Forget the fashionista’s need to wear their t-shirts and proclaim themselves fans, forget that you can now buy nearly as much tat bearing the famous lightning bolt insignia as you’d find adorned with Elvis’s mug, forget all that and remember when AC/DC became as the anti-dote to rock’s ascent up its own backside.
In the period known as the “Bon Scott Era” AC/DC were well on their way to the heights they still enjoy to this day. Despite both Highway to Hell (the last Bon Scott album) and Back in Black bringing them true international acclaim, the album Let There Be Rock had already established a massive following for the band and no song sums up their own almost roguish adolescent perception on the world and rock and roll than their most recognisable song “Whole Lotta Rosie”.
Yet it’s the song that for their critics and detractors also sums up everything that’s wrong with AC/DC: it’s juvenile, it’s cocky, it’s sexist and it only has one riff! Of course they’re right, but that’s also why the song is great.
Before certain criticism is rightly levelled where sexism is used to defend a song, there has to be some context. Not the context often used of “it was a different time then”, that doesn’t wash. British comedy of the time was overtly racist and it is no defence of the attempt at comedy to say that it was just different back then. Even though times were different in the early and mid Seventies, the main historical context is one around the state of Rock at the time. AC/DC have always been the antidote to the slightly more pretentious ramblings dominant at the time from the likes of Page and Plant. Using the same influences, AC/DC took their working class – and in Bon Scott’s case, petty criminal roots – and turned Rock back into simple riffs and simple lyrics. Not a word was to be found about Hobbits or druids.
The main defence though is that the kind of Rock presented by AC/DC and how they lived their lives (though Angus Young was and always has been teetotal) is of the partying, late nights, heavy riffs and as much casual sex as it is possible to get with an access all areas pass kind. Inherent in partaking, wanting and talking about casual sex is an element of sexism and disrespect for the opposite sex, whether on the part of men or women. The thing is, it’s not only a feature of life, it’s a feature of the imagination of every young bloke on the planet and this was AC/DC’s market. Just as Sex And The City projects an image of how some women may wish their lives to be, AC/DC projected what blokes wanted, the only difference is there isn’t as much about designer shoes in AC/DC’s stuff.
Lyrically, the song isn’t Bon Scott at his best, but they didn’t have to be. The message was clear and about as subtle as an anvil falling on your head, there was no need to fill it full of innuendo or allegory, Rosie is a friend of the band, a big lady, she enjoys sex and he enjoys having sex with her. We could all write a few verses around that one. What makes the song instantly recognisable is Angus Young’s guitar work. Recognisable as the guy in the school uniform doing Chuck Berry impressions, what makes Young so great is because he kind of is just a guy in a school uniform doing Chuck Berry impressions.
AC/DC are famed for their simple hard, dirty power chords and riffs, but angus stripped it back even further on Rosie and had the verses stamped out around one chord, with the chorus providing the change and element of complexity. More importantly, it meant that if you had access to a guitar and a simple chord guide you could sit in your room and thrash out the song all night long yourself.
But all of this is fairly standard for an AC/DC tune, complexity of lyrics and riffs never featured, what makes Rosie stand out is that when Young lets loose, he can leave the best behind. Scott rightly steps aside after the second verse to let Young do his stuff and what stuff it is. This is pure air guitar territory, when Scott comes back into the song you hardly even notice as Young continues his demolition of his fret board.
AC/DC were one of the first bands to strip Rock of its pretentions, as a band they stopped it taking itself too seriously as it threatened to do. In effect, they took it back to the cheeky origins of Chuck Berry except for a new crowd and new era. Even today, we lack that real sense of just playing hard and heavy for the sheer hell of it, image meant nothing, hairstyle meant nothing, it was just basic rock and roll.
The band went on to do technically better songs than Rosie, but after Let There Be Rock, they had started to appeal to a wider audience. Highway to Hell remains a classic, but it lacks that ultimate grit, cheek and bravado that Let There Be Rock had in spades, as it was now clear they were producing albums that would sell in the millions rather than thousands. We’ll never know if Bon Scott would have ever been able to recapture that sentiment following Highway To Hell due to his early death, but as a band they have never really ever topped that moment, however the song remains as relevant, important and fun today as it did back then.