Angus Young on Eddie Van Halen, the differences between Bon and Brian, and his guilty secret

Angus Young grinning in close-up
(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre)

It was the fall of 1992, and the US and Europe were in the first throes of grunge fever, as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the rest of the Seattle scene ruled the airwaves and alternative hard rock finally ruled the mainstream music scene. 

Meanwhile, almost 2000 miles to the east, I found myself on a a tour bus with AC/DC, about to cross the mighty Mississippi river into the all-American city of Minneapolis, perched on the eastern edge of the Northern Great Plains that formed America’s vast breadbasket. 

I’d been asked by my editors at Playboy if I’d be interested in doing a major interview with Australia’s finest exports, and I quickly agreed. Then they told me the story would only appear for the Australian edition of the magazine, which meant less money. On the up side, I got to keep the rights to the story, which is why you’re about to read what I’m told is the longest interview ever conducted with man who Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains had only the week before praised as “the absolute God of real rock guitar”. 

Basically, everybody loves AC/DC. Kurt Cobain had admitted the same week that the Back In Black was the first song he’d learned to play on guitar, and rappers had already been sampling their heavy heartbeat rhythms for years. 20 years ago, when the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, Newsweek reported that liberated East Germans passed up champagne and fresh fruit to raid West Berlin’s record stores, increasing business by 300 per cent. And the top sellers? Beethoven? Mozart? Wagner? The Beatles? Try AC/DC, culture vultures. 

Three years later, 1992’s The Razor’s Edge, produced by Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairbairn, was their biggest album in years, reaching number two on the US charts, with the help of the anthem, Moneytalks. AC/DC, and Angus in particular, seemed hot-wired to the elemental heart of rock’n’roll, and it was my mission to find the secret to his simple but profound creative genius. On the bus, the band were having an intense discussion. The usual wrangle about some aspect of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll? Not quite. 

“Whaddya mean it was all Johnson’s fault?” someone was saying. “Nixon was elected in ’68 cause he said he had a secret plan to end the war - and it went on another five years…” 

“Yeah,” growled another voice, “but it was Johnson who sent in a half a million troops, and then lied about US ships being attacked in the Tonkin Gulf to sell the war!” 

“Naw, it was that wise-ass [US Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara – he knew the war was lost by ’67, but they were all too proud to admit it.” 

The world’s greatest hard rock band were not discussing girls, ganja, or grunge. They were having a passionate argument about the nature of the Vietnam War, and they damn well knew what they were talking about. Well, there went all my Spinal Tap references. (Okay, not all of them!) The next morning we met over High Tea as a chain-smoking Angus opened up on what made one of rock’s most enduring phenomenons tick.


Okay, so what’s the secret? How have you guys managed to get better over the years without ever really changing your sound or progressing? 

Young: Well, for most groups, progressing usually means disappearing up your own arsehole! [Laughter] I think as AC/DC we always knew what we played best, which was hard rock music. We’d fool around with other stuff like anyone, so a bit of cabaret now and again. But we never really strayed from what we know best. It was never like we really wanted to, either. It just wouldn’t be AC/DC then, I don’t know whether it’s something we just lucked into as we played – or it might even be our misfortune! 

So it’s just a question of sticking with your instincts? 

Very much so. You see it even in great groups like the Stones and The Beatles. I mean, they’re great, but somewhere along the line they go: “Oh, let’s try this,” and it turns into a detour. Eventually you find they come back to playing real rock’n’roll again.

Bill Wyman says that when the Stones rehearse they always play basic blues tunes to get back into shape. He claims that the blues is so structurally simple that it’s a great litmus test… 

Absolutely. Anyone can play a blues tune, but you have to be able to play it well to make come alive. And the secret to that is the intensity and feeling you put into it. For me, the blues has always been the foundation to build on. I’ve always liked the blues, but not only Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson. Any good blues tunes will get my attention, whether it’s by Eric Clapton or Albert King or whoever. 

Do you have any habits or routines that spark your creative process? 

