18 Years Ago: AC/DC’s ‘Ballbreaker’ Released
The 13th AC/DC album turned out to be lucky for the Australian hard rock legends, which is why we’re celebrating the Sept. 26, 1995 release of ‘Ballbreaker.’ The album continued their return to form after 1990’s ‘The Razor’s Edge.’
Part of the reason for its success was the return to the fold of original drummer, Phil Rudd, who had left an impossible void to fill during his decade-long absence. Plus, there was the news of the recruitment of super-producer, Rick Rubin – master of the “back-to-what-made-you-great approach” to career resurrection – following his successful audition on 1993’s ‘Last Action Hero’ soundtrack hit, ‘Big Gun.’
With the Young brothers’ songwriting confidence restored by their recent chart revival, Rudd’s inimitable percussive prowess making AC/DC sound like themselves once again, and Rubin’s almost religious commitment to unearthing the band’s authentic ‘70s sound (even hunting down rare, surviving Marshall valve amplifiers – not digital), ‘Ballbreaker’ had all the makings of an AC/DC purist’s dream-come-true, plus a little something for almost everyone.
Contagious lead-off single ‘Hard as a Rock,’ the melodically groovy ‘Love Bomb,’ and frantic album-closing title track delivered that familiar brand of cheeky hard rock fun, capable of thoroughly satisfying radio programmers. Oh-so-naughty come-ons such as ‘Cover You in Oil,’ ‘The Honey Roll’ and ‘Caught With Your Pants Down’ sparked involuntary chuckles from every real-life Beavis and Butthead coast-to-coast.
And there were even a few surprising deviations from stereotypical AC/DC song subjects (sex and drink and rock and roll) to be found in ‘The Furor’ and rousing second single, ‘Hail Caesar.’ But for dyed-in-the-wool AC/DC fanatics, there was no sweeter sonic cocktail than the finely-wrought, down-and-dirty, blue-collar spirit fueling comparatively understated ‘70s throwbacks like ‘Boogie Man,’ ‘Burnin’ Alive’ and ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ – all of which could have featured on 1978’s ‘Powerage,’ in some parallel dimension of space and time.
Of course this songwriting depth and diversity didn’t come easy. After insisting that AC/DC keep on honing each song to the point of impatience during pre-production, Rubin encouraged the band to rehearse them through and through, and then record together as a unit in the studio, allowing for only minimal overdubs after the fact. So, while this process duly yielded a wealth of strong material that made ‘Ballbreaker’ arguably their deepest album of the Brian Johnson era, apart from ‘Back in Black,’ it left the Young brothers’ deeply disenchanted with Rubin’s demanding, deliberate recording practices.
Five years later, they would choose to follow an easier way forward by calling on their older brother George and his partner Harry Vanda – producers of AC/DC’s landmark early catalog – to handle 2000‘s ‘Stiff Upper Lip.’ But this all-too-comfortable family arrangement predictably delivered inconsistent and disappointing results, beyond the reliably hit-ready title cut.
So let’s just focus on the album of the hour here! ‘Ballbreaker’ categorically showed us that with the proper tools in place – a persistent producer, metronome drummer, and a strong work ethic – even aging hard rock giants like AC/DC are capable of turning back the clock and reconnecting with the essence of their greatness – even if for a little while.