SOME PEOPLE will be aware that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is the best-selling album of all time. Few will be able to name the second-biggest hit, unless they are a fan of hard-rock music. “Back in Black” by AC/DC, which was released 40 years ago on July 25th 1980, has sold 29.4m copies. That is a way behind “Thriller” at 47.3m, but a long way clear of the all-time number three, “Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf.
“Back in Black” made AC/DC (pictured) international stars. They have been playing arenas and stadiums ever since, despite not having made a record anywhere near as good in the intervening years (more than half its tracks featured on the setlist for the band’s last world tour). It made someone else a superstar, too, even if that person never gives interviews, never appears on TV and lives a reclusive life in New Zealand.
Robert John “Mutt” Lange was 31 years old when AC/DC hired him to work as the producer of “Back in Black”. He had been making records for eight years, notably with the Boomtown Rats, and had produced AC/DC’s previous album, “Highway to Hell”. He was successful, but the success of “Back in Black” made him a phenomenon, and one of the most important and influential figures in music for the next 20 years.
The job of a record producer is somewhat nebulous. In its most simplistic form, it is to make the music an artist performs in the studio sound the way they want it to sound. For some producers, that means trying to replicate the chemistry of a live show. For others, it means reshaping the artist in their image (Phil Spector, with his rich “wall of sound”, was the first great example of this). Mr Lange fell somewhere between the two camps: he made the artists he worked with sound not like him, but a version of themselves they could not have been without him.
“Back in Black” became AC/DC’s biggest album because they were desperate for success and they gave themselves fully over to Mr Lange in their pursuit of it. Recording began in April 1980, just two months after the death of their singer, Bon Scott, and weeks after Brian Johnson had been named his replacement. Mr Lange softened their harder edges, emphasising rousing choruses and packing the songs with hooks. Where bluesy guitar riffs had previously been AC/DC’s stock in trade, Mr Lange made sure virtually every song on “Back in Black” was a singalong and that every moment was filled with detail. “Back in Black” sounds like a piece of engineering as much as a rock record, something that was to be an important part of Mr Lange’s modus operandi over the next couple of years.
The same approach brought Def Leppard success in the 1980s; with Mr Lange’s help, their albums “Pyromania” and “Hysteria” sold 22m copies in America combined. The band would write sections of music which they and Mr Lange would then transform into songs by making the very best section the chorus. “When we did the song ‘Animal’, I had this section, ‘I can feel in my blood, oh-oh-oh,’” says Phil Collen, one of Def Leppard’s two guitarists, “and Mutt's going, ‘Yeah, but that’s not good enough for a chorus. We need a chorus over the top of that. Same with ‘Hysteria’—what was originally the chorus was ‘I gotta know tonight/If you’re alone tonight,’ and he said, ‘That just sets the chorus up.’ So it’s a lot of work, and it’s a jigsaw puzzle.”
Mr Lange went on to produce The Cars’ “Heartbreak City” (certified quadruple platinum in America—ie, 4m sales), and Foreigner’s “4” (septuple platinum). He co-produced Billy Ocean’s “Tear Down These Walls” (platinum). As the 1990s began, he co-wrote Bryan Adams’s ubiquitous and record-breaking hit “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, then met and married Shania Twain, and helped her become country’s biggest crossover star. They made three albums together, selling more than 80m copies in total, with “Come On Over” becoming the ninth-most commercially successful album ever.
He still gets calls from superstars such as Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Maroon 5 and Muse who are desperate for his skills at manufacturing hits. His genius is in forcing performers to be that little bit better than they thought they could be. Perfectionism—as virtually everyone who has ever worked with Mr Lange has noted—brought its own rewards, and that perfectionism was honed on “Back in Black”. It was not just a landmark rock record, but one that offered a template on how to create hits.
By The Economist https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/07/23/for-back-in-black-the-secret-of-success-was-mutt-lange