It was a sunny day in 1979 and Bon Scott was kicking back at his pad in London. He rolled a joint, blew smoke in Hammer’s face and put it like this: “People who don’t know us ask, ‘What are you like?’ ‘Cos of the name, they think we’re punk, maybe. Or they look at our long hair and think we’re like Black Sabbath or something.”
He took a long, heavy draw on the jay and kept it down until it all came spilling out of his nose and ears. “I tell ’em, ‘Naw, we’re none of those things. We’re just rock’n’roll, mate. Pure and simple.’ Anyone don’t like that, well, they can fuck off, can’t they?”
Hammer nodded in agreement. But then we already knew that, as did anyone who had ever bought an AC/DC album. It was a message inherent in every song Bon had ever sung, every riff Angus Young had ever played, or every move the band’s leader, Angus’s elder brother Malcolm, had ever made: hiring and firing until he had the kind of band he wanted. As he put it, it was “hard as fuck and sharp as a knife.”
It was, in fact, the essence of everything AC/DC stood for musically, lyrically, and as people. You were either for them or you were against them. And Lord help those who were against them.
As Bon put it in one of the greatest rock anthems of all time, Highway To Hell: ‘Hey Satan/Paying my dues/Playing in a rocking band/Hey mamma /Look at me /I’m on the way to the Promised Land/I’m on the highway to Hell!’
Cue those huge, bitch-slapping guitar chords. Cue the story in one verse of the greatest rockers of them all.
It could not have happened any other way. Not for guys like Malcolm and Angus Young, youngest brothers of eight children, born in the Glasgow slums, brought up in the dusty Sydney suburbs. Some said it was the lead in the pipes that made the Young brothers so short. Others said it was down to sheer bloody-mindedness. They didn’t want to grow up and be part of your world. They were happy where they were, thanks pal, down here close to the gutter.
“When we were kids we fought like cats and dogs,” recalled Angus, “and then when we started playing guitar it got even worse.” AC/DC tour manager Ian Jeffery can vouch for that, recalling one night on tour when, “Angus walked in with a black eye. Malcolm walked in with two black eyes. They’d been, er, talking.”
It was the same for Ronald Belford Scott, also born in Scotland and brought up in Australia. Nicknamed Bonnie Scotland – later shortened to just Bon – he grew up fighting anyone at school who dared make fun of him. By the time he was in his teens he had already been to jail – for fighting and thieving – and acquired the kind of reputation that left him only one career option: “Singer in a rock’n’roll band. I thought that it would look good in my passport.”
The first time they met Bon, Angus recalled, “He couldn’t really speak English – it was all ‘fuck, ‘cunt’, ‘piss’, ‘shit’.” The first time Bon sang onstage with them, recalled Malcolm, “He downed two bottles of bourbon, had some coke and speed and said, ‘Right, I’m ready!’” The fact that this cocky new singer had to strut his stuff while competing for the spotlight with a guy dressed in a school uniform only added to the whirlwind spirit of those early AC/DC gigs.
Bon’s piratical voice and persona proved a winning combination set against the raucous, take-no-prisoners rock music the Young brothers were intent on AC/DC playing. Forged in the white heat of an Australian club scene notorious for its toughness (“We had to keep the car engine running some nights, in case we got bottled off,” Bon recalled) the band learned the hard way how to win over the toughest crowds around.
The result was three huge hit albums in Australia in the mid-70s: High Voltage (1975), TNT (their first Number 1 in ’75) and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (’76). Naturally, being wizards in Oz was never going to be enough for a group as ambitious as AC/DC. By 1977 they were living in London and making a full frontal assault on Britain and Europe. Because of their name and the sheer aggression of early anthems like It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll) and The Jack (Oz slang for VD), AC/DC were labelled ‘Antipodean punk’ by the music press. But as Bon said, “It must be easy to cut your hair like a punk. We didn’t get to look and sound like this overnight. We’re real.” That they certainly were, and when their fourth album, Let There Be Rock, was released in the UK in July 1977, they were also_ stars_. One of the all-time great AC/DC albums, containing as it does gen-u-wine rock classics like the brilliant title track, the stupendous Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be, and best of all, the story of a real-life 20-stone prostitute Bon had shagged one drunken night titled Whole Lotta Rosie.
You wanna talk riffs? There were more killer riffs in tracks like Hell and Rosie than most bands manage in a lifetime.
Over the next three years they would release three more great albums, culminating in their American breakout album, Highway To Hell, in 1979. Never once did they compromise their look or their sound. Even if audiences didn’t always get it, said Angus, “They’d never go away forgetting the little kid in the shorts and satchel, the one who behaved like a lunatic.”
Then, just when it looked like they had the world up their arse, Bon died, after falling into a drunken coma in the back of a car in south London on a freezing winter’s night in 1980. He was 32 and it looked like the story of AC/DC would die prematurely with him.
Enter the man with the voice like swallowed razor blades and the ferret-smuggler’s cap, Brian Johnson. Against all odds, the very first AC/DC album with Johnno, Back In Black, turned out to be not only the greatest album they would ever make, but, at 40-million-plus-and-counting, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.
The rest has been one long story of history in the making. Indeed, Back In Black was to become one of the most transformative albums of the 80s. Released the same year as Iron Maiden’s debut, Motörhead’s No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith and Judas Priest’s British Steel, AC/DC’s first album with Johnno was to reshape the way bands and fans alike thought of rock music from here on in.
No longer would seriously heavy rock bands be coerced into recording sappy power ballads in order to get a foothold in the charts. As Angus once explained, “Ballads are for people that are in pain. Forget about ballads, we do rock records.”
No longer would serious metal bands need to explain themselves to a disapproving music press busy lickspittling indie groups, pop pussies and punk leftovers. As Johnno put it, “Anybody can say what they like about us. We don’t care. As long as the fans know who we are, we couldn’t give a fuck what anybody else thinks.” Right on, Brian.
Meanwhile, the albums and tours have kept on coming. Through the 80s, 90s and 00s, that has meant highlights like 1981’s ace For Those About To Rock… We Salute You (and the onstage introduction of the famous cannons that now end every show), classic 1990 chart-topper The Razor’s Edge and, most recently, 2008’s excellent Black Ice, which yet again nabbed number one spots across the globe and showed rock’s whippersnappers how it was done. And, as AC/DC enter the latest chapter of an unrivalled, glittering career, it seems they’re gearing up for the release of another slab of rock‘n’roll majesty.
“I’m very excited and we’ve got some great songs,” Johnson confirmed over the summer, though he admitted that the absence of Malcolm, who has been battling illness, for the recording and writing sessions has had its toll. “We miss Malcolm, obviously,” Johnno continued. “He’s a fighter. He’s in hospital but he’s a fighter.”
Malcolm’s uncertain status for AC/DC’s immediate future and the simple fact that each member of the band is well into free bus pass age means that it’s probably not too much of a stretch to imagine that this unstoppable, globe-conquering rock machine may be finally starting to slow down in its fourth decade of existence. With recording sessions having started in Vancouver in May and believed to be involving the services of Black Ice producer Brendan O’Brien, with Malcolm’s nephew Stevie standing in as his uncle recovers, new material looks a safe bet, at least. Beyond that, though? Who knows? Rumours of a 40-date world tour next year seem a bit far-fetched, but Johnno has hinted at possible stadium shows in the summer. Whatever happens, AC/DC will be doing it all their way.
“When we started out, everyone said we should smarten ourselves up and be more like Led Zeppelin,” chuckled Malcolm when Hammer interviewed him in the late 90s. “Then we got to Britain and they told us we should be more like the Sex Pistols. Then it was Metallica and then Nirvana. We always had the same answer to all of them: sorry, mate, not interested. We’re AC/DC. And we think they should all be more like us.”
A new AC/DC album is expected in late 2014/early 2015. Mick Wall’s AC/DC biography AC/DC: Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be is out now via Orion
SHOOT TO THRILL
It’s been almost 30 years to the day since AC/DC put on what many consider Donington’s greatest ever show. Here’s how it went down…
Although it was AC/DC’s second headline trip to Castle Donington, the 1984 Monsters Of Rock festival was a day of firsts in other ways.
For a start, it was the first time in Donington’s five-year history where the sun actually shone all day. It was the first time they actually had licensed bars among the 65,000-strong crowd. And, you could easily argue, it was the first time they’d had a truly stellar line-up throughout the entire bill, which opened with a still-young Mötley Crüe and climaxed with Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, and, finally, right at the top of the bill, AC/DC. Or AC-Fucking-DC, as they were now best known.
For this was the moment when the band really arrived. Not just top of the bill at Donington, but top of the rock and metal ladder throughout the world.
The preceding five years had seen them release the fistful of albums that both defined their career and that of the story of rock in that era, from Highway To Hell (1979) to their latest, Flick OF The Switch (83), via Back In Black (80) and For Those About To Rock (81).
“People ask what the secret of our success is,” said Brian Johnson before the show, supping a pint of beer and tugging on the inevitable roll-up. “There’s no secret. Just stay true to yourselves, never betray your fans, and most of all, learn how to fucking rock. If you can do that, you don’t need anything else.”
Watching the band go at it onstage that night brought the point home. AC/DC had always been an amazing live act, full of fun and frolics, but since the death of their charismatic singer Bon Scott four years before, and the arrival of the more full-on Johnson, they had acquired a new level of lethal musical intent, as if making the most of their good fortune in finding a way to carry on.
Angus had begun the show as always with some fearsome, crowd-baiting guitar before his cap fell off as he leapt into the air, signalling the real start of the show, his still-long hair trailing behind him.
Even Brian didn’t keep his cap on for long that night, swaggering around the stage headbanging when he wasn’t singing, then headbanging when he was singing.
Throughout the day the crowd had amused itself by chucking full bottles of piss around, not just at the stage but also at each other. Not through AC/DC’s set, though. This was serious fucking business and you didn’t want to miss a second.
By the time the cannons blew up the night on For Those About To Rock…, everybody was standing tall, arms aloft, ready to salute. And we still are.