“This album was guided by Malcolm’s vision,” says AC/DC‘s Angus Young. “He was there from the beginning, and he’s the guy that gave me a role in this band.”
The legendary guitarist is telling NME that the band’s latest record, ‘PWR UP’, flows with the spirit of his late brother and band co-founder, who passed away after a lengthy battle with dementia in 2017. For a band that has made an immeasurable stamp on the very fabric of rock music since forming in Sydney, Australia in 1973, it is remarkable that AC/DC’s stunning comeback record, which arrives next month, even got made at all. When touring concluded for 2016’s Rock Or Bust tour, it looked like the rock icons were about to call it a day on the most unfortunate of terms.
Drummer Phil Rudd was forced to miss the entire tour after being convicted of drugs charges and threats to kill in 2015, while frontman Brian Johnson missed the last leg of the dates due to hearing loss – with a little-known singer named Axl Rose taking his place. When the tour ended, bassist Cliff Williams simply decided that it was a young man’s game and retired after 40 years with the band.
But four years later, they have all defied personal tragedy and health issues to deliver their 17th album, which is instantly imbued with the band’s recognisable spirit. Most importantly, it provides a welcome kick up the arse at a time when the world needs it the most.
“This year has been so bad and it’s a desperate time for everyone,” Brian tells NME, “but this record just brings across the sheer power of rock‘n’roll that other music can’t reach. There’s a lot of stuff out there at the moment with loads of dancers and singers on stage and it all just seems so bubblegum-y and nice and twee. It’s just good to have a nice shot of rock’n’roll.”
AC/DC devotees can immediately take comfort in knowing that the record itself leans heavily on the unique brand of heavy rock that has been their trademark for almost 50 years, with Brian’s unique howl bolstered, as ever, by the comforting sound of Angus’s Gibson SG. They are also assisted once more by producer Brendan O’Brien, who has produced all of the band’s albums since 2008’s ‘Black Ice’.
The long road to the band’s return began in 2018, when the classic line-up of Angus Young, Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd, Cliff Williams and Stevie Young all headed to Vancouver’s Warehouse Studios to lay down the first stages of their comeback.
Malcolm had died a year previously, but his contribution to the album can be felt in the wide array of guitar ideas and riffs that he had cooked up with Angus in the preceding decades. The album, the group insists, is very much a testament to their beloved bandmate’s memory.
“His death was a huge blow to us,” Angus tells NME from his Sydney home. “But I still think he’s there when I’m playing. It sounds funny, but I can still feel him communicating to me when I’m playing guitar.”
Brian concurs, and reveals that Malcolm’s fastidious dedication to the band still loomed large while recording their latest effort.
“With Malcolm, you’ve got to go back to the beginning when he turned to Angus and said, ‘’C’mon, we’ve got to start a band – there’s too much soft music around. I wanna play some rock’n’roll!’ He was uncompromising in his ethic. If it wasn’t rock’n’roll, Malcolm didn’t care for it. He’s left us – but he’s still there! In the studio and in everything he did. We’re all very aware of that. When your target is to pay tribute to Malcolm, you just really want to do well and you don’t want to let anyone down.”
Cliff, meanwhile, admits that the chance to record a tribute to Malcolm was his primary reason for coming out of retirement. In the two years prior to their return, Brian had also been slowly working on getting his hearing back on track.
An unlikely saviour came in the form of audio expert Stephen Ambrose, who in 2016 posted a personal appeal online, urging the singer to contact him. Ambrose, who pioneered the in-ear monitors that are widely used by touring artists today, told Brian he had created a new device that could save his career.
“He literally put this video on YouTube saying, ‘Please help me, – I’m trying to get in touch with Brian Johnson because I wanna get him back on stage again!,” Brian explains. “I thought it was someone screwing around, but he came down to Florida with all this equipment and it was pretty stunning; I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.”
While the specifics of the technology are shrouded in secrecy, Ambrose spent the next three years making a smaller version of the device, suitable for wider use. His innovations have also allowed Johnson to entertain the possibility of touring with AC/DC again, after he gave the technology a successful test run when the band shot the video for lead single ‘Shot In The Dark’ in Holland earlier this year.
“I can still feel Malcolm communicating to me when I’m playing guitar” – Angus Young
“It was like the atmosphere of a rocket launch,” he says. “Everyone was incredibly tense and we put the full back line of the band up. It worked immediately and I couldn’t believe it. I felt like a kid again and we just did 15 days of non-stop rehearsals. I can’t explain how good it felt.”
This was a marked contrast to his departure in 2016. At the time, Brian explained that he had stayed home and buried his head in a bottle of whiskey to deal with the premature end of his days with the band. Yet he admits that the band’s decision to draft in Guns N’ Roses legend Rose to replace him on tour was a sign of them making “the best of a bad situation” – a tour crew of almost 90 people risked being laid off if they had not continued with the dates.
