Article Thumbnail

How ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ Went From a Laddish Sex Anthem to a Wedding Staple

In 1980, AC/DC’s frontman died and the band’s future looked uncertain. They responded with the biggest album of their career and a smash single about screwing that’s the closest thing these bad-boy rockers ever got to writing a love song.

This Friday, AC/DC release Power Up, their first album in six years. For a lot of us, new AC/DC records are a thing we take for granted — they show up with some regularity, and they always contain the exact same strain of power-chord-laden, sex-crazed rock ‘n’ roll. And thank god for that. But Power Up shouldn’t have happened — in fact, it looked like AC/DC’s previous album, Rock or Bust was going to be the end for a band that got started way back in the early 1970s. After all, they were facing several obstacles. Lead guitarist Angus Young lost his brother (and bandmate) Malcolm in 2017 to dementia. Frontman Brian Johnson was suffering from seemingly irreparable hearing loss. And their drummer, Phil Rudd, pled guilty in 2015 to charges of “threatening to kill” and drug possession. (He got eight months of home detention.) When the band had Axl Rose step in for Johnson on a few 2016 tour dates — Johnson had been with AC/DC since 1980 — it seemed that the long-running group might finally consider hanging it up. Instead, Johnson rejoined the lineup after undergoing treatment, and the band recorded Power Up as a way to honor Malcolm Young. 

“This record is pretty much a dedication to Malcolm, my brother,” Angus recently told Rolling Stone. “It’s a tribute for him like Back in Black was a tribute to Bon Scott.”

It seems unlikely that Power Up will be as titanic as Back in Black, AC/DC’s greatest record, and it seems even more unlikely that the new album will contain a song as mighty as “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which was that record’s big hit — and arguably still their most popular song. “You Shook Me All Night Long” synthesized everything that’s amazing and shameless about this laddish Australian group while introducing their fans to their brand-new singer. It’s one of the great songs about getting laid, and yet it’s also been a wedding-reception staple for years. And 40 years later, there’s still debate over how much their late frontman Bon Scott had to do with it.

By the late 1970s, AC/DC had established a reputation as a no-frills hard-rock band. Punk and new wave and prog were transforming rock at the time, but AC/DC didn’t get the memo: They just wrote loud, anthemic songs about how much they loved to rock. Also, they had a knack for coming up with the most wonderfully juvenile ways to talk about having sex, so much so that you could teach a course on the different double entendres and lewd euphemisms they crammed into their songs. (Just one example: “The Jack,” which rides a poker metaphor but is, in fact, a reference to the fact that the narrator’s special lady friend has “the jack,” i.e. gonorrhea.) Rock was evolving and mutating, but AC/DC made sure it remained terrifically primitive. 

But after finding success with albums like Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Highway to Hell, the band’s party-hearty ethos caught up with them. On February 19, 1980, frontman Bon Scott died at the age of 33 after a night of drinking, choking on his own vomit. The band was just about to begin work on the follow-up to Highway to Hell, but Scott’s death caused them to question whether they should break up. “For us, it was like losing a member of your family,” Angus Young said later. “It’s very, very difficult to go through something like that. Not only is it your friend, it’s also somebody you’ve been working with all that time.” But after the band attended the singer’s funeral, Scott’s father persuaded them not to hang it up. Malcolm Young recalled that Charles “Chick” Scott told him, “You’ve got to find someone else, you know that. Whatever you do, don’t stop.” 

Quickly, the band decided on Brian Johnson, a U.K. singer who had previously decided that his musical career was over. He’d been the frontman of a group called Geordie, which had split up after some success in the early 1970s. When AC/DC came calling, he was focusing on a business that handled car repairs. “When I left Geordie, I was completely broke,” he said. “I had nothing. And I had two kids and a mortgage to pay. I was driving a VW Beetle that was 14 years old. I was fuckin’ skint.” He was 32 when he teamed up with AC/DC, a band whose back catalog he didn’t even know especially well. But the Young brothers gave him the music for a song they’d been working on, wondering if he might have some lyric ideas. The only direction they offered Johnson was a possible title: “Shook Me All Night Long.”

