Return to Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (review)

Inspiration

The most impressive track on the pivotal AC/DC album of the same name, the single was first released in Australia in 1976, preceding (and, in part, prompting) the band's rise to rock superstardom. Despite a dismal littany of harsh methods belted out by a soon-to-be-deceased Bon Scott in something between a tuneful growl and a melodic snarl, the paeon to vengeance that is "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" traces its origin to the innocence of a children's cartoon. Beany and Cecil, broadcast since shortly after the end of World War II and watched in the childhood of band lead guitarist Angus Young, had amongst its cast of cartoon characters one Dishonest John (or "D.J."), a card-carrying villain in the mold of Simon Legree. And the carried card declared "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Holidays, Sundays, and Special Rates."

As for the particular scenarios laid out in the lyrics, no particular backstory is known for those; though it's been claimed that Bon Scott had childhood dreams of being a proper criminal (instead of an astronaut or a fireman or the like). This song presented a microcosm of the entire drive of AC/DC in that day: here were braggadocios bad boys fully let loose to be bad. But if the band had anyone or anything particular in mind when they put those threats to paper (and later on wax), they haven't told anyone of it.

Execution

The song has a hot start, launching in unrelenting 4/4 time from an electric guitar's crunchy baseline note into an ascending line of short chords returning from each stroke to that solid baseline. Four repetitions of this enticing pattern later, it moves into vocal territory with the first verse. This is an interesting storytelling structure of a song. Each verse lays out a "problem" -- an unsavory school principal, a cheating boyfriend, a nagging wife/girlfriend -- and offers the solution: the listener ought to "pick up the phone" to contact the storyteller, who is a criminal (and is, apparently "always home" and is there alone), and who'll visit sundry unpleasantnesses upon the problem person.

It is interesting that, as criminal as the storyteller claims himself to be (and as unglorious as his methods are), he at least seems to attempt to stake a slight bit of a moral high ground against the intended victim of his attentions. The first scenario suggests a high school head attempting to use sexual blackmail against a student ("you want to graduate, but not in his bed"). The second is, naturally, a heartbreaking cheater, and not just any such cad but one who's "double dealing with your best friend" (though the service implied in the song is that the storyteller will have sex with the one who has been cheated on). The third is the neverending nagging lady (wife or girlfriend, the relationship is unspecified).

Actually, in the main verses, the solution to be applied to each problem is left largely to the listener's imagination. But toward the end of the song, amid numerous repetitions of the title sentimentation, the storyteller recites a littany of methods -- concrete shoes (ie embedding someone's feet in concrete in order to drown them); cyanide; T.N.T. (which by no coincidence happens to be the name of one of the band's two earlier albums, as well); neckties (possibly a reference to strangulation with such a clothing article, or to the infamous Colombian necktie); contracts (obviously murder contracts, not for painting a wagon); and high voltage (the name of the other AC/DC album to come before this one).

In between and after the verses is the chorus, which consists of nothing more than repetitions of the title, but it's how they repeat that encapsulates the soul of the song -- once high, then again with a five note drop, then back to the earlier note, then down a full octave to be delivered in a menacing spoken growl. And stuffed somewhere in between the latter two verses is the guitar solo, a wailing tension-builder, going higher and higher and faster and faster like the countdown to an explosion (it's been pointed out to me that this happens to be one of his easiest solos -- mostly putting two fingers four frets apart, and then pulling off outer, inner, open string, while going up the neck -- but that being easy to play, moving a barre chord with two fingers up the neck with the open E chord interspersed, "makes it all the more awesome to rock out to, given that the entire emphasis and skill is in making it rock"). And the song ends not with a fade, nor on a closing chord, and certainly not a whimper, but with a yell (more or less a raspy "HYAAAAH"), itself menacing enough that you wouldn't want someone to direct that noise toward you in a seedy bar or a dark alley.

Reception

The song, with its captivating and somewhat ahead-of-its-time crunchiness helped light a fire under the reputation of this band, one which was solidified with later returns like "Back in Black."

It was reissued in 1980 as AC/DC skyrocketed to household-name status on the strength of follow-up albums, though it was not put out in the USA until the April 1981 album release, when the band's rising arc was secure. The US release was slightly shorter, but only for the loss of a few more repetitions of the title phrase. A live version issued worldwide in 1993, keeping time with the band's world tour in support of The Razors Edge; the entire album was reissued in 2003, but the song was tragically absent from the gems selected for 2010's all-AC/DC Iron Man 2 soundtrack.

It is to this day a well known hard rock standard: VH1 named the number both the 24th Greatest Metal Song and the 31st best hard rock song of all time. The All Music Guide's "Required Listening: Classic Rock" described the song as having "a real sense of menace.... More than most of their songs to date, it captured the seething malevolence of Bon Scott, the sense that he reveled in doing bad things, encouraged by the maniacal riffs of Angus and Malcolm Young who provided him with their most brutish rock & roll yet." (p. 1) Phil Sutcliffe's bio of AC/DC tagged the record as "rushed and a bit unfocused" compared to follow-up "Let There Be Rock," (p. 66) but in the same stroke deemed this song, "one of the best songs on any hard rock album." (p. 67) Though there are many measures for a song's success, one triumphs over all: turn it up to eleven and have a listen yourself.
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