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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fire the cannon, and hail Australia's most successful rock export.
AC/DC have topped pop charts around the world with their first album in eight years, proving that fans never tire of a middle-aged guitarist who dresses like a schoolboy and a singer whose voice sounds painfully raspy.
In the United States, "Black Ice" sold more than 780,000 copies during its first week of exclusive release through Wal-Mart Stores Inc, a group spokeswoman said on Tuesday, hours before the band begins a world tour.
The Columbia Records release ranks as the second-biggest opening of the year behind the million-copy start for rapper Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III" in June. It easily outsold major new releases from rock bands such as Coldplay and Metallica.
With 15 studio albums in 33 years to their name, AC/DC have topped the U.S. chart only one other time, with 1981's "For Those About to Rock We Salute You," whose title track is bolstered by "live" cannon every time it is played on stage.
The band, led by 55-year-old guitarist Malcolm Young and his 53-year-old brother Angus, who favors prep-school attire on stage, also went to No. 1 in 28 other countries, including the U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Argentina.
In all, more than 5 million copies of "Black Ice" were shipped worldwide, and the band expects to sell an additional 5 million or so copies of its back catalog this year, the spokeswoman said.
AC/DC are a "proven brand," said the band's biographer Arnaud Durieux, who co-wrote the book "AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll," and maintains the ac-dc.net fan Web site.
He credited Columbia's aggressive marketing, the hype surrounding the Wal-Mart deal, and the massive popularity of music-based videogames such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero with creating a snowball effect.
"The mainstream media, which has mainly ignored the band for the past 28 years, woke up again and now the band is 'cool' again," he added.
The Youngs, along with singer Brian Johnson, bass player Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, begin a world tour late on Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Tickets for the arena tour have reportedly sold out quickly, despite the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The band's last major world tour, to promote its 2000 release "Stiff Upper Lip," ran for a year through mid-2001.
Sales of recorded music have slumped since then, ravaged by Internet piracy, and the exclusive deal with Wal-Mart was an undeniable lure. The world's largest retailer accounts for an estimated 30 percent of CD sales in the United States.
Indeed, exclusive tie-ins with retailers are becoming increasingly common for veteran acts. The Eagles last year teamed with Wal-Mart for their first album in 28 years, while Guns N' Roses will next month release their first album of new material since 1991 through Best Buy Co Inc.
Traditional music retailers were not thrilled by the AC/DC deal, according to consultant Clark Benson.
"Other retailers in the U.S. don't think it's very 'rock and roll' for AC/DC -- who have that rare following that spans generations -- to have gotten in bed with Wal-Mart," said Benson, CEO and founder of market research firm Almighty Institute of Music Retail.
But the Wal-Mart exclusive has not prevented them from getting in on the action. In Hollywood, just around the corner from a temporary Wal-Mart store selling the album for $11.88, a Virgin Megastore was reselling it for $16.99.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte