Brian Johnson's 25 best performances, from Geordie to Power Up

Brian Johnson on stage
(Image credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

On February 28, 2016, when Brian Johnson stepped onstage with AC/DC at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, MO, there was no indication that it would his last performance with the band for more than seven years.

You know what happened next: the diagnosis, the departure, AXL/DC, the recovery, the return. And on Saturday, 2779 days after leaving the stage with the sound of For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) ringing in those soon-to-be-infamous ears, he'll return to the live arena with AC/DC at the Power Trip festival in Indio, California.

To put it all into perspective, Johnson's break from the AC/DC stage is longer than Bon Scott's entire tenure with the Aussie legends. But Beano is back. And that's all that matters. So, to celebrate Brian's 50 years in the game, here are 25 songs from Geordie to Power Up that capture his magic at its most majestic.     


All Because Of You - Geordie (Hope You Like It, 1973)

More often than not evoking a bargain-basement Slade, Brian Johnson’s first band peaked early with this gloriously pig-headed three-chord stomper from their debut album. Beano ably channels Noddy Holder on his aptly uproarious lead vocal, which is pitched at the mid- and best point of his range.

Goin’ Down - Geordie (Don’t Be Fooled By The Name, 1974)

The Mick Rock cover photo for Geordie’s second album portrayed the four-piece band in gangster suits. If that suggested a more serious-minded makeover, this opening track soon proved otherwise. Against a throbbing bass line and over-employed cowbell, Johnson puffed out his chest and strutted, the whole reeking of Newcastle Brown Ale and Woodbines.

House Of The Rising Sun - Geordie (Don’t Be Fooled By The Name, 1974)

This trad-folk staple was best-known as The Animals’ 1965 hit single version. Geordie’s subsequent take on it followed their fellow Newcastle band’s approach step by step, initially treading cautiously but getting into their stride when Johnson lets rip at the one-minute mark. Here was proof positive that just like The Animals’ great Eric Burdon he was a fine blues belter all along.

Hells Bells - AC/DC (Back In Black, 1980)

AC/DC’s Back In Black album was released just months after Bon Scott’s tragic death, and the doleful peal that introduced Hells Bells made it sound like a wake… at least up to moment the band rushed in behind it and Scott’s replacement let out his first, defiant battle cry with them: ‘I’m rolling thunder, I’m pouring rain, I’m coming on like a hurricane.’

Shoot To Thrill - AC/DC (Back In Black, 1980)

Hot on the heels of Hells Bells came this, the first indication that the Johnson-fronted AC/DC would also have an abundance of grit and swagger. Johnson sings it with the joy of a man grinning like a Cheshire cat. It remained high up the set-list throughout his time with the band, and a fail-safe lift-off point for their live shows.

Back In Black - AC/DC (Back In Black, 1980)

Arguably this was the track through which Johnson truly imprinted his own personality on AC/DC. If the title was a further mark of respect to his lamented predecessor, the song itself found Johnson spitting razor blades, easing into the pocket between Angus Young’s combustible lead guitar and the vice-tight rhythm section of Malcolm Young, Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd and as if he’d been there all along.

You Shook Me All Night Long - AC/DC (Back In Black, 1980)

Back In Black’s rambunctious signature single was also moulded to the new Johnson era. Where Scott was a devilish, lascivious presence, Johnson’s brand of humour was cheekier, more saucy-seaside-postcard in tone and delivered here with a knowing nod and wink, as British as his own flat cap. An instant hit, it helped to propel Back In Black to worldwide sales of 50 million and counting.

Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution - AC/DC (Back In Black, 1980)

Gleeful and irresistible in equal measure from the second a chuckling Beano urges ‘all you middle men’ to ‘throw away your fancy clothes’, right through its exultant chorus (upon which he turns ‘rock’ into a multi-syllable word), and up to its sardonic coda.

For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) - AC/DC (For Those About To Rock We Salute You, 1981)

AC/DC’s definitive Johnson-era epic, and the undoubted high point of perhaps their most underrated album. It burns slowly, with Johnson growling benignly like a wizened old uncle, until the cannons fire and all hell breaks loose. To listen to Beano deliver the single-entendre line: ‘Pick up your balls and load up your cannon’ is also to imagine Sid James as Horatio Hornblower.

Let’s Get It Up - AC/DC (For Those About To Rock We Salute You, 1981)

The first of what would soon become a standard for Johnson’s AC/DC: a rollicking, good-time barroom boogie rendered in shades of Carry On-style humour. When once pressed by the late Tommy Vance to explain the precise meaning of the song’s lyrics, Johnson cackled: “Well, see, it’s about a flag…”

Breaking The Rules - AC/DC (For Those About To Rock We Salute You, 1981)

AC/DC were hardly the most pliable of bands, but For Those About To Rock nevertheless found AC/DC willing on occasion to stretch out within the confines of their own well-honed formula. As on this languorous blues, which gave Johnson an opportunity to sing, not screech, and was all the better for it.

Spellbound - AC/DC (For Those About To Rock We Salute You, 1981)

The other of For Those About To Rock’s relative left turns was this brooding, smouldering near-ballad, with Johnson creeping like a panther around Angus’s plangent riff as the man whose world keeps tumbling down. It remains one of the true lost treasures of AC/DC’s catalogue.

