Where do you go after the ambition and complexity of Rush? You go in the opposite direction: strip it all down to essentials. AC/DC were and remain a five-piece band — vocals, lead and rhythm guitar, bass and drums — but they sound far simpler and more straightforward than the trios of Rush or of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
It’s a Long Way to the Top is the opening track from AC/DC’s second album, T.N.T. — or their first album, if you discount the more experimental debut High Voltage, which was recorded with different personnel. It’s the song where they hit their stride.
And it really couldn’t be simpler. Almost the whole song is played on a single chord (B♭ in the studio recording, though I suspect it’s played as A and tuned up a semitone). The bass sticks resolutely to the root of that chord. The vocal tune stays almost entirely on the root of that one chord. Even the guitar solo consists mostly just of repeated three-note phrases. Really, there’s almost nothing there.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t work. It does, amazingly well. It’s infectious. Just now as I listened through it for this post, I found myself fetching my guitar to play along with it. It’s hard to prevent yourself from belting out the title line along with Bon Scott when it comes around. So there is something going on here; but heck if I know what it is.
AC/DC are often associated with bagpipes, and I was quite surprised to learn that this is actually the only song where they used them. Not only that, they’ve not played it live since 1980: after Bon Scott died, his replacement Brian Johnson refused to sing it as a mark of respect. So the association of bagpipes with AC/DC is now 34 years out of date. Still, while they do add some colour to the song, their contribution, like everything else, is stripped right down:in their first entry it’s a very simple melody that’s mostly on the fifth of the chord; and when they return at the end, it’s — you guessed it — just the root.
It’s not coincidence that this is the song used for the ending sequence of School of Rock. It’s eminently playable by kids who don’t necessarily know how to actually play the instruments — not just possible to limp through, but you can make it sound good. More than that, there’s something fundamentally good natured about this. It’s sort of cheerfully goofy. Where Born to be Wild celebrates life on the road, It’s a Long Way to the Top enumerates all the ways that being on the road is awful, then just shrugs and says, “Hey, that’s rock and roll”.
Sometimes that’s enough.