They’ve got all the essential ingredients: sweat, noise, booze – and choking on vomit. As AC/DC celebrate their quarter century, Sylvie Simmons toasts a band who’ve only ever been about two things: rock… and roll.
GENERAL NORIEGA was losing it. It was 1989, and day and night the American troops charged with bringing him to the US to stand trial continued their relentless assault on his Panamanian compound. The guns he could take, even the explosions, but this final weapon was too much. For the past 48 hours, from giant speakers on top of their tanks, the military had been cranking out full-volume AC/DC.
Meanwhile, back in the States, in an arena dressing room, three glum teenage girls sit side by side under the fluorescent light, puppy-fat squashed into T-shits that collectively spell out the statement ‘WE’VE (shirt one), ‘GOT’ (two) and (three) ‘BALLS’. What they appear to have got, though, is three scruffy blokes in the regulation roadie get-up of shapeless old rock T-shirts and jeans, one of them small and barrel-chested, the other two even smaller and looking like roll-ups with half the tobacco poked out, hunched over mugs of tea. Whereas next door, judging by the squeals coming through the wall, the clutch of Spandexed blondes who joined them at the backstage door are having a hell of a time. With the roadies. This lot are the band.
It’s a mistake anyone could make. Earlier that day, when frontman Brian Johnson, the one in the cap, emerged from the lift in their five-star hotel, the floor manager ordered him off to fix a guest’s air-conditioning.
Jerry Hall wouldn’t have married them. Britt Ekland never frequented their gigs. The likelihood of their modelling for Calvin Klein is somewhere around zero. Security guards regularly mistake them for riff-raff and chuck them out of their own shows. In the US their albums have been warning-stickered by politicians and burned by preachers and their T-shirts sported by a serial killer (Richard Ramirez) and a cartoon star (Butt-Head). The enquiring minds at the LA Times wanted to know. “Why so many Satanic lyrics? Why the bisexual implications in the name? Why the bloody images on the album cover? And didn’t the lead singer drink himself to death? What kind of heroes are these?”
Simple. The kind whose Chuck-Berry-via-Benny Hill lyrics, Berry-via-Yardbirds riffs and festering blues-boogie groove have done more to define the sound of post-hippy heavy rock than just about any band bar Black Sabbath (and even Tony Iommi once said, “AC/DC are the best – in their own way as classic a band as Zeppelin or Deep Purple.”) “We know what we are,” says Angus Young, a man as short on quotes as on stature and trousers. “Rock’n’roll.” “We stick to the same sounds,” says big brother Malcolm, “we put our amps on the same setting every night and, as Angus said the other day, we put out the same album every year with a different cover. We’re not about sitting around climbing up our own arse. Basically we’re a two-guitar band with three or four chords, though we might add another one if we’re feeling tricky.” When their international debut High Voltage (a compilation of two ’75 Aussie LPs) appeared in 1976, its primitive riffs, lecherous vocals, energy, attitude and simplicity were a post-art-rock, post-stadium-dinosaur-rock, anti-AOR breath of fresh air. Lean, snotty, totally teenage, AC/DC were the jean jacket in musical form. A quarter-century on they still are.
It was the coldest winter in years and the Youngs had had it with Glasgow. In 1963 they packed up six of their eight kids and headed for Australia. The two who didn’t make it had left home years earlier – Alex to play in Hamburg in a rock’n’roll band, where he met the Beatles, who would later sign his group Grapefruit to their Apple label.
“All the males in our family played,” says Malcolm. “Stevie, the oldest, played accordion, Alex and John were the first couple to play guitar, and being older it was sort of passed down to George, then myself, then Angus – like when you’re kids and you get all your brothers’ and sisters’ hand-me-downs. We never realized that we were learning guitars, they were always just there, we thought that everyone was like that. Me and Angus would just fiddle – 12-bars mainly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis.” Big brother George, meanwhile, had gone one step further and formed the Easybeats. Barely a year after the family’s arrival in Sydney, the band were topping the Aussie charts.
Malcolm: “Those were great days. I was just going into puberty and we were getting all these screaming girls, a couple of hundred of them, hanging outside our house for a glimpse of the Easybeats, who were like Australia’s Beatles. Me and Angus used to hang out there with them thinking, ‘This is the way to go!” That planted the seed for us and made us play more, try harder.” By the time he left school at 15 –a job in a bra factory, honest – Malcolm himself had played in several bands, like Stones and Free covers outfit Velvet Underground (no relation). Nice music but didn’t go much on the image or lack of ambition, “because my ambition had always been to go to England with a band. I was paying off my Marshall amp at the time – took me eight months – and the day I made the last payment I went, That’s it for me, guys, and knocked it on the head. I thought, I’ll have a good think and put a band together myself so we can get what we want. George was just back in Australia from England and he said the only shit that was good over there was rock’n’roll – the Stones and the Faces – all the rest was too hippy-dippy. I thought, Well, that’s what me and Angus grew up on. So I got together with a few guys interested in having a jam and thought, If I can knock a rock’n’roll tune out of them we’ll get a few gigs and some extra bucks. It was OK but I felt it needed another instrument – a keyboard maybe or another guitar.”
