A sea of mullets, denim jackets and carrier bags containing vinyl albums washes around outside the doors of Berlin’s plush Four Seasons Hotel. AC/DC are here in Germany to play three shows with the Rolling Stones, having jammed together in Australia last year.
Last night they warmed with up a headline show at the city’s 3,000-capacity Columbiahalle – as intimate a setting as you’re likely to get for a band who have sold 85 million albums in the US alone during the past three decades. With the latest wave of their back catalogue about to be reissued, and having been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame back in March, AC/DC were more than happy to interrupt the writing of a new studio album in order to play the shows.
Their Hall Of Fame induction was followed by an acclaimed show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, at which Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler had joined them on stage for a rousing You Shook Me All Night Long. Given how good AC/DC’s Columbiahalle concert was, it appears that the group’s advancing years doesn’t yet seem to pose a threat to the group’s impressive longevity.
Rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, singer Brian Johnson and bassist Cliff Evans may now be into their 50s, with guitarist Angus Young (48) and drummer Phil Rudd (49) just behind them, but AC/DC are playing louder, harder and with more passion than most groups half their age.
Indeed, it was reported that police in Essen received numerous complaints of excessive volume when the band played with the Stones – even though they were playing in Oberhausen, several miles away.
The fifth highest certified band in music history in terms of record sales, AC/DC are still the subject of more than their fair share of conjecture. Several days after Classic Rock visited them in Germany, the band’s booking agent was denying an internet rumour that Angus had died. Thankfully the guitarist was unmistakably still very much in the land of the living in Berlin as he slurped a bowl of soup. His equally diminutive brother Malcolm seemed happier to do much of the talking on this occasion.
When a band like AC/DC plays shows supporting the Rolling Stones, who calls who to make it happen?
Malcolm: We’d gone home to Sydney for last Christmas and they were coming in to play. Everyone was calling us for tickets…
Angus: It’s strange when you’re in a rock’n’roll band, people sometimes think you’re a home box office.
Malcolm: On the day of the gig, we got a call from their production manager telling us that Keith [Richards] really wanted to meet Angus. We ummed and ahed, and eventually decided to go down there for an hour just to check out what was going on.
You ended up jamming with the Stones that night, so what happened when you got to the venue?
Malcolm: Keith came straight out to see us, and we all got on. Then somebody said: “Did you bring your guitars?” The next thing we knew we were up there with them. Then they called us to ask if we wanted to do this. We were doing nothing except writing, and we thought it would probably do us good to get back onto a stage.
I know the Stones charge a lot of money for people to come to see them, which we’re not into, but we’re here as a bonus. The tickets were already on sale before we were announced.
What kind of a show are they allowing you to put on – can you use your famous bell and cannons?
Angus: We’ve got an hour and a half. We can squeeze a few of the gadgets in, but we’d have done it without them if necessary. It’s a great show that the kids will remember for a long time.
Malcolm: As far as being a real rock’n’roll band, there’s only two of us out there. It’s a good show. I don’t know about the [ticket] cost, but it’ll certainly be fun.
Is there any element of competition between the two bands?
Angus: Nah, we’ve never been that sort of a band, and we’ve always had our own niche. They do their rock’n’roll show, we do ours.
Certainly the Rolling Stones are a legendary band, but don’t you want to remind them that AC/DC are, too?
Malcolm: Maybe, I suppose. But the main thing is that we’ve also got a lot in common. If we’re having a party, we won’t be sticking on an AC/DC record, it’ll be the Stones, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, that kinda bag.
Does gigging with the Stones give you encouragement that AC/DC can still be doing this when you reach the Stones’ age?
Malcolm: We’re not far off it now, mate. But I think we could be making music when we’re as old as them. From the beginning, this band has always gone for the throat. It was an energy thing. And it still is.
Angus: The gimmick’s always been me out there in the schoolboy suit, so people’d remember. Club owners in America might not have recalled the band, but they’d never go forgetting the little kid in the shorts and satchel – the one who behaved like a lunatic.
Malcolm: Some of ’em thought Angus was queer, especially in England in the early days. Then when he bared his ass… [laughs].
