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Why is AC/DC Underrated?

Gene Ulm, a partner in my wife’s firm,  points to some facts that I did not know and bet you didn’t either:

You would never know it by reading the rock-and-roll press: metal band AC/DC has sold more records in the U.S. than Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen. More than 200 million albums world-wide and trail only the Beatles as the second best selling act EVER. “Back In Black” is the second best-selling album in history — beaten only by The King of Pop’s “Thriller.” Staying power? Last year’s “Black Ice,” was the second best selling album IN THE WORLD.

I knew AC/DC had been quite popular over the decades and that “Back in Back,” which was a monster hit when I was in high school, was one of the biggest albums ever. But I had no idea that the band had sold more records than Michael Jackson domestically.

Gene cites a new book, Why AC/DC Matters, by Anthony Bozza.  Other lists have different rankings.  The RIAA actually has Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)” as the top selling album in US history with “Back in Black” a mere 5th; but the albums in third through seventh place vary between 23 and 21 million so the difference is academic.  Plus, the RIAA totals count double albums as two units, skewing the results.

As to the best-selling artists, these lists vary as well and it’s virtually impossible to get accurate figures. Jackson’s sales have exploded since his recent death; he’ll overtake everyone by the time the next list comes out.

Regardless, there’s not much doubt that AC/DC has endured in popularity for going on forty years despite drastic changes in the field of popular music and the death of the lead singer who first brought them to international acclaim.  And they’ve done so without the aid of ballads, which are much more likely to generate enduring hits that cross genres.  Further, as Gene notes, “the band did all this while being virtually ignored by the music press. They’ve never won a Grammy or MTV Music Award and have only been on the cover of Rolling Stone twice in 35 years.”

Even the likes of KISS and Metallica ultimately earned critical acclaim over time — simple respect for lasting success.  For whatever reason, that’s eluded AC/DC.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s a Long Way to the Top, recently re-popularized in a cover by Jack Black in School of Rock, is one of theirs. AC/DC’s version is one of the few rock songs I know that features a bagpipe solo.

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  2. BigFire says:

    I don’t think they care about critical acclaim. They’re making too much money to worry about that. As for their lasting popularity, they are a very simple fundamental rock’n’roll bar band, and never pretend to be anything more. Sure their stage show is gigantic, but ultimately it’s a bar band that found their niche, which is audience looking for old fashion song.

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  3. GS says:

    The simplicity and sheer f’in rockability of AC/DC and the Stones is what has given them their popularity through the years, IMO.

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  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Hells bells, I am thunderstruck by your assertion. Be careful, I am capable of dirty deads done dirt cheap. After all Rock and roll ain’t noise polution. You must be on the hiway to hell. What do you want? A mistress for christmas? What do you do for money honey, give that dog a bone? Thats TNT, you got The Jack? But that is what happens when you are on the Razors Edge. Are you ready? Well, shake a leg and have a drink on me. I’m back in black.

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  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Play all those songs. Underrated? By whom?

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  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Joyner, you do make some incredible statements. If you think they are under rated. Try to go to one of their concerts. Are you just a contrary? Do you think the Eagles, as good as they are match the popularity AC/DC has world wide? RIAA does not track the UK or Australia. Just wondering if we are not limiting our scope here.

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  7. JKB says:

    ZR, I believe if you take time to comprehend the post, you’ll find that James was not proffering that AC/DC was not popular or successful. Rather he was commenting that although they have enjoyed capitalist success and popularity among listeners, they have not received acclaim or recognition from the so called music elite.

    Fortunately, AC/DC arose in a time of capitalist America where the opinion of elites can ease the road to success, even to the point of promoting frauds and marginal “acts”, but their opinion was not the last word. AC/DC took the hard road and developed a success measurable in free market dollars and by the attendance of their concerts. On wonders if, under the new regime, such artists will be afforded even the hard road or if all roads will be manned by the “betters” to save the populace from choosing an unsanctioned alternative.

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  8. tom p says:

    I remember, when I was in my late teens or early twenties, I said to my mother (speaking about a Stones/Beatles/Dylan/Hendricks tune)(this was mid to late ’70’s), “MOM…. It’s a classic!”

    She said simply, “Will it be played in 2… 300 years? Like Mozart, Beethoven, or Hayden? Until that happens, it is not a ‘classic'”.

    I shut up, because I had no reply. IF AC-DC is still being played in 2-300 yrs, they will have stood the test of time. If not… they are nothing more than a flash in the pan of our times.

    Meanwhile, don’t bother me with “How great they are…” because, quite plain and simply, they ain’t.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    IF AC-DC is still being played in 2-300 yrs, they will have stood the test of time. If not… they are nothing more than a flash in the pan of our times.

    That seems a rather silly criterion. First, there wasn’t much competition in Classical times, comparatively. A handful of stars of that time became annointed and remain the representatives of that era.