Sure. I collect rubbish. I’m good at that. My jacket is like my office and studio combined. The pockets are always bulging – I stick everything in there. I come back home from a tour and I’ve got a couple of huge jackets. People say: “Why don’t you empty those jackets?” Instead I go home and hang them up in my closet for future reference. Then I find a couple of fresh jackets and take them with me the next time I’m on the road. That’s the real secret. 

Why? What’s in all those jackets? 

Cassettes. Every time a get an idea for a riff I grab my guitar and pull out a cassette and get it on tape. At the end of the tour I might have a couple of hundred tapes full of little riffs and tunes, maybe just a good guitar break or something a bit different. 20 years ago my brother George said to save all those bits and pieces of inspiration as they appeared, that years later they might be useful. And he was right. A lot of our best riffs and hits came out of those tapes. 

Anybody can listen to your albums from 1980 through 1990 and that intensity is always constant. How do you sustain that? 

First, I think you have to maintain your sense of humour and it has to be fun. That keeps the energy flowing. A certain looseness helps, too. You can’t go in there and be a perfectionist over every little thing and say: “It’s got to be neat and tidy everywhere, so let’s clean up this and dust off that.” Because sometimes that little dusting-up process can erase that raw, rough edge that keeps it sounding fresh. 

On the other hand, some people might say that you guys have made the same record over and over 10 times

That’s a dirty lie! We’ve made the same record over and over 11 times! [Laughs]

Brian Johnson and Angus Young onstage

Brian Johnson and Angus Young onstage in Sacramento, CA, in 1992 (Image credit: Larry Hulst)

You’ve worked with two very commercial producers, first Mutt Lange in the 80s and now Bruce Fairbairn on The Razors Edge. Did you feel any pressure to write hit songs like You Shook Me and Moneytalks

No. In our case going out to write a ‘commercial’ tune was one of the pitfalls we stayed away from. I think those songs were a result of happy accidents. You see, when my brother, George, was working with us early in our career, one of his big thrills was being able to say to us, “You guys can play whatever you want.” He never force-fed us that thing about “It’s got to be commercial”, because that’s what he had to do all the time with The Easybeats and he was sick of it. 

So when we were about to work with Mutt on Highway To Hell he just said: “You do what you think is right. If they tell you it’s wrong, don’t worry about it, just keep doing what feels right.” And we’ve always kept to that line, whoever we’ve worked with. To constantly aim your music at a mass audience means you’re competing with every fad and novelty record that comes along. 

You don’t want to risk gaining the world and losing your soul. 

Right. If you look back over the charts, you could discover that Jumpin’ Jack Flash might have been number eight when it came out, and the song right next to it on the charts might have been YMCA by the Village People, you know? But which one had the staying power? The Rolling Stones can still get on stage and play Jumping Jack Flash with all credibility, and that’s what counts. 

Still, working with Mutt and Bruce polished up your sound somewhat. Was that an attempt to make the material more radio-friendly? 

Yeah, Mutt was always very conscious of what was happening in the music world, he has good ears. Whereas us being the colonials that we were, our attitude was always, “Well, here’s the drum kit, here’s the guitars – let’s bash ’em to death!” 

As for Mutt’s sensitivity to sounds, I can remember an incident that happened when we were making Back In Black with him in the Bahamas. We were playing away in the studio and suddenly he says, “Stop – I can hear this noise in the background.” And we go, “What noise?” So we start up again and he goes, “Stop – I can still hear it. I can hear this click-click-click noise.” He was worried that it was the generator or something… 

Finally I look down and here’s this big crab crawling across the studio floor, clicking its claws. Mutt’s ears were always that attuned, to the point where he could hear that crab while we were wailing away full volume.

Did you ever worry that these big producers were going to try and change your sound or ‘dust the rough edge off’ as you put it? 

