AC/DC and the Gospel of Rock & Roll

Thirty-four years after he first put on the schoolboy uniform, Angus Young and his blue-collar bandmates return with their best album since "Back in Black"

By DAVID FRICKEPosted Nov 13, 2008 10:45 PM

Playing together in that rehearsal room, the entire band looks more like a chamber-music group than wild blues boys. Everyone but Johnson is sitting down. But that makes it easier to listen for the roots and diligence inside AC/DC's grinding guitars and Roman-galley choruses. Angus' solos are not long and sloppy; they are short and biting, tight clusters of sharp and strangled notes. And Malcolm and Angus, who write all of the band's music, are quick to cite the Fifties and Sixties records that influenced and inspired some of their best riffs: "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates ("Back in Black"); Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" and Elvis Presley's "Trouble" ("Whole Lotta Rosie").

The brothers' emphasis on basic thrills has often been slammed in print as base instinct. AC/DC's first appearance in this magazine, a review of their 1976 U.S. debut, High Voltage, ended this way: "Stupidity bothers me. Calculated stupidity offends me." In fact, AC/DC do play calculated music. Malcolm and Angus have thrown out the stuff they don't want to hear in rock & roll: polish and frills. "When I was young and first heard harmonies, I thought, 'That's too nice,'" Angus says, sneering. "The Beach Boys always reminded me of the nice kids in school." Rudd, 54, keeps unyielding 4/4 time in every tune, mostly on his snare, kick drum and high-hat cymbal. "I'm not repressing skills," says the drummer, who is from Melbourne and, except from 1983 to 1994, has played with AC/DC since 1974. "Most drummers are scared to try this." Williams, 58, the band's other Englishman, who joined in 1977, freely admits that he plays "the same thing in every song, for the most part. In AC/DC's music, the song is more important than any individual's bit in it."

Angus confesses that, once the tour starts, he will miss that chair. "For me, this is probably the best time, playing and rehearsing. I can sit and enjoy the buildup with everyone else. Because once we're onstage, for me, it goes so quick. It's like I go on, and, shit, off I go. That bit of me is gone. The next thing I know, I'm backstage. I'm done. In between, I don't know where my fucking brains are."

There is another toothy smile. "They ain't on this planet, I can tell you."

Ask Malcolm and Angus a straight question — "Who runs AC/DC?" — and you get a straight answer. "We both do," Malcolm says immediately. "Because we were there from the start," Angus chips in right away. "It's mainly that. We've lived it from the beginning."

"They are determined lads in everything they do," says Johnson, who sang with a moderately successful English band, Geordie, in the Seventies and owned a successful car-roofing business in Newcastle, England, when he auditioned for AC/DC in the spring of 1980, a few weeks after Scott died. "Everything," Johnson says again, emphatically. "You can't change their minds. I've tried. If I say, 'I don't think we should do this gig, there's snow on the road, it's dangerous,' they say, 'But the kids got the tickets.' 'We could fuckin' kill ourselves going up that mountain pass.' 'But the kids got the tickets.' I say, 'I know, we can go tomorrow night.' They say, 'Nah, John-o, they've got 'em for tonight.'"

Steve Barnett, co-chairman of Columbia Records, was AC/DC's co-manager from the mid-Eighties until the mid-Nineties. "They wanted to do things on their own terms," he says of the brothers. "That was important to them. At the end of the day, they had a very clear idea of the road they wanted to go down." The Youngs have licensed their music to the U.S. military for use in recruitment ads. "But a car thing, no," Malcolm says sharply. The band has partnered with Wal-Mart and MTV to produce an AC/DC edition of the interactive video game Rock Band, yet Malcolm and Angus refuse to allow AC/DC songs to be sold as MP3s.

Even George ran into a brick wall while he and Vanda were producing AC/DC's 1988 album Blow Up Your Video. Malcolm had long been a heavy drinker. (Angus, in contrast, is a teetotaler.) But during those sessions, George says, "I saw the signs. Malcolm had a problem. I said if he didn't get his act together, I was out of there. I don't recall it having any effect." George notes that he and his brothers come from stubborn stock. "In our family, if we have a problem, we deal with it ourselves. There's no point in people telling us we gotta stop this or that."

After the record was finished, just as AC/DC were about to tour the U.S. behind it, Malcolm abruptly decided to quit drinking and left the band for several months. (He is still sober today.) "I was not surprised," George says. "When Malcolm puts his mind to something, he does it." Angus is the same: He chose to go ahead with the shows, with the brothers' nephew Stevie on guitar. After all, the kids had the tickets.

Williams believes Angus "felt adrift without Malcolm" on that tour. "Their connection is quite profound. They may tell you that's nuts," he adds, laughing. "But to watch those two play guitar, just jamming, they know what they're going to play before they even play it."


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