It was an ugly, scrappy little record, full of one-take, off-the-cuff blues rock, filthy lyrics and trash can production values. It was hard to find— Atlantic Records didn’t think it was worth releasing in the US, deeming it ‘commercially unacceptable’. For six years following its initial release in 1976, only expensive imports could be had in the States. Then, in 1981, Atlantic saw the light and finally released the record, which shot to #3 on the US Billboard chart and would eventually sell 6 million copies, and become AC/DC’s third-biggest selling album ever, after ‘Highway to Hell’ and ‘Back in Black’. All things considered, ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ has got to be the most unlikely multi-platinum mega-hit record of all time.
One had to wonder why Atlantic Records signed AC/DC at all. The label refused to release ‘DC’s 1st two albums, ‘High Voltage’ and ‘T.N.T.’ as-is, opting instead to take the pair’s best tracks and combine them into what became the band’s US debut, the record most of us know as ‘High Voltage’. Actually, the resulting compilation was a better record than both original albums, but the move was an indicator of just how much faith the label had in its new acquisition. In September of 1976, third album ‘Dirty Deeds’ was released in Australia, and when it was presented to Atlantic for release in the States, they flat-out rejected it. They urged the band to fire their lead singer, and threatened to drop them from the label. Management convinced Atlantic A&R to instead pass on the album and funnel the allocated funds into putting the band on the road in America.
AC/DC’s UK label balked at releasing ‘DD’ as well, and replaced a few of the ‘weaker’ tracks with some songs from previous albums and demos; they even changed the cover. Eventually released in Europe and Britain in late ’76, the UK ‘DDDC’ is a very different animal than the original, which to this day has only been released in Australia. And, oh yeah, Atlantic US passed on the doctored-up UK version as well. It seemed as though, in the States, ‘DDDC’ would be nothing more than a rumor.
What did the suits at Atlantic find so objectionable? Throughout ‘Dirty Deeds’ there’s a feeling of imminent threat, either to any available female (the tour leading up to the release of the record in Australia was called the ‘Lock Up Your Daughters Tour’), or to the very ideas of law & order and civility. On ‘Dirty Deeds’, AC/DC sound like a bunch of tearaway thugs who could pick up their instruments at any time, at any place, and scare the shit out of the locals. They certainly scared the shit out of Atlantic Records.
Maybe it was the lyrics. ‘Love at First Feel’, ‘Big Balls’, ‘Squealer’, and the title track were classic Bon Scott; part dirty joke, part wholly-convincing menace. But a look beyond the lecherous leering reveals a subtext of class overthrow. No wonder they were lumped in with the punks a year later; the lyrics to ‘Ain’t No Fun (Waitin’ Round to be a Millionaire)’ could have come from the Clash; and ‘Big Balls’ reveals a venomous undercurrent of class warfare, delivered with a sarcastic hostility toward the wealthy worthy of Johnny Rotten himself. Indeed, the genius of Bon Scott the lyrical genius begins to reveal itself here.
Maybe the production values? Well, truth be told, there ain’t any. The songs on ‘DDDDC’ were recorded… and that’s about it. The magic of a Vanda & Young production was that they didn’t get in the way; here it seems that they never showed up. But V&Y were fully aware that the only way to ensure that the real AC/DC was captured was to roll the tapes and let the boys do their thing, basically live in the studio. And that vibe has never truly been captured again since the band began using other producers. So, yeah, the tuning’s not always perfect, and the playing’s not very polished, and the intros and endings aren’t as tight as they could be… And, yes, a few of the songs included here aren’t so hot, sounding as if they might have all been written on the same day (to be sure, there ARE a couple of certified classics to be found here… ‘Problem Child’, anyone?). But the street-level vibe and dangerously real delivery are what makes this record a classic.
And then, a few short years later, in February 1980… Just as AC/DC were finally breaking in America… Bon Scott died.
AC/DC’s 1980 album ‘Back in Black’ was a tribute to Scott, and would instantly become a monster seller for Atlantic. Suddenly AC/DC were the biggest rock band in the world. It would be nice to think that Atlantic released ‘DDDDC’ as a celebration of the late, great Bon Scott; allowing this unheralded classic, this unheard gem, to be enjoyed by all after his sad passing. But we know better than that. Atlantic smelled a quick buck, and dusted off their license to a 5 year old record they previously rejected as un-releasable and tossed it out to the masses in April of ’81 at very little expense on their part. Riding the seemingly unstoppable tidal wave that was ‘Back in Black’, ‘Deeds’ shot to #3 in Billboard… one slot higher than where ‘BiB’ had peaked. Stick that in your fuse box.
And, of course, it was the messed-with international version of the record that Atlantic opted to release, not the Australian version that the band had originally intended. To this day, the original has been heard by very few people outside of Australia, where, back in 1976, it hit #4 in the Australian charts. Just sayin’.
If you told anyone in 1976, even the blokes in the band, that ‘DD’ would eventually achieve 6x platinum status in the US, they would have laughed in your face. Lets face it; this record, in either form, never would have sold 6 million copies if Bon Scott hadn’t died, as ‘BIB’ never would have been recorded, and ‘DD’ would never have been released in the US. In fact, if it had been released by Atlantic back in 1976, it might have done more damage to AC/DC’s progress in America than good. But that’s not how it went down. Fans of irony will find much to enjoy here: A record regarded by the suits as a commercially hopeless piece of shit eventually sold 6 million copies… The album that almost got Bon Scott fired charted higher than the mighty ‘Back In Black’, the first album sung by his replacement, and the 6th biggest-selling album of all time.
‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ is the red-headed stepchild of AC/DC’s catalog… and the most unlikely multi-platinum album ever. If you don’t already own it, skip the 1981 Atlantic Records cash-in version, and seek out the original Australian version on principle. For Bon.