As a kid with an encyclopedic memory for liner notes and little else (and the GPA to prove it), I learned very early on to trust the name Robert John "Mutt" Lange. Seeing his name on the back of those first three Boomtown Rats albums didn't mean anything to my young brain at the time but after also digging Deaf School's English Boys/Working Girls and The Records' Shades In Bed, I made a mental note: buy anything with the name Robert John Mutt Lange on it.
Naturally, my limited funds between holidays and birthdays necessitated that I become familiar with each record and department store's heavily discounted cut-out bins. Thankfully, there was a lot of Mutt Lange's work to be found therein - heck, the entire City Boy discography, for starters.
The band's sole U.S. hit, "18.104.22.168." broke the Top 40 despite what now appears to have been criminal negligence on the part of the label's marketing department over the course of numerous stunningly commercial albums. If RTB-era Queen, Chapman and Chinn-era Sweet and anything Benny & Bjorn-related are your thing and you don't already own every City Boy album with Lange's name on it, this writer sees endless hours of making up for lost time in your future.
To my ears then, as now, those first few Boomtown Rats albums weren't so much "produced" as "captured", with the band's high octane performances and singer Bob Geldof's cockeyed carnival bark coming off as bolts of lightning caught on tape that stood in stark contrast to the painstakingly written, arranged, performed, and polished production found on, say, City Boy's Young Men Gone West.
Or the Outlaws' first post-Henry Paul album Playin' To Win, which, while had Lange's fingerprints all over it, for better and worse.
None of this - not one single minute - could have prepared us for the arrival of AC/DC's Highway To Hell. It's funny thinking back on how we kids perceived AC/DC's pre-Highway To Hell output. While tracks like "Whole Lotta Rosie" and "High Voltage" pulled down consistent late night album rock airplay to garner more than a few hastily-scribbled lightning bolt logos on school book covers, but the general vibe was that the band would remain just a little too rough-around-the-edges to ever join the ranks of Aerosmith or Ted Nugent.
So young, so foolish.
Then one day riding home from school, BOOM, I heard "Highway To Hell" on the radio for the first time. The song was half over before I realized who I was listening to on that bus.
It was the musical equivalent of falling for someone just as the school year ends, pining for them all summer, and then almost not recognizing them the next time you see them. Everything about them is bigger & better, and you're no longer the only one who notices.
With Mutt at the helm, the guitars and drums were beefy, the bass found the pocket and held everything else together seamlessly, and even Bon Scott's rail-thin wail now had a tough-as-leather swagger about it, with a little help from Mutt and the boys on backing vocals.
Without changing anything about the band, Lange had managed to capture the rawness of those early Rats albums while employing the same painstakingly multi-layered approach of City Boy's The Day The Earth Caught Fire to create an album that practically defines the term "game changer".
When an album comes along that flips the Monopoly board, we kids in the sticks may not be the first to know about it, but if we don't ultimately sign off on it, then it never happens, period. Just ask April Wine, Aldo Nova, or Angel City.
Highway To Hell was the perfect soundtrack for summer explorations, but even the fair-weather fans knew that this was just the first album of a serious one-two punch. The next one would be the slam dunk to end all slam dunks.
TO BE CONTINUED...