When he got home that night, Angus was sitting in his room, disconsolate. His own school band, Tantrum, had broken up. A light bulb went off in Malcolm’s head and he invited him to try out as his new band’s lead guitarist – “because Angus was the player, to be honest; he was always the showman of the two of us when we were kids.” Angus was hesitant. “He said, ‘I don’t know, they may not like me.’ I said, Screw them, let’s just see how it goes. And they loved it – except for the singer who said, ‘We can’t have this guy, he doesn’t look like a rock star.’ [To be more precise he looked “like Cousin It from the Addams Family. I had hair down to my waist,” says Angus.] I told the singer, If you don’t like it you can move on.” And he did, eight months later. The band’s first gig was squashed between two local bands at a boozy beach club called the Last Picture Show. Angus turned up in his school uniform.
Angus: “I was moaning to my sister, How you can’t move on-stage when your jeans are stuck, you know, you get all sweaty up there? So she suggested I wear my school uniform, since I was still going to school and it was easy enough to pinch a few extra ties or whatever I needed. She thought it would be a good gimmick and class it up a bit.”
Malcolm: “Up to that point he’d just stand there and play like the rest of us, but as soon as he put on that school uniform he became a monster. Of course, they jeered and whistled when he walked on – these places you’re playing to men’s men – but as soon as he struck up, the looks on their faces changed. We played all the old three-minute Chuck Berry tracks and jammed on them and Angus would run around the club, get on their tables; drinks would be going over and more drinks being bought so the club owner loved us.” So did the audience. From that day on, they were headlining. By their second show, at Chequers, they also had an official new name – thanks due again to sister Margaret, who spotted ‘AC/DC’ on the back of the family’s Hoover. Angus and Malcolm thought it sounded powerful and electric. Others – no doubt encouraged by original singer David Evans’ appearance (“He thought he was Gary Glitter,” says Angus, “had the whole outfit.”) – made a somewhat different interpretation, hence the band’s early booking at a gay strip show, their opening slot on Lou Reed’s Australian tour, and the legendary run-in between their future vocalist Bon Scott and the head of a music publishing firm who propositioned him in the gents. Not a mistake anyone made again.
Lou Reed tour over, the band – minus their original rhythm section – piled into a studio with big brother George and fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda and in 1974 released their first single, ‘Can I Sit Next To You Girl?’ “The guitars were good, the band was good. It was just the singer,” Malcolm reviews it 26 years on. “If we could have undone anything, that would have been it. We did it again with Bon.”
Bon was born Ronald Scott in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1946, emigrating to Australia with his parents in the early ’50s. His new schoolmates, during a brief pause between beating the shit out of him, christened him ‘Bonnie Scotland’. Following a swift improvement in his fighting technique he shortened it to Bon. Utilising his new-found ability at hitting things as drummer with the Perth Pipe Marching Band, he became the under-17 drum champ for five years in a row before leaving school, getting turned down by the Army (“socially maladjusted”), spending a short spell behind bars for assault, going through his hippy stage and wandering the streets of Melbourne wobbly-eyed with a pet snake around his neck, and getting the job of drummer with pop groups the Spectors and the Valentines (who’d covered an Easybeats song as a single) and blues-rock band Fraternity.
Angus: “First time I saw Bon Scott was on a talk show on Australian television, something to do with some pop bloke nicking one of his songs, and the interviewer was being totally condescending thinking he was this stupid rock’n’roller. All of a sudden Bon was yelling, ‘Fucking cunt!’ and leapt across the studio diving on top of the pop bloke. I thought, Hmm, pretty lively.”
The first time they met was at a club date in Adelaide on a night off from the Lou Reed tour. Bon, just out of hospital after a motorcycle accident, was working as a driver. “He was hanging out at our shows going, ‘I’m a drummer, come on, let me bash the drums for you’ and we’d go. No, we’ve got a drummer. So he started being our driver and roadie. Then one night our singer wouldn’t go on – and Bon volunteered. We knew he had a good voice. He said, ‘What do you want me to sound like?’ because he’d been in these bands who wanted him to copy whatever was hip at the time. He couldn’t believe it when we said, Just sound like you sound. He downed two bottles of bourbon with some coke and speed and says, ‘Right, I’m ready’. Next thing we know he was running around with his wife’s knickers on and yelling at the audience.” Scott was in.
The first time this writer met Bon, he was bounding out of the lift of the Continental Hyatt House hotel on Sunset Boulevard, a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a blonde woman’s large right breast in the other. A tattooed, impish man old enough to be Angus’s father, he had a dirty grin, a dirtier mouth and the kind of wiry body you get from a life loading trucks, lifting bottles and doing press-ups on oversized women. He’d decided to shift from drumming to singing, he told me, “because singers get more chicks”.
