Aussie-British hard rockers AC/DC have rallied hard against line-up alterations, changing fashions and the relentless march of time in an unparalleled four-decade career. Their last world tour, a ludicrously entertaining rock’n’roll juggernaut that grossed $441.6m – the fourth successful tour of all time – was rolled out in support of their sixteenth studio album Black Ice, showing that the ageing international treasures had no intentions of slowing down. Yet now they must: the unwelcome news has broken that doctors have order vocalist 68-year-old vocalist Brian Johnson, who is battling onset deafness, to indefinitely postpone the rest of the band’s current American tour or “risk total hearing loss”.
What could this mean for the future of AC/DC? We assess the evidence…
They’ve carried on before
2014, the year that latest album Rock Or Bust was released, found the band in crisis. Drummer Phil Rudd was indisposed due to legal charges, as he was accused of threatening to kill two people (the charges were later dropped). On top of this, cult hero and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young was diagnosed with dementia, a condition with which he had grappled during the record-making Black Ice tour. Lead guitarist Angus Young, Malcolm’s brother and beloved for performing in a school uniform that encompassed a school cap and short shorts, told The Guardian: “He was relearning a lot of those songs that he knew backwards; the ones that we were playing that night, he’d be relearning.”
Though Johnson gave them their biggest hit
AC/DC were riding high in 1979, having broken the US top 100 for the first time with their fifth album, Highway to Hell, which peaked at number 17. Then, tragedy: Bon Scott, the band’s singer at the time, died after a night of heavy drinking in south London. The surviving members considered splitting, though opted instead to relaunch the group with Johnson behind the mic. The resulting album, Back In Black, shifted an estimated 50 million copies. A sign of their resilience, yes, but also of Johnson’s integral – and arguably irreplaceable – role in the band.
And albums were never really the point with AC/DC
Here’s the crux of the matter. No-one saying the band can’t release an eighteenth record of bruising rock’n’roll whose lyrics deal almost exclusively with sex and booze (what else is there?), though the general consensus is that every AC/DC record is reassuringly similar. As we pointed out in our Rock Or Bust review: “Progress, art: these are not words in their lexicon.” No complaints there – each album is a banger. But there was always a sense that the studio recordings were a reason to get out on the road every five years or so, to put on a ludicrous rock show with stream trains, inflatables and enormous bells that Brian Johnson leaps across. Without that, what’s the point?
But maybe it’s not all doom and gloom?
It seems inconceivable that AC/DC could carry on without Johnson, but remember – it once seemed inconceivable that they could carry on without Bon Scott. Malcolm Young was replaced by his nephew, Stevie, for Rock Or Bust. Rudd’s legal problems gained plenty of traction in the press, but he was an intermittent member of the band from 1975 to 1983, and then again from 1994 until last year. The point being: perhaps, at this stage, AC/DC is an entity more powerful than its individual members. Or, as our Rock Or Bust reviewer put it: “You sense that they could keep on pushing that perfect formula even after all the founders have passed on.”