Johnson was panicky about passing this first test. And then, according to him, something strange happened:

“I remember sitting in my room. I had this blank sheet of paper and this title, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, what have I started?’ And I’ll tell you something, and I’m not scared of being called a sissy and I don’t believe in spirits and that, but something happened to me that night in that room. Something passed through us, and I felt great about it. I don’t give a fuck if people believe me or not, but something washed through me and went, ‘It’s all right, son. It’s all right.’ This kind of calm. I’d like to think it was Bon, but I can’t, because I’m too cynical and I don’t want people getting carried away. But something happened, and I just started writing the song.” 

Being a big car guy, Johnson first hit upon the opening lines: “She was a fast machine / She kept her motor clean / She was the best damn woman that I ever seen.” But when he flew to the Bahamas to work with AC/DC on the new record, the song that was to become “You Shook Me All Night Long” initially had a more bluesy, slowed-down feel. They quickly realized, however, it sounded better sped up.

Like the 1970s songs that Scott had written with his bandmates, “You Shook Me All Night Long” was very straightforward: It’s a salute to a hot woman who’s good in bed. There’s not much character development, there’s no plot twists, there’s no grander message. But there were groan-worthy jokes, like when Johnson announces in the first verse, “She told me to come / but I was already there.” (“I thought I’d gone too far with that, I must admit, but nobody seemed to mind,” the singer said in 2016.) 

What was different, though, was the noticeable affection that Johnson shows to his object of lust. AC/DC reveled in bad-boy sex songs full of locker-room talk. “We were in Australia, which at that time was still a bit outback,” Malcolm Young explained in 1989. “It was just a way of life, a way of talking, and that’s how we communicated with the audience.” Sure, it could be sexist and objectifying — judging by the stories they bragged about, AC/DC was definitely a boy’s club in which women were sometimes treated like playthings — but the band also evinced a sense of humor that suggested that, at least in the music, it was all just a bit of naughty fun, so what was the harm? (As music journalist Phil Stucliffe, who spent time with the band in the mid-1970s, put it decades later, “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.”) 

“You Shook Me All Night Long” was hardly chaste or sappy, but it felt far more admiring, practically worshiping this woman. It was as close as AC/DC ever got to writing an actual love song, not that it was actually all that close.

AC/DC worked on the rest of Back in Black in the Bahamas in the same studio that, one room over, a very different band, Talking Heads, were crafting their equally epochal 1980 album, Remain in Light. The place was decidedly low-tech, with Johnson saying, “We had these rooms like breezeblock cells. One time we could hear this strange clacking noise in the speakers. A crab had gotten into the drum booth.” But that lack of studio sophistication matched the vulgar, punchy thrust of blunt-force songs entitled “Shoot to Thrill,” “What Do You Do for Money Honey,” “Given the Dog a Bone” and “Let Me Put My Love into You.” (And that’s to say nothing of “Have a Drink on Me,” a track they’d worked on with Scott before his death.) With its jet-black album cover and somber title, Back in Black was intended as a tribute to their fallen frontman. But the unapologetically libidinous subject matter suggested that they were truly honoring Scott by not changing a damn thing.

The irony of Scott’s death was that the tragedy raised the band’s profile across the globe. So when Back in Black arrived in the summer of 1980, awareness of AC/DC was probably higher than it had ever been. It was their first No. 1 album in Australia and the U.K., and it went into the Top 10 in the States. “You Shook Me All Night Long” was the lead single, and it landed in the Billboard Top 40, the first AC/DC track to do so. Johnson’s screechy voice was different than Scott’s — a little less demonic, a little more boisterous — and if older fans missed the former frontman, the new fans clearly didn’t mind. To date, Back in Black is the second-highest-selling album of all time, behind only Thriller, proving to be the perfect dividing line between AC/DC’s 1970s records and their blockbuster future. Where other rock acts, like Van Halen, face the difficult prospect of switching lead singers at the height of their popularity — and under far-less-terrible circumstances — AC/DC’s hiring of Johnson was early enough in the band’s career that it didn’t feel too jarring to the masses. 

“We knew that this new lineup would work, and that we wouldn’t have to worry about the past any more,” Angus Young later said. “We had found success with a new voice and that was a big relief.”

Not that everyone was ready to let go of the old voice. In fact, some AC/DC fans have long theorized that Scott had more to do with Back in Black than he’s been given credit for — especially when it comes to “You Shook Me All Night Long.” 

