April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.
Chuck Berry was one of the inventors of rock ‘n’ roll, a visionary guitarist and songwriter whose “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode” helped give the music its sound and attitude in the mid-to-late 1950s. But famously, his biggest hit was none of those classics — rather, it was a novelty he put out in the early 1970s, recorded live during a show he didn’t even know was being taped, called “My Ding-a-Ling.” Written by Dave Bartholomew, “My Ding-a-Ling” involves the narrator recalling that, when he was a boy, “My grandmother bought me a cute little toy / Silver bells hangin’ on a string / She told me it was my ding-a-ling-ling.” Over the course of the next few verses, we recognize that he’s not really talking about some toy: Every time Berry sings, “I want to play with my ding-a-ling,” it’s clear he means his penis.
“My Ding-a-Ling” went to No. 1, a song Berry affectionately called “a fourth-grade ditty,” but his longtime fans found its childish double entendres annoyingly juvenile, unworthy of his talent. Berry didn’t care. “Made a lot of money: a $200,000 check,” Berry once said about “My Ding-a-Ling.” “I’ll never forget that check.”
Sexual innuendo has always been part of rock ‘n’ roll. After all, in the early days musicians had to find creative ways to get around the prudishness of the times, singing about a “Little Red Rooster” or claiming to be a “Back Door Man.” But with its sing-along faux-innocence, Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” was perhaps the most obvious, embarrassing double entendre to hit mainstream music. It was a very silly song about jerking off.
AC/DC have never been above the juvenile or the crass. They loved Berry, as well as the other progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll. Especially Jerry Lee Lewis. “He was singing about balls before we did,” guitarist Angus Young once raved. “You know, ‘Great Balls of Fire.’” To wit, Lewis’ most famous song, written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer, took an old expression, meant to indicate great surprise or shock, and transformed it into a proclamation of sexual desire, a deep stirring in the loins. Forming around 1972, AC/DC paid allegiance to rock ‘n’ roll’s old-school crudity — the direct assault of guitars and drums focused on simple topics like sex, sex and sex — and have built an entire career around never changing, never growing, never evolving. And that means singing about balls.
Sometimes, though, that didn’t necessarily mean singing about testicles. An early AC/DC song, “She’s Got Balls,” was written by frontman Bon Scott in honor of his wife. Now, there are many ways you can praise your beloved — Scott, however, decided to ignore all of them. “She’s got speed, my lady / Got what I need, my baby / She’s got the ability, hey / To make a man out of me,” he sings. “But most important of all / Let me tell you / The lady’s got balls / She’s got balls / She’s got balls / She’s got balls.” The legend goes that his wife was so unhappy he considered “She’s Got Balls” to be a flattering tribute that she divorced him.
Hard rock in the 1970s was plenty horny, but AC/DC brought their own boyish prurience. On “T.N.T.,” Scott declares, “Lock up your daughter / Lock up your wife / Lock up your back door / Run for your life.” On “The Jack,” Scott uses card-game terminology to describe a bewitching beauty: “She played ‘em fast / And she played ‘em hard / She could close her eyes / And feel every card. … She’s got the jack / She’s got the jack / She’s got the jack / And who knows what else.” What’s “the jack?” Oh, that’s slang for an STD — and like “She’s Got Balls,” the song was apparently inspired by someone, a sex worker that Scott was seeing at the time.
Sex wasn’t just the subtext but also the text of AC/DC’s music. During the band’s salad days, Scott had a tendency to strip on stage. “For about 12 shows in a row [the] English vice squad [was] following us up and down the country,” he recalled. “It started off in Birmingham where I took off me clothes and all the people said, ‘Turn around!’ When the people want it, what can you do but turn around? Unfortunately, I was accused by a few parents of girls who were in the audience … of masturbating on stage. I would’ve if I could’ve, you know?”
