In autumn 1992, I interviewed Malcolm Young for a now long-extinct music magazine called Metal CD. AC/DC were always a formidable live act, but studio-wise, they’d been in the doldrums for most of the 1980s (Fly On The Wall, anyone?). Then came 1990’s platinum ‘comeback’ album, The Razors Edge. AC/DC were on the upswing again, but were as notoriously press-shy as ever…
It took several weeks and numerous phone calls to get the interview confirmed. Then, with 24 hours’ notice, I was summoned to AC/DC’s management office on London’s King’s Road. Here, I was ushered into a room where their rather debonair manager, Stewart Young (no relation), looked at me suspiciously, dialled Malcolm’s home number in Sydney, Australia, and then, almost reluctantly, handed me the phone.
AC/DC were promoting a new live album, imaginatively titled Live. Malcolm had agreed to discuss every AC/DC album so far, and share some thoughts on the band. Best-laid plans…
The first sound Malcolm made down the line was a deep, phlegmy cough. I knew we were in trouble when he answered my questions about the first two albums with the same response: a very long pause, followed by, “That was a good one… A few good songs on that one.”
By the time we reached their third UK album, Let There Be Rock, I felt like a dentist with his knee on a patient’s chest, trying to extract a particularly obdurate wisdom tooth. Malcolm eventually sensed my discomfort. “Listen, mate,” he sighed, in-between what sounded like puffs on a cigarette. “Can I be truthful? It was so long ago, I can’t always remember which songs are on which records. You remind me and we can take it from there.”
Great. Now we’re getting somewhere. Okay, Let There Be Rock, then. You’ve got Go Down, Dog Eat Dog, the title track…? There was another achingly long pause, finally followed by, “That was a good one… A few good songs on that one.”
In a desperate attempt to warm him up, I tried a different approach and asked Malcolm what bands he’d listened to while growing up. “The Rolling Stones and The Who,” he replied, warming up a bit – from stone cold to tepid. What about these days? Another long pause: “The Stones and The Who… and that’s about it.”
Once again, he sensed my discomfort. “Me and Angus went to see Led Zeppelin once,” he volunteered. Brilliant. Let’s get him talking about that, I thought. But before I could ask for more details, he dropped the bombshell. “We left after a couple of songs.” I was about to ask why, but Malcolm beat me to it: “Singer was a blond feller,” he said, dismissively. “Bit of a poser.”
By now, I could actually feel a comedy bead of sweat prickling my forehead. But we got through it. Slowly. At times it was like squeezing blood from an Ayers Rock-sized stone, but Malcolm gradually went from tepid to something approaching room temperature.
He was fiercely proud of AC/DC’s legacy, sometimes self-critical and almost candid. He admitted taking time out of the band in 1988 after his drinking became an issue. In a sad portent of events following his 2014 diagnosis with dementia, he praised his nephew Stevie Young for stepping in back then.
As our time drew to a close, Malcolm almost sounded like he was enjoying himself. Almost. In 1991, AC/DC had headlined the Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington for the third time. Over the years, they’d had Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake and Metallica as their warm‑up acts. I reeled off their names in a last attempt to see if Malcolm had anything to say about AC/DC’s rivals.
There was another painfully long pause. The silence between London and Sydney was deafening. Finally he spoke: “Seen a few of them bands on MTV.”
Which ones? Another long pause: “Well, me daughter listens to that band…”
Yeah, which one? Another pause: “Nirvana” – which Malcolm pronounced as ‘Neeeervana’.
Bingo! In 1992, Nirvana were the biggest band in the known universe. What, I wondered, did Malcolm think about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s angst-fuelled take on heavy rock? Another long pause. “Naaaaah,” he finally replied. “Singer’s a blond feller. Bit of a poser.”
“The version that came out in Britain was a mix of songs from our first two Australian albums, High Voltage and T.N.T.. T.N.T. is a song that still goes over a storm every time we play it. It sounds like it could have come out today. D’you know there are bands out there still trying to write another T.N.T. today?
“Live Wire and It’s A Long Way To The Top came together almost immediately in the studio. When we played live in those days, we used to jam a lot on stage because we were so short of original material. We used to play Jumpin’ Jack Flash and put in 15 minutes of bullshit so we could fill up a 40-minute set. And the riffs for Live Wire and It’s A Long Way To The Top came out of those jams.
“Back then we never went into the studio with anything more than a riff. In fact, we thought a riff was a song. We really didn’t know any better.”
