Back In Black: The Story Behind AC/DC’s Tribute to Bon Scott

From the tragic passing of frontman Bon Scott to the defiant black shroud of its cover, “Back In Black” weaves a narrative of grief, strength, and unwavering spirit.

The image is a split composition with two distinct parts: On the left, the iconic 'Back In Black' album cover by AC/DC featuring the band's logo in white on a stark black background. On the right, Bon Scott, the band's original lead singer, is shown on stage in a live performance, wearing a sleeveless denim jacket and light blue jeans, with hands on hips and a confident stance, embodying the rock spirit.
“Back In Black” album cover and Bon Scott
Key Takeaways
  • “Back In Black” was created as a tribute to Bon Scott, AC/DC’s late lead singer, symbolizing resilience and perseverance after his death.
  • The album featured a distinctive all-black cover as a sign of mourning, a choice that faced initial resistance but became iconic.
  • Scott’s death, a significant loss for the band, led to the album’s creation, marking a pivotal moment in AC/DC’s history.

The Resilient Genesis of “Back In Black”

In the wake of tragedy, the essence of resilience often shapes the most profound creative expressions. This was certainly the case for AC/DC’s “Back In Black,” the band’s seventh studio album, which emerged as a phoenix from the ashes of grief and loss. Released on July 25, 1980, by Albert Productions and Atlantic Records, “Back In Black” wasn’t just another album in the band’s discography; it was a bold statement of perseverance and tribute.

The album’s creation, set against the backdrop of the sun-drenched Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, took place from April to May 1980. But the story of “Back In Black” is deeply intertwined with a preceding event that shook the rock world: the untimely passing of Bon Scott, AC/DC’s charismatic frontman. Remarkably, the group commenced work on the record a mere three days after Scott’s funeral, driven by Malcolm Young’s conviction to move forward. This decision was more than just a step towards healing; it was a defiant stand against the engulfing shadow of mourning.

Choosing not to use any of Bon Scott’s pre-written material for “Back In Black” was a conscious decision to honor his memory without capitalizing on his tragedy.

In a notable departure, the album didn’t feature any of Bon Scott’s previously written material. This decision, grounded in a profound respect for Scott’s legacy, was made to avoid any semblance of capitalizing on his tragic departure. Instead, Brian Johnson, who stepped into the enormous shoes left by Scott, penned all the lyrics and melodies for the album. His contributions would not only honor Scott’s memory but also mark the beginning of a new era for AC/DC.

The Bold Statement of Album’s Cover

Transitioning from the emotional genesis of AC/DC’s “Back In Black,” the album’s physical manifestation tells a story equally compelling and significant. The choice of an all-black album cover was a deliberate and poignant decision, symbolizing the band’s state of mourning for their late singer, Bon Scott, who had been a cornerstone of AC/DC’s sound and identity from 1974 until his untimely death on February 19, 1980, due to acute alcohol poisoning. This cover, emerging just months after Scott’s passing, stood as a somber tribute to the fallen frontman.

This artistic decision, however, was met with resistance from Atlantic Records, the band’s record label. The label saw the all-black cover as a divergence from the norm, potentially diminishing the album’s visual appeal and marketability. The band, however, perceived it as a necessary expression of their grief and respect for Scott, thus standing firmly by their choice.

In defiance of the norm, AC/DC’s all-black album cover emerged not only as a symbol of mourning but also as a statement of artistic integrity and resilience.

In a move that demonstrated both resilience and compromise, AC/DC proposed a subtle yet effective alteration to the design. By applying raised lettering to the cover, which revealed the band’s name and album title in large fonts when tilted in light, they offered a solution that retained the album’s mournful essence while addressing the label’s concerns. This compromise was further solidified with the inclusion of a grey outline around the AC/DC logo, a slight concession that would ultimately contribute to the cover’s iconic status.

Despite initial hesitations, the all-black (accented with grey) cover design did not just stand out; it became a defining image in the pantheon of music history. The album cover, often featured on lists celebrating the best album cover designs ever released, resonated with audiences far and wide. Its stark contrast to the vibrant visuals typical of rock albums at the time underscored the band’s unyielding spirit and their profound sense of loss for Bon Scott.

The Tragic Loss of Bon Scott

The story of “Back In Black” is inexorably linked to the tragic fate of Bon Scott, whose untimely demise cast a long and somber shadow over the album’s creation. Scott, the charismatic lead vocalist and lyricist for AC/DC, had been a driving force behind the band’s ascent to international fame from 1974 until his death on February 19, 1980. The official cause of death was acute alcohol poisoning, but surrounding circumstances and Scott’s personal struggles painted a more complex and distressing picture of his final days.

On that fateful night in London, Scott was found dead in his car, having asphyxiated on his own vomit after a night of heavy drinking. This occurred during a time when London was grappling with a dangerous influx of heroin, a substance that posed a significant risk to Scott, especially considering his state at the time. Despite the speculation of other contributing factors, Scotland Yard announced Scott’s death with no suspicious circumstances, and Coroner Sir Montague Levine ruled it a “death of misadventure.”

Bon Scott’s passing not only marked a profound loss for AC/DC but also echoed as a somber reminder of the perils that often shadow the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Scott’s battle with alcoholism was well-known, marked by a history that included two heroin overdoses by the age of 30. His public persona was one of charm and wit, yet those closest to him knew of his inner turmoil, tiredness of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and bouts of depression. Despite his love for literature, exemplified by his admiration for authors like Doris Lessing and Colette, and his enjoyment of music from bands like The Pretenders and Steely Dan, Scott struggled with the unpredictability and identity crises that often accompany life in the limelight. His romantic life, marked by a yearning for stability, contrasted sharply with the chaos of his professional world.

By early 1980, those around him observed a discernible change in Scott; he appeared haggard and emotionally vulnerable, even amidst AC/DC’s burgeoning success. His death left a void in the world of rock music and within the band that had become synonymous with his voice and lyrics.

In the wake of this immense loss, AC/DC faced a crossroads: the possibility of disbanding loomed large. However, the decision to continue, fueled by the encouragement of Scott’s parents, set the stage for “Back In Black.” This album would not only serve as a tribute to Scott but also as a testament to the resilience and enduring spirit of the band. In honoring their fallen bandmate, AC/DC affirmed their commitment to their music, their fans, and the legacy that Bon Scott had helped to build.