February 1990, three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Newsweek magazine published a detailed analysis of the new German state in a cover story titled ‘A United Germany: The New Superpower’. Among its findings was the revelation that the newly liberated population flooding across the crumbled wall had boosted West Berlin record sales by 300 per cent. And the preferred soundtrack for the newly emancipated masses? The Dirty Dancing soundtrack and AC/DC.
The Anglo-Australian quintet entered the new decade in rude health, buoyed by the success of Blow Up Your Video, their most commercially successful album since For Those About To Rock, and with de facto band leader Malcolm Young newly energised and clear-headed having shaken off the alcohol addiction which had forced him to sit out months of the band’s subsequent world tour. “Angus was going: ‘I’m your brother; I don’t want to see you dead here. Remember Bon?’,” Malcolm admitted. “So I took that break and cleaned myself up.”
This renewed focus would be important. For with frontman Brian Johnson absent from songwriting sessions while finalising his divorce, and George Young relinquishing production work after an uncharacteristically unproductive session at Windmill Lane in Dublin, the onus was on Malcolm and Angus to reanimate the vibe when work resumed on AC/DC’s eleventh studio album at Little Mountain Studio in Vancouver, Canada with producer Bruce Fairbairn. Choosing Fairbairn, who had revitalised Aerosmith’s career with 1987’s Permanent Vacation album, was inspired. At the outset the producer told Angus Young: “I want you to sound like AC/DC when you were seventeen.”
Nowhere was that trademark sound captured better than on The Razors Edge’s opener, Thunderstruck. Introduced by an electrifying Angus Young riff, comprised of hammer-on and pull-off fingering on an open B string, the track builds dynamically using terrace chants and new drummer Chris Slade’s brutal but simplistic poundings to emerge as a state-of-the-art stadium leveller. “AC/DC equals Power. That’s the basic idea,” Angus noted succinctly.
This simple premise was hammered home by Fire Your Guns and Moneytalks, the former built around a biting blues riff and classic single-entendre sex talk, the latter positioning Johnson as a sleazy Wall Street lothario (‘Hey little girl, you want it all/The furs, the diamonds, the painting on the wall’) – instantly addictive, it remains AC/DC’s highest-charting US single. The ominous-sounding title track, meanwhile, was that rarest of AC/DC songs, a rumination on global politics (‘There’s fighting on the left and marching on the right…’), as Angus Young explained to Canadian TV channel Much Music’s news programme FAX. “The world was at peace again and everyone thought: ‘Ah, the Berlin Wall’s come down and it’s gonna be a party every night’,” the guitarist said. “And you can see now that it’s not that way. It’s our way of saying the world’s not perfect and never will be.”
Not everything on The Razors Edge was so striking. Mistress For Christmas, inspired by Donald Trump, then making tabloid headlines for an extra-marital liason with US actress Marla Maples, might be the single worst song the band have ever recorded, while you’d be hard pressed to find a single ’DC devotee who could sing you the chorus of Goodbye & Good Riddance To Bad Luck or the frantically funky Rock Your Heart Out. But, kicking off a decade that would see words such as ‘grunge’, ‘nu metal’ and ‘pop-punk’ enter the rock lexicon, The Razors Edge stands as AC/DC reclaiming their title of the world’s greatest hard rock band in the post-Appetite For Destruction landscape, with a hard-hitting, back-to-basics album.
This approach was to underpin AC/DC’s return to the studio in 1994, to an almost parodic extent. Having helped The Cult pay homage to ’DC and Zeppelin with that band’s 1987 album Electric, Def American record label boss Rick Rubin had fulfilled a lifelong dream by working with AC/DC in 1993 on Big Gun, a track written for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero film – “He said he’d been an AC/DC fan since he was a kid in New York,” Malcolm Young said – and his services as producer were retained for Ballbreaker. This, Young would later concede, was a mistake.
The sessions began with the finest intentions, with Rubin promising to restore the classic sound of the band’s earliest recordings. “It sounds simple,” the producer told Rolling Stone magazine, “but what AC/DC did is almost impossible to duplicate.” With Phil Rudd surprisingly reinstated alongside Cliff Williams, it seemed that the planets had aligned perfectly, and Angus was optimistic as sessions began at New York’s Power Station studio. “He’s probably the first producer that’s never said ‘I want a hit single’, so that’s good, because then you know you’re going to make an album, not ten songs for radio, for commercial reasons,” he explained.
Problems bedevilled the sessions from day one. Try as they might, Rubin, engineer Mike Fraser and Rudd could not get a perfect drum sound, and after 10 frustrating weeks – during which 50 hours of recordings were made that would never see the light of day – operations shifted to LA’s Ocean Way Studios, where Rubin had wanted to record from the outset. The new schedule, however, came with new issues, because Rubin was also contracted to work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their new album, One Hot Minute, meaning he would have to divide his time. Used to having their producer’s undivided attention, this time-share arrangement did not sit well with the Young brothers. Even less so when they realised that upon showing up at 6pm, Rubin’s studio regime would then involve recording songs up to 50 times.
“He would come in at night and say: ‘Hmm, we’ll try that song a different way tomorrow,’” recalled Brian Johnson. “By the time we finished we’d played the song so many different times you’d be sitting there going: ‘Jesus, I’m sick of this bloody thing.’”
To Rubin’s credit, when Ballbreaker emerged in September 1995 it sounded fantastic, as warm and inviting as the hum of a vintage valve amp. But it contained no truly great songs. Lairy opener Hard As A Rock, with its staccato riff and ludicrously priapic lyrics (‘Her hot potatoes, will elevate ya’) is the pick of the bunch, while the closing title track was as agreeably filthy as anything from Dirty Deeds (‘She threw me on the bed, her hand went for my throat/As I began to choke: “Honey shoot your load!”’) but almost everything in-between is the definition of ‘filler’. Save for a curious meditation on religious fundamentalism with Burnin’ Alive, based on the Branch Davidian cult siege in Waco, Texas, Ballbreaker is hilariously over-obsessed with sex, to the point where Angus and Malcolm’s cringeworthy lyrics actually distract from some fine old-school riffs. It was unlikely to be much consolation to the Youngs that One Hot Minute turned out to be a stiff too.
Reunited with George Young, and back in Vancouver, although at Bryan Adams’s Warehouse Studio this time, AC/DC restored the balance between authenticity and quality with 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip. A much more nuanced, less wildly excitable affair than its predecessor, the album tapped into the band’s oldest inspirations – Chuck Berry riffs, ZZ Top boogie, Muddy Waters’ electric blues – to fashion a record that could almost be described as ‘mature’. Almost. Any album that begins with the heroically dumb lyric ‘I was born with a stiff’ isn’t going to be entirely house-trained, but on tracks such as the rolling House Of Jazz, the sweetly choogling Safe In New York City and the down-’n’-dirty Satellite Blues, they harnessed some of the same understated, controlled power that they’d invested in Powerage. Here, crucially, AC/DC pulled off the trick they’d mastered during the Bon Scott years, of making a whole lot of preparation and hard work sound effortless.
When pressed to make sense of AC/DC’s ongoing relevance as the new millennium began, Malcolm Young offered an explanation as simple as his trademark breeze-block riffing. “If you look at The Beatles, they started out as a rock’n’roll band, playing in Hamburg,” he noted. “They became really successful. And then they started doing things like Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, but eventually they came back to playing straightforward rock’n’roll like Get Back. The Stones did much the same. We’ve learned from bands like that that it’s best just to stay where you’re at; you’re going to come back there anyway, so why leave in the first place?”
And who could argue with that?