The anthemic “Highway to Hell” has become a quintessential road trip song, a frequenter of movie soundtracks, and a classic in the rock mythos.
“Highway to Hell” acts as the title track for AC/DC’s sixth studio album, released in July 1979. “Highway to Hell” and the accompanying album are considered some of the group’s finest efforts – perhaps second only to Back in Black. American Songwriter investigates the meaning behind the lyrics below.
Behind the Meaning
There are a couple of possible meanings behind this song. The first comes from a phrase that guitarist Angus Young often used to describe touring in America.
“It was written about being on the bus on the road,” Brian Johnson explained to The Metro. “When the sun’s setting in the west and you’re driving across it, it is like a fireball. There is nothing to do, except have a quick one off the wrist or a game of cards, so that’s where Bon came up with the lyrics.”
Elsewhere, there is a more literal explanation that has been documented. “Highway to Hell” is the nickname of the Canning Highway in Australia, which runs through Fremantle (where Bon Scott lived) and ends at a bar called The Raffles. As the highway comes to an end, it turns into a steep decline.
Because of this, many drivers have been killed driving fast over that intersection after a night out. So when Scott sings about being on the “Highway to Hell,” it means he is making the trek down to The Raffles, hoping not to end up as one of the many who never reach their destination.
Season ticket on a one-way ride
Leave me be
Takin’ everythin’ in my stride
Don’t need reason
Don’t need rhyme
Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do
My friends are gonna be there too
I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell
Highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell
Legacy and Appearances in Popular Culture
“Highway to Hell” became the first song to chart in the U.S. It helped to drive massive sales for the accompanying album, which sold more than seven million copies in America. It was also the last album to feature Scott, who died in 1980 due to alcohol poisoning.
The song has become one of AC/DC’s most iconic tracks. Thanks to a number of appearances in pop culture, the song has proliferated across generations. It has been featured in films like School of Rock, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: the Lightning Thief; Iron Man and more.
This song, and the accompanying album, drew a heavy bout of criticism for making satanic references. Apart from the obvious allusion to hell, the album cover featured Young wearing devil horns and a spiked tail.
While much of the criticism can be chalked up to “satanic panic” hysteria, the late serial killer Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker) claimed Highway to Hell compelled him to murder. He had been linked to 13 murders alongside sexual assault charges.
Almost correct on the Canning Highway bit. Where it ends at Raffles it becomes a bridge crossing the Swan River. Not a decline at all.
The reason it got its name is because Canning Highway has two steep sections that horse and carts pulling large heavy limestone blocks on wagons back in the early pioneering days caused many deaths due to Horses succumbing to the loads in the heat. Carnage ensued when blocks tumbled down the steep incline killing and maiming: hence to the locals it becam known as the Highway to Hell.