Back in the mid-80s, with hair metal beginning to take over the music scene, AC/DC were viewed as passé in some circles.
Sure, the group had started the decade with what would become one of the best-selling rock albums of all-time in 1980’s ‘Back in Black,’ but things had begun to go slowly downhill after that touring cycle.
How did the “Thunder from Down Under” get their groove back? Enter Stephen King.
The maestro of horror had a fair share of his written works turned into films over the years, but come 1986, King decided it was time to try his own hand at the game and set out to direct a visual adaptation to his 1973 short story, ‘Trucks.’ Starring Emilion Estevez, it would be retitled ‘Maximum Overdrive’ and released in the middle of summer in ’86, getting its first issuing on Blu-ray in the States recently.
The story itself was interesting enough, detailing three days when the Earth passes through the tail of a mysterious comet. When it does, machines of all sorts suddenly come to life and terrorize their human creators in a horrific killing spree. A group of people from different walks of life find themselves together at a North Carolina truck stop, where they are lorded over by a circling band of vehicles, led by a menacing 18-wheeler with a massive visage of the Green Goblin on its front grille.
The movie didn’t perform nearly as well as King had hoped though, with the result, ‘Maximum Overdrive,’ tanking at the box office by bringing in just over seven million dollars. He later distanced himself from the project, saying in 2002 that he was, “coked out of [his] mind all through its production, and [he] really didn’t know what [he] was doing.” King never directed another film.
Over the years though, ‘Maximum Overdrive’ has become a true cult classic, initiated when it began receiving endless rotation on cable channels, becoming almost unavoidable on late night weekends. For fans of gore in horror B-movies, it was a no-brainer. Who can resist the spectacle of the baseball coach being taken out by a murderous soda machine that shoots cans out at a devastating velocity? Or waitress Wanda June getting attacked by an electric knife with a mind of its own? The on-screen demise of many characters is a ridiculously awesome sight to see.
There’s also the curiosity of AC/DC providing the soundtrack, which at the time was a first for the band. To this day, they have never released a greatest hits or best of compilation, sticking to the stance that they didn’t want to resell material to their fans. The closest they came was in 2010 when they lent their music to the soundtrack for ‘Iron Man 2.’ But even that is missing some of their most popular songs.
King was adamant from the outset that he wanted AC/DC to provide the soundtrack for ‘Maximum Overdrive.’ Not content on simply repacking old music, the band wanted to at the very least include a new single. That came in what was the title track to ‘Who Made Who,’ which landed on shelves two whole months before the film even premiered.
The ‘Maximum Overdrive” Blu-ray is full of extras, including the feature “AC/DC vs. ‘Maximum Overdrive’ where Murray Engleheart, co-author of ‘ACDC: Maximum Rock & Roll,” talks about how big the band had been at the outset of the 80s, but then how there was a precipitous drop off in album sales.
“’Who Made Who,’ to a large degree, reestablished AC/DC,” Engleheart says. “Things hadn’t been going fantastically well for them…they were still a major concert draw, and they were still one of the biggest concert acts in the world; it was their biggest single in years, their most successful single in years and it just had everything – it was the classic AC/DC sound, the tension build-up at the beginning, the big chorus, the rhythmic stride, it just had everything. [The song] broke them through again. It started the process of re-elevating them.”
The single for “Who Made Who” received the video treatment and play on MTV, but the soundtrack album allowed AC/DC to do something ingenious in releasing a second single from the compilation; “You Shook Me All Night Long.” The popular track from ‘Back in Black’ had a promotional performance clip created when it originally came out in 1980, but that was well before the advent of music television. Six years later though, they could up the production, add a bit of a storyline and put a new frame around it visually. The move worked, and it landed in heavy rotation on MTV.
In addition to “Who Made Who,” where guitarist Angus Young gives a peek at what would become the main riff of “Thunderstruck” four years later, a pair of instrumental tracks – “D.T.” and “Chase the Ace” – were included on the soundtrack to ‘Maximum Overdrive” as the only new material by the band. The movie itself featured five more instrumentals by AC/DC, none of which have been officially released thus far.
The rest of the compilation featured only two other well-known songs, one the being the title-track to their 1981 LP ‘For Those About to Rock We Salute You’ and the other “Hells Bells” from ‘Back in Black.’ The remaining songs were lesser known from the maligned ‘Fly on the Wall’ album from the year prior, and a sole Bon Scott sung number the bluesy “Ride On.”
Despite the glorious tanking of ‘Maximum Overdrive’ in theaters, the soundtrack was a boon to AC/DC’s popularity, selling more than five million copies and, more importantly, reestablishing them in the public consciousness as a band that still had something to offer.
“I think that was what we needed,” AC/DC co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young recalled years later. “’Who Made Who’ was a return to form for the band and it’s become one of our most popular live tracks. We even used it as the opening song on our tour that year.”
To contact music columnist Michael Christopher, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out his blog at www.thechroniclesofmc.com