Which One Is Better: Back In Black vs. Highway To Hell

Hello, and welcome to 'Which One Is Better', where I examine artists' two biggest songs and pit them against each other to decide which one deserves the honour of being the artist's best song. Now, these can be tough articles to write, as while most artists do seem to have two particularly prominent songs in their discography, they're still very rarely loved in equal measure. Sometimes one is just a fraction more popular than the other, or maybe one is very popular with the masses, but hardcore fans prefer the other. Whatever the reason, no two songs are every loved quite the same... Well, with one exception.

Both 'Back In Black' and 'Highway To Hell' are absolutely adored by hardcore AC/DC fans, softcore AC/DC fans, and anyone else you can throw in there. I always found this peculiar, as there's a very obvious reason why someone would prefer one over the other: the two different lead singers. As I'm sure most of you know, in 1980, Bon Scott, the then lead singer of AC/DC, tragically passed away, and was very quickly replaced by Brian Johnson. In most cases, this would cause a huge divide among fans of the band, splitting into those who prefer Bon Scott, and those who prefer Brian Johnson. However, this doesn't seem to be the case. Both songs are pretty much universally loved.

Well, I think not! I'm not here to just let songs live in harmony! I'm here to endlessly scrutinise them until I deem one as being inferior! So let's find out which one is better: 'Back In Black' or 'Highway To Hell'.

Vocals

Bon Scott and Brian Johnson were reasonably similar in way of vocals, that being the reason why the transition from the former to the latter went so smoothly, but there are some distinct differences.

For me personally, I always felt that while Bon Scott had a very rough, gruff voice, and while he certainly did go dangerously close to doing so, he never went into full-on screeching. Brian Johnson, however, certainly did. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising Brian Johnson, I'm a big fan of the guy, I just find that sometimes his vocals can grate on me a little after extended listens, so I do prefer Bon Scott as a singer.

And for this reason, I’m giving the points to ‘Highway To Hell’ for vocals. Bon Scott hits a lot of big notes, but he still - sometimes only barely - manages to keep his voice until control, but Brian Johnson is screeching all throughout his track. Like I’ve already, it’s not bad in the slightest, I just prefer Bon Scott’s way.

Back In Black - 0 | Highway To Hell - 1

Music

This is a really hard to category to decide a winner for, because both songs are incredibly similar music-wise. They’re both built around a riff, with a very basic accompaniment from the other instruments, and feature a solo. So how to decide which one has the better music?

Well, really, I think it just comes down to personal opinion, in which case, I’m giving the points to ‘Back In Black’. I think the riff is better and more memorable - no disrespect to ‘Highway To Hell’, I just always felt the riff was a bit simplistic - I like the solo better - the solo in ‘Highway To Hell’ just kind of came and went before you had time to really appreciate it, so I like how Angus Young takes his to build up the solo in ‘Black In Black’ - and I’m a fan of the little break-down they have near the end of the song. Nothing much else to say, ‘Black In Black’ wins this round.

Back In Black - 1 | Highway To Hell - 1

Lyrics

It’s hard to say which song has the better lyrics, because neither song seems to really be about anything… At least, on the onset.

There are two interpretations of the song ‘Highway To Hell’, the most popular being that the song refers to touring, an ordeal the band found gruelling, with Angus Young dubbing it as being on the ‘highway to Hell’. However, the more likely possibility is that the song refers to the Canning Highway, a dangerous highway in Australia. At the end of the highway was a pub called ‘The Raffles’, which was a popular drinking spot for young rock ‘n’ rollers in the 70s, so Bon Scott is really singing about having to drive down a dangerous highway in order to go to the pub and have a drink with his friends, which, reading the lyrics, makes a lot more sense.

Going off the lyrics alone, Back In Black is equally as vague, but the band have stated that the song - as well as the entire album it was on - is a tribute to Bon Scott, their then recently deceased lead singer. Reading the lyrics with this in mind, the lyrics seem to be alluding to the reckless lifestyle Bon Scott led, a lifestyle that lead to his death. Putting my own personal spin on this, I also feel the song is a sort of comeback anthem, a statement that the band are gonna keep making music, even if they are mourning, hence the title ‘Back In Black’.

Honestly, the lyrics aren’t wonderful on either song, but because of the subtle sentiment, I’m gonna go with ‘Back In Black’.

Back In Black - 2 | Highway To Hell - 1

Impact

When both 'Highway To Hell' and 'Black In Black' were released, AC/DC were already an established band, so it's not like either song kick-started their career, they're no 'Born To Run'. However, just because either song didn't completely warp their careers doesn't mean it had no impact.

Like I said before, AC/DC were known before 'Highway To Hell' was released, but the song gave them a taste of the international fame and renown they would eventually receive. It was the very first single of theirs to chart in the US - although not particularly highly - and would spend a whole 45 weeks in the German music charts. Now, obviously this isn't huge in itself, but it's safe to say that the song helped drive the enormous sales of the album of the same name, which sold over 7 million copies in the US, was the first of their albums to break the top 100, and really did help form the indisputable reputation they have now.

What did 'Back In Black' do? Well, some people may argue that it proved that the new lineup of the band was to be a success. However, other songs from the new lineup - such as 'You Shook Me All Night Long' - had been released before this, and to more success. While the album 'Back In Black' certainly did a lot for the band, the song really didn't. It was only a moderate success, and the album had experienced huge sales before it was even released. The points go to 'Highway To Hell'.

Back In Black - 2 | Highway To Hell - 2

Legacy

Here we are, the decider round. Which of these songs will come out on top? Let’s find out!

It’s very fitting that the very last round is another very close one. Both of these songs are well known by not only AC/DC fans, not only rock fans, not only music fans, but by most people around the world. As if that wasn’t enough, both songs are frequently featured on ‘best ever songs’ lists and were featured in the ‘500 songs that shaped rock and roll’. So which one wins this round?

I think it’s gotta be ‘Back In Black’. Why? Well, as I’ve already said, both songs are regularly found on ‘best songs’ lists, but 9/10 times you’ll see that ‘Back In Black’ is higher than ‘Highway to Hell’. Not only that, but I’ve seen pretty much everything about ‘Black In Black’ featured on some sort of ‘best of’ list. The song itself, the vocals, the riff, the solo, you’ll find it on every sort of list. It just seems to be slightly more loved, slightly more remembered, and slightly more celebrated. ‘Back In Black’ gets the points.

Back In Black - 3 | Highway To Hell - 2

Winner - Back In Black

So there we have it. 'Back In Black' is the winner. Now, don't worry, I'm not claiming this to be fact. If you prefer 'Highway To Hell', keep doing so, my friend. Hey, you can even let me know why you disagree with me in the comments (but be nice!). That's all for this installment, but stay tuned for another soon, and feel free to let me know any other songs you'd like me to compare in the future! Stay frosty!

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