    Rock and Roll has now been around more than half a century. Elvis is still being played 32 years after his death and more than 50 years after his breakout. The Stones are going strong 45 years after their breakout. AC/DC is relatively new but even they’ve been at it since 1974, a period of 35 years.

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  10. Just to second something ZR said… AC/DC is quite possibly the best concert I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve been to some good ones. If you’re even halfway a fan and you get a chance to go, take it. You won’t regret it.

    Oh, but bring some earplugs. You’ll need them – that show was also the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in my life.

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  11. Franklin says:

    I have, only once before, been made aware of their stunning success. In the meantime, how many times have you heard about the success of Thriller, or how many number one hits the Beatles had? JJ is correct that it has they are completely underrated by the media.

    Now mind you, even though I have a 120Gb iPod, I almost didn’t even rip Razor’s Edge because there’s not a song on it that I like. Back In Black is, of course, a completely different story – classic. I haven’t listened to any newer stuff.

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  12. JT says:

    This

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  13. sam says:

    Another unheralded story from the annals of rock and roll.

    When I was in the Marines, I had to pull guard duty from time to time; this was in 1961-62. Sometimes I had to do a stint in a tower in an high-security area. When I had to pull the 12 midnight to 4 AM, I would sometimes sneak a radio out with me (officers asleep, sergeant of the guard asleep…). I’d pick up this 50,000 watt station from Del Rio, Texas. The station was in Del Rio, but the transmitter was in Mexico, because I believe at that time, you couldn’t have a 50,000 watt transmitter in the US. I think that station was the first station Wolfman Jack was on. I’d also pick up stations in Mexico, and one in particular played nothing but rock and roll performed by Mexican bands. That was some of the best R&R I’ve ever heard. They sang in Spanish, but the music was pure balls to the wall rock and roll. I’ve often wondered what happened to those guys. They could really cook.

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  14. Mr. Prosser says:

    “Rock and Roll has now been around more than half a century. Elvis is still being played 32 years after his death and more than 50 years after his breakout. The Stones are going strong 45 years after their breakout. AC/DC is relatively new but even they’ve been at it since 1974, a period of 35 years” Absolutely true. Rock is, IMO, the first multi-generational art form. I can’t name more than a few Swing era big bands even though I was born at the tail end of the era. But I work in middle school and the kids and I can talk about Joan Jett, AC/DC, Stones, the Dead, Janis Joplin, you name ’em, and have a common understanding and appreciation.

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  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    If it ain’t Maiden it ain’t ****!!!!!!!

    Up the Irons from OTB!!!!!!

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  16. just me says:

    I can’t name more than a few Swing era big bands even though I was born at the tail end of the era. But I work in middle school and the kids and I can talk about Joan Jett, AC/DC, Stones, the Dead, Janis Joplin, you name ’em, and have a common understanding and appreciation.

    I think this is very true. I don’t think I could have discussed much about the music (swing/big band) with my mom, but I can discuss the bands I grew up with and my kids like and listen to a lot of them.

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  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    Maybe they are underrated because they are a Christian band?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98I85ceICRM

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  18. tom p says:

    “That seems a rather silly criterion. First, there wasn’t much competition in Classical times, comparatively. A handful of stars of that time became annointed and remain the representatives of that era.”

    James, James, James, James, James….

    They compete not only with the stars of that era, but the stars of this era… and all era’s in between.

    Beethoven stopped writing music in 1773…. We still play his stuff in 2009…

    AC-DC? Give me a break… History tells the tale, and seeing as neither you nor I will be around to bear witness to this history…. Do you really think AC-DC will come up with something to compare to Beethoven’s 9th?

    James, let us face it, I have been going at it 51 plus years, does that make me a “classic”????

    (some would say so, but most would say “No repeats!”)

    James, I don’t know how to say this but I will do my best: Ahhhhh never mind…. Anybody who thinks AC/DC measures up to Beethoven hasn’t got a clue.

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  19. James Joyner says:

    Anybody who thinks AC/DC measures up to Beethoven hasn’t got a clue.

    It’s apples and oranges. AC/DC is a band that writes and performs music. Beethoven was a composer whose music long ago passed into public domain and can therefore be performed for free.

    Does Beethoven have a wider appeal? Sure. It’s elevator music. But it’s not as if millions of people are still paying top dollar to buy CDs of his work.

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  20. Drew says:

    The rock gods put AC/DC in the penalty box with a life sentence without parole for Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.

    All bands have their stinkers, but really…..

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  21. James Joyner says:

    The rock gods put AC/DC in the penalty box with a life sentence without parole for Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.

    All bands have their stinkers, but really…..

    Compounding the problem is that, while it was recorded and released in Australia before the success of “Back in Black,” it was released internationally as the follow-up album. While the title track was terrific and “Big Balls” and “No Fun” were okay, it was rather a disappointment after the epic success of “Back in Black.”

