Only 1 Album Can Be the Best-Selling Rock LP of All-Time

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“It probably took longer for the album cover than to make the record”

There can be only one album that’s the world’s best-selling rock LP of all-time. As of December 2019, other titles at the top of the list are Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (each with 40 million), the first of two Eagles greatest hits collections and The Bodyguard soundtrack (each with 42 million), Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (45), Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell (50) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the overall number one with a reported 66 million.

The rock champ came out a few years after those. This is the story of how it came to be.

AC/DC had earned huge accolades in their native Australia in the mid-1970s. They then signed to Atlantic Records and went through some lineup changes. By 1978’s Powerage album, their core of brothers Malcolm Young (rhythm guitar) and Angus Young (lead guitar), with Bon Scott (lead vocals), Cliff Williams (bass guitar) and Phil Rudd (drums) was intact.

But sales for Powerage had slipped somewhat from its predecessor, 1977’s Let There Be Rock. A change was needed.

AC/DC’s Angus Young, at the band’s first U.S. Back in Black concert, Erie County Field House, Erie, PA, July 30 1980 (Photo © Lisa Tanner; used with permission)

A few years’ earlier, Jerry Greenberg was named the President of Atlantic Records, at 32, the youngest president of a major U.S. record label.

Greenberg oversaw Atlantic’s day-to-day operations during what many will define as the bulls-eye of what we now call the classic rock era… the 1970s period that spearheaded the development of superstar rock bands on FM radio that led to huge album sales and arena and stadium tours.

He has a documentary in the works, tentatively titled Man Behind the Music, which devotes much of its time to many of the acts that he signed and with which he had a huge hand in their development–including Foreigner, Genesis, ABBA and Motörhead—as well as dozens of others with which he worked closely.

“After I saw them in Hamburg, I knew I had to break this band. All I had to do was get them with a great producer,” Greenberg recalls.

Related: Info on hundreds of current classic rock tours

Greenberg: “Putting producers with the right act is one of the most important things in the record business. So I called Angus and put him together with Mutt Lange. Angus calls me and says, ‘Man, this guy is unbelievable. Oh my God.’”

Robert “Mutt” Lange already had plenty of successful producer credits to his name, having overseen albums for the Boomtown Rats, Graham Parker, the Outlaws and dozens of others.

With their sixth album, 1979’s Highway To Hell, produced by Lange, AC/DC broke through internationally as a premier hard rock band.

A few weeks after finishing a U.K. tour, Scott went out to a London club. A friend drove home with him but couldn’t rouse him from sleep. The next morning, it was discovered that Scott had died overnight.

On April 1, 1980, six weeks after burying their lead singer, AC/DC announced their new frontman and a staggering task: script a suitably epic album to turn tragedy into triumph.

Brian Johnson and Jerry Greenberg, circa 2013 (Photo: Jerry Greenberg Archives; used with permission)

Says Greenberg, “They were smart enough to hit on a guy, Brian Johnson, who could step into those shoes.”

Johnson joined the band in London’s E-Zee Hire Studios to prep songs that would define their future or mark their end. Meanwhile, the Young brothers were locked in artwork “warfare” with Atlantic Records, which was none-too-thrilled by the marketing prospects of a pitch-black cover.

Greenberg notes, “We were afraid that with all-black, people wouldn’t see the name and the cover wouldn’t jump out at record stores.”

Angus Young recalls, “Mal said, ‘You can do what you want in the inner sleeve but what we want is nothing simpler… it’s just black.’ It’s what’s inside, to us, what mattered. It probably took longer for the album cover than to make the record.”

The album was, indeed, recorded quickly in April and May at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas.

The band during the Back in Black recording sessions at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas (Photo: Jerry Greenberg Archives; used with permission)

On July 25, 1980, Atlantic released Back in Black.

Two singles, “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the title track, became modest successes on Top 40 radio.