Malcolm: “Of course, our manager didn’t like him – ‘We can’t have this guy: chicks don’t dig him, he’s old and he’s got a shark’s tooth hanging off his ear’ – this was back when it was all Bay City Rollers and Sweet. But we said, Screw that! With Bon, that’s when the band became a band. With Bon we had a real character in the band with his own style and his own idea for lyrics.”
Angus: “I don’t think there would have been an AC/DC if it hadn’t been for Bon. You might have got me and Malcolm doing something, but it wouldn’t have been what it was. Bon moulded the character and flavour of AC/DC. He was one of the dirtiest fuckers I know. When I first met him he couldn’t even speak English – it was all ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘piss’, ‘shit’. Everything became more down-to-earth and straightahead.”
Malcolm: “Within three weeks of Bon being in the band we had written all this new material and we were ready to record the first album.” High Voltage (The Oz version) – produced once again by Vanda and Young and featuring Malcolm on bass, the band having used up yet another rhythm section – was whipped out in under a week and AC/DC were back playing Blues Brothersesque joints where “we’d have to fight our way into the venues to play – pubs full of rednecks out in the bush, blasting shotguns through
the dressing room windows.”
Angus: “Those outback places in Australia are the toughest audiences in the world. You have to give them blood.” Almost did at one gig. “It was a mining town, a rough place, police standing around outside. The promoter told us there was a maniac loose in the audience with a meat cleaver. We were meant to distract him by playing so they could come in and nab him. I said to Malcolm, I don’t think I’d better go out there, especially with the school suit on. He said, ‘It’s nothing, you’ll be fine’, and I felt a sharp shove in the bum and I was right out on-stage.”
As their debut album appeared in the shops, the band moved into a house together in Melbourne’s red light district. Malcolm: “The prostitutes got to know us. A lot of them would come around – all sorts of women would show up because we were young and in a band.” Even more when their second album that same year, T.N.T., started climbing the Aussie charts. “They played it on the radio and all of a sudden we had what the Easybeats had when we were kids – all the women outside the house. And inside! Everything was taken care of: there’d be a knock on the door at three in the morning and a bunch of waitresses just off work would be there with bottles of booze, a bag of dope and everything else. Never a dull moment. The cops used to come around because of the noise and smell the dope, but they let us alone. They’d just go, ‘Oh, can I have a go on the drums?’ You name it, it happened in that house. We were poor but living like kings. And we wrote a lot of songs there.”
One was ‘The Jack’, their sing-along paean to venereal disease, something the band’s communal approach to female house-guests at the time made a pretty regular occurrence. (“We got group rates from the doctor,” says Angus.) It was written on the spot while circle-dosing on penicillin and premiered before the women who inspired it. Another was ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, likewise inspired by a female house-guest, the 20-stone Tasmanian – well, you know her name. She tried to pick Bon up with the line, “I have slept with 28 famous men” but he already had a girlfriend for that night. He woke the next morning, aching all over, girlfriend by his side – and Rosie on the other side. “Twenty-nine,” she grinned at him. Bon: “I woke up in the morning and to get out of bed I had to climb over her, which was like climbing a mountain. I stopped halfway for a rest and before I knew it, I was balling her again.”
Angus: “Bon had this fetish about big women. He used to party around with these two girls who were called the Jumbo Jets.” Bon, to be more accurate, used to party with anyone who wanted to party.
Bon: “This guy bangs on the door one morning and I say, Fuck off, I’m having a fuck. Suddenly the door crashed in and it turned out to be this girl’s father, and he finds me on top of his daughter, who’s only 16 as I find out. He beat me into a pulp.”
Angus: “He used to get letters from women all over the world about how they would like to screw him and give him head. We used to read them and get off on them. He thought he was a sex symbol.”
Malcolm: “We only had that house about six months in all, but that six months had six years’ worth of stories. It was the best time.” They left it to fulfil Malcolm’s ambition to go to Britain. On the strength of their Aussie sales they’d signed a worldwide deal with Atlantic who wanted to send them to the States; they persuaded the label they’d be better off playing some club gigs in London, creating a buzz and letting it spread. “London was supposed to be the centre at that time. You had to go there if you wanted to do anything. The Easybeats were the only Australian band that had really gone over and been a success at that point, them and the Bee Gees.” So in April ’76, AC/DC landed in London. As they shuffled on-stage for their first gig at the Red Cow in Hammersmith, the Sex Pistols were at the Nashville Rooms opening for Joe Strummer’s 101ers.
Angus: “Punk arrived about the same time as us. John Peel was playing our first couple of records calling us an ‘Antipodean punk band.'”
