AC/DC: The End Of The Road For Brian Johnson?

AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson has been ordered to stop touring immediately or face total hearing loss.

Following an ultimatum from a doctor, the 68-year-old singer is now retired from the road. The band were forced to cancel the remaining 10 dates of the North American leg of their Rock Or Bust world tour, to have concluded at New York’s prestigious Madison Square Garden on April 4.

The shock news represents a hammer blow to Johnson and the rest of AC/DC, and to fans around the world who have bought tickets for a series of concerts set to have lasted until the middle of June.

The North American shows will be re-scheduled for “later in the year”. It’s more than likely they will take place with a guest vocalist standing in for Johnson. As this issue went to press there was no news on whether the UK shows, in London and Manchester on June 4 and 9, respectively, will go ahead.

As things stand, the situation leaves guitarist Angus Young as AC/DC’s sole remaining member. Rhythm guitarist and leader Malcolm Young retired in 2014 after being diagnosed with dementia, and was replaced by the brothers’ nephew Stevie. Succeeded by Chris Slade for the current excursion, Phil Rudd, their drummer since 1975 (give or take an absence of 11 years), was forced to sit out the tour after some high-profile felonies.

Johnson has been with AC/DC since 1980, having replaced Bon Scott who died that same year. The current line-up is completed by bassist Cliff Williams, an ever-present since 1977.

The precise details of Johnson’s hearing condition are yet to be revealed, although he has previously spoken of the effect on his hearing by the engines of his beloved racing cars. “I got [the problems] from forgetting to put my plugs in, music had nothing to do with it,” the singer told Howard Stern in 2014. “My left eardrum burst. I got out of the car, took off my helmet and fell down because I was dizzy. There was blood coming out, I’ve had tinnitus [ever since].”

It’s a safe assumption that Johnson will still be able to record. Given their fierce loyalty, the possibility of replacing Johnson is remote. Which would, should Angus wish to continue moving forwards with the AC/DC name, render them a studio-only band. 2014’s Rock Or Bust was the band’s first album without Malcolm – something many diehards had ruled out as a possibility. The first leg of the Rock Or Bust tour, even with Malcolm’s absence, was hugely successful. Talking about its sold-out date at London’s Wembley Stadium on July 4, 2015, Classic Rock declared that AC/DC are “still the best live band on the planet”.

This is a group that have shown they are capable of overcoming major obstacles placed in their path. The million-dollar question is: will Angus now resign himself to AC/DC not playing live again? Maybe, maybe not.

The announcement inspired heated speculation over the identity of who might be the ‘guest singer’. One name being mentioned is Jimmy Barnes, who succeeded Bon Scott in his pre-AC/DC group Fraternity, and was later linked with the job that eventually went to Johnson in 1980 (“The whole thing [about replacing Bon in AC/DC] was a complete urban myth,” Barnes told Classic Rock in 2012). Glaswegian Barnes is an icon in Oz, and might well help out his old friends if they decided they needed him.

Dave Gleeson, of Screaming Jets fame, currently fronting fellow AC/DC-approved Aussies The Angels, is another frontrunner, along with Marc Storace of Krokus, the Swiss metalheads who were often compared to Angus and co. in the early 80s.

You’d get long odds on Joel O’Keefe of Airbourne, longer still on Rhino Bucket’s Georg Dolivo, but both feature in the list of names being talked about.

However, it’s not so much whether Angus would consider continuing as AC/DC, but whether or not he should. He turns 61 on March 31. Has the time come to consign the schoolboy outfit to the closet, and forget worrying about denting the band’s hard-won legacy?

Last September, Jonno himself said: “A good footballer, a good ice hockey player, they don’t want to retire, but unfortunately, sometimes there’s a time when you have to call it quits.”

During the tour for Rock Or Bust, when asked why the band hadn’t stopped when his brother got sick, Angus answered: “The reason we keep on doing this is because we dig it. And we still dig it.”

Whatever happens next, it’s going to be fascinating. And of course Classic Rock wishes Johnson the best in whatever the future might hold for him.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.