That was always our biggest worry, whenever we sat down to work with someone from the outside. So we always got all the songs and arrangements together before we even went near a studio. So when it was time to record, Mutt or Bruce would go: “How about trying a different chord or another key?” If it improved things we’d leave it in. But nine times out of 10 we’d spend a few hours trying their new ideas and it always came back to: “Uh… well, just go back to what you were doing before…” 

Brother teams haven’t always worked well in rock’n’roll. The Kinks and Creedence Clearwater Revival had their problems. How do you and your brother Malcolm get along in the band, musically and otherwise? 

He’s certainly an underrated rhythm guitar player. That’s true. Musically, I’m the left hand and he’s the right hand. Add the two together, we play as one. As for writing, I might have an idea, like the riff for Moneytalks, and I’ll play it for Malcolm when we come to do an album, and he does the same. Then we play critic with each other – “Oh, that’s a good one…” 

Do the riffs evolve much from when you first put them down?

Not on Moneytalks. That was the basic figure, the thing that caught your ear straight away. In a year you might come up with 200 cassette tapes full of riffs and fragments of tunes, maybe just a good guitar break or something. 

Yet the intros for tunes like For Those About To Rock, or especially Thunderstruck almost sound like intricate Bach fugues. Were those parts carefully worked out or was that more creative play and happy accidents? 

I’m a classic doodler, and every now and again I’ll pick up a guitar and knock out some classical-sounding or flamenco thing just for a stretch. That’s how the Thunderstruck intro came about, it was something I had kept with me like George had advised and just diddled with until there it was.

Is Moneytalks your take on the whole Reagan/ Yuppie era mentality? 

Yeah, that was written mainly about the lifestyles of the rich and nameless, that sort of thing. Money, greed and lust seemed to be the virtues of the day. The idea that to win you’ve got to cheat at all costs. 

That must be the closest you guys have come to an overt ‘message’ song. What do you think of bands like U2 who concentrate on issues? 

They’ve never done much for me. I think when people go to a rock show they don’t want to hear the latest news round-up summarised in a song. And to get out there and bash them over the head politically, I’ve never been fond of it. 

But can it be done subtly? 

I don’t know. Let’s just say that when Bob Dylan stopped doing it that was enough for me. I don’t think anyone could improve on him. People sometimes ask us why we don’t do benefits like Live Aid. I just thought it would have been a bit strange: “Hi, we’re going to play Highway To Hell, Hell’s Bells and Back In Black for you!” I don’t think it would have been taken in the proper context.

How do you view the whole arts paranoia thing that swept America – the hysteria about Two Live Crew and Judas Priest lyrics? Are these moralisers just repressed fundamentalists off on another witch hunt? 

Of course. It’s overreacting to something that basically ain’t there. Take our own song Highway To Hell, a classic example. That song was partially inspired when someone asked what we would call one of our tours. We’d been on the road four years so we joked, “Well, it’s a highway to hell!” 

I’ve heard of guys getting so strung out on the road they go back and do weird things like decorate their home like a Holiday Inn. So anyway, I can see how those kinds of people could think it’s “Satanic” or something, even if that’s silly. But at least they didn’t have to play it backwards – it was right there when you played it forwards! [Laughs] 

But if you don’t like something, switch it off. I believe it’s pretty hard to judge someone else’s morals, but for some reason in America they seem to want the government, or the powers that be, to judge conduct through setting up so many laws you eventually wind up with a society that’s one big rule. Rule one: don’t spit on the street. Rule two: when you use toilet paper make sure you wipe 10 times. 

Repress human nature in the wrong way and… 

…It surfaces anyway, that’s it. I’ve always found when you clamp down and repress people, after a while even the most devout ones will sneak off somewhere and wank off or whatever. 

Do you feel the music itself is cathartic, that it can release or heal something in people? 

That’s right. Rock music can transport someone for a few hours – they can disappear for a while from their normal routine and worries and just join in. They can release pent-up energies, and a lot of tension. Then, hopefully, they can go home and not have to take their frustrations out on the wife, or whatever. 