Malcolm: “We were always saying, We ain’t a punk band, we’re rock’n’roll. We were tougher than any of those punks. We used to sit there laughing at these guys who were supposed to be able to bite your head off, thinking, we could just rip the safety out of his nose and knock the shit out of him. But it was good that it came along and changed the face of music for a while and wiped out all the hippy shit.”
Their new GHQ – a house in suburban Barnes – was a grim reminder that they weren’t in Oz any more, but the enthusiastic audiences kept their spirits up. Angus: “The crowds really started to get big when we played the Marquee. The first gig we did there we were opening for Back Street Crawler – Paul Kossoff’s band, who were going on even though Kossoff had died. The next week we headlined it and the crowd was right round the block.” They were offered a residency. By that summer they’d also been offered a job opening for, of all people, Marc Bolan, a Euro tour with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, and a spot at the Reading Festival. By autumn they were playing their first-ever shows in the US, while that Christmas found them back in Australia with a second (third for the Aussies) album out, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. They stuck around for the week it took to record its follow-up.
Let There Be Rock was to be an important record. High Voltage and Dirty Deeds had failed to chart outside Oz and they were anxious to discover if they could take things further in Britain, and beyond. This time Vanda & Young gave their raw, horny blues-boogie a heavy metal edge – which was apparently all it needed to take it Top 20 in the UK charts.
Angus: “Our brother George asked us what kind of album we wanted to make and we said it would be great if we could just make a lot of guitar riffs, because we were all fired up after doing all this touring.”
Touring had honed the band, but had again taken its toll on AC/DC’s rhythm section. Bassist Mark Evans was out and the band, now back in London, put an ad in the weekly rock mag Sounds and set up auditions for a replacement (Malcolm nixes the story that at one point Sex Pistol Glen Matlock was up for the job; they were merely, he says, occasional drinking partners at the Warrington pub). The successful applicant to fill out the “solid bottom end” that they needed to break the States was Cliff Williams, ex-Bandit – and that’s where they headed after a break-the-bassist-in European tour opening for Black Sabbath.
Statistics show that one American goes deaf every 15 minutes. Several of them were probably at one of those 1977-78 AC/DC shows. There were enough of the things. Heck, I was too. Malcolm: “We knew it was a big country and it was going to be lot of touring so we thought, Screw it, and just went for it – everywhere, even in the middle of winter. One gig we were the only people who got there because there was a blizzard and the snow was three feet deep and the audience didn’t make it through, so we went back and did it again. It was tough – different states had different things going on with music – but there were areas like Jacksonville, Austin, Columbus, Ohio where we were playing to bigger crowds than in England.”
Angus: “When we first went to America I think you could count on one hand the radios that were playing rock music; but the ones that were, were blasting our album. The mainstream music then was all very soft rock or disco, but what was good about it was the kids were all showing up in huge numbers at rock shows. It was almost like two worlds, same as it was in Australia.” Angus, meanwhile, had found himself a new toy – his first cordless guitar.
Bon: “Angus had this Cheshire cat grin all over his face and evil thoughts seemed to be going through his brain as to what havoc he could wreak with this evil little invention.” Like clambering onto the singer’s shoulders and soloing during a run about through the crowd. They ran right out of the door at LA’s Whisky club. Failing to convince the security guard that they were the headlining act, they had to buy tickets from a tout to get back in.
Malcolm: “Ken Schaffer, one of these wacko rocket scientists who’d seen Angus at a show, brought this gadget of his down. We were amazed, Shit, no cord. We were using it by the end of the American tour, but when we got back to Britain everyone thought we were miming. ‘Fakes! It’s not plugged in!’ – there was people wanting their money back. We had to grab kids onto the stage and go, Look, it’s a fucking radio, to explain it to them.”
Things were looking up in America – their shows were selling out and their songs were on the radio (including the much-bootlegged 1977 live session Live From The Atlantic Studios) – but they still hadn’t dented the US charts. In Britain, though, there was no stopping them: two 1978 Top 20 albums (Powerage and live collection If You Want Blood…You’ve Got It with a bloody Angus impaled on his own guitar on the sleeve) and a hit single too. Eager to replicate this success Stateside, the band’s record label thought a more polished album would to the trick, so they upped the budget, prised the band away from Vanda & Young and Australia and packed them off to America with producer Eddie Kramer, who’d had hits with the likes of Kiss. Not a winning combination.
Malcolm: “He would interfere a lot and suggest things that were miles from what the band was. We thought, We can’t work with him. But the label were going to drop us if we didn’t. We were in a tricky situation. We said to our manager, This guy’s got to go, otherwise you’re not going to have a band. He did a bit of wheeling-dealing and got a tape to a friend of his, Mutt Lange” – then best-known for working with new wave acts like Graham Parker and the Boomtown Rats. “We told Kramer, We’re having tomorrow off, we need a break, and we went in and wrote nine songs in one day and whacked them off to Mutt. He got straight back and said he wanted to do it.” Working with the band in London’s Roundhouse studios, Lange walked the tightrope between the simplicity AC/DC wanted and the polished production the label was paying for. Three weeks later they had Highway To Hell (the words Angus used to describe touring the US). It stormed the UK Top 10 and by the end of the year had made US Top 20.