Juvenile he may have been, but Scott was the clown prince of a certain new strain of frontman (similar to Van Halen’s David Lee Roth) who mixed sexual desire with a comedic streak. “It was a ridiculously larger-than-life personality and a sense of humor,” AC/DC’s Highway to Hell author Joe Bonomo once put it about Scott’s appeal. “He brought a half-grin, a real love of life and a really funny way of looking at things.” Angus Young, who dressed up in a schoolboy outfit for the band’s concerts, possessed the same impish spirit as his lead singer. “Look, there’s not much seriousness in it,” he said in 1977 about the band’s immaturity and locker-room lyrics. “It’s just rock ‘n’ roll. Chew it up and spit it out. If you look at it this way, most of the kids in the street talk like that. It’s the language of the clubs that we heard when we started off in Australia. … Kids would be swearin’ their heads off. They don’t say, ‘Turn it up…’; they say, ‘Fucking turn it up.’ We’re as subtle as what they are.”
The band’s high point of its sophomoric sense of humor — or low point, depending on your perspective — was on 1976’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, which didn’t get released in the U.S. until five years later. Across the album, Scott relished sticking it to anyone who dared to be offended. (For instance, the track “Love at First Feel,” which wasn’t on the Australian version of the record, was an unapologetic ode to romancing an underage girl.) But one of Dirty Deeds’ most infamous numbers was “Big Balls,” a song ostensibly about a man who’s part of “rather upper class high society.” Singing in an affected manner that makes him sound snooty, Scott lays out the scenario:
I always fill my ballroom
The event is never small
The social pages say I’ve got
The biggest balls of all
I’ve got big balls
I’ve got big balls
They’re such big balls
And they’re dirty big balls
And he’s got big balls
And she’s got big balls
(But we’ve got the biggest balls of them all!)
The straightfaced-but-snickering lyrics, married to a blues-y riff and a shout-along chorus, were stupid and obvious. But that was also the point, catering to listeners who would love the fact that AC/DC weren’t singing about a fancy ball but, rather, a dude’s nuts. Directly referencing the Jerry Lee Lewis hit — “If your name is on the guest list / No one can take you higher / Everybody says I’ve got / Great balls of fire” — Scott’s flair for the sophomoric could be inspired:
Some balls are held for charity
And some for fancy dress
But when they’re held for pleasure
They’re the balls that I like best
My balls are always bouncing
To the left and to the right
It’s my belief that my big balls
Should be held every night
The 158 seconds of “Big Balls” will probably kill your brain cells, but the song is also emblematic of the band’s equating of crassness with a certain kind of hedonistic freedom. Positioning themselves as the fun-loving, unpretentious dudes mocking the hoity-toity, AC/DC played into the eternal slobs-versus-snobs comedic trope. And in those movies, everybody always roots for the slobs. A track like “Big Balls” was a raised middle finger to listeners who turned their nose up at AC/DC’s willfully raw and unpolished sound. “A lotta people say that we can’t play. Fuck ’em,” Scott said at the time. “We get on and play down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll ‘cuz that’s what we do best.” As for his own “big balls,” he wasn’t shy about bragging. “I have too [got big balls] … I just checked,” Scott told a reporter in 1976.
AC/DC’s commercial ascent continued over the next several years, with 1979’s Highway to Hell cementing their mastery of hard-rock riffs and stupid/brilliant double entendres. (You will never guess what “Beating Around the Bush” is about.) But their career seemed over once Scott died in February 1980 of acute alcohol poisoning, his demise coming after a night of partying. (He was 33.) But the band carried on, hiring new frontman Brian Johnson, who came up with the lyrics for what would become “You Shook Me All Night Long,” one of the centerpieces of their 1980 album Back in Black, which dropped only a few months after Scott’s passing.
Back in Black remains their bestseller and magnum opus, but the innuendo didn’t die with Scott. Tracks like “Given the Dog a Bone” demonstrated that Johnson was just as determined to see how much sexual naughtiness he could jam into one song. “Some of them are staring you in the face,” Angus Young said about the band’s fondness for double entendres. “I think, with AC/DC, sometimes the most innocent thing can sound that way too. Somebody once said, ‘Thank goodness they never wrote Cats. Think what they would have called it.’”
The band’s fascination with sex and genitals has continued ever since, with the guys often focusing specifically on testicles. “Got You by the Balls,” off 1990s’ The Razors Edge, chronicled an elite businessman getting involved with an expert sex worker who’s got his number. Five years later, the title track from Ballbreaker paid homage to a superb sexual partner: “Engine roll and time to go / At razorback, a hog attack / I’m building steam for whipping cream / She likes a fat smoking stack. … You are a ballbreaker.” And on 2014’s “Play Ball,” from the sex-pun-titled Rock or Bust, the band tried to extend the metaphor, turning an umpire’s familiar command to start a baseball game into an innuendo about fooling around. Talking about AC/DC’s 1981 song “Let’s Get It Up” — again, just guess what that one’s about — Johnson once proudly proclaimed, “Filth, pure filth! We’re a filthy band.”
