This past spring, eight years after AC/DC released their last album, the five band members entered a recording studio with producer Brendan O'Brien — and banged out 15 new songs in just two months. "We just wanted something like, 'Hey, this is gonna be rock & roll,' " says guitarist and bandleader Angus Young — who emphasized the point by using the word "rock" in the titles of four different tracks. The resulting disc, Black Ice, is set to be released exclusively in Wal-Mart stores on October 20th, with more fanfare than any release from the band in decades. "AC/DC defines rock & roll," says Columbia Records co-chairman, Steve Barnett, who promises an "unprecedented worldwide marketing campaign."
AC/DC's last two albums, 2000's Stiff Upper Lip and 1995's Ballbreaker, leaned toward the bluesier side of the band, but O'Brien was determined to focus on another aspect of their sound. "I was hoping the songs would lend themselves to more of a — 'pop' is the wrong word, but hooky sort of treatment. Like, 'Back in Black' or 'Highway to Hell' and even 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,' " he says. "I was trying to just make people remember, 'This is the same band. I have missed this band. I love this band. Where have they been?' "
Even during its time off, the band managed to reach a new generation. "There's not a lot of bands out there anymore that have the legend of AC/DC," says Wal-Mart's head of music and movies, Jeff Maas. Over the past year, record buyers under 25 accounted for nearly a quarter of AC/DC sales, according to the research firm NPD Group — and five percent of their listeners were age 12 or younger. "People tell me a lot of the young ones like it," says Young. "As my brother Malcolm used to say, 'We get 'em in the beginning.' Me and Malcolm grew up with cartoons, and a lot of our stuff, we took from things like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. 'TNT' — we got that from the Road Runner: He was always getting blown up!"
The band's long break was partially due to a serious hand injury suffered by bassist Cliff Williams. But the group's songwriting team — Angus and Malcolm Young — spent much of the time off perfecting the new songs. The demos they made in that process are hardly recognizable as AC/DC: "If it's Angus' song, he's doing a guitar riff or the drum machine or a drum sort of thing, and he'll sing this very mumbly melody, very superlow, three octaves down," says O'Brien.
There's no denying that Black Ice re-creates the classic AC/DC sound, from Phil Rudd's fat, swinging backbeat to the Youngs' interlocking guitars. Hooks abound, including rich backing vocals on the single "Rock & Roll Train" and a "Big Balls"-style chant on "She Likes Rock & Roll." There are some surprises too: the slide guitar on "Stormy May Day," the twisting, Zep-like riff of "Money Made." Frontman Brian Johnson shines, singing the kind of banshee high notes some fans wondered if he could still hit — although his vocal style is so physically demanding that he could only manage about an hour a day of top-notch singing in the studio. "He's struggled making these records in the past," O'Brien says. "So we figured the right time of day where he was in his prime and had him superprepared every day."
The band is also planning a major world tour, beginning in the U.S. in October. And despite hitting 53 years old, Angus is ready to put that schoolboy suit back on. "At first, when I think about 'Hey, I haven't worn it in a while,' it takes me a little bit of psychology to get into it," he says. "But I promised myself I'm not gonna think — I'll just put it on."
[From Issue 1061 — September 18, 2008]