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
“We didn’t have much time to do that album. After High Voltage we seemed to be touring constantly. Then we signed the record deal to go over to England and just as we’d completed the tour, they told us we had to do another album. All we did was go straight into the studio after doing the night’s gig and knock up some new ideas.
“It was Angus that came up with the song title – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. It was based on a cartoon character that had the phrase as his calling card [Dishonest John in the TV cartoon Beany And Cecil]. Then Bon stuck in the line ‘I’m dirty, mean, mighty unclean’ from an advert for mosquito spray that was running on Aussie TV at the time. Yes, we were always a very topical band. We looked at what was happening in the world [laughing].
“Big Balls was the other one from that record that sticks in the mind. It was just a bit of a joke, a bit of fun. We needed to fill up the album, someone came up with a rumba or a tango, and Bon started writing these hilarious words. Bon loved an innuendo and he was obsessed with his balls.”
Let There Be Rock
“Now this was a steamer! I suppose we were getting a bit more serious and we wanted to get a rawer sound and cut out those commercial choruses like T.N.T.. We knew exactly what we wanted, which were three really strong live tracks to flesh out the set.
“Whole Lotta Rosie was on that album, wasn’t it? We knew it was going to be a sure‑fire winner, and Bad Boy Boogie and Let There Be Rock were the other two we felt would go the distance on stage. Those three overshadow most of the other songs on the album and ended up in the live set for years after.”
“That album was more of the same, except our original bass guitarist Mark Evans had quit and Cliff [Williams] had joined. We were happy to stay in the same area as Let There Be Rock because all that stuff was going down so well on stage. Sin City was the big one on Powerage, and we’re still getting some mileage out of that even now.
“Mind you, the record company were starting to push us for hit singles, and we were just digging in our heels and going for it. We gave them Rock’n’roll Damnation though, and that made the charts. These days, some bands are expected to come up with at least eight singles off one album. Pathetic, isn’t it?”
If You Want Blood You’ve Got It
“If You Want Blood was exactly where we were at that stage in our career. That record summed the band up perfectly and it was recorded at one of the best gigs of that tour at the Glasgow Apollo. To tell you the truth, I haven’t actually listened to it for years, but I’ve seen clips of us on TV playing some of those songs and it reminded me of how good the band sounded at the time,
“Whole Lotta Rosie and Let There Be Rock were going down a treat by then, and of course we had the new version of The Jack, which had become really filthy, and was Bon’s party piece – his forte, if you like.”
Highway To Hell
“That was a definitive change for AC/DC. Atlantic Records in America were unhappy because they couldn’t get the band on the radio, and they were desperate for us to come up with something more accessible. We’d had our own way for a few albums so we figured, let’s give them what they want and keep everyone happy.
“Back then, Mutt Lange was still an unknown – I think he’d just produced the Boomtown Rats before he came to us. Mutt seemed to know music, and he looked after the commercial side while we took care of the riffs, and somehow we managed to meet in the middle without sounding as though we’d compromised ourselves. In fact, there was no way we’d back down on anything. We were a pretty tough band for any producer to work for. Touch Too Much was a hit off that record, but the one song that stands head and shoulders over everything else was the title track.
“If certain people had got their way, though, it wouldn’t have been called Highway To Hell, because the bible belt was very strong in America at the time, and they made a fuss once the record came out. But even though we were under pressure, we stuck to our guns.
“After Highway To Hell, some of the critics started to realise that Bon did have a talent. Then, when he died, everyone was suddenly saying what a great performer he’d been. And these were the same guys that two years before had been saying we’d do much better with a singer that didn’t scream all the time. They were saying we should ditch Bon and get someone like David Coverdale! What hurt me more than anything was that Bon never got the recognition due to him when he was alive.”
Back In Black
“About three or four weeks before Bon’s death [in February 1980], Angus and I had started putting some ideas together, and Bon had sat in playing the drums. Some of those ideas ended up on Back In Black. Then Bon died, and we didn’t know whether we wanted to carry on. The record company was pressuring us to make a decision. Brian [Johnson] was recommended to us, and it felt right.
“But when Brian joined, the music papers were full of this Bon versus Brian debate, and Brian had a tough old time. I don’t think Brian let it get to him. He comes from a traditional working-class background – his old man was in the pit, and he’s a tough old nut to crack. At the end of the day, Brian had the balls to get up there, and he was the only guy we found who could sing loud enough to be heard over the racket the rest of us were making. He was always going to be our man, whether we liked it or not.