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  22. Alex Knapp says:

    Does Beethoven have a wider appeal? Sure. It’s elevator music.

    Being rich, vibrant, and full of mathematic and emotional complexity is elevator music?

    But it’s not as if millions of people are still paying top dollar to buy CDs of his work.

    Then why have, according to Amazon, have there been over 300 (I got bored when I hit 300) CDs featuring Beethoven’s music released THIS YEAR ALONE?

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  23. James Joyner says:

    Being rich, vibrant, and full of mathematic and emotional complexity is elevator music?

    It’s inoffensive. Most people aren’t excited about classical but few are annoyed by it. Hard rock, by contrast, is a love or hate thing.

    Then why have, according to Amazon, have there been over 300 (I got bored when I hit 300) CDs featuring Beethoven’s music released THIS YEAR ALONE?

    It’s free and everyone’s heard of him. If you’re an instrumental musician, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and a handful of others are what you play.

    It’s not like there are a lot of commercially viable stations playing this stuff. Rather, it’s usually NPR outlets that play it at all.

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  24. Drew says:

    I was actually referring to the title track. But I learned a long time ago to live and let live when it comes to musical tastes.

    However, when I lived in Connecticut my house was fairly close to Keith Richards place, and I ran into him a couple times at local establishments. I asked him once why they continued to play that awful Start Me Up. With a knowing smile he just said “never lose the effing crowd pleasers, mate.”

    So there you have it.

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  25. James Joyner says:

    I was actually referring to the title track. But I learned a long time ago to live and let live when it comes to musical tastes.

    It’s not one of my favorites but I enjoyed it as a high school freshman.

    I asked him once why they continued to play that awful Start Me Up. With a knowing smile he just said “never lose the effing crowd pleasers, mate.”

    True. “Tattoo You” was a great album that I never liked that song. It was a huge hit, though, and the Microsoft commercial likely made the Stones richer than any of their albums.

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  26. Drew says:

    Exile gets all the artistic rave (deservedly so) but in live concerts all on Tattoo but Black Limo, Tops and Heaven get reasonably heavy play. Slave being the best blues/funk offering with the best start by the Riff Man.

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  27. tom p says:

    If you’re an instrumental musician, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and a handful of others are what you play.

    Seriously, James, you need to climb out of that closet you have been living in. There is a wealth of “instrumental” music to be listened to, and Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart’s names aren’t on any of it. Jazz, Blues, Classical, Mountain, Bluegrass, and yes, even Rock.

    I don’t know if AC-DC is good or not(they do not flip my whistle) but good music is translatable.

    Ever hear Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” by ELP? It works. “Back in Black” with full orchestration? I just don’t see it.

    It’s apples and oranges. AC/DC is a band that writes and performs music. Beethoven was a composer whose music long ago passed into public domain and can therefore be performed for free.

    Yes it is “apples and oranges”, one has been around for 200+ yrs the other…. What? 20? 30?

    As to the “elevator” music comment… Alex said all that need be said. I only add that,

    you need to climb out of that closet you have been living in.

    Go to the symphony. You won’t be sorry.

    When it comes to…

    It’s not like there are a lot of commercially viable stations playing this stuff.

    Ahhh yes, the least common denominator: “I don’t know music, but I know what I like.” Let me just say that people who listen to AC-DC tune out the commercials, while people who listen to Beethoven actually put their money where their ears are.

    tom

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  28. Drew says:

    “Ever hear Mussorgsky’s (sic) “Pictures at an Exhibition” by ELP? It works.”

    Yes. And no it doesn’t. It sucks.

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  29. […] That’s why it sells. […]

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  30. James Joyner says:

    There is a wealth of “instrumental” music to be listened to, and Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart’s names aren’t on any of it. Jazz, Blues, Classical, Mountain, Bluegrass, and yes, even Rock.

    You’re saying that classical music isn’t instrumental? Bluegrass tends to be accompanied by vocals, although the instrumentation is usually better than the signing.

    “Back in Black” with full orchestration? I just don’t see it.

    Again, “Back in Black” is a song with vocals. But, yes, I suspect it would work with orchestration. Lots of good rock, including hard rock, has been done with orchestration.

    Yes it is “apples and oranges”, one has been around for 200+ yrs the other…. What? 20? 30?

    I’ve already done the math for you earlier in the thread. Rock has been around since at least 1956, making it more than half a century old. AC/DC has been around since 1973, so 36 years. They’ve therefore stood the test of generations. Elvis and Chuck Berry have passed from grandparent to grandchild and withstood the change. AC/DC is more taste-specific, so it’ll never have that sort of universal appeal. But, certainly, several of their hits will still be enjoyed by new generations decades from now.

    Beethoven hasn’t gotten more popular in the past 150 years. Will people still be listening to it 150 years from now? Probably so. It’s good. But it’s also anointed in the way Shakespeare is – popular culture from one era marked as a permanent classic.

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