A change of management to a US firm handling the likes of Ted Nugent and Aerosmith brought an offer of major US tours, on one of which they almost lost their singer. When the plane stopped in Texas to refuel so did Bon, following his Mexican female drinking companion to her neighbourhood bar, where he ended up battling her irate boyfriend and the rest of the male clientele with a pool cue while his band searched high and low for him.
Angus: “Bon was wild. One time he was standing by the window of a four-storey building having a drink, next thing the window’s open and there’s an almighty splash and he’s dived out into the pool. We all run to the window and there he is, soaking wet and grinning. ‘What did you do that for?’ ‘Ten dollars. The bloke just bet me. I told him, give me $20 and I’ll do it backwards.’ I remember him clambering up this PA system once, 60 feet off the ground, and he grabs me by the hand, drags me behind him – I was scared shitless – and he says, ‘Jump.’ And he did. He wasn’t afraid of anything.”
Bon, it seemed, was indestructible. So when, six months after the release of Highway To Hell and barely a month after they’d played their last show together, Angus got a phone call from one the singer’s women friends, “hysterical and trying to get some information, because she’d heard Bon was dead”‘ he didn’t believe it – not until their manager called from the South London hospital where he’d identified the body.
There were two Highway To Hell tracks that proved, in their own way, horribly prophetic. One was ‘Night Prowler’ – written as a saucy romp and adopted as an anthem by LA rapist, murderer, Satanist and AC/DC T-shirt-wearer Richard Ramirez. The other was ‘Touch Too Much’. There’s a video they used to sell in America’s fundamentalist bookshops called Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Search For God. It quotes Isaiah – “The Lord hath mingled a perverse spirit in the midst thereof, as a drunken man staggereth in his own vomit” – and goes on to cite Bon Scott as an example for the perils or rock debauchery. The singer, recorded the London coroner, had “drunk himself to death”.
He’d been drinking at the Music Machine (now the Camden Palace) until 3am. A friend drove him home. When they got there he couldn’t shift him, so he drove back to his own place. Still he could not wake Scott, so he covered the singer with a blanket, left him in the car, and went to bed. Waking 15 hours later, he went down to check on Scott, but he still wasn’t moving. He rushed him to the hospital where he was declared dead, having choked on his own vomit.
Malcolm: “It stunned everyone. There was a nothingness around everyone – no ambition left, just nothing.” The band accompanied Bon’s body back to Perth for burial. Angus: “Everyone was walking around in silence. Nobody knew what to do. I’d just got married – it was hard to take in. We were so depressed.”
Malcolm: “We went to the funeral and saw Bon’s parents – it was a big loss to them, but they’d accepted it more quickly than we had. When we were leaving Bon’s dad said, ‘You’ve got to find someone else, you know that, and we said, We don’t know what we’re doing. He said, ‘Well, whatever you do don’t stop. When we got back to London the manager came up with a list of singers but I said, I don’t want to look at it. We still weren’t interested. We thought, We can’t replace Bon, it’s as simple as that. After a few weeks of sitting around and moping I called Angus and said, Do you want to go down to Easy Hire and maybe we can play around a bit? So we just started playing together” – new songs they’d been working on with Bon. (“Bon actually played drums on some of the demos before he died,” says Angus.) “And after a while we thought we would have a look at some of these names.” Among them were Allan Fryer, an Aussie with similarities to Bon who later fronted Heaven; Londoner Gary Holton of the Heavy Metal Kids; and Brian Johnson from County Durham, who was in the process of trying to relaunch his ’70s band Geordie.
Brian: “It happened that fast. Malcolm phoned us up on Grand National Day, 1980 and said, Would I like to come had have a shot with the boys? I was a huge fan of Bon Scott’s – still am, I still play his records – a real sleazy voice, the sneakiest voice ever for blues.”
Malcolm: “We were all sitting there going, Where’s this guy Brian? He should have been here an hour ago. ‘Oh him? He’s downstairs playing pool with the roadies’ – so we thought, Well, at least he plays pool.” Someone went to get him. A stocky bloke in a cloth cap walked in. “He had tears in his eyes – he was as sad about Bon as we were. Anyway, we said, Do you want to give it a go? And he said, ‘I do ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ with Geordie,’ and off he went. We went, Fucking hell, this guy is cutting the mustard. Anything else you know? ‘Nutbush City Limits?’ OK, we can knock that out, and he sang that great too. It put a little smile on our faces – for the first time since Bon.
