On the 36th anniversary of the world-conquering ‘Back In Black’ going to UK number one, we salute the immutable rock behemoth that is Australia’s AC/DC (P.S we wanted to give a slot to part-time frontman Axl Rose, but the A was obviously taken…)
AC/DC were formed in Sydney in 1973 by guitar-wielding brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, plus original vocalist Dave Evans, soon to be replaced by charismatic frontman Bon Scott. Since releasing their debut album ‘High Voltage’ in early 1975, AC/DC has become a byword for rock music in its purest form: huge, crunching riffs played at face-melting volume, lashed to pummeling boogie rhythms and hilariously basic lyrics about sex, good times and the irresistible power of rock’n’roll itself. They’re the logo on Butt-Head’s T-shirt. They’re the jukebox in the dive bar in your head. They’re the boozy, scuzzy denim everyman personified, the Henry Fords of stadium rock: you can have any AC/DC album you like… so long as it sounds like ‘Back In Black’, 35 years young this week.
Formerly the singer of ’60s bubblegum pop band The Valentines and woolly prog chancers Fraternity, Bon Scott was painting ships and literally shoveling shit (he worked at a fertilizer plant) when he jumped at the chance to audition for AC/DC. At 28, he was a decade older than Angus Young when he joined the band, yet the Youngs took to him immediately. A sucker for drink, drugs and debauchery – the living embodiment of an AC/DC song – Bon was nevertheless a reliable performer. “He always turns up,” shrugged Malcolm Young. Until one day he didn’t. Six albums into AC/DC’s career, with real success finally beckoning after the release of breakthrough album ‘Highway To Hell’, Bon passed out in the back of a friend’s Renault 5 after a night on the sauce in London. Arriving home to East Dulwich, Scott’s friend found he couldn’t drag the sleeping singer out of the car, so left him there overnight. By morning, Bon had choked to death on his own vomit. Devastated, the band contemplated packing it in, but Scott’s father urged them to continue. They decided to name their next album ‘Back In Black’ in tribute, its title track a fitting epitaph for the fast-living singer: “Forget the hearse ‘cos I’ll never die”.
A regular fixture of the AC/DC live show is the firing of antique cannons during ‘For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)’. The idea for incorporating a 21-gun salute into the song came about because AC/DC were recording it at the same time as the royal wedding of Charles and Diana.
‘Back In Black’ has the rare distinction of achieving ‘double diamond’ status in America with more than 20 million copies sold. Worldwide, they’ve sold over 200 million albums in total, making AC/DC the 14th-best selling act of all time. The Black Ice Tour in 2008 grossed more than $400 million, and as for those T-shirt sales…
When Angus and Malcolm Young were kids, they got an early taste of rock stardom thanks to their older brother George, who played rhythm guitar in The Easybeats – Australia’s answer to The Beatles. Angus recalls being unable to get into his home one day because crowds of screaming girls had turned up outside. George also mentored his younger brothers before they had a record deal, then produced their first five records before handing the reins to Robert John “Mutt” Lange for ‘Highway To Hell’. A recording purist, George disavowed all studio trickery, demanding the band record everything clean and live wherever possible – a basic principle they’ve never wavered from.
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‘Flick Of The Switch’
Just one of the many AC/DC album titles to hammer home the power-surge theme of the band name. Others include ‘High Voltage’, ‘Powerage’ and ‘Blow Up Your Video’.
The band Brian Johnson sang with before he was brought in to replace Bon Scott in 1980. Geordie were a heavy glam act from Newcastle, who had four chart hits in the early ’70s. But by the end of the decade, Johnson was back working at a vinyl car-roofing business where he wore a newspaper boy’s cap to avoid being recognised as a former pop star on the skids. Then came the call from AC/DC. Johnson kept the cap, except now he’s worth an estimated $90 million and races exotic cars in his spare time, including his prized 1920s Bentley.
What broke out as the band landed in Nassau, in the Bahamas, to record ‘Back In Black’. The band had expected lush Caribbean weather and beach holiday vibes. Instead, they found themselves in a cast-concrete bunker of a studio, run by a matriarch who gave them all six-foot fishing spears to ward off Haitian robbers. Inspired by the persistent tropical storms, producer Mutt Lange suggested the album’s opening line to Johnson: “I’m rolling thunder, pourin’ rain/ I’m comin’ on like a hurricane”.
The place AC/DC suggested they were motoring towards on the final Bon Scott album, ‘Highway To Hell’. Atlantic Records always hated the title, but the band stuck to their guns, and it became their breakthrough in the US. Sadly, the way the tracks were sequenced meant that Scott’s last words – on record at least – were “Shazbot, nanu nanu”, the catchphrase of Robin Williams’ loveable alien in the dorky TV sitcom Mork & Mindy.
The place where long-serving AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd narrowly avoided after being charged with methamphetamine possession and attempting to organise a hit on a former employee. Rudd hasn’t played with AC/DC since his arrest last year, and he doesn’t look like doing so any time soon, after being sentenced to eight months’ home detention by a New Zealand judge. Angus Young commented: “he seems to have let himself go. He’s not the Phil [we knew] in the past.” It’s not the first time Rudd has effectively been fired from AC/DC – in 1983 he left “to spend more time with his family and his cars”, a euphemism for the fact that his escalating drug use and propensity for starting fights with his bandmates had made his position untenable. However, the Youngs always felt that a certain heavy, swaggering groove was missing and Rudd was invited to rejoin in 1993.
The sinister final track on ‘Highway To Hell’, ‘Night Prowler’, became notorious as the favourite song of Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, who murdered at least 13 people in California in the mid-’80s. After an AC/DC hat was found at the scene of one of his murders, the situation went into overdrive with TV news reports on the subject of “evil rock” asking: “Did the band AC/DC drive him [Ramirez] on a personal ‘Highway To Hell’?” The group were stunned. “It sickens you to have anything to do with that kind of thing,” Brian Johnson told VH1.