The band’s sexist leanings, their lyrics often treating women like little more than playthings, have long been criticized, but some female fans don’t seem to mind. In Jeff Apter’s biography, High Voltage: The Life of Angus Young — AC/DC’s Last Man Standing, he recalls a scene backstage in Indianapolis in 1981 where three groupies prominently wore shirts that, lined up next to each other, read “We’ve Got Balls.” (“You never fuck them,” Johnson said at the time about the band’s female fans. “That’s for the crew.”)
And then there’s She’s Got Balls, “Europe’s best AC/DC tribute band with an exclusive female line-up and the ultimate modern AC/DC sound!!!” They’ll be touring this summer and fall, led by frontwoman Iris Boanta, whose family fled Romania (and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu) when she was only 12, settling in Burgstetten, Germany. Bon Scott’s wife may have hated the song dedicated to her, but She’s Got Balls seem to wear their band name like a badge of honor.
“Big Balls” was never a hit, but it’s shown staying power. Wolfgang Van Halen, son of the late Eddie Van Halen, remembers being introduced to the song in grade school by his father. “My dad rented a Winnebago, and we went to the Grand Canyon,” he said last year. “I remember we stopped somewhere and my mom went to the bathroom, and Dad was like, ‘Wolf, come check this out.’ And he showed me the song ‘Big Balls’ by AC/DC … and that song made me laugh so hard.”
Even more surprising, though, “Big Balls” looks like it’s been kinda, sorta reappropriated by some in the trans community, its “He’s got big balls / And she’s got big balls” refrain proving empowering. There’s also GayC/DC, an all-gay AC/DC cover band that “remains true to the music (working diligently to replicate the actual sound of AC/DC), while playing around with the lyrics and changing pronouns to suit the gay angle. Hence, ‘TNT’ becomes ‘PNP’ (a song about the ‘party-n-play’ status some gay men post in their online sex ads).” Drummer Brian Welch explained in 2018, ”I grew up listening to AC/DC, they’re part of my DNA. But that whole ‘boy/girl/boy bangs girl’ thing wasn’t something I could relate to. I wanted the songs to speak to me and that’s a big reason we started this band. Now, those iconic songs can speak to others who felt the way I did.” And one of the songs GayC/DC tackle is “Big Balls.”
In GayC/DC’s version, it’s a kick to hear the band teasingly yell, “Ball sucker! Ball sucker!” over and over at the end. AC/DC’s boys-will-be-boys laddishness has its disreputable charms, but it can be hard to separate the music from the latent misogyny underneath. Journalist Phil Stucliffe, who dug the band but wrestled with that element of their persona, put it as well as anyone when he declared, “They stand for everything I disagree with about our chauvinist view of the woman’s role, yet they’re so totally honest, open and funny about it that I got carried away with liking them.” And Danny Goldberg, who was Nirvana’s manager, once recalled, “[Kurt Cobain] liked Led Zeppelin’s music — and AC/DC. But the lyrics were not something that he felt comfortable with [because of their sexism and homophobia].” So it’s delightful to hear GayC/DC give the group’s double entendres a playful inclusiveness.
Best as I can tell, AC/DC hasn’t played “Big Balls” in concert for decades. It was always more of a fun novelty, like Chuck Berry’s “fourth-grade ditty” “My Ding-a-Ling,” except not quite as popular. But “Big Balls” is crucial to explaining the group’s proudly juvenile longevity. (When Steven Tyler inducted AC/DC into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, he famously said of Angus Young’s schoolboy getup, “How did such big balls get in such short pants?”)
“Big Balls” is a song about Bon Scott having a laugh while scandalizing a bunch of uptight rich people by talking about his nuts. Wolfgang Van Halen heard it for the first time in second grade and fell in love, which sounds about right. Boys are starting to get obsessed with their junk around that age — AC/DC built a career making albums for an audience who happily never outgrew that phase.