AC/DC: Stiff Upper Lip (EMI Liberty)
PREDATORY, LONE blues guitar; gruff, greasy, surprisingly deep vocal; trademark chugging boogie groove festering into a hair-tossing, fist-clenching, stand-on-your-seat-and-singalong chorus: “I was born” – the singer is back in familiar territory, way up high and scary, a glue-sniffing, cloth-capped gargoyle – “with a stiff” – pause for punchline) – “upper lip”. AC/DC are back in business, and business, the opening track confidently assures us, is good.
Okay, a wee bit on the slow side – two albums since 1990 isn’t exactly pushing it, although with a sound and approach as well-defined as AC/DC’s has been during this past quarter-century it’s got to be tough making new records that are acceptably familiar to the fans but sufficiently different to lure them away from the old stuff and back into the record shops. On their last album, 1995’s Ballbreaker, they tackled the problem by taking an almost parodic approach — exuberantly young-and-dumb Beavis & Butt-head songs (‘Love Bomb’, ‘Hail Caesar’, ‘Caught With Your Pants Down’) with an obsessional, teenage Rick Rubin production. This time, though, there are far fewer lyrical Benny Hillisms, and music that, if not quite a seismic shift, takes at times a somewhat different direction.
Stiff Upper Lip grooves rather than cavorts. There’s less rabble-rousing. Songs are often sparer and more low-key — growers more than instant, walloping-riffed air-punchers. Even ‘Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll’, a title born to be rowdy, eschews the standard anthem pace in favour of slow, lean, heaviness. And producer George Young — Angus and Malcolm’s big brother, the man behind such early classics as High Voltage and Let There Be Rock — thought to turn down the bludgeon and abrasion knobs on Brian Johnson’s psycho-force-feeding-Tweety Pie-steroids-before-torturing-it-with-a-dentist’s-drill vocal once in a while, allowing him more freedom to actually sing.
The overall impression is of a band deconstructing its music to its basic elements — the Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Can’t Stand Still’; the metal blues of ‘Meltdown’; the ZZ Top boogie of ‘Come And Get It’, ‘House Of Jazz’ and ‘Give It Up’ — and having a lot of fun putting it all back together.
AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson talks to Sylvie Simmons
Did you surprise yourself with anything this time?
At my age I surprise myself every time I can fucking sing! I did like ‘Can’t Stand Still’ – I don’t think I could have sung it any better, which I’ve never said before about anything. There was no fucking around with it — I sang it right through in one take. But the whole album was like that — we just had a lot of fun, you can tell. There was this wonderful feeling of light-heartedness making this album, a devil-may-care attitude — the lads just went, ‘Aw fuck, just sing it the way you want to’, whereas in the past the producers would always go ‘Sing high!’ But George Young threw a whole different light on it — I rate him like Bobby Robson. On Stiff Upper Lip I sound like Satchmo!
There’s been rumours that you’re leaving AC/DC after this album — is that why they let you have your own way?
Rumours are rumours. Before we made this album they said I’d been sacked and Angus was going to sing all the songs — well, those guys couldn’t have heard Angus sing. God bless Angus but boy oh boy, for a singer he’s a fabulous guitarist. No, I’ll just keep on singing until I can it, and when I can it I’ll be the first one to say ‘Sorry lads, I don’t want to make a fool of myself’ — or anybody else for that matter. None of us would. But who would have thunk we would still be rocking 20 years on from Back In Black — and rocking good, not rehashing things. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve never had a song on one of those Greatest Hits collections — we just refuse for that to happen. It cheapens everything.
There’s less of the picture-postcard sex songs — buxom women, large willies — this time around. An AC/DC album aimed at grown-ups?
My two young nephews in Newcastle heard it and they were agog with it — they wanted to keep my copy; I told them to piss off! Howard Stern played it first on his show and said, ‘Born with a stiff? They’re geniuses!’, but at the same time there’s also some very exploratory guitar work on this one, with the lads playing chords and doing changes in the middle of songs like ‘House Of Jazz’ that they’ve never done before, so you might be right, the grown-ups might go for it. I didn’t write any of the lyrics on this — I stopped two albums ago. The last song I wrote about penises I think was ‘Sink The Pink’ — there’s only so many things you can write about sex, drink and women and you just run out. But Angus and Malcolm haven’t been writing lyrics for a while, so they’ve got a whole new throw on it, and I have a great time singing them because I don’t have to think ‘I’m not happy with that, I’ll have to change it’ which gives me a great feeling of freedom. I think this is the freest-flowing album we’ve ever done.
Some distinct influences stand out — Chuck Berry, blues, ZZ Top…
Chuck Berry is Angus’s hero of all time – basically all the CDs he takes on the tour bus are the old blues masters and Chuck Berry and Little Richard — so that influence has got to come out into the open eventually. There’s a lot of blues boogie. I wonder how you chaps are going to categorise this album — because they have to put it in some box, don’t they? The days of just saying ‘That’s good music’ are gone. I don’t know what you’ll call it. There isn’t a boogie category, is there — yet? Let’s invent one: New Boogie. I like that. Off you go.
© Sylvie Simmons, MOJO, 2000