Angus: In Aussie you could do that in the pub and nobody gave a shit.
Do you think you’ll still be wearing the shorts on stage when you’re Keith’s age?
Angus: I guess I’ll have to. These days, when I see them my legs just look like two fucking bowling pins. I’m not trying to compare myself to Elvis, and I never saw him live, but if I had done I’d have wanted to remember him being young and wearing one of his rock’n’roll outfits.
I read that the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame tried to prevent you from wearing your shorts at the induction?
Angus: They tried to make us all wear fucking tuxedos. Fuck that.
Malcolm: When we got there it was like playing in front of a bunch of fucking penguins in a restaurant. The guys from The Clash were up before us, and The Edge of U2 got up to introduce them. Fuck, he made this 40-minute speech [about late Clash guitarist Joe Strummer].
He was the most boring bloke I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness. We were at the side [of the stage], waiting, and getting madder and madder, even though we had sympathy [for the rest of the Clash]. So when they said to go, we fuckin’ took off. It was an anger-fuelled performance. We ripped the place apart. They were dancing up in the balconies in their tuxes. It was quite a moment for us. The rest of the bands were pretty mild by comparison
Mark Evans, who was AC/DC’s bass player in the 70s, very publicly expressed his anger at being dropped from the list of inductees. Did you have any sympathy for him?
Malcolm: Not really, no.
Why? Because he left the band such a long time ago?
Malcolm: We all helped to get the band to where they are, and to get what we wanted. He was there [pause]… but wasn’t there.
Angus: I don’t see what all that shit was about. People say he was our original bassist. No he fucking wasn’t. The first guy we had was called Rob Bailey. Some nights Mal even played bass.
Malcolm: We had about four bass players [before Evans]. Mark actually got picked by our manager. We never wanted him, we didn’t think he could play properly. We could all hold our own, and so could Rob Bailey. What we thought was that when we’d kicked on a bit more we could override the manager and get in a good bass player. We had Simon Wright [former Dio drummer] in the band for longer than Mark Evans.
We’re also here to discuss the AC/DC back catalogue reissues. Are you happy with the job that your new label Epic have done with them?
Malcolm: Yeah. They’ve sorted out the packaging and everything. The other lot [long-time label Atlantic] had become a bit too complacent. They probably figured we’d always be around; we’d been with them for over 20 years. We finally decided we’d have to pull the plug because a lot of kids complained about the quality of the packaging.
Sound-wise the reissues are better than ever.
Malcolm: Yeah, they really got the welly up. The needle sits on the red all the way through now. The kids can save on batteries now!
You’ve always maintained that your recording sessions didn’t generate out-takes. When Columbia revised the Judas Priest catalogue, in the absence of unreleased studio material they at least used vintage live tracks as bonus material where appropriate.
Malcolm: We just didn’t wanna do that. We work on 12 songs at a time – that’s the album.
Angus: And we’ve never been a singles band, so we couldn’t exactly go putting the B-sides on there. Who remembers the Top fucking 40? I couldn’t remember a fuckin’ tune from them times… Maybe In The Navy [by the Village People], but that’s it.
Malcolm: The way we’ve always worked, especially on the early albums, was to write songs to fill the live set, not the album. If we knew we needed four or five fast songs to please the punters, we wrote them for the stage, not to put onto the next record. That’s the way we still work.
Yet despite all this repackaging, the track Crabsody In Blue is still missing from Let There Be Rock, and Powerage continues exclude Cold Hearted Man.
Malcolm: Is that right? That’s the first I’ve heard of it.
Absolutely. Those tracks are on the old vinyl albums, but they’re missing from the supposedly definitive CD editions.
Malcolm:There’s been a lot of confusion in the past as to what came out in Australia, America and in Europe. Some albums were missing certain tracks. But I know we laid everything out for [Epic] – spot-on for them. We made it clear that [the versions for each territory] should all be the same. If that’s not the case we’ll get it sorted out.
You mentioned earlier that you’re writing for an album. A lot of AC/DC fans have been getting excited that the name Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange – producer of the Highway To Hell, Back In Black and For Those About To Rock albums – seems to be in the frame again.