Johnson and Williams aside, the band also insists that drummer Phil Rudd is in a far better place, too, after his legal issues, which included being sentenced to eight months detention at his New Zealand home, were publicised across the globe.
“We all have our issues and he’s certainly had his, but he’s on the top of his game and pretty good,” Cliff explains. “He’s always been the main man on the drums for this band and it was a joy to see him upright again.”
Even if this album marks a remarkable victory over their personal issues, there’s no denying that the looming face of old Father Time remains ever present. Brian is the group’s oldest member at 73, while the rest are aged between 64 and 71. How do they still manage to deliver at such a consistently high level? Angus explains that his iconic stage wear, which sees him sporting a classic schoolboy uniform, holds a transformative effect.
“I’m lucky, because I can just put on a school suit and when I’ve got it on, it just puts me in that role,” he says. “I’ve never known why, but there’s something about it. There’s just two different characters – I’m usually pretty quiet but when I put the suit on I know exactly how to behave. It’s strange; I just feel totally different.” He adds of the band’s future: “You want to be healthy, and that’s one thing. The key to it is as long as I remain healthy, mentally and physically.”
Angus’s energetic live performances are also aided, most probably, by the fact that he is one of rock’s most committed teetotallers – he steered clear of drugs and booze throughout the band’s wildest eras with original singer Bon Scott, who died from alcohol poisoning in 1980, and, latterly, with Brian at the helm.
In contrast, Brian fondly tells NME about the time when he and Malcolm headed off on a whiskey-fuelled quest to discover the Loch Ness monster. Yes, you read that correctly. “We both had these Land Rovers and we’d taken them for a trip around Scotland – Malcolm loved his fireworks and he’d taken a big box with him,” he chuckles. “One night, we were four sheets to the wind and staying at this hotel right on the side of the loch. Mal just said, ‘C’mon, let’s go and find the Loch Ness monster! I’ve got fireworks and it might attract it!’
“There we were, going straight into the water in our shoes, up to our knees, and it was freezing! Mal had a drink in one hand, a box of fireworks in the other, and was trying to set fire to the loch. We were just howling. By the time we got back to our wives we had straw in our hair and were covered in mud. What a night!”
The band had considered calling it a day after Scott’s death, but recruited Brian – then known for his work with Newcastle glam-rock outfit Geordie – to sing on their next record ‘Back In Black’. It remains the second best-selling album of all time, only topped by Michael Jackson‘s ‘Thriller’. Did they ever know they were onto a winner?
“I hope this album will make young kids go out and buy a guitar” – Brian Johnson
“We knew it was a great album and it was Brian’s first role with us,” says Young. “But when we were making it, we had no idea of how it would be received and from the get-go we had an idea of how it would go on to become this huge success.”
Brian also recalls Malcolm’s characteristically laidback spirit when he first discovered he was in the band. “It was my Dad’s birthday and I’d bought him a bottle of whiskey. But the telephone rang and it was Malcolm. He said, ‘Hey, Johnna, do ya fancy coming to the Bahamas?’ He was just so understated and I replied, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re making an album’, and I just said, ‘You want me to make an album with you?’
“I had to ask him to ring me back in 10 minutes in case it was a hoax or wind up. He rang us up 10 minutes later and I said, ‘Are you saying I’m in the band? He said, ‘Uh – yeah!’ He was so laidback, but I was in such shock that I had to open my dad’s present and start necking the whiskey from the bottle.’
If the resulting album had been released in 2020, it is arguable that it would debut to a more hostile reaction. On ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, for instance, the band recall an anonymous lover as a “fast machine” who keeps “her motor clean”, which you can’t imagine going down too well with contemporary audiences.
“I’m scared to open my mouth now, me son!”, Brian tells NME when asked if they would get away with it in 2020. I don’t know anymore, I didn’t even know what ‘woke’ stands for and I only found out since I came back to England. I have no idea of what it does or how it works!”
Controversy aside, it is clear that none of the success would have occurred if it wasn’t for Malcolm Young’s driving force behind the music. And in his final days, while resigned to a care home, it was music that provided some of his greatest comfort.
“I’d play him a bit of guitar, and he was happy whenever we were doing that,” Angus recalls of later visits to his older brother. One of the last records I ever played him was The Rolling Stones when they were doing a lot of old blues tracks (2016’s ‘Blue And Lonesome’) and he just thought it was great.”
And it is Malcolm’s spirit, Brian hopes, that will inspire a whole new generation of rock stars: “Instead of looking at dancers on TikTok, I’m hoping this album will make young kids go out and buy a guitar, learn the riffs and discover the rest of our catalogue. It would just be great to get more young rock bands out there, writing their own songs and getting up there on stage.”
If there’s any justice, a whole new generation of guitar heroes will heed his words. For those about to rock, we salute you.
AC/DC release ‘Power Up’ on November 13.