Your brother George’s band The Easybeats were Australia’s Beatles back in the 60s. What was it like being around all that hysteria and craziness? Was it inspiring, frightening? 

Well, it was pretty scary at first. I remember coming home from school one day and the house was surrounded by hundreds of girls, and the police were everywhere, and I thought: “There’s been some kind of accident.” And the police had put up barricades and they wouldn’t let me get into my own house. 

I got more worried: how was I going to get in? I thought something had happened. So I walked around the back and leaped over a neighbour’s fence and into my backyard just in time to see our back doors open and all these girls come tumbling out. And the weird part about it was my brother wasn’t even home at the time.

Couldn’t you have filled-in for him at least? Helped with the overflow?

I would have, but I was all of nine years old at the time! And my father, he didn’t really know what to do, particularly about the phone calls. Here we’d come from Glasgow in Scotland, and we’d never had a phone. Now the phone was going all the time. My father tries to ignore it, but my mother used to take it very seriously.

These girls would be on the phone saying: ”I’m going to kill myself if I can’t meet George!” And my mother would be going: “No, no, no – don’t do anything rash!” Finally my father had enough, so one day when my mother was talking to some fan on the phone he quietly went over with a pair of scissors and – click! – he just cut the phone cord and said, “That’s it!”

Angus Young in the street, drinking from a bottle while holding a cigarette

(Image credit: Jorgen Angel)

Eventually you and Malcolm did fill in for him, musically speaking. Were those early AC/DC days on the pub circuit as rowdy as legend would have it? 

Well, let’s just say they liked their rock’n’roll and they liked their beer. 

Sounds deadly

A lethal combination! And you got the occasional scary moments. In fact, there was always some scare story going around like, “Oh, we had some band in last week and somebody got shot,” stuff like that. But generally speaking, if they liked you, you could do no wrong. I felt sorry sometimes for some bands that would go on and try and play something the audience didn’t care for and you literally hear the audience start to growl, like ‘Urrrrggggghhh!’ 

Other times the reception could be, shall we say, quite mild. You could hear a pin drop and a lot of glasses tinkling. But the funny thing was, the radio at the time, the early 70s, was very dead. Apart from the Stones and Zeppelin, who toured Australia maybe every six years or so, there was not much real rock music. Yet if you went out for a night and any bar band was playing, at the end of the night they’d really have to play hard. Didn’t matter what they started off with, whether it be jazz or whatever, they eventually had to increase the wattage to get the audience involved. 

My brother Malcolm had been playing the pub circuit and he said the one thing that was missing was a good 100 per cent hard rock band. Still, I was totally shocked when he asked me to play with his band. I hadn’t expected it and I was really frightened? 

Wait a minute, didn’t you say you were like the left and right hands? 

Well, in the beginning we never used to play together, even at home. He’d be in one room with his tape recorder putting tunes together and I’d be in the other pretending I was Jimi Hendrix. So I’d walk in to see what he was up to and he’d go [sneers],”Get out!” So when he asked me to come down to a rehearsal and play with them I was amazed. 

The first day we were rehearsing in this condemned building in Newtown, one of the inner suburbs of Sydney. I walked through the door and there was a drummer and Malcolm goes, “All right, let’s go.” And I’m going, “What do you mean, ‘let’s go?’” He says, “Let’s start!” and I’m still going, “Wait, isn’t someone supposed to count us in?” “What? This is a rock band: go!” he says. And so that was how it started. We just jumped right in and kept on going.

Did you spend much time learning and copying other people’s riffs? 

I definitely came in at an odd angle. If other people came in at 45 degrees, Angus came in at 60. I was never a great copier. When I’d put on a record and try to copy it I wouldn’t last 30 seconds. So I was never conscious of taking somebody’s licks. If somebody told me to play Jumpin’ Jack Flash I’d just start to thrash away and then I’d look up at Malcolm and say “What chord is that?” and he’d go [wearily] “That’s an E and that’s a B – you play them all the time!” 

BB King said exactly the same thing about not knowing any chords. Some people are just naturals… 

Well I learned back to front. I wanted to be flash, so I started soloing before I learned the basic chords. When all my friends were playing House Of The Rising Sun, I was going for Purple Haze. My roots were in the blues, and in the same respect if I heard a good rock tune, like something by Chuck Berry, that would get to me. 

I could still play a whole Chuck Berry album and get a kick out of it. A lot of people underrate people like that. I know people who say, “Oh, Chuck Berry won’t tune his guitar, he won’t do this and that.” But that’s Chuck Berry. If he doesn’t do that, well, who’s to say it’s wrong? There have been some great records made with guitars that are out of tune. 

So sticking to the spirit of the music rather than worrying about the form is the way to make the essence come alive? 

I think it is. And that’s true in all forms of music, not just rock’n’roll. There has to be something in there that makes you stand out from the other guy, from the most simple to the most complex playing. There has to be a spark in there, a little bit of magic of some sort, and usually that magic comes from an accident, like an out-of-tune guitar. 

Many of our early tracks were done in one or two takes. Long Way To The Top was a jam. We were just playing away and my brother George left the tape rolling. After we finished he was jumping up and down in the studio going. “Great, great, this is magic!” And you’re thinking, “What’s he on about?” And he played it back and there it was, it had that magic atmosphere. 

Another time, when we recording High Voltage, Phil, our drummer, was halfway through a drum fill and he thought he’d messed up and he’s about to stop and George is signalling: “Keep going. Keep going.” And we finish that take and we come in and go. “Okay, we better try again.” And he goes: “No. That was the take.” And that was the one we used. 

With a name like AC/DC, were you ever offered some gigs based on misconceptions about your sexual proclivities? 

Oh, yeah. Early on we got booked quite heavily on the name alone. A lot of times we’d play what we used to call 50-50 clubs where the audience would be half heterosexual and half gay. But when you’d play, the audience would become one. But yeah, some of them would get really excited when they heard the name AC/DC – especially when word got out that there’s this kid in a schoolboy suit! I guess you could say I’ve maintained a distinctly classic look.

School’s often the first time we rebel against the world, but when a grown man wears a schoolboy costume, should we be wondering if something really traumatic happened when young Angus met the educational establishment?

From the first day I went to school in Australia I knew something weird was going on. It was a state school, and first thing in the morning we had assembly and they had us marching around to army tunes. Out comes the headmaster, and naturally he was a retired military guy, and some of the teachers had that same attitude. They used to cane you on the hands in those days, two or four times and if you were really bad you got six. 

We’d have Morning Prayer and some kid would go, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, can I say my own…” “I don’t care!” they’d yell. “That prayer was good enough for me, you’ll say it and like it!” And I went home and told my mother, “I think there are some very strange ideas doing down here.” So it was easy to rebel there. You didn’t even have to try – you just had to look around. 

The Beatles said that starting in tough towns like Liverpool and Hamburg really seasoned them for the big time. Was there anything about starting in Australia that was vital or unique in launching your career? 

Very much so. Starting from there, we had an edge that possibly no other band would ever have. In those days, the circuit was relatively limited there. You couldn’t just say, “Well, I’m just going to play Sydney, the capital cities, only big halls,” and hope to make a living. You had to be willing to play anywhere, and that really grounded you. 

One day we’d be playing to 50 or 100 people in a pub, the next night it’s 20,000 people in some big hall, and the following day you could be out in the bush somewhere playing to 500 people, or whatever. It really helped us maintain a good, earthy balance to bounce from playing some big hall in Melbourne and turn right around and find yourself in some small club in Wagga Wagga the next night. Kept your feet on the ground.

Speaking of which, when you play on stage you’re always in motion. Doesn’t all that jumping around get in the way of your ability to play? Or does it help? 

