Skip to main content

The inside story of the return of AC/DC: how Angus Young and Brian Johnson Powered Up

Angus Young and Brian Johnson
(Image credit: Ashley Maile / IconicPix)

In the end it all came down to one simple thing: Angus Young could not imagine a life without the band in which he has played lead guitar since 1973. He was just 18 when he formed AC/DC with his brother Malcolm on rhythm guitar. All of 47 years later, this band is still what he lives for. 

As he says now: “It’s part of what you are.” AC/DC’s new album, Power Up, is dedicated to the memory of Malcolm Young, Angus’s elder brother and former AC/DC rhythm guitarist, who died in 2017. 

It’s also testimony to the staying power of Angus, and his determination to carry on as his brother had wished, making good on a promise he made when Malcolm was near the end of his life. 

There’s a reassuringly familiar look to the AC/DC line-up in 2020. Alongside Angus are three long-serving veterans: singer Brian Johnson, who replaced the late Bon Scott in 1980, bassist Cliff Williams, ever-present since 1977, and drummer Phil Rudd, in the band on and off, but mostly on, since 1974. And on rhythm guitar, keeping it in the family, is Stevie Young, Angus’s nephew, only two years his junior. 

Stevie first played with AC/DC on a 1988 tour when Malcolm was in rehab, and was the only guy considered for the job in 2014 after Malcolm’s struggle with dementia forced him to withdraw from the band. 

Equally reassuring is the sound of Power Up (or PWR/UP as its sleeve will tell you). As signposted by the lead single Shot In The Dark, this is AC/DC as they have always been: the riffs lean and mean, the boogie heavy, choruses shouted out, and Johnson still sounding, as Angus once said, like a guy who’s had a truck dropped on his foot. 

With a classic, no-frills production by Brendan O’Brien, who worked on the preceding Black Ice and Rock Or Bust, Power Up is straight-shooting hard rock’n’roll from the masters of the art. 

While the album sounds like business as usual, the story of the band in recent years has been anything but. Ever since Malcolm stepped down in the early stages of his illness, leaving Angus to lead the band, it’s been a bumpy ride. Twice, Angus has had to shuffle his pack. First when Phil Rudd was sidelined ahead of the Rock Or Bust tour in 2014, following his arrest on charges of attempting to procure a murder, threatening to kill, and possession of controlled drugs. In Rudd’s absence, Angus turned to Chris Slade, who first played with AC/DC in 1990. 

Then, halfway through that tour, with Brian Johnson unable to continue, having sustained ear damage that threatened to render him permanently deaf, Angus had to bring in a substitute, Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose, to finish the job

Then when that troubled tour reached its end in September 2016, Cliff Williams had announced his retirement, commenting that it wasn’t the same, that the band was “a changed animal”, without Brian and Phil and Malcolm. 

At that point it seemed that the future of AC/DC was out of Angus’s hands. He still had Stevie to call on, and Chris Slade if required, but Williams’s decision appeared final, Rudd was in a bad place, and Johnson feared he might never sing again. With the band in disarray, Angus was also experiencing the worst of times in his personal life. 

In the last months of 2017 he lost Malcolm, just a few weeks after the death of their elder brother George, who, as a former star of Australian band The Easybeats and as co-producer of AC/DC’s early albums, had been a major influence on their lives. 

The band had achieved more than Angus could ever have dreamed, selling more than 200 million albums and filling stadiums worldwide. Back In Black, AC/DC’s 1980 comeback, with Johnson in place of Scott, had become the second-biggest-selling album of all time, behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There were no more mountains to climb. 

It would have been understandable if Angus, now in his sixties, had decided to call it quits, not least because Malcolm was no longer around. But that’s not how Angus saw it. Back in 1980, when AC/DC were making Back In Black, he said he felt that Bon’s spirit was with them. During the making of Power Up there was a similar sense for Angus – of his brother still watching over the band. Every song on this album is based on ideas that the two brothers had worked on right up to the time when Malcolm could no longer do so. 

Long ago, Angus described Back In Black as “our tribute to Bon”. Now he says of the new AC/DC album: “This one’s for Mal. I always think he’s part of it, you know? He’s still with us in spirit. I still feel the presence."

