AC/DC recorded this a few months after lead singer Bon Scott died of acute alcohol poisoning after a night of heavy drinking. The album is a tribute to him, and features his replacement, Brian Johnson, on vocals.
This is the first track on Back In Black, AC/DC's biggest album. In tribute to Bon Scott, it starts off with the bell tolling four times before the guitar riff comes in. The bell rings another nine times, gradually fading out.
You don't honor Bon Scott's memory with a bell from a sound effects reel, so the band needed a real bell, and a big one. The first attempt to record the bell took place in Leicestershire, England at the Carillon and War Memorial Museum. This proved insufficient, so the band commissioned a one-ton bronze bell from a local foundry that they would also use on stage.
The bell wasn't ready in time for recording, however, so the manufacturer (John Taylor Bellfounders) arranged for them to record a similar bell at a nearby church. According to engineer Tony Platt, that didn't go well, as there were birds living in the bell, so when they rang it they also got the fluttering of wings (the birds would retreat back inside the bell after the toll).
They decided to use the bell that was in production, so they borrowed a mobile recording unit owned by Ronnie Laine and wheeled it into the foundry. The bell was hung on a block and tackle and struck by the man who built it.
Because of the harmonics, bells are not easy to record, so Platt placed about 15 microphones with various dynamics in different locations around the foundry to record the sounds. Once it was on tape, Platt brought the recordings to Electric Lady studios in New York, where he and producer Mutt Lange chose the right combination of bell sounds, put a mix together, and slowed it down to half speed so the one-ton bell would sound like a more ominous two-ton bell. This was integrated into the mix, and the song was completed. Listeners with very sharp ears will notice that the bell when chimed live is an octave higher than than it is on the recording.
This was one of the first songs regularly played as entrance music for a Major League Baseball relief pitcher. In the '90s, the bells signaled the entrance of San Diego Padres relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman. This bit of home team intimidation was copied throughout the league, most famously by the New York Yankees, who appropriated Metallica's "Enter Sandman
" as Mariano Rivera's entrance music. The concept of relief pitcher entrance music was introduced in the 1989 movie Major League, where Charlie Sheen's character comes in to "Wild Thing
" by The Troggs. A few years later, The Philadelphia Phillies played the song when their pitcher Mitch Williams would come in from the bullpen.
There is an all-female AC/DC tribute band in Seattle called Hell's Belles.
The term "Hell's Bells" is an exclamation of surprise, although in the context of this song, it is used to conjure up images of the underworld and the feeling of raising hell - something Bon Scott was known for.
The album was produced by John "Mutt" Lange, who also helmed the previous AC/DC album, Highway to Hell. Lange went on quite a run after Back In Black, producing the Foreigner album 4 (1981) and the Def Leppard albums High 'N' Dry (1981) and Pyromania (1983).
At University of North Carolina football games, this song is played at the start of the fourth quarter.
AC/DC recorded most of Back In Black in the Bahamas at Chris Blackwell's Compass Point Studios (they took the studio time on short notice when another act gave it up). Brian Johnson explained to Q magazine November 2008 that penning the lyrics to this song was a supernatural and scary experience. The singer explained: "I don't believe in God or Heaven or Hell. But something happened. We had these little rooms like cells with a bed and a toilet, no TVs. I had this big sheet of paper and I had to write some words. I was going, 'oh f--k.' and I'll never forget, I just went (scribbles frantically as if his hand is possessed). I started writing and never stopped. And that was it, hells Bells. I had a bottle of whisky and I went (generous gulps). I kept the light on all night, man."
Johnson told Q magazine how this song played a part in rescuing imprisoned Black Hawk Down pilot Michael Durant following the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993. He recalled: "That was the best one. He was shoved in prison, his back was broken. They were kicking him, shooting bullets into him and he was terrified. His pals knew that AC/DC was his favorite band so they hooked up a speaker to the skid of one of the Black Hawks and they were playing 'Hells Bells' over the rooftops. He took his shirt off and- cos his legs were broken- he crawled up to the windows and waved his shirt. That's how they got him out. Ain't that amazing!"
Since this song specifically is a tribute to the late Bon Scott, it's probably a good idea to mention that a statue to Bon Scott was unveiled in 2008 in Fremantle, Western Australia. Here's a little video tour of the statue
At the same time, as soon as the first lyric is heard, it is unmistakable that the band could not have found a better replacement than Brian Johnson. Johnson puts a manic rage into every syllable and an unearthly howl on the chorus, making a song with scarily sacrilegious lyrics even scarier. By the way, that hat he wears onstage was his brother's idea, to help Brian Johnson keep the sweat out of his eyes. His brother loaned it to him and never got it back.