Angus: “Bon had told us about Brian – he’d seen this guy perform in Geordie and he was rolling around the floor screaming his lungs out. Bon said it was the best show he’d ever seen. For Bon, Little Richard was the rock’n’roll signer, so for him to say this about Brian we thought, We’ll go see if we could find this guy Bon was talking about. That’s how we got him. Funny thing is, when I told Brian about it later he said, ‘I’ll tell you what happened after that show – I had to go off to hospital. I had appendicitis, that’s why I was on the floor screaming.”
Days later the band were in Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas with Mutt Lange. They sent a car for Brian and a plane ticket. Brian: “I was scared shitless. I was more scared of the crew than I was of the lads, though, because the crew were reeling off names like Rick Wakeman, Yes, these fucking huge bands they’d worked for. But the lads made me feel dead comfortable. The first time I met them I felt as if I could go out and have a pint with them. I knew what they were going through when Bon went; it’s only natural, you don’t just walk away and forget that sort of thing, but they never let me feel left out. You know the first thing Angus and Malcolm said to me when I joined this band? ‘Do you mind if your feelings get hurt?’ I said, Why? They said, ‘Because if you join this band you’re going to get fucking stick because we’ve been slagged off by every fucking reporter since we left Australia.’ I said, Well I’m going to have to take stick anyway taking this lad’s place, and you’ve just had a big hit with Highway To Hell, but they never made me feel like I was standing in a dead man’s shoes.”
Malcolm: “We got the title for the album before we’d even written a tune. Angus said, ‘Why not call it Back In Black, make a black album cover and then it’s for Bon.'”
Twenty years on Back In Black still makes the little hairs stand up on the back of your neck – a lethal combination of wild and barely suppressed emotion, anger at Bon for leaving them and determination to carry on. Matching their turbulent mood swings, there were endless power cuts, the Bahamas were hit by hurricanes, and a machete-wielding tourist killer was prowling the beach. “We became a very close, tight unit”, says Malcolm. “It wasn’t a tropical paradise – it was quite scary sometimes, and at the same time losing Bon and all… It was a hard album to make. It wasn’t until we got out of the Bahamas and into the mixing room in New York after about a week of not hearing any of it that we thought, Fucking hell, this is a monster! And sure enough, it was.” Number 1 in Britain. Two hit singles. Five weeks in the US Top 10. Over 10 million albums sold. AC/DC were stars.
Brian: “The Back In Black period was obviously the golden era but I was too busy to enjoy it or remember it. When I came back I was at home for two weeks sitting there going, did that really happen? Nah…and suddenly it was America, stadiums, a flurry of work. We never stopped. When I was in Geordie I was working quite hard, we were playing every night, but nothing like this – the size, the equipment, the crew, flying everywhere instead of getting in the back of some van. There was no MTV then so we just got out there and played.” Night after night cranking out humping grooves, mega riffs, head-melting vocals and general havoc and fun. A massive US tour, a huge UK one, top of the bill at the Castle Donington Festival (the first of their record-breaking three headline appearances there), back to Australia for a homecoming show, off to Paris to make their next hit album, For Those About To Rock, then back to the beginning and do it all again.
The band Malcolm called “five bums still trying to get out of the gutter” had become a professional rock machine, travelling by private plane, followed by truckloads of lights and props. Angus: “The bell came in from Back In Black’s ‘Hells Bells’ – it sounded so good when we recorded it we thought it would be good to get it for the stage, so we got a two-and-a-half-ton bell cast. The cannons came about when we were recording For Those About To Rock. We were in France and the night manager of this rehearsal room had the Di and Charles royal wedding thing on TV and you could hear these cannons going off. So we got those for the stage show too. The earliest ones we had, we had 21 big barrels all up on top of the stage and there were sparks flying out everywhere, so we got rid of them pretty quick and got the two giant cannons that we put either side. The props don’t always work. I had a school bag once that I put on my back with a pipe with smoke coming out of it. It kept dripping hot tar, which waxed your legs when it fell on you. The hair’s never grown back on one side of my leg.”
The hit records and the big production shows brought girls to their gigs for the first time, and the kind of groupies that would have had Bon howling in his grave. Brian: “I think it’s because we’re on the fucking radio so much. I don’t think it can be my good looks. You never fuck them – we’re not that way inclined – you shake hands and that’s it. That’s for the crew – they’re the ones with the passes, not us.” Their popularity also attracted the attention of America’s die-hard Christian right, who picketed their shows. AC/DC, they said, were “sexual degenerates” and “Devil-worshippers”. Richard Ramirez said AC/DC stood for ‘Anti Christ/Devil’s Child’ and blamed the band’s Highway To Hell for inspiring his murder spree.
Brian: “We’re not black magic Satanists or whatever. Those fucking God-botherers mention the Devil more than we do. They’re just trying to scare people. Ours is all in good fun.”
Angus: “It was the moral majority’s idea to play the record backwards but you didn’t need to play it backwards, because we never hid it. We’d call an album Highway To Hell, there it was right in front of them.”
