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40 Years Later, 'Highway to Hell' Is Bigger than AC/DC

The Australian hard rockers’ final album with singer Bon Scott lives on as part of the shared soundtrack of our modern lives.

by Gary Suarez
Jul 26 2019, 1:41pm

Fin Costello/Getty Images

Supported by Sony

When looking back on the past decade of popular culture, nothing seems more impactful than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Beyond the massive box office gains, comic book heavies like Captain America and Thor changed the very definition of a blockbuster. The regional conventions that once catered primary to nerdy collectors are now essential promotional opportunities for rolling out and hyping Hollywood movies and television shows depicting superhero sagas, sci-fi fantasias, and more.

But before Marvel Studios could show off by giving feature film treatment to lesser-known comics like Captain Marvel and Ant-Man, it first had to prove itself by making Iron Man a movie star. With Robert Downey Jr. in the titular role and Swingers scribe Jon Favreau behind the camera, the duo accomplished precisely that with the 2008 flick, prompting a 2010 sequel. Drawing from the director’s youth and his excitement at seeing them live in the new millennium, both movies employed the music of Australian hard rock act AC/DC to accompany key scenes and add detail to the shallow billionaire flying around in a high-tech suit of armor.

Iron Man 2 upped the ante by devoting a corresponding soundtrack entirely to the band’s music, something Tony Stark himself would assuredly have approved of. Of the 15 songs that make up the project, which went on to earn RIAA gold certification, two came from 1979’s Highway To Hell: ”If You Want Blood (You Got It)” and the title track. A multi-platinum headbanging classic and the band’s final album with original singer Bon Scott, the record was largely unknown to a significant portion of the movie-going audience, whose attendance led to a $312 million dollar domestic gross more or less matched sales in the rest of the world.

Given the youthful demographic Iron Man 2 so successfully courted, the deliberate choice by Marvel and Favreau—by definition a Gen-Xer—to slot a legacy rock 'n' roll band into a PG-13 smash assuredly served to introduce their music to a new generation of listeners. As children on playgrounds and in backyards act out their MCU dreams, not infrequently wearing kid-sized Iron Man gear and incredible Hulk hands, it couldn’t be clearer that AC/DC’s legacy, and that of the now four decades old Highway To Hell, has outgrown the musical medium. While those born in the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s still had terrestrial radio and physical media as part of the sonic fabric of their lives, Gen Z-ers and young digital natives largely know AC/DC songs from the way they’ve permeated, populated, and persisted in the entertainment landscape of their own lifetimes.

Of course, Iron Man wasn’t the first film or franchise to turn to Highway To Hell’s heavy metal thunder for inspiration. Prior to 1995, AC/DC didn't register at the cinema, though 1993’s Last Action Hero flop with Arnold Schwarzenegger did give them some shine when new single “Big Gun” did well enough to reach No. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1995, the seminal alt-rock flick Empire Records poked light fun at the looming generational divide while demonstrating the band’s continuing appeal in a smirk-worthy scene where the store manager played by Anthony LaPaglia retreats to his office to drum along with “If You Want Blood” while his employees pantomime, shout along, and thrash about unbeknownst to him.

Beyond Highway To Hell, other iconic AC/DC songs like “Back In Black” and “Thunderstruck” regularly found their way into films in the 2000s and 2010s that catered to tweens, teens, and twentysomethings, as well as relatively more mature comedies like Bridesmaids. Yet this album in particular always found its way back to the movies. In the midst of post- Saturday Night Live stardom, Adam Sandler used “Highway To Hell” in the satanic farce Little Nicky (2000) and “If You Want Blood” in his remake of prison football comedy The Longest Yard (2005). The latter song also ended up in The Dukes Of Hazzard (2005) and Final Destination 5(2011).

At the same time, television’s increasing ubiquity as the entertainment medium of choice provided AC/DC and Highway To Hell with even more exposure opportunities. From procedural dramas like Criminal Minds and prestige hourlongs like Billions to animated sitcoms Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons, their booming tunes found a home. Specifically, “Highway To Hell” suited the good-natured motel dweller antics of My Name Is Earl, the acerbic dramedic wit of House, and the hauntingly implausible Sleepy Hollow. The folks behind The CW’s long-running dark fantasy soap Supernatural took a real shine to the band, showcasing them in ten separate instances from its “Highway To Hell” infused 2005 pilot to more recent appearances like a 2018 episode with “If You Want Blood.” CBS’ Hawaii Five-O reboot relied on the band five times, while Seth MacFarlane managed a trio of placements across American Dad and Family Guy. Furthermore, wrestling fans found AC/DC music as a staple of the soundtracks to big televised WWE and ECW events like SummerSlam, Wrestlemania, and the Survivor Series.

Gamers know AC/DC very well, too. A franchise that deserves its own article, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater gave the band their first notable video game entry in the fourth volume in 2002 with a “TNT” inclusion. That series did so much to get young listeners tuned into a wide range of sounds, as did Grand Theft Auto. “Touch Too Much” featured on GTA IV: The Lost and Damned and in the Episodes From Liberty City expansion pack.

What exactly is it about AC/DC that makes them such mainstays for producers, showrunners, games developers, and music supervisors after all these years? The presupposed age of those making the decisions around the bulk of what comes out of our entertainment meccas no doubt counts the band among their youthful influences, be that as direct contemporaries or through the medium of classic rock radio. But apart from that, the ways in which songs like “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Hells Bells,” and “Shoot To Thrill” have fit the tenor of such a disparate range of programs and projects suggests something unique about the band, even among their generational peers. According to IMDB, AC/DC boast roughly four times the placements of Judas Priest (“Breaking The Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”) and Iron Maiden (“The Number Of The Beast,” “Run To The Hills”) across media types, and nearly twice as many as Van Halen (“Jump,” “Panama”).

With their songs having transcended the functional efficacy of turning aging rock listeners on, the ever-presence of AC/DC to our modern lives likely has to do with their relatability, lyrically as well as sonically. The themes of Highway To Hell, that quintessential document of hedonistic self-destruction, are far more accessible than the Tolkien footnotes of Led Zeppelin, less ominous than Black Sabbath, nowhere near as conceptually complex than Rush. The band’s consistent holistic purity in the celebration of rock for rock’s sake means that Scott’s words hit as hard as the riffs and power chords of the Young brothers, as hard as the formidable rhythm section of Phil Rudd Cliff Williams.

This almost ascetic devotion is often attempted in rock and very rarely accomplished in any genuinely impactful way. (Maybe the Ramones came closest.) But in the end, AC/DC did the damn work and continue to do so. Even the latest MCU film, Spider-Man Far From Home, borrows “Back In Black,” a homage to the titular hero’s fallen fatherly mentor. At a time when other musical forms dominate the landscape, exposing these young Iron Man fanatics to “Highway To Hell” can only further benefit the legacy of the band and the longevity of rock.

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bon scott
ac/dc