Angus: Sorry to disappoint you, but we haven’t made any of those type of decisions yet. It’s way too early.
What sort of time frame are you working to?
Angus [dismissively]: Ah, we’ll know when it’s ready. Sometimes you’re lucky and the ideas come quick, and sometimes they don’t.
Malcolm: It’s good to get one good one, because that sets the standard and gets things moving.
How many ideas like that do you think you have in hand already?
Malcolm [sighing deeply]: We haven’t even started to go through them yet. There’s so many.
Angus: Believe you me, the good ones will stand out. Me an’ him bounce things off each other once we’ve got a whole pile of ideas. Sometimes we have thousands of ideas – just a guitar riff or something – but the gems shine out. You don’t always use ’em right away, either.
Even a track like Back In Black, Mal had the riff for that one for a long time before we did anything with it. We’d toured all through Highway To Hell, but it took us all that time to sit down and bounce things around. Then one day it was: ‘Oh, shit. There’s that fucking old riff’.
Are you saying that you nearly forgot to write the song Back In Black?
Angus: Well, not exactly forgot, but we did put it to the side and worked on something else. It was only a riff back then, not a fucking tune. But it had something about it.
When do you get your best ideas for songs?
Angus: You can guarantee it’ll be when you’ve got no fucking guitar, or a tape recorder. You’ll be walking down the fucking road and bingo, something’ll go off in your head. Or you’ll get up for a piss and it’ll happen then. That keeps you awake all night, because you can’t get back to sleep. It’s happened to me. The trigger can be something somebody says to you, a chord on the guitar or just about anything. It can even be a fucking drum.
People say we make the same album over and over again, but there’s some clever things in our songs that haven’t been picked up on to this day. Listen to the guitar at the beginning of Who Made Who, for instance, and you’ll recognise that it’s actually truck horns. Y’see, there is thought and subtlety that goes into it.
Does the carping of the critics still irritate you?
Malcolm: No. They’re the irritation, not what they write. If you can’t loosen up, get your shirt off and enjoy a band like AC/DC… well, we don’t make records for those fucking stiffs.
Angus: In my dealings with them they don’t fucking want to talk about the music, it’s all about the art or the statement you’re supposedly trying to make. These days it’s fucking worse – it’s all about the grooming and looks.
Okay, I still wear the school uniform out there, but my first thought isn’t how I’m going to [duck]-walk across the stage, it’s: ‘Is my guitar in tune?’ And then when you’re happy you get a spring to your step.
AC/DC are still one of the loudest bands I’ve ever seen. Is there a reason for that?
Angus [grinning broadly]: To keep you awake. Yes, but even a volume fiend like Ted Nugent doesn’t play at the volume he once did.
Malcolm: We’re not going to fall into that trap of old age. We can’t get up there and play things like Highway To Hell, For Those About To Rock and The Jack quietly. You gotta stay young.
Angus: The intention is not to deafen anyone… but you can’t be fucking timid about these things. This might make you laugh. In our earlier days we were touring South Australia, and during the daytime we once did a gig for a school of deaf children. They sat at the front of the stage, put their ears to the ground and soaked up the vibration. And they fuckin’ loved it, even the youngest ones.
Okay, from the sublime to the ridiculous…
Angus: That’s us! And we admit it.
What can you tell us about Brian Johnson’s much rumoured collaboration with the Sarasota Ballet of Florida on a new version of Helen Of Troy? I read that Malcolm McDowell [Clockwork Orange] had agreed to play the role of Zeus, but that there was some kind of problem with the funding.
Malcolm [laughing]: I know fuck-all about it, mate.
So you guys were as surprised as everyone else to learn about it?
Malcolm: Yeah. I read it in the paper and thought, what the fuck’s this? It sounded like he’d got pissed in the pub one night and agreed to do it. You’d have to ask Brian about it.
Angus [raising an eyebrow]: But the ballet dancers sound good.
Have you seen any bands that you reckon might one day succeed AC/DC when you decide to call it a day?
Malcolm: I tend to like things on a one-off basis. You might hear something that’s great and then wait for the next thing the band does, but they disappear. Time is the ultimate test. I haven’t seen anything with a good act – like we’ve got with Angus and Brian, and used to have with Bon [Scott]. And look at the Stones, with Jagger. The problem is that there’s a serious lack of showmanship. You need a good tight act, with a star out at the front. There’s not a lot of those around.