AC/DC

(Image credit: Josh Cheuse)

On the day when Angus and Brian talk to Classic Rock via conference call, they are on opposite sides of the world, Angus in Australia, Brian in the UK. It’s funny how they greet each other, almost as if they’re surprised to be having this conversation. 

“Hello Ang?” 

“Is that Brian?” 

“Yeah, it’s me, bonny boy!” 

The voices are unmistakable, Angus’s nasal Aussie drawl and gurgling laugh, Brian’s unvarnished Geordie accent and rasping tone. There’s an easy repartee between them as they bounce off each other, cracking jokes at every opportunity. 

The mood shifts a little when they address the serious stuff, the difficult questions. There are moments when both struggle to find the right words – Angus when expressing the emotions he went through in the dark days of 2017, Brian when reflecting on his time out ofthe band. There’s also the subject of Brian’s ongoing medical treatment for his voice and hearing, something, he explains, he is not at liberty to discuss in detail. 

For an hour they talk through the turbulent events of the past few years and recall some from 40 years ago. Throughout the conversation, one name keeps coming up, that of Malcolm Young, the tough little character whose drive and no-bullshit ethos pushed AC/DC to the very top. They talk about what it means to have this line-up of the band – the perfect line-up in the circumstances – back together again. 

They begin by talking about the new album, its title, as Angus and Brian explain it, a statement of intent, like those of previous landmark AC/DC albums: High Voltage, Let There Be Rock, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, For Those About To Rock We Salute You and, most evocative of all, Back In Black. 

“AC/DC has always been about the power thing,” Angus says. “I’ve always felt when I was plugging in my guitar that I was plugging in to a big electrical grid. So when ‘Power Up’ came into my head, I thought, yeah, that’s it.” “You don’t have to think about it,” Brian adds. “It’s just right."

Alt

So, it’s here, at last – a new AC/DC album. And it’s fair to say that AC/DC fans will be pleasantly unsurprised by what they hear when they listen to it

Angus: Well, with any album we’ve ever made, any track we’ve ever done, the one thing we always aim for is to make it so that as soon as you hear it you know it’s AC/DC. 

Brian: It’s just rock’n’roll, you know? It’s a powerful thing. Everybody loves rock’n’roll. And by crikey the world needs it right now, my son!

Had you finished recording the album before the pandemic began? 

Angus: More or less, yeah. But then we had to think about when to put it out. You’re ready to go, and then you’re plunged in the middle of the whole COVID thing. Is that what they call it, COVID? 

Brian: I guess it is. I call it shite. We were all pumped-up, and then to get stopped in your tracks… Boy, that’s frustrating. 

But now, with the album coming out, you’ll make a lot of people happy

Angus: Once they hear this, I’m sure. We’ve provided a kind of cure, I think. 

Brian: Oh, it’s going to bandage wounds! It’s a corker! All these people feeling bad about not being able to go to concerts, so to hear something new is brilliant. I had a dream the other night about going to a concert and watching a guitarist come on stage and – bang! – hit the guitar as hard as he could. And I just went: “Woargh!” And how many other people would just love to see that day? But hey, it is what it is. 

Every AC/DC album begins with a real banger, and Power Up does exactly that with Realize

Angus: Yeah. I remember the first time Malcolm played me his idea of it, and I said at the time: “You got some lyric ideas?”, and he sung what he had to me. I wished I’d had a tape recording of that. But anyhow, it was so hooky it just stuck in my head, so it was easy to put it together. 

And all the other songs on the album are ones you wrote with Malcolm? 

Angus: All these ideas that are on there are from Mal and me, yeah. Through the years we had a lot of stuff, the two of us, ideas that we worked on together. Some songs nearly completed and other ones that needed a bit more finishing here and there. But it was all marked out, the stuff that we wanted to get recorded. 

That’s what we’d done all the way through. We put ticks next to the material that we felt would be good AC/DC stuff. So that’s how this album came together. They were all good ideas, and I thought, well, I hope Mal approves of the way I’ve put the stuff together. 

Was there anything that Malcolm recorded that made it on to the album? 