More than anything, AC/DC’s songs have been about sex – almost music hall, seaside postcard sex: buxom women, bare bums, large willies, social diseases. “We’re a filthy band,” says Brian. “We’re pranksters more than anything,” says Angus. As Sounds magazine put it: “To castigate AC/DC for sexism is a bit like castrating your dog for trying to shag everyone’s leg.”
Malcolm: “It’s rock’n’roll. Chuck Berry was the master when it comes to lyrics – even John Lennon said he was the best lyric writer in rock’n’roll. He would sing about sex in the back seat in such a way that it was funny – if we came out with a song like ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ they’d probably arrest us. That and Little Richard’s sense of humour with words–and of course Bon. We just try to come somewhere near the area that those guys have all been. Thinking about it, it’s amazing we’ve come up with so many terms for ‘naughty bits’ when there’s only two or three naughty bits in the first place, but we’re never stuck for it. But we’re not like some macho band. We take the music far more seriously than we take the lyrics, which are often just throwaway lines. Once you’ve got the music, the titles sort of write themselves.”
Their next album, Flick Of The Switch, they decided to produce themselves. “We found ourselves getting trapped by producers who wanted something different from us, so this time we thought, Bollocks to them, we’ll do it.” Not as easy as it sounds. Though they’d had a little time off at the end of ’82, flying off to the various spots they called home across the globe – Malcolm and Phil Rudd to Australia, Cliff Williams to Hawaii, Brian to Florida and Angus and his Dutch wife to Holland – the strains of success were beginning to show. The atmosphere in the studio was tense. Malcolm and Phil were fighting. Finally the drummer walked.
Malcolm: “It wasn’t thrown-out-of-the-band bust-up, just an out-and-out go at each other, and he just jumped one plane the next day and that was it, he’d gone home. It was later on that the world came that he didn’t want to do it any more.” Rudd spent the next 10 years in New Zealand running a helicopter business.
With replacement Simon Wright behind the kit, it was straight back on the treadmill: a world tour which featured their biggest-ever concert, the Brazilian festival Rock In Rio; a hit album Fly On The Wall; and a movie score for horror writer and AC/DC fanatic Stephen King’s directorial debut Maximum Overdrive which, released as the part-new, part-best of album Who Made Who, brought them another huge hit. It was followed by Blow Up Your Video – another hit – which saw Vanda & Young, back as producers. But the pressure was intense. Malcolm Young was the next to suffer. When they set off on the Blow Up US tour, Malcolm stayed home; the Youngs’ nephew Steve was quietly brought in to replace him. “Nervous exhaustion” said the official statement.
Malcolm: “It wasn’t really nervous exhaustion. I was shagged out from all the drinking over the years and getting really stale, not interested. It was just like a low point in my life. The funny thing was I never drunk heaps, I just drank consistently and it caught right up on me and I lost the plot. Angus was going, ‘I’m your brother; I don’t want to see you dead here. Remember Bon?’ So I took that break and cleaned myself up.”
Back home he played the Brian Wilson role, writing new material. The fact that he sang on the demos began rumours that still persist to this day that Brian would be the next one to leave the band. The singer got a call one day from his mother, who told him she’s heard he’d left. “I said to the guys. Me ma says you’re kicking me out. We just laughed. The latest rumour was Angus was going to sing the songs. These guys mustn’t have heard Angus sing.”
So Brian stayed and Malcolm returned, but Simon Wright had gone – to join heavy metal band Dio. They replaced him with Chris Slade, ex-Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and drummer on, among other things, Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’. And then, quite sensibly, they decided to give themselves the best part of a year off before making another album. The Razors Edge, made in Canada with Bruce Fairbairn (who had produced Aerosmith and Bon Jovi) was a big success, critically and commercially. This long break evidently agreed with them. The next album of new material, Ballbreaker, would be five years coming, with another five years lapsing before this year’s Stiff Upper Lip.
Malcolm: “Two of those years were the tour. You’re not allowed to put your feet up. We’re always trying to write good songs – we’ve got this style of music that it’s hard to come up with things that are different within it – and we can afford to take this extra time. But we’re not idle. Three months after the end of the tour me and Angus get together and jam again and try to write.” Angus paints in his spare time and Brian runs a historic sports car racing team in Florida – “British ’50s and ’60s cars mainly. I drive a Lotus Cortina Mark I and I beat all the Porsches, everybody.” An HSR champ, his current dream is to race Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason in the English series.
Since 1995’s Ballbreaker, Cliff Williams has been happily reunited with his old rhythm section other-half, Phil Rudd. The band were playing in New Zealand and, figuring they hadn’t seen Phil in 10 years, invited him to the show. “He seemed just like the old Phil,” says Malcolm. “He said, ‘Any time, you know, I’m ready…’ A couple of years later when we started on the album, me and Angus said, Let’s bring him down and have a jam and see how it goes, and it was just like the old days.”
