Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
The 33-1/3: Highway to Hell
By Joe Bonomo
The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. (NY / London), 2010
First, some essentials:
This is the third book I’ve had the pleasure to be reviewing by Northern Illinois University prof and music historian, Joe Bonomo. I’d like to digress and give a quick shout out to his previous two (non-fiction) books, SWEAT: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found. Both are excellent reads, and worth seeking out.
This particular book is number 73 in a series of digest sized books that Continuum Books has issued that focuses on a particular groundbreaking album that had a dramatic effect on culture. A brilliant concept, as each book is decidedly different, with the author given freedom to write about the release from their own perspective, anywhere from a straight bio to an academic polemic, to a personal reflection.
Lastly, as a “truth in publishing” statement, one of my photos appears within its pages (p. 67), and myself and this very blog is quoted extensively at least twice. As there is no such thing as objectivity, and I have no plans in leaning that way, I decided to review the book.
Bonomo has a definite style in his writing that flows in an auteur manner (so far). He is a knowledgeable participant in the history of the groups he documents, and he mixes this considerable information with his own history related to the topic, such as where he was when he first heard the 1979 AC/DC LP that would be a major US breakthrough for the Aussie band, and the last for it’s doomed lead singer, Bon Scott. Bonomo describes how the licentious nature of the music touched his teenage (i.e., horny) psyche, as well as that of the generation.
The Bon Scott period is more remembered fondly as a past moment than it was in the time of its incarnation. With new singer Brian Johnson (who still fronts the band to this day), AC/DC hit their popular stride, and can fill auditoriums across the planet, but it’s the Bon Scott era to which everyone harkens back, and Bonomo places the reader in the time of that slow, upward popularity swing of the band.
What helps make this book special is that Bonomo does not put the band on a pedestal. He looks at the music frankly, and even states which songs on the album are the weakest (and, of course, why they are such). As for Bon himself, Bonomo writes:
I won’t romanticize Bon Scott. I can’t forgive that he was a self-destructive alcoholic who drank himself to death, but I can forgive that unhappy truth, and I listen to the songs that dramatize that hazardous dancer with more than a little sympathy, and with rue at the human mistakes he made, however fun they were.
The book is formally broken into chapters that literally and figuratively mark the three chords that AC/DC relied on so heavily. We are introduced to the rise of the band, the tour before Highway to Hell’s release, the making of the album, the tour after, the effect of the death of Bon on the band and its audience, the rise of their popularity based on this album and subsequent reworking with a new singer (yet keeping their style and mojo going), and the aftermath of a world that has had AC/DC as a paradigm for rocking hard for all these years.
As Bonomo discusses the final product of Highway to Hell, he analyzes each song as he posits what the particular piece denotes and projects, and what it has meant to him over the years, using himself as the representative of his generation. As he describes each cut, I played that particular song, one by one (thank you YouTube), as if he was a tour guide taking me through the highway of AC/DC.
A topic that crops up occasionally in this analysis is one I don’t hear very often, and that is AC/DC’s occasional descriptor as “punk.” This is funny to me, as my Brooklyn crowd always associated them with the likes of the heavy anthem rock of Slade, more than, say, other Aussie punk bands of the time, such as the Saints. Yes, AC/DC were essentially three chords and their songs reveled in the sordid, but even their insisting on keeping their particular brand of rock going (as did the Ramones) gives the application of “punk” as questionable. Heck, Tom Petty’s first album was labeled as “punk” in 1976.
AC/DC is a band whose whole emphasis is fun: drinking, women, and rocking out. Bonomo keeps the flow going from history to analysis to the band as personal touchstone throughout the book, from beginning to end. Whether one is familiar with the band or not (personally, I only own their first LP, High Voltage, which I bought after seeing them play at CBGB in 1977 for $1 in a bargain bin), the story of them is still intriguing as present by Bonomo, who seemingly effortlessly flows through AC/DC’s history, their importance, and their legacy. This was an especially fun read.