on the downbeat of the second bar, concluding with the IV-I cadence on beats 3 and 4. Yep, this is a two-bar cycle, as opposed to the longer 4-bar cycle in the verse, so straight away, everything comes round more often, so there’s more energy and overall, more movement and momentum. Going from a 4 bar cycle to a 2 bar cycle really drives a song forward.

The singing, as well as shifting to the on-beats, also changes from a more rhythmic, syncopated melody, to one where we have long held notes. Also there’s also a lot of jumping round between the notes in the verse, there’s hardly any repetition. In the chorus this is reversed, as except for a drop down on the word “to”, the melody is all repetition as there’s only one note. After the one-note samba, we get the one-note chorus.

The other big difference with the singing/melody is where it’s placed in the overall rhythmic scheme. I talk about this in my “Definition of a Chorus” blog, (as I do most of this) and at the risk of repeating myself, this is a great example of moving the melody forward when you get to the chorus. In the verse, the beginning of each line starts on the 1-and, so it comes after the downbeat at the beginning of the cycle. In the chorus, the “I’m on a …” starts way earlier, back on the 3-and of the preceding bar. It’s a shift in placement of a half a bar, two full beats, and gives us once again that “hands in the air” moment, where the vocal is leading the band, who are about to all come crashing in on the downbeat of bar 1 of the cycle, on the “high” of highway. I always see this kind of shift in the melody, of a shift in how we read the lyrics, from a more descriptive, reflective verse (after the beat), to a more assertive, declamatory chorus (before the beat). The content of the lyrics is reflected in their placement in the structure and rhythm.

The other feature of what happens here is that the one note of the chorus is the tonic, A But at its first entry, it’s coming across that held E at the end of the verse. So, we have a kind of dissonance, of a sung a across and E major chord, which is then resolved on the first downbeat proper of the chorus. Once more, everything they’re doing, every choice they’re making is helping to drive the song forward.

Of course, AC/DC are as much as anything about the guitars, and the guitars in the chorus – well, they just play open chords, A, G and D majors. The Highway to Hell album sold seven million copies in the U.S. on the back of this one song, and yet here we are in Lesson 1, Book 1 of “Teach Yourself Guitar”: the first 3 chords that every guitarist learns (… and a one-note melody to boot!). Nothing could be simpler. Or could it? Once again, there’s more going on here than what first meets the eye, or in this case, ear.

In the verse, we have these same 3 chords, though in a different order. In fact, apart from that E at the end of the verse, the song just goes round the same three chords for its entirety. Looking at differences between the verse and the chorus, the A is identical both times, as is the G. But in the verse, the D is over an f# – remembering that there’s no bass, so it’s just the second fret of the lowest guitar string, and Angus doesn’t sound the f# on the top e-string.

When we get to the chorus, Angus reverts to a standard Teach Yourself Guitar open D chord. But (with AC/DC, there’s often a but!), in the chorus we now have the bass as well, and when the chords change to a D, the bass continues to pedal the tonic underneath, the A. So nowhere do we get a “straight” D. It’s a first inversion D in the verse, then a second inversion D in the chorus. Additionally, in both the verse and chorus, for the G chord, the second string b note isn’t sounded, so we end up with open 5ths (g-d) as the lowest two strings, more like a piano player’s G than a guitarist’s. This voicing is less muddy, especially once you had some overdrive, and so more open and powerful.

(Here, I’m indebted to the very excellent tutorial by Justin Sanderco for clarifying the finer points of the guitar parts. Worth checking out. What’s going on here is a lot more worked than what you think, and Jonathan has done his homework in sorting it out.)

So, when we get to the chorus, the guitar rhythm shifts and becomes squarer, more on-beat, the singing does the same, and also switches from shorter notes to long held ones, and the melody moves forward by half a bar. We also have a chorus that’s much more focused around the tonic, the A.  In short, every single melodic, rhythmic and harmonic element changes once we move into the chorus, often doing the reverse of what we find in the verse.

There’s a tendency with this kind of music, more powerful rock or hard rock, to think of the chorus as being, well, loud. Just … loud. The loudest bit in the song. Whatever else is going on, it’s the place where the singer gives it all he/she has, the drummer hammers an open hihat, and the guitarists walk to the front of the stage and go “click”: distortion pedal. Or overdrive, saturation, compression, whatever …. More noise, louder. To some extent, we’re getting that here. The bass joins in, Bon Scott gives us a much more sung melody along with a rugby team of backing vocals, and of course Malcolm comes in as well, doubling up the guitar. So sure, everything is louder.

But, even on acoustic guitar, this chorus still sounds loud. It still crashes in, it still sounds big. It’s still powerful, and still makes everyone in the room want to jump to their feet and join in. And that’s not because it’s noisy, it’s because that bigness and power, that “loudness” is written into the song itself. All these changes as we move into the chorus, from moving the singing earlier to squaring off the rhythm to shifting the harmonic focus to the tonic etc. etc., they all contribute to this feeling of “yeah”, they all make the chorus more solid, bigger, and more powerful. Though the point here is not so much that the chorus is powerful in itself, but that it’s more powerful than the verse. Structure is about relationships, what happens as you go from one section to another as you move through the song, and if we want power, we need those relationships to be powerful. The kind of decisions that AC/DC make here in terms of the material and how it’s placed and treated, all give us that result.

As an aside, though still on the same theme, there’s a bit of misconception about AC/DC that that wall of sound in the chorus comes from massively cranked guitars. You only have to look at images of them on stage, with all those Marshalls to seemingly have that confirmed. But as Malcolm Young once said, “if I go above 3, that’s loud for me”. We’re a long way from amps that go to 11. It’s all in the song, the composition, and the arrangement.

The rest of Highway to Hell, well, as expected, there’s nothing much more that happens apart from what we have already. At the end of the second chorus, there’s a short interlude around the D and G from the chorus, a kind of breakdown section for 4 bars, before we launch into a guitar solo over the chorus chords, and then we’re into the last chorus and galloping towards the end.

Along my musical journey, I’ve mainly been interested in more, shall we say, “experimental” music. Music for the head, more than music for the body. Bands like The Beatles and Beach Boys, through XTC, Talking Heads, Bowie (of course) to more recent bands like Grandaddy and Radiohead. But as I’ve got older, I’ve gone back to listening to and enjoying more roots music, music like country, but also more straight-ahead rock and roll like this. And in doing so, I’ve come to appreciate that a great song is a great song. And I’ve especially come to appreciate and understand that there’s just as much work in a song like this, as there is in any of the more complex and non-standard songs that have been my staple fare. Highway to Hell only has 3 chords. But with what they do around those 3 chords, AC/DC approach perfection.

© Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.

There are endless versions of this around the net (Youtube etc.), from more recent live performances with Axel Rose, back to very early live performances on TV etc. It always sounds pretty much exactly the same. And why not?

1979 live performance on German TV, not long after the song was first recorded. Interesting to see the very early use of wireless systems, which allowed Angus to wander around the audience:

 

From the Black Ice Tour (2009), the last tour that featured the 4 original musicians (2 x Young, Rudd, Williams). 30 years of playing the same song together sounds like this (with Brian Johnson instead of Bon Scott on vocals of course):

 

© Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.

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Peter Crosbie

Musician, Producer, Mix and Recording Engineer

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