The phrase that this song's title is based on is "For those about to die..."
This is a variation on the phrase "We who are about to die salute you," which is what Roman gladiators would say to the high rulers (typically the emperor), before fighting to the death in the arena.
AC/DC guitarist Angus Young got the idea after reading a book Bon Scott gave him about the gladiator games in ancient Rome. Young remembers the book as For Those About To Die We Salute You
by Robert Graves, but Graves never wrote a book with that title. It's likely that the book was Those About to Die
by Daniel Mannix.
This is the title track to the AC/DC album that followed Back In Black, one of the best-selling albums of all time. Back In Black never hit #1 on the US albums chart, but For Those About To Rock did (their 2008 release Black Ice also hit the top spot).
The only single from the album to hit the US Hot 100 was "Let's Get It Up," but this title track became a fan favorite. The song served AC/DC well, since it became a fixture at their live shows, which was always their bailiwick. In concert, the sound of cannons drowned out any disappointment fans felt toward the album.
The band got the idea to use cannons in this song when they were rehearsing in Paris and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana was on a nearby TV and cannons could be heard to celebrate the wedding. At AC/DC's concerts, two cannons set up behind the band were used to perform this song.
This wasn't the first time they augmented their show with nontraditional instruments: In 1980, they used an enormous bell on stage to ring in "Hell's Bells."
AC/DC also wasn't the first band to use artillery on stage. When Emerson, Lake & Palmer played the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, the fired two cannons at the end of their performance of "Pictures At An Exhibition." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
This wasn't the first time AC/DC substituted the word "Rock" into a well known phrase; the title of their 1977 album Let there be Rock is based on the biblical phrase "Let there be Light." (thanks, Tom - Trowbridge, England)
The cannons in the stage show took a while to perfect. They originally had 21 smaller ones, which created an enormous amount of sparks.
Jack Black quotes this in the film School Of Rock as words of inspiration to his band before they perform at The Battle of the Bands. (thanks, Tom - Trowbridge, England)
In 2012, AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson revealed that the stage cannons often burn him during performances of this song, with "horrible sparks" falling on his shoulders. That might be because those cannons use real gunpowder. "I've seen Mal (Young) leap like he's been shot with a burning amber in the back of his T-shirt," Johnson told Q magazine. "He didn't stop playing, though."
For Those About To Rock was the third and final AC/DC album produced by Mutt Lange, who would later work with Def Leppard, Maroon 5 and Shania Twain. They rehearsed the album in a former factory outside of Paris and tried recording it at the EMI studios in the city. After two weeks of futile attempts, Lange and the band hired a mobile recording unit and went back to the rehearsal space to work on the album.
The video for this song was the first to get significant airplay on MTV, which launched a few months before the album was released. The video, directed by Derek Burbidge, was comprised of footage from two concerts at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland on AC/DC's For Those About To Rock tour.
Live videos typically don't play well on MTV, but this one had enough spectacle to surpass anything Rod Stewart or the other video stars were delivering. For many fans, it was their first look at AC/DC in action: a shirtless, shredding Angus Young; god shots of the formidable Brian Johnson; and of course, cannons. It left quite an impression on the early adopters of MTV, which were typically teenage boys.
Another live video with better production value was recorded in Detroit at a show in 1983. This one is now deemed the official video according to the band's Vevo site.