“So, looking back on it, an awful lot of sweat went into the making of Back In Black. Hells Bells was one of the key songs. It reminded us of Bon and I think a lot of our older fans still see it as a tribute to him. That one, the title track and Shoot To Thrill are still in the live show, and I think they’ve joined some of the early songs as timeless AC/DC. Whatever it was, we were doing it right, because it was the most successful album we’d made at the time.”
For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)
“Christ! It took us forever to make that record, and it sounds like it. It’s full of bits and pieces and it doesn’t flow properly like an AC/DC album should. There’s some good riffs on there, but there’s only one song we like, and that’s the title track.
“When we wrote it, we wanted another big song to play live, like Let There Be Rock. For Those About To Rock has stood the test of time, and become our main encore. But by the time we’d completed the album, it had taken so long, I don’t think anyone, neither the band nor the producer, could tell whether it sounded right or wrong. Everyone was fed up with the whole record.”
Flick Of The Switch
“We did that one so quickly and I guess it was a reaction to For Those About To Rock. We just thought, ‘Bugger it! We’ve had enough of this crap!’ Nobody was in the mood to spend another year making a record, so we decided to produce ourselves and make sure it was raw as it could be.
“We even had this very simple black-and-white line drawing on the cover. It was just pencilled on there. Everything about Flick Of The Switch was very basic. The title track is the song that still sticks in my mind from that record. Flick Of The Switch was a great live track.”
Fly On The Wall
“We wanted to pick it up a bit more for this album, so we tried our hand at producing ourselves again. But putting some more time and thought into what we were doing instead of just taping ourselves banging out the songs as we had done on Flick Of The Switch.
“It’s tough to pick one special song from Fly On The Wall, but Shake Your Foundations sounded great when we played it live. There had been another change in the band by then. Phil [Rudd] had left, and we had Simon Wright playing with us. He knew what he was doing and we just had to guide him in the right direction, and leave him to get on with the job. It’s a very simple thing, playing drums for AC/DC, but sometimes it can be hard just to keep it simple.”
Who Made Who
“We were asked to provide the soundtrack music for the film Maximum Overdrive. There was some old stuff in there, like Hells Bells, as well as Who Made Who. We had the old [original producers] Vanda & Young back producing the title track, and I think that was what we needed. Who Made Who was a return to form for the band and it’s become one of our most popular live tracks. We even used it as the opening song on our tour that year.”
Blow Up Your Video
“We wanted to carry on where Who Made Who had left off, although there was a long gap between albums. We’d lost our footing by that time, and we needed to get the old feeling back again. So we stuck with Vanda & Young again, and went back to our roots. There was more production on the album than there had been on Fly On The Wall or Flick Of The Switch, and we tried to capture that traditional twelve-bar rock’n’roll sound that we’d had in the beginning.
“That’s The Way I Wanna Rock’n’Roll and Heatseeker were the ones that went down best when we played them live, and they’ve stayed in the set. But I also liked Meanstreak, even though I think it may have been too funky for some of the fans.”
The Razors Edge
“Bruce Fairbairn [the producer] is a real gentleman. He knew what we wanted to do and was happy to ride with us. We wanted to hear every single instrument on that record and have the overall sound right in your face. What we didn’t want was one of those American mixes with eight guitar overdubs, but Bruce seemed to give the band a modern sound without watering us down.
“Simon had left by then and we had Chris [Slade] in the band, which gave us an added boost. He’s a showman in his own right, and I sometimes think we hold him back. Thunderstruck was the first single and it’s ended up as the first song of the live set. It’s one of those songs that sounds great on stage. Fire Your Guns is the same. Both of those were going down so well when we played them live.”
“Everyone said right from the start that AC/DC are a live band, and that the studio albums never matched us live. After If You’ve Got Blood and Bon’s death, the question was always there – would we do another live album? We wanted to wait until we had enough live material with Brian to give him a fair old shot, so he wasn’t up there singing all old Bon songs.
“Around the time of For Those About To Rock, we started to fill some of those big amphitheatres, and many bands playing the same venues were starting to put on a real show. People pay the same amount of money to see AC/DC as they do to see Genesis. But if they don’t see any lights, any stage set, if all they get is five guys playing in the background, they’re going to feel short‑changed. It doesn’t matter how good the music is, you have to present something the best way you can. People now expect the bell and the cannons when they go to an AC/DC show, and we’re happy to give it to them.
“This album has all the best AC/DC songs on it from both eras of the band. Some of the old stuff, like Whole Lotta Rosie, still has a real kick to it.”