AC/DC remains one of the most prominent acts from the classic rock era without a Top 20 U.S. single. Back in Black went on to become the best-selling rock studio album of all time, with worldwide sales estimated at some 50 million, trailing only Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

An announcement ad for the album appeared in the Aug. 9, 1980 issue of Record World

On Dec. 6, 2019, it was certified by the RIAA with U.S. sales of 25 million, behind only Eagles Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) (with 38 million), Thriller (33 million) and Eagles’ Hotel California (26 million) as the overall #4 top-selling album in the U.S.

Incredibly, Back in Black never reached higher than #4 in any given week on the Billboard Albums Chart.

[To purchase a copy of the above photo of AC/DC’s Angus Young, or other outstanding images of other classic rock bands by Lisa Tanner, visit here.]

AC/DC suffered the loss of two members of its family in autumn 2017 with the passing of Malcolm Young and his brother, producer George Young.

For the album’s 40th anniversary, the band released a live clip of a February 1981 performance in Tokyo of “What Do You Do for Money Honey”

And here’s a live performance of “You Shook Me All Night Long” from 1981

Greg Brodsky

8 Comments so far

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  1. Fred / Guitarspotting
    #1 Fred / Guitarspotting 10 August, 2017, 00:39

    An all-time hard rock classic. I love a lot of the Bon Scott material more than Brian’s, but he was still a great replacement singer, and this is probably the best album they made.

    Surprised to hear that ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ didn’t chart higher as a single!

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  2. Bomber
    #2 Bomber 18 December, 2019, 09:14

    You can’t go two hours without hearing AC?/DC on classic rock radio. Money Talks is probably their most successful single .During the tour angus bucks were dropped on the audience during this song.

    Reply this comment
  3. MilesBeyond
    #3 MilesBeyond 19 December, 2019, 14:52

    I love “Back in Black”, and Brian Johnson, but if you want to hear the great Bon Scott era personified, then you have to take a listen to “Overdose”.

    Reply this comment
  4. Mad Mark
    #4 Mad Mark 27 July, 2021, 22:01

    If I had to drive across the United States and could listen to only 1 CD (cassette back in the ’80’s) or whatever, with no hesitation, Highway to Hell! Bon Scott sung about what he knew

    Reply this comment
  5. mick62
    #5 mick62 28 July, 2021, 05:37

    “POWERAGE” is my favourite AC/DC album and “BLACK IN BLACK” is my favourite Brian Johnson album.

    Reply this comment
  6. MrSteveC
    #6 MrSteveC 1 November, 2021, 14:08

    I’m a musician, I’m a drummer and in the late 90’s I played with Jesse James Dupree in his solo band him and Brian Johnson are good friends we were playing a small bar in Tampa and Brian Johnson came to the show I tried to play it cool and not ask too many stupid questions lol he was super cool he was such a nice and humble guy you’d never know that he’s a Bona Fide Rock & Roll star, what a legend.

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  7. 122intheshade
    #7 122intheshade 26 July, 2022, 01:00

    20 years ago I made the mistake of saying that I thought Jackyl’s success came while people were waiting for a new AC/DC album. The girl I was talking with looked at me like I was a dunce, and in no uncertain terms stated: “There is NO SUBSTITUTE for AC/DC!!!”

    Saw them in Phoenix in the mid-90s. Terrific show. Thankfully by the 90s, rock shows were about quality, not quantity of sound.

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  8. TyStick
    #8 TyStick 26 July, 2022, 11:43

    When I heard the news that Bon passed I thought AC/DC was done. Then, Back In Black came out. I played that album almost everyday during the summer of 1980. Brian was a very good singer that was hired to front AC/DC. I don’t want to say a replacement singer because Bon couldn’t be replaced. Bon is a much better singer and Highway To Hell is my favorite AC/DC album. Brian has done a wonderful job and AC/DC is one of the Greatest Rock & Roll bands.

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