What’s the strangest rumour you’ve heard about yourselves?
Angus: It’s not particularly strange, but the one we hear most often is that the band have split up. That one seems to come up between each tour. And somebody once tried to say that we had poisoned Bon.
Malcolm: The most annoying one is with Brian and the lyrics to Back In Black. [It has been alleged that it was Scott, and not Johnson, who wrote the words to some of that album’s biggest songs before he died]. That’s complete bollocks. Poor old Brian’s had to deal with that one for the past 20 years. It just won’t go away. A
At your gig last night I was handed a flyer for a Berlin show by Dave Evans; no relation to Mark Evans], AC/DC’s original singer, and his backing group, the German tribute band Overdose. Are you still in contact with Dave?
Angus [sounding slightly irritated]: How many bands has he fuckin’ got?
Malcolm: Every time we go back to Australia there’s something in the local paper about, ‘I made the band AC/DC into what they are’ [cackles dryly]. The day we fuckin’ got rid of him, that’s the day the band started. How we got rid of him is quite a good story. We were playing at this pub in Melbourne.
Dave was almost like Gary Glitter in the gear he’d insist on wearing. It was ridiculous. All these hard-nosed, beer-drinking Aussies were after him, so we told him to go for a walk for ten minutes and we’d play a boogie number. But it went on for half an hour and the place was rockin’. After that we realised that we didn’t need a singer.
Angus: No, we realised we didn’t need that singer! Actually, to call him a singer is being a bit polite.
It’s interesting to hear you tell the story that way, because according to some versions Dave left the band due to being stage-struck, and Bon Scott, at that time the band’s chauffeur, was quick to fill the gap.
Malcolm: Nah, that’s bullshit. Bon was driving us around at the time, and he was forever telling us to get rid of our singer because he was crap. He kept saying that he would love a crack at it himself – this was when he was oiled. One day we mentioned it to him but he wasn’t keen any more. So he went back to painting ships. We get to Melbourne, and the phone rings and it’s [in slurred, belligerent tones]: “Mal, I’m on me fuckin’ way. I’m sick of painting ships.”
Evans had been screwing this chick that the drummer at the time fancied, so he woke him up at five in the morning and smashed Dave in the face. Gave him a fucking good beating, he did. The next day Dave came to us to complain and we told him: “You haven’t got a job any more.” But it was Bon that called the shots on that one. He said: “I want in.”
Speaking of Bon, do you ever think he might be looking down – or up! – at what AC/DC have achieved after he died?
Malcolm [smiling wryly]: To be honest, if there is anything in the after-life, he’ll probably be saying, “C’mon, guys. Play that one fucking faster. Put some fucking grunt into it.” That’s what he was like. Bon wasn’t one for compliments, but he’d always be funny about it.
But surely he would be proud of the band’s accomplishments?
Angus: Well, don’t forget that things were going pretty well for us at the time of Highway To Hell anyway. But the biggest kick that Bon seemed to get – and he often remarked on it – was that he could be himself. He’d been a drummer in rock’n’roll bands since the age of 15, then he realised that the singers got all the chicks and became a singer.
When he joined us his first words were: “How do you want me to fuckin’ sing, guys?” We told him to do whatever he fuckin’ wanted. And he was finally able to follow his own path.
Malcolm: He had years of lyrics that his previous bands wouldn’t let him use. He could knock up a set of lyrics for a song overnight – with the help of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. You’d read ’em and go: “That’s fuckin’ eloquent, Bon.”
Angus: If you asked him about his lyrics he’d always just say it was toilet poetry. But he was gifted, believe me. He’d write things like Downpayment Blues – owning a Cadillac but not being able to afford the gasoline. Nobody’s doing that shit any more. You just don’t hear it.
Malcolm: And this from a guy who’d until then had been painting ships. When he joined us he took us by the scruff of the neck. On stage it’d be: “Don’t just stand there, you cunt.” So whatever AC/DC went on to achieve, Bon was also very responsible for.