It actually helps. I’ve never figured out why. I think it possibly has to do with my size. A big guy, somebody tall like Pete Townshend, when he hits the guitar – which by the way is a very light Gibson SG like I play – he doesn’t have to worry about moving, the guitar will move. Me being a little guy, when I hit the guitar the guitar’s going to move – and I have no choice but to move with it, even an SG [laughs]. And a little SG on me looks like a double bass on an ordinary guy. 

It’s like the advice my brother George gave me years ago. He said: “Angus if you trip and fall all over the stage in the middle of a tune, make it look like you intended to fall, that it’s all part of your show.” 

What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had on stage?

I’ve had quite a few. One just recently in Belfast. My shorts had opened at the front and here was my wedding tackle waving at the audience. I was wondering why this police sergeant was pointing and laughing. Anywhere else, I would probably have been arrested. But being Belfast, they’ve got enough stuff to deal with, so they took pity on me.

Bon Scott, Malcolm Young, Cliff Williams, Phil Rudd, Angus Young (throwing tin of paint) - posed, studio, group shot

(Image credit: Fin Costello)

You’ve worked with two of the most classic vocalists in rock: Brian Johnson and Bon Scott. How would you compare them musically? 

From a musical point of view, the difference mainly was that Bon leaned very hard on rhythm when he sang. His other great gift was lyrics. Now for me Bon was probably one of the most underrated lyricists, even though you could say things like “She’s got the balls, she’s got the jack” were gutter lyrics. For me, they were poetry. And he used to call it poetry too – toilet poetry.

[Laughs] Personally, they had a different sense of humour. Bon’s was more subtle. You’d wonder what he was talking about and half an hour later you’d be rolling with laughter when you finally got it. Brian’s just as clever, but his humour is more direct. You catch it straight away. 

Didn’t he tell-off the French the first time he played with you guys? 

Ah, that was Bon, actually. It was our first time in France and we had to open the show. It was time to go on stage, but they hadn’t dimmed the lights yet and all kinds of people were running around in a panic. So we got on stage and Bon went right up to the microphone and said, “All right, you Frog bastards, turn out the fucking lights!” 

You call that subtle? 

In that case, the subtle humour came later. We did a song on Let There Be Rock where Bon sang the line, “French eat frog and I eat you.” And every time I’ve talked to somebody from France they’ve always raved, “Ooh, zis French eet frog!” For some reason they still it’s a compliment 

There’s a legend that Bon auditioned for the band in Adelaide with his jaw wired shut. 

True? That was just the first time. The second time around, Bon actually toured with the band with his jaw wired shut! The band was staying in this red light district in Melbourne and Bon got involved with some brunette who kept following him around. Her father got really upset about the whole thing. Bon didn’t think there was anything abnormal about that. He figured if he had a daughter and she was running around with someone like him he wouldn’t like it either, you know? 

Anyhow, one day he was in his hotel room with the daughter and one of the road crew guys starts knocking on the door: “Hey, Bon! Bon – there’s somebody here to see you…” And Bon yells, “Go away – I’m in the middle of a fuck!” Turns out it was the girl’s father that was standing there. So he crashed through the door and went to town on Bon. And that was the second time he had to have his jaw wired up. 

How could he sing in that condition? 

He just did. For some reason, Bon was always able to work around his afflictions. When we first went to London he went out one night and came back with a big black eye. And I thought, ‘Well, how is he going to get around that?’ So that night he came on stage with a pair of sunglasses with one of the lenses taken out!

Is it true someone connected with the band called Brian up and invited him to audition, but wouldn’t tell him the band’s name, and he refused? 

Sort of. When Brian wouldn’t come the woman said, “Okay, I can tell you the band’s initials: they’re A…C…D…C…” He figured it out. Mutt Lange was one of the early ones to recommend him, because a producer friend of his had worked with Brian and said he was great. 

Hadn’t Bon himself discovered Brian shortly before his death? 

Bon had been touring with an Australian band that had opened for the band Brian was in at the time. I remember Bon telling us how one night he came into this club and saw this guy on stage screaming and yelling his heart out and he thought, “Jeez, this guy’s got some voice, it sounds like the second coming of Little Richard.”