Nervous Shakedown - AC/DC (Flick Of The Switch, 1983)

Without ‘Mutt’ Lange’s slick production, Flick Of The Switch was for the most part a dour, dry-sounding record, workmanlike rather than inspired. Nervous Shakedown was one of two exceptions to that. Built on a juddering, stop-start riff, over which Johnson screams hellfire and damnation, it’s stirring stuff still.

Badlands - AC/DC (Flick Of The Switch, 1983)

The other Flick Of The Switch standout. Angus here uncorks a vicious bottleneck riff and then drills it through the track. Johnson goes after it with the relish of a wild dog given a steak to sink its teeth into after being on a near-starvation diet.

Danger - AC/DC (Fly On The Wall, 1985)

A strong contender for AC/DC’s worst album, the self-produced Fly On The Wall mostly made the ill-starred Johnson sound like a budgie breathing helium. Allowed on this bluesy shuffle to drop down his register and granted space to move, he proved yet again what a fine, expressive singer he can be.

Who Made Who - AC/DC (Who Made Who, 1986)

This track might have sound-tracked a lousy Stephen King film adaptation, but it nonetheless represented a return to vintage form for AC/DC. It’s so effortless sounding that one can picture Johnson singing his vocals from a bar stool, a beer in one hand, a fag in the other, and an expression of delight on his face.

That’s The Way I Wanna Rock N Roll - AC/DC (Blow Up Your Video, 1988)

Increasingly, AC/DC’s mid-80s and 90s albums offered slim pickings, but somewhere on them there would most likely be a knockout single. A case in point is this jitterbug burst from the otherwise mundane Blow Up Your Video. Roused to action, Johnson could still sing like a man who sounded in love with his very being.

Thunderstruck - AC/DC (The Razors Edge, 1990)

The mark of Thunderstruck’s gonzo genius is how it tantalises the listener before bringing Johnson into the fray. First comes Angus’s spiralling guitar figure, next a gang-vocal chant and a hulking drum battery, and only then does that unmistakeable voice enter the picture. Tellingly, at that precise point this could be the work of no other band.

Moneytalks - AC/DC (The Razors Edge, 1990)

Thunderstruck promised much, only for The Razors Edge album to lead on to dreck like Mistress For Christmas and Got You By The Balls, one as instantly forgettable as the other. However, it also had this joyous romp, 12 bars and a gleeful vocal that shone out among the surrounding greys.

Boogie Man - AC/DC (Ballbreaker, 1995)

As low‑down and dirty as the Rick Rubin-produced Ballbreaker got, this grinding blues track was the perfect platform on which Johnson could grandstand. Pitching his vocals deep and guttural, he attacks each line with relish and a sense of soul for which he has rarely been credited. Which made it all the more regrettable that Rubin wasn’t elsewhere able to coax the band as a whole to such heights.

Safe In New York City - AC/DC (Stiff Upper Lip, 2000)

Another diamond in the rough, spat out from yet another so-so AC/DC album, this one rolled out over a sinister, chugging Angus riff, with Johnson screaming from the rooftops. The wind-up chorus, which amounts to the title being repeated over and again, was oddly thrilling.

Rock N Roll Train - AC/DC (Black Ice, 2008)

Not since Highway To Hell had an AC/DC album opened with such a stampeding flourish. Crucially, Johnson was also at long last allowed to not have to grasp for his highest register. Back in his comfort zone, he delivered a reminder that he’s one of hard rock’s most distinctive and greatest voices.

Anything Goes - AC/DC (Black Ice, 2008)

A classic, mid-paced AC/DC chugger brandishing two of the band’s greatest weapons: that metronomic but deftly swinging rhythm section, and their too often taken for granted frontman’s ability to take the simplest melody line by the scruff of the neck and lift it off its feet. Sadly, it now stands as a last hurrah for the stricken Malcolm Young.

Rock Or Bust - AC/DC (Rock Or Bust, 2014)

For what then appeared to be Johnson’s final recorded act as AC/DC’s singer, it’s a pity that the Rock Or Bust album had the feel of being salvaged rather than conjured. The title track, though, burst out of the gate with intent, demonstrating just how perfectly matched Johnson was to the band’s elemental bump and grind.

Shot In The Dark - AC/DC (Power Up , 2020)

As the first song to emerge from the Beano's Back era, Shot In The Dark was obliged to demonstrate that the band were still throbbing with electricity, and it succeeded. Brian was apparently undiminished, as instinctive as he now seems irreplaceable, while his lyrics introduced the world to the none-more AC/DC concept of a "rollin' thunder truck". Elsewhere, the brilliantly concise rhyme "A shot in the dark / beats a walk in the park" ensured it was business as usual, as usual.

Paul Rees

Paul Rees been a professional writer and journalist for more than 20 years. He was Editor-in-Chief of the music magazines Q and Kerrang! for a total of 13 years and during that period interviewed everyone from Sir Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to Noel Gallagher, Adele and Take That. His work has also been published in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Express, Classic Rock, Outdoor Fitness, When Saturday Comes and a range of international periodicals. 

With contributions from