‘Let There Be Rock’
The 1977 album on which Angus Young’s amp caught fire midway through recording. “I had to keep playing until the end, because my brother was in the control room, and yelling out ‘KEEP GOING!’” revealed Young. “I had to keep going until the thing kind of went into meltdown.” Bon Scott wrote the lyrics for the title track while consulting a Bible he’d bought from a bookshop near to Sydney’s Albert Studios.
Despite – or perhaps because of – sharing a dressing room with Bon Scott, Angus Young is one of music’s most famous teetotalers. He did, however, pick up a nasty milk habit, as he told a recent Reddit AMA: “Well, I did used to drink a lot of milk, yes. And I don’t know why, really, at the time. My body just seemed to say I had to drink that milk. And I used to have gallons of the stuff.”
AC/DC might have maintained, on ‘Back In Black’, that ‘Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ – but the US Army disagreed. In 1989, the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was on the run from American forces, taking sanctuary in Panama City’s Vatican Embassy. As he refused to surrender, General Maxwell “Mad Max” Thurman decided to use mind control tactics, blasting the embassy with AC/DC at wall-shake volumes to get him to surrender (also on the playlist: Black Sabbath, Guns N’ Roses, Twisted Sister, Alice Cooper and, er, Kenny Loggins). It worked: after 10 days, Noriega surrendered.
The band have licensed their tracks for any number of films or ads, but they refuse to let them be sampled – despite every beatmaker since Grandmaster Flash itching to get his mitts on ‘Back In Black’. When the Beastie Boys humbly requested a section of the song in 1995, Malcolm Young’s response was simple: “Why don’t they just write their own samples?”. AC/DC also choose not play the festival game: their only UK festival show of the past 20 years was at Download in 2010, where they actually brought along their own stage, and refused to let their logo appear on any promotional material.
From 1978, the fifth AC/DC album and the first to feature current bassist Cliff Williams. A Brit who’d previously played with prog-rockers Home, Williams was recruited partly because the Youngs thought that his good looks would attract more girls to AC/DC gigs. He almost didn’t make it though, the Australian Immigration Department initially querying his visa because they thought an Aussie should have been given the job.
Angus Young’s contribution to the Oxford Dictionary Of Rock Quotations, should such a book ever be published: “I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same, In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
On their Black Ice Tour, one mathematically inclined fan calculated that on average Brian Johnson would sing the words “black”, “rock” and “hell” a combined 163 times a night.
After Christ, Devil Comes. Anti-Christ Devil’s Children… Just some of the explanations for AC/DC’s name suggested at the height of the Satanic rock panics of the late-80s and early 90s. What started as a bit of a joke eventually came to irritate the band. “It was ridiculous,” recalled Brian Johnson. “It got out of hand. ‘Stop these children of Satan!’ It was just outrageously dumb. You can’t fix stupid.” Thankfully nobody these days believes that heavy rock music encourages children to turn to Satan and AC/DC can happily hand out battery-powered glowing devil horns at their shows without fear of reproach.
Pop stars are notoriously short, but AC/DC are positively minute. Malcolm Young is 5’3”, Angus is 5’2”, while looming hulk of a man Brian Johnson towers over them at 5’5”.
Just one of the many items of merch to have borne the instantly recognisable AC/DC logo over the years. Others include alarm clocks, car seat covers, babygros, barbecue mitts, AC/DC Monopoly boards and of course the official AC/DC wines: Back In Black Shiraz and Thunderstruck Chardonnay.
The Velvet Underground
The original name of Malcolm Young’s first band. No relation to the ‘Venus In Furs’ hitmakers, although AC/DC did support Lou Reed in 1974. Another weird coincidence: the original singer of the Australian Velvet Underground was called Brian Johnson, again no relation.
A morning gargle with a combination of red wine and honey was the formula Bon Scott reportedly used to keep his vocals sounding suitably raw. However his former wife, Irene Thornton, suggested that Scott’s distinctive rasp only emerged after he drunkenly crashed his motorbike in 1974. He spent a month in hospital, after which “his voice didn’t ever sound the same”.
Some of AC/DC’s lyrics make Spinal Tap’s ‘Big Bottom’ seem like the epitome of good taste. Take, for instance, 1976’s ‘Big Balls’: “Some balls are held for charity/ And some for fancy dress/ But when they’re held for pleasure/ They’re the balls that I like best”. Or try ‘Got You By The Balls’: “She can play the school girl/ And spank you all you please.” Or, um, ‘Strap It On’: “Brought something special that you’ll like too/ so turnaround and hold real tight/ Up off the ground, we’ll go all night… strap it on”. For further inspired use of the single entendres, see also the songs ‘Squealer’, ‘Beating Around The Bush’, ‘Deep In The Hole’, ‘Give The Dog A Bone’ and ‘Go Down’.
Following Malcolm’s retirement last year, Stevie Young – nephew to Angus and Malcolm and indeed George – has taken his spot in the band. If that level of regeneration seems a bit creepy, then consider that Stevie is already old enough to have his own son: Angus, known as ‘Gus’, who has previously played in AC/DC tribute bands in the UK. The matryoshka dolls of rock could easily go on and on.
Just one of the alternative outfits Angus Young tried on before settling on the school uniform. Others included a superman suit and a gorilla costume. It was his sister, Margaret, who came up with the schoolboy idea, not long after she’d invented the band’s name after seeing it on the back of a sewing machine. “I still love putting the shorts, cap and school tie on before a show – it gives you that energy,” Angus maintains. “I become not me but the guy in the school suit. That’s better in a way because I’d be standing up there feeling really shy otherwise.”