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AC/DC's Big Score

How a past-its-prime band fabricated a phenomenon.

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When I was 9 years old, AC/DC's Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (which had been released seven years earlier, in 1976) caused much trauma and fascination when my eyes settled on its cover art. The epitome of subtle menace, it shows normal people crowding a motel parking lot, eyes obscured by black "porn-tangles." Then I came across the quartet's 1978 live album, If You Want Blood, You've Got It, its cover photo depicting guitarist Angus Young self-impaled on the neck of his Gibson SG. After one listen, I was convinced that AC/DC's guitarist had committed suicide onstage as the last note was struck.

Fast forward to October 2008, when AC/DC managed the improbable: to once again release an album that scared the hell out of me. This time, the fear had nothing to do with lyrics, sound, or cover art. The album is Black Ice, big news only to those who awoke from a six-month coma yesterday. You probably know about the album in large part because of its peculiar promotional campaign.

The arrival of a new AC/DC album has long been an unremarkable event. But the arrival of this 15th studio album by the band evoked a terrifying future world that wouldn't be out of place in a Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick story. During the last months of 2008, the music industry, the mainstream media, and the music-buying public joined forces. To a distant society in another part of the world, it might have looked like Americans were buying one album from one retailer for fear of electrocution by government-mandated shock-collars. Take out the shock-collar part, and you're getting warm.

In June 2008, it was announced that Walmart would have stateside exclusivity with the release of the as-yet-untitled album. This move placed AC/DC in the company of Garth Brooks, the Eagles, and Journey.

AC/DC, the band that once mastered the ham-fisted single/double entendre in the form of such playground naughtiness as "Big Balls," "Girl's Got Rhythm (The Backseat Rhythm)," "Whole Lotta Rosie," "Love at First Feel," and "The Jack"?

AC/DC, the band with a 1979 hit song and album titled "Highway to Hell" (with guitarist Young donning prosthetic devil horns on the album cover, no less)?

AC/DC, the band that sang about "Hell's Bells" in the literal rather than exclamatory sense?

This is all worth a mild chuckle when considering what's been banned from Walmart to date: Maxim, FHM, and Stuff magazines were banned forever — deemed "too racy." Individual issues of Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated, and Vibe have been pulled due to certain cover images. Usually, all it takes is the threat of banishment to make an artist censor an album for Walmart. Nirvana famously changed the line "rape me" to "waif me" so that the largest music retailer in the world would allow In Utero on the shelves. John Mellencamp okayed the airbrushing of the angel and devil imagery from his 1983 album Uh-Huh, and Walmart will not carry any title stickered with the "Parental Advisory" warning.

Even more recent AC/DC titles would attract scrutiny. The second single released from the Rick Rubin-produced Ballbreaker (1995) was a song called "Cover You in Oil." Not an ode to Jiffy Lube's "Early Bird Special," the track is four-and-a-half minutes of vocalist Brian Johnson expounding upon the stomach-emptying implication of the title.

Conversely, AC/DC is a band peopled with old guys who continue to make a reasonable facsimile of the '75–'83 heyday that forever established the quartet. Many AC/DC fans have a spouse, two too many kids, a flag waving in the yard, and a bank preparing to foreclose on a cramped zero lot-line that "seemed like a good idea six years ago, before the check-cashing places and Dollar Generals started popping up." And this illustrates the main reason why Walmart is willing to overlook whatever past associations AC/DC may have with unsavory subjects: a focus on the bottom line.

And focus Walmart did.

Assaulting the public with a blunt-force media campaign rivaling what CNN affords a natural disaster or terrorist attack, the tag team of Walmart, Columbia Records, and MTV made sure no household remained unaware of Black Ice's arrival. In September, an "AC/DC" channel was debuted by both Sirius and XM. The official release week of October 20th saw stores in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago morphing into "Rock Again AC/DC Stores" and "AC/DC Rock Band Stores" (to capitalize on the band's own version of the Rock Band video game). Spacious center sections of each store were dedicated to Black Ice, the album played loudly over a P.A. system, and special "Black Ice" trucks peddled the album as it blasted from mounted loudspeakers.

The sheer capacity of this promotional campaign was a dangerous crapshoot in this limping economy, one that could just as easily have taken a bite out of the Columbia/Walmart backside.

In the U.S., Black Ice sold almost 200,000 copies on October 20th alone. Five days later, the album had shipped over 5 million copies worldwide and shattered the record books by debuting at #1 in a whopping 29 countries, making it the biggest debut week ever by a hard-rock band since the introduction of the Nielsen SoundScan tracking system in 1991. In the U.K., Black Ice's registered an approximate 777 percent increase over the last AC/DC album (Stiff Upper Lip) in terms of first-day sales. As of this writing, Black Ice has sold 6 million copies worldwide.

AC/DC

Friday, January 30th

FedExForum

7:30 p.m.; tickets $64.50 and $89.50

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