Dear Cliff Williams: Thank you for the music

Cliff Williams in 1979
Cliff Williams in 1979 (Image credit: Fin Costello \/ Getty Images)

So farewell then Clifford Williams. Born in Romford, Essex in 1949, the AC/DC bassist has announced his departure at the age of 66, leaving guitarist Angus Young as the only remaining member of what many consider the band’s classic line-up.

Williams joined the Australian rockers on May 27, 1977, replacing Mark Evans. He made his live début aged 27 the following month when the band played a secret gig at Sydney’s Bondi Lifesaver’s Club billed as ‘The Seedies’. But my own first live experience of Williams’s simple yet thunderous bass undertow was on October 29, 1979, when I saw AC/DC live on the first of a two-night stint at the Manchester Apollo. I was 15 years old.

In a review of that show in my book about AC/DC, Get Your Jumbo Jet Out Of My Airport, I rightly identified this, my third ever rock gig, as “most likely a life-altering experience”. I then went on to describe Williams as “hugging the backline at the rear of the stage with what I interpreted as a need to feel of the rumble of his instrument throbbing back at him. He ventured to the front to sing backing vocals like a sulky schoolkid being asked to come to the front of the class to read.”

17 years after writing that, and just shy of 37 years after seeing Cliff Williams in action that first time, this still seems an accurate description of the man’s heyday and of his ‘no nonsense’ onstage presence. It’s true that as the years rolled by and Williams’ hair went grey, the “hard, mean” guy I’d seen in Manchester became decidedly more avuncular. His bass playing too. Listen to the bass line of, say, Rock Or Bust. Then compare it to something from the first album Cliff recorded with ‘DC, 1978’s Powerage. How about Down Payment Blues? Similar tempo, different intensity. At least to my ears.

This isn’t meant as a slight. It happens when you get older. But for me Williams was at his loutish, unbeatable best in those halcyon late ‘70s, early ‘80s days. Of course this could have something to do with the fact that Cliff never sounded better than when locked into a groove with his old drumming buddy Phil Rudd, himself out of AC/DC since 2015. The two of them had an almost telepathic understanding, a way of wrenching serious soul out of the simplest notes and beats. Anyone can play AC/DC rhythms. But no one on earth can play them like those two.

“I get bored playing single notes just like anyone else,” Williams once said with admirable honesty. “But in the band I play what’s best for the song.” Imagine spending almost 40 years always putting the song ahead of personal pleasure. The money helps, of course, but even so, that’s the ultimate team player right there.

With typical understatement, Williams explained his decision to bow out as a need to “just chill out and not do this.” Surely there’s no one who could deny Williams his wish. Happy retirement, you one-note wonder…

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Howard Johnson is a music writer based in France. The editor of Rock Candy magazine, he's also written for Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, RAW, Q, MoJo and Japanese rock magazine Burrn!, and is a French football correspondent for World Soccer mag. He has also written a book on AC/DC, Get Your Jumbo Jet Out Of My Airport.