He said the guy was screaming and rolling all over the floor and the audience was going wild and even Bon jumped up on a table and cheered the guy on. The next thing he knew, in comes this ambulance and they put him on a stretcher and took him away! [Laughs] Turns out he had appendicitis. But Bon said this guy, Brian, had a fantastic voice, so it always stuck in our heads.

Is Bon still part of the consciousness of the band in some sense? 

Well… it’s uncanny, yeah. When we were doing this last album in the studio, Malcolm and Cliff had gone inside to do some backing vocals and it was like there was a third voice in there. I went home and I was listening to the rough mix and my wife came and she went, “Jeez, that sounds like Bon!” Sometimes on stage I’m playing away and listening to Brian sing and suddenly it somehow changes over and it’s like Bon in some respects. You just get that feeling. I know it’s Brian singing, but you get this uncanny overtone. and it’s not just with Bon. 

Once I was in New York at Electric Ladyland Studios and I was sitting around playing the guitar and there was something just coming out that made me go, phew, put the guitar down! And one of the studio guys same by and said, “Oh, Hendrix used to sit there where are and play the guitar by himself.” 

Do you have any musical guilty secrets? Meaning musicians or albums that you secretly love that might surprise people? 

Louis Armstrong. My sister and her husband took me to see him when I was a kid and that’s always stuck with me. I still think he was one of the greatest musicians of all time. When you listen to his old records and hear the musicianship and emotion on them, and you realise that the technology in those days was almost non-existent – they all had to be done in one take. 

What about his new crop of post-Van Halen speed-demon guitarists – all flash, or do some of them have real substance? 

Well, Van Halen can play, but… he sounds like he practises. A lot of them do. 

What’s wrong with practising? 

They could play what they’re doing on stage at home. It really sounds like they’re practising scales. And that’s fine, but then to me it’s rehearsed. Whereas you listen to someone like Clapton and you know he’s playing from the gut. For me, some of the greatest solos are by guys like Freddie and Albert King and they’re barely playing three notes. 

Can playing with a limited musical vocabulary have its advantages? 

Yes, because you can focus on something and give it a shot in the arm, a kick. If you hear something that’s very complex you have the ability to break it down into something very simple. Instead of playing six chords or notes you play just one to get that same feeling across – and maybe by simplifying it you make it even better, more direct. 

What’s the difference between AC/DC and heavy or speed metal bands? 

Rhythm, basically. We always keep that in mind. It’s still got to have that swing. Heavy metal can sometimes seem very theatrical and pre-planned: “We start here and race and I’ll see you at the finish!” The beat doesn’t swing – it’s almost become like German oompah music sped up. 

Some people claim it goes against the heartbeat, unlike the blues that builds on it. Lyrically, they sometimes seem to be wallowing in or stuck in their misery rather than trying to work their way through it. Does that worry you? 

I think it’s a certain phase some people go through. For me, it’s similar to the beatnik thing – the world’s black, everything’s down and screwed up, nothing’s looking good. But I usually find, unless someone really takes it too seriously, that eventually they grow out of it. A lot of people from the Woodstock days are now corporate bankers! 

Let’s end this in the best Spinal Tap tradition. Angus, if you hadn’t become a successful rock musician, where d’you think you would be now? Working in a “chapeau” shop? 

There’s very few jobs that you can do absolutely nothing at, you know? Royalty, maybe, but I think those vacancies are already filled. Well, you know what they say, the only business lower than the music business is the movie business. 

So in your next film, you and Arnold Schwarzenegger will be… 

…Twins! [Laughs]

This interview was originally published in Classic Rock 132, in June 2009.

A former senior editor at Guitar World and freelance writer for Classic Rock, Rolling Stone, Musician, Spin, Playboy, Air America, Sirius Radio and more, Vic Garbarini is currently editor of Lava, an online music and culture magazine connected with the non-profit, award-winning MauliOla Foundation. He is also the author of Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered.