AC/DC’s Worst Album?: Not what you think it is….

Cover of "Fly on the Wall"

Technically it's a fence...The cover of "Fly on the Wall"

There are some records I own that I think are great, despite all evidence to the contrary. The album might have had a critical mauling akin to Spinal Tap‘s “Shark Sandwich“, it might not be fit to hold a candle to the band’s previous efforts, and it might, to all intents and purposes, have been disowned by the band that recorded it. And yet…

All three of the above criteria apply to Fly on the Wall by AC/DC. It recently even featured in Classic Rock Magazine’s “Top 50 worst albums” feature as a classic example of a rotten album made by a great band. Think Tin Machine, or Born-Again Dylan…

“a joyless effort that slips down like a shot of cold porridge” they smirked, whilst acknowledging the “redeeming track” of Sink The Pink

Nonsense.

It is a very raw record, recorded in the years after the band got tired of Mutt Lange‘s polished production techniques on For Those About to Rock…The same Mutt Lange, incidentally who ended up producing (and marrying) Shania Twain. AC/DC doing “That Don’t Impress Me Much“? (shudders)…it doesn’t bear thinking about…

Fly, and its predecessor, Flick of the Switch are rough, unpolished and under-produced. They are also so much better for it.

I bought the record without hearing it. It was a £5.99 gamble. I knew AC/DC were famous however – their name was sewn on the back of countless denim jackets, so fifty thousand headbangers (a group of people often overlooked for the quality of their needlework) can’t be wrong, right? The cover was promising: a cartoon fly on a cartoon wooden wall, (NB. a wooden wall, technically speaking is a fence. I guess “Fly on the Fence” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…).

When I put it on for the first time, my heart sank. What was this? It was nothing like that clip of “Let There be Rock” that I’d heard. The singer was unintelligible, apart from anything else – sounding like Macy Gray giving the hairdryer treatment to Southend United’s back four after a particularly poor performance. I played it to a friend who looked at me oddly…”What have you bought here…?” his eyes were saying…”that was six quid down the drain…”

Very soon, however, it began to click into place. That guitar sound was immense! Those huge riffs! The song that convinced me was on Side Two, Track One. Going by the unpromising title of “Playin’ with Girls“, the song is all about the bubbling, heavier-than-Simon-Cowell’s-Wallet riff.

The whole record appeals to my inner caveman.

The album was accompanied by a five track VHS video set in a bar similar to the one in the Patrick Swayze film Roadhouse, with the band performing whilst various goings on took place in the foreground like a mini soap opera set to music. It’s as bad as it sounds. During “Sink the Pink” – a song I reliably informed my parents was about billiards – a red-headed girl plays a game of pool and then breaks out into a bizarre ’80s Fame-style dance. The whole thing had a plot thinner than Posh Spice, and about as much acting ability.

It did, however, feature Angus Young‘s schoolboy act, and that is about ten times more entertaining than most bands – and is all you really need from an AC/DC video.

Record #33: AC/DC  – Playing with Girls

PS. What do you think their worst album is? Have I called this wrong?



Categories: Hard Rock

Tags: , , , ,

43 replies

  1. I like the album, but to this day, I can’t make out any of the words!

  2. I first heard Fly on the Wall when it came out in 85. While no track reached out and grabbed me by the throat, it was still a decent album. I also saw them on this tour and they totally kicked ass. For me, if I had to choose AC/DC’s worst album, it would have to be Flick of the Switch.

  3. Great post. I laughed at “…sounding like Macy Gray giving the hairdryer treatment to Southend United’s back four after a particularly poor performance” even though, as an American, I only partially understood what you were talking about.

    “Stiff Upper Lip” was a major letdown for me after the monstrous “Ballbreaker,” but I don’t think it’s a terrible album (although “Safe In New York City” might be their worst song). Obviously you don’t think “Fly On The Wall” is their worst, so what is your least favorite?

    Also, a lot of the albums on Classic Rock’s “50 Worst Albums By Great Bands” list were actually under-appreciated classics, and I would put the Tin Machine and Dylan “born again” albums in that category (along with Kiss’ “Music From The Elder”).

  4. One of my favorite bands! I kind of lost track after For Those About to Rock, and, as much as I love Dirty Deeds, there is some of their worst material on that album

  5. Hey bud! I started a friendly vote for AC/DC fans on my page…you got me
    going with this post. Love your input as well! Hope I did not step on your toes!

  6. Nice work. I’m of the opinion that Fly On The Wall was their last GOOD album, and Flick Of The Switch is one of their best. I “quit” the band after Blow Up Your Video.

  7. Blow Up Your Video would have been my Fly on the Fence – on release it was trumpeted as a “return to form”, as has every AC-DC album since then.

    Definition: “return to form” – so you bought the last album by this mob because of past reputation and it turned out to be utter pants, but pretty please shell out for the new one, it’s dead good, honest, and not utter pants too.

    Having been a Bon Scott snob for years, I’ve belated got into Brian Johnson’s first few albums and they’re not that bad after all. Great guitar sound on Flick of the Switch.

  8. I’m not much of a Johnson-era fan, but this and Flick of the Switch are the 2 I reach for on the rare occasion that I want to hear something from their 80s catalog. I rarely reach for AC/DC in general, but when I do it’s Powerage.

  9. Cheap shot with the Bowie crack, but other than that, I hope you get your blog turned into a book. Your posts are shit hot. Really. :)

  10. Their worst album is black ice. It has a few good songs but the rest are almost pop sounding. Fly in the wall was a great album but the production was really bad – too much reverb and a bad mix. Their second worst album was blow up your video. Again a few great songs but some real crappy riffs too

  11. I always think I’m going to waffle back and forth on this one, but in the end I just can’t get around how shit “Stiff Upper Lip” is. Every other naff AC/DC album (i.e. the bulk of the Brian Johnson era releases, sadly. He seems like a truly great bloke and his performance on “Back In Black” is simply incredible, but AC/DC had more great records in six years with Scott than they have had in thirty-four (!) with Johnson) has at least a couple of absolute belters—you are SO, SO right about “Playing With Girls”, by the way; everyone else I know cites “Shake Your Foundations” as the Get Out Of Hell Free card on “Fly On The Wall”, but “Playing With Girls” is still better. “Stiff Upper Lip” doesn’t have a single belter. The very best the record has to offer is “not as shithouse as the rest of these arse-awful tracks”…and that just ain’t good enough.

    “Fly On The Wall” is an absolute mess in terms of its production, which seems to be trying to make Brian Johnson actually sound like a housefly trying to shout the lyrics from the bottom of a Mason jar. The worst aspect of that is that it tends to make reviewers suggest it was a choice designed to mask the fact that Johnson wasn’t in good voice when he recorded it, when their live performances from circa 1984-85 suggested that very much wasn’t the case at all (though I *do* think he pretty much blew the top end of his range out altogether on his first two records, hitting notes that he would never be able to hit again). The booming, echo-y sound of Simon Wright’s drumming, made even more overbearing by the shitass production, isn’t necessarily bad on its own terms, but it just doesn’t sound like AC/DC. Chris Slade didn’t sound much like Phil Rudd either, but he was a much closer match for their sound than Wright was. All of these elements are secondary reasons why “Fly On The Wall” is a shit AC/DC album (if a decent enough cockrocker in its own right), though. The main reason it isn’t much cop is the same reason almost every Brian Johnson era album isn’t much cop: The songs just aren’t good enough.

    Whether one prefers Bon Scott or Brian Johnson in vocal terms, there can absolutely no doubt that Bon Scott was roughly 8,000,000,000 times better as a songwriter. The performances were usually better in the Scott era simply because the band was younger and hungrier, and weren’t yet doing things by rote; they were simply a better *band* then. But I think the simple fact that they had better songs to play when they were at the height of their powers went a long way towards establishing their reputation as well. That “Back In Black” is their best record, in my view (a perfect record, in fact), suggests to me that either Brian Johnson got REALLY good at writing lyrics REALLY quickly—and then lost his talent for doing so almost immediately after that album was finished, never to return—or that the band has always underplayed the amount of material with Bon Scott’s imprint they had ready to go before Johnson’s arrival. Or, perhaps just as likely, the amount of (uncredited) influence Mutt Lange had over the writing sessions is greater than usually acknowledged. Lange may have shit the bed on “For Those About To Rock…”, but there is zero doubt that “Back In Black” and “Highway To Hell” are as good as they are thanks to Lange’s production, and his songwriting skills are pretty solidly established. In fact, it’s kind of weird that the band deep-sixed Lange after “For Those About To Rock…”—if doesn’t sound like a proper AC/DC record, it *really* doesn’t sound like a typical Mutt Lange record, either. He tends to make things so clean they shimmer, and “For Those About To Rock…” is a muddy, sludgy, slow-witted, lumbering dinosaur of a record. That same year, he did Foreigner’s “4”; THAT sounds like Mutt Lange. “For Those About To Rock…” sounds like a compromise nobody was happy with, because it doesn’t sound like an AC/DC record and it sure as hell doesn’t sound like a typical Lange production, either. And as talented as he is, I don’t know that he could have rescued later AC/DC albums, either, unless he went the route he did with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” (i.e. listened to all of the demos they’d spent the last year doing, thought they sucked ass, then threw everything away and started again from scratch). Lange couldn’t possibly have done worse with “Fly On The Wall” than the Young brothers did, though. Whatever the case, AC/DC were simply a better band with Scott than they were with Johnson (in a smaller sample size). and if “Fly On The Wall” isn’t their worst album, I don’t think there can be much doubt that whatever alternate suggestions come up are almost certainly going to be from the Brian Johnson era.

    Fuck it. It’s “Stiff Upper Lip”. Still.

  12. Everything after Back in Black

  13. I love this album! Their mid- late 80’s output – Flick, Fly & Blow UpYour Video – always gets panned by rock critics but they are some of my favourite DC albums. As for Fly on the Wall – the title track, Shake your Foundations, Sink the Pink, Playing with Girls, Back in Business, Send for the Man…. Brilliant! Danger and He’ll or High Water let it down a little but still…. This album is so underrated. For me their worst album is Stiff Upper Lip which still has two or three crackers on it but is generally too long and a bit forgettable. Thing is none of their albums are clear stinkers – they are all slightly varying shades of excellent so it’s a hard question to answer

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