In 2017, author Jesse Fink published Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC’s Back in Black, which, among other things, explored the rumors surrounding the late frontman. (It was actually Fink’s second AC/DC book after The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC.) In Bon, he spoke with those close to the band who believed that Scott wrote at least part of the lyrics for the AC/DC hit, including former girlfriends who claimed that lines like “She told me to come, but I was already there” were featured in letters he’d written to them. 

“I’d always had a hunch that ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ was a Bon song; no evidence other than the convictions of people who knew him,” Fink said while promoting the book. Fink hastened to add that he couldn’t prove anything definitively, “but I think there’s enough information to lend weight to the idea that he possibly did.” To that end, in Bon the author does a breakdown of the song’s lyrics, suggesting that, for example, “She kept her motor clean” might have been a reference to “Bon’s love of clean vaginas.” (As “The Jack” had demonstrated years earlier, Scott had a thing for groupies — and had a habit of picking up venereal diseases from his conquests.) Bon, along with other online speculation, helped fuel a belief that Scott’s lyrical ideas had been passed along by the Young brothers to Johnson after Scott’s death.

No matter the truth, “You Shook Me All Night Long” became a staple on rock radio and in the band’s shows. Also, perhaps oddly, it started showing up at proms and wedding receptions. First, I thought it was just my smalltown, Midwestern childhood where this phenomenon occurred, but once I moved to L.A., I realized “You Shook Me All Night Long” was a go-to celebration anthem in other parts of the country as well. In fact, in 2008 Mobile Beat (a magazine that covers the world of entertainment for corporate events and other public gatherings) announced that the song was the most-played at U.S. wedding receptions over the previous 12 months.

I always found this deeply strange. After all, doesn’t the song demean the central female figure, reducing her to a sex toy with those impressive “American thighs”? There’s nothing particularly romantic about “You Shook Me All Night Long,” so why does it play next to “September” and “Crazy in Love” as happy guests dance alongside the happy bride and groom?

Well, it turns out there’s actually a feminist argument in favor of that AC/DC classic. Writing in The Guardian in 2017, columnist Fiona Sturges stuck up for the band, somewhat, by noting, “[I]f you look closely at the lyrics, you’ll see that, while AC/DC’s woman are pitifully one-dimensional, they are also having a good time and are, more often than not, in the driving seat in sexual terms.” In a song like “You Shook Me All Night Long,” Sturges wrote, “it’s the men who come over as passive and hopeless, awestruck in the presence of sexual partners more experienced and adept than them. If we’re looking at power balance, there are plenty of instances where it is stacked in the women’s favor.” 

Sturges pointed out that her daughter also loves the song, but she argues that young women can enjoy AC/DC while acknowledging their sexism: “In seeing the band for what they really are — a bunch of archly sex-obsessed idiots with sharp tunes and some seriously killer riffs — she might just grow up to love them critically, but love them all the same.”

That certainly seems to be the mindset of the people I see — women, especially — who go crazy when those opening chords of “You Shook Me All Night Long” burst out of the speakers at a wedding. The song comes across as such a celebration of a woman’s sexual prowess that it feels empowering, not demeaning. For a band that often reduced all of life’s complexity to primal urges, “You Shook Me All Night Long” has this odd humanity to it, this joyous chronicling of a shared dynamite experience between two people. (Tellingly, at the weddings I’ve been to, nobody sings “You Shook Me All Night Long” by themself — they sing it to someone else, usually the person they’re sleeping with.) Lots of rock songs are about love — the one that got away, or the one you still have — but very few are about the pure pleasure of a great lay. By contrast, “You Shook Me All Night Long” has this unlikely nostalgic quality to it: The singer is remembering how fantastic the sex was, and now that the anthem is 40 years old, most people singing along have fond associations with it that they connect to their own memories. As raunchy as “You Shook Me All Night Long” seems, it’s actually kinda sweet. 

This summer, Angus Young was looking back at nearly 50 years of AC/DC. “People have said we’ve hung around long enough! But some bands fade when they try to adapt to what’s current,” the guitarist said. “We play rock music. It’s a little bit late for us to do a ballad.” 

The spectacular “You Shook Me All Night Long” is what it sounded like if they’d tried.