As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, hard rock and progressive bands were taking serious stock, re-inventing sounds that had sustained them and, for fans, defined an era. The list of bands who turned the corner of the 1980s influenced by punk and disco and new wave is long, and includes many touchstone bands of prog and heavy rock: Yes, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones, REO Speedwagon, Supertramp, Moody Blues, Chicago, Judas Priest. Songs became shorter, tighter, glossed in reverb and electronics. In an odd way the 1960s really ended around 1979-80. It was a death knell for bands unable to adapt to the FM version of the pop single.
Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s hindsight, but looking back at those handful of years I find it fascinating that three of rock’s great survivors — AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Rush — issued essential work in this time of transition. You won’t find three bands on the harder side of the rock spectrum to be more different, but the creative spark feeding each of them isn’t dissimilar. Aussie rockers AC/DC, considered up to this time mostly a snotty and raucous punk band (believe it or not), issued their landmark Highway to Hell in August 1979, redefining the sound of hard rock. Lead singer Bon Scott promptly made good on his self-destructive promise in February 1980, and the band turned on a dime, hiring Brian Johnson and releasing their best record, Back in Black, that July. Black Sabbath had jettisoned Ozzie Osbourne in 1979, and taken on Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, releasing the pop metal beauty Heaven and Hell in April 1980 and its equally excellent follow up, Mob Rules, in November 1981. Rush, on the heels of its long-form prog titan Hemispheres, cut song length, distilled their pop hooks, and issued Permanent Waves in January 1980, to be followed by their widely acknowledged masterpiece, Moving Pictures, in February 1981. That each of these bands continued producing consistently good and sometimes great work, and toured, well into the 2000-teens, comes down to the dynamic that kept them artistically and commercially viable in 1979-1981.
AC/DC’s output in the 1970s was unique, an amplified, dirty, dangerous version of Chuck Berry roots rock as set in a Down Under pub. Bon Scott considered his group a punk band, with good reason. Their sound, stripped and lean, had little to do with the increasingly orchestral tendency of European prog or the overt commercial leanings of softening American rock. Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young’s wiry electric playing punctuated Scott’s leering Puckish howl, and had way more in common with the Stooges or the New York Dolls than the Stones or Zep. Songs like “TNT,” “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap),” and “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock’n’Roll),” say it all. 1979’s Highway To Hell was a massive leap, bolstering the sonics and tightening the pop songcraft, always in their songs while losing none of the visceral dirty-ness, lyrically and musically. AC/DC’s stock-in-trade innuendo was always meant to make you blush, make you laugh, and make you mad (objectification of women in rock is, no doubt, a double-pronged devil), all trumped by making you rock. Scott’s ode to miscreantism, the title track brims with cocksure attitude, and was echoed 11 months later on Back in Black’s “Hell’s Bells.”
“Hells Bells”and “Back in Black” were both tributes to Scott and a declaration of a new direction. Where Highway to Hell and its predecessors were all punk-ish attitude and like Scott teetered on a precarious edge, Back in Black had a metal edge, was decidedly mid-tempo, ready for the sports bar and dance floor. Producer Mutt Lange, who had also shepherded Highway to Hell, mined gold. Back in Black was the second best-selling record of the 1980s, and for certain, it contains some of the best straight-ahead riff rockers you can imagine, facing its detractors without blinking.
Black Sabbath’s first six albums are legendary things indeed. In recent years they’ve come to signify the creation myth of heavy metal, and continue to be the genre’s gold standard. Sabbath’s last two records of the ‘70s with Ozzy Osbourne, though, were a mixed bag — tired, coked up, a bit lost (nothing against them: let’s recall this was still the era where, if you weren’t the Eagles, you took two weeks a year to make an album then toured the other 50). So while Ozzy regrouped with Randy Rhoads, Iommi, Butler, and Ward brought in Deep Purple producer Martin Birch and vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who had worked together in Rainbow. One of the most interesting singers in rock history, Dio was already 37 years old, had fronted the band Elf across several very decent rock records then, along with Ritchie Blackmore, helped reinvent the Deep Purple sound in Rainbow, bringing full-on fantasy-inspired lyric writing to heavy rock. This approach was a knife’s edge, and for the rest of his career Dio, a consummate singer and a terrific performer, didn’t always succeed in steering the fantasy metaphors toward the sublime. The two records he made with the newly Ozzy-less, and rudderless, Black Sabbath, however, showcase his strengths as a singer, songwriter, and a bandleader: pop vocal melodies soar over the metal undertow that could be conjured only by Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler.
This iteration of Sabbath was short-lived, as Dio went on to huge success as a solo act in the 80s, but it would be hard to overestimate the inspiration he brought to the band when it was seriously on the ropes in the late ‘70s. They’d make two more studio records together, the less-than-stellar Dehumanizer in the early ‘90s, and then the true return to form in the 2000s, under the name Heaven and Hell (naturally), with a tremendous live album and then an equally great studio effort, The Devil You Know. Their 2007 tour leaned heavily on that 1980 album that gave them their name, and it’s clear the energy Dio could still bring:
For Rush fans of my vintage, who were teenagers in 1980, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures were the gateway drugs to the Rush back catalogue. Turns out those two records are the two-way mirror of the rest of Rush’s records, encapsulating the best of its past and future. Rush fans know these records intimately; I would guess since I was fourteen I’ve listened to them both several hundred times, and I revisit the pair of them every few months. For me they are inseparable, the first really heavy and difficult records I enjoyed as a kid, difficult because they were so different from anything else out there. Listening as an adult, and having experienced lots of other kinds of music since that time, I’ve been struck by several things, the first being, they are still in their way difficult, but just more familiar. Alex Lifeson’s solos, always unique in their sound, really pop with an almost avant garde tone and approach. The intro to “The Spirit of Radio” almost doesn’t make sense (almost), the solo of “Freewill” is like free jazz, and their biggest hit, “Tom Sawyer,” bristles with an angular, angry middle passage that spikes and careens over Geddy Lee’s crazy, funky bass. It restores some of my faith in humanity that these songs still get regular rotation on radio, and that Lifeson was given a gift he shared with the rest of us. The tendency on these albums — produced by Terry Brown, as were the previous Peart-era Rush records — towards shorter pieces shows growth in the sense that making a brief statement is often a greater achievement than going long. And yet the lengthier songs are among Rush’s best, “Jacob’s Ladder” containing a powerful lyric by Neil Peart, whose simpler meditations I’ve always found more compelling. “The Camera Eye,” Moving Pictures’ epic, at turns breezy and moodily dark, breathtakingly blends new wave and progressive rock.
Rush’s journey from Hemispheres to Moving Pictures is well-documented, and I think they acted as a bellwether for other bands making similar leaps, particularly Yes. Like AC/DC and Black Sabbath, Rush adapted, progressed, for quantifiable reasons (for instance, commercial survival, enlarging their market) and certainly for ones more fuzzily defined, to push boundaries that limit artistry, to feed inner fires. And in the end that’s why these bands are where they are today.