The mischievous, almost parodic Ballbreaker was produced by Rick Rubin – the eccentric founder of Def American, who’d make his name working with thrash and hip hop acts. He’d worked with AC/DC two years earlier on ‘Big Gun’, the track they wrote for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Lost Action Hero movie. “He said he’d been an AC/DC fan since he was a kid in New York,” says Malcolm, “and ‘Highway To Hell’ was one of the first tracks he’d ever done with a rap group.” An odd experience – Rubin would sit on the studio floor in his sunglasses practicing yoga, while in the studio next door Phil Spector was running a session. (“I don’t know what it was but it sounded great,” says Malcolm, “like his old girl group sound. I’d have gone in but no one fancies a gun to their head.”) Engineer Mike Fraser, upgraded to co producer, was “indispensable” on that album, and they kept him around for this year’s Stiff Upper Lip, which featured the return of big brother George. (No Harry Vanda this time; the pair remain friends and partners but live on separate continents.) It was their first time working with him since Blow Up Your Video.
Angus: “He helped us when we were doing the Bonfire box set” – their four-CD (five if you wanted the optional remastered Back In Black) tribute to Bon made up of live material, including the aforementioned Live From The Atlantic Studios bootleg, and rarities from the vaults – “and from that we thought it would be great to work with him again. He had actually stopped producing for the past five years and taken a back seat, but even when we worked with other people we always liked him to hear everything before it was released. Being his younger brothers, I suppose we still look to him even now for his stamp of approval.” George also concurred with their whip-it-out, wipe-it-off-quick recording philosophy: “We don’t like to spend more than six weeks on an album,” says Angus. “We don’t want to lose the freshness. Our musical ambition had always been to put down a whole album like it was done by Little Richard and them back in the ’50s.” The slow meticulous approach was one of their main problems with Rick Rubin. Brian: “He would come in at night and say, ‘Hmm we’ll try that song a different way tomorrow,’ and by the time we finished we’d played the song so many different times you’d be sitting there going, Jesus, I’m sick of this bloody thing.” It was also a reason for not returning to Mutt Lange. Malcolm: “It was taking too long – he was trying to outdo Back In Black for sound, and it was the sound he was looking for whereas we were thinking of the music – and the performances were starting to suffer.
“We could go in in the old days, set up the kit and the amps, be in there two hours and bang, we’re knocking out tracks. Now, with all the technology, you’re looking at two weeks just to get to that point. We used to come in from the gigs – we’d work five or six gigs a week – finishing at about two in the morning, then drive down to the studio. George and Harry would have a couple of dozen cans in and a few bottles of Jack Daniels and we’d all get in and have a party and rip it up, get the fast tracks – stuff like ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and ‘Let There Be Rock’ – done right so it was the same loose feeling like we were on-stage still. The studio was just like an extension of the gig back then.”
Angus: “I always think we did the great rock tunes when we worked with my brother George. The whole thing is not to get too serious and hung up about things. It’s about having fun and a good time.”
Fun and a good time. These words keep recurring in their interviews like a mantra. Like ZZ Top still speak about themselves as little old bar band from Texas, this lot talk, look and behave like a club band that blinked and found itself on an enormous stage, surrounded by flashing lights, thundering cannons and a two-and-a-half-ton bell. “If you shut your eyes,” says Malcolm, “you’re in a club, you really are, and that’s what the whole band has really been about from day one. Getting back to the stage. That’s where it counts.”
Which is where they were the last I saw them, bell, cannons, cloth cap and school uniform still in place, their shows still like a night on the town with a very loud, slightly bonkers, extremely enjoyable old pal.
Somewhere in America at around this time, 18,000 people are packed into a sports arena. The floor is sticky, the seats are sticky, a combination of booze and pizza, much of it recycled. When the big bell starts to toll and the band come on and the kids flick their lighters, there’s so much alcohol in the air you expect half the city’s adolescent male population to combust. Phil, Cliff and Malcolm thump out a solid, stonking groove. Brain Johnson stomps, flexes his muscles, screams like the Devil on helium, Angus duckwalks, clambers on the speakers, falls on his back, kicks the air brattishly and jumps on a roadie’s shoulders for his trek through the crowd where he’s disposessed of one sneaker. Drunken air soloists fall off the metal seats mid-riff and are piled up on the floor. Cannons explode. The crowd goes ape. In this ever-changing world, isn’t it nice there’s something you can rely on to stay the same?
The band dismissed by the Rolling Stone Record Guide as “an Australian hard rock band whose main purpose on earth apparently is to offend anyone within sight or earshot. They succeed on both counts” basically “just don’t give a fuck. We play what we play and that’s it. And the good thing,” says the singer who’s been the new boy for the past 20 years, “is, no one else can do it as good as this band.”
Oh, and Noriega? He knew when he was beat. After two days of nonstop AC/DC the dictator came out with his hands up. “And,” says Angus, “they still haven’t paid us royalties.”
© Sylvie Simmons, MOJO, December 2000