Angus: Him actually playing, no. Not that. I think that would be a bit spooky, actually.

Who wrote the lyrics? 

Angus: A lot of the titles and also some of the lyric ideas were from Mal, the rest from myself. 

Brian: A lot of these songs are wonderfully mischievous. And singing these cheeky lyrics, I’ve never had so much fun. I had a smile on my face when I was putting them down. I love that, and I think the fans will love it. The music is powerful, but some of the songs are very cheeky. The humour of the band, you can never take that away. 

AC/DC

Stevie Young, Cliff Williams and Angus Young on the video shoot for Shot In The Dark (Image credit: Josh Cheuse)

There is something missing on this album, though. There is a long tradition of AC/DC songs with ‘rock’ or ‘rock’n’roll’ in the title: Rock ’N’ Roll Singer, Let There Be Rock, Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, For Those About To Rock. There were four such songs on Rock Or Bust. But none on Power Up

Angus [laughing]: Well, it’s just what comes out, you know? Sometimes you have a track and you write down a title and you’ve used that word ‘rock’, and you can’t get anything else that will fit it better. But don’t worry, I’ve got bags full of ideas for songs, and all of them have got the word ‘rock’ in them. 

Brian: And you’ve got to remember, ‘rock’ is a very hard word to rhyme – without getting into trouble. 

Did you record tracks live, with the whole band going at it together? 

Angus: Basically. We’ve always pretty much gone in and done the backing tracks with the full band. 

Brian: And these boys… Phew, talk about tight! 

There’s such a positive energy in the album. Is that how it felt when you were making it? 

Brian: Yes, absolutely. 

Angus: That’s what the whole project was. It felt good to be in there, working, and us all being back together and playing away.

Alt

In that last comment there’s a tacit admission from Angus: that by having the old gang back together the new AC/DC album is legitimate, the genuine article. Without Cliff, Phil and especially Brian, it would not have the same measure of authenticity. Nor would it have the same depth of feel – the rock-solid grooves laid down by Cliff and Phil, the smoky character in Brian’s voice. 

For all Chris Slade’s qualities, Phil Rudd always was and always will be the definitive AC/DC drummer. Likewise Cliff Williams as their bassist. And while Axl Rose proved to be an inspired ‘super-sub’ on the Rock Or Bust tour – nailing every high note, and coolly standing aside as Angus ran the show – there is no doubt that Brian is the only man who should be singing for AC/DC. 

From beginning to end, the Rock Or Bust tour was surely the most bizarre episode in the history of AC/DC – or AXL/DC, as it was jokingly rechristened when Rose got on board. It was also a period in which Brian hit rock bottom.

Alt

Let’s start with the moment in 2015, during the Rock Or Bust tour, when Brian realised he had a problem

Brian: At the time it was horrible. I really felt I was letting the band down on stage. Because I couldn’t hear the tone of the guitars, I couldn’t get my pitch or key. You felt helpless. And of course, the band’s being let down, the fans are being let down… It’s just not fair. I never wanted to be dead weight. 

Angus: Brian got a lot of advice from the medical side, and they were pretty much saying if you continue you’re going to go stone deaf, so that’s also part of it. We didn’t want that. 

Brian: That’s what Angus and Cliff said: “We do not want to be responsible for anything that happens to you. We would feel awful forever.” 

Brian, when you came off that tour did you think, deep down, that your time with the band was over? 

Brian: Initially, yeah. And of course it’s a difficult time for anybody who has to stop doing what they love. That’s not easy. But you do it. You’ve got to man up and just shut your mouth and don’t talk to anybody, which I didn’t, and just ride it out. In my case, I buried my head in a bottle of whisky for the first month. 

It was quite numbing [laughs]. And I’m not on social media, so I don’t read anything, I don’t watch anything. I’ve never been on it and I’ve stuck off it. And I’ve found that I’m a quite sensible, rounded man who can take things on the chin. 

Angus, what made you decide to carry on with the Rock Or Bust tour without Brian? Was it an old-fashioned sense of ‘the show must go on’? 

Angus: It was an unknown situation, and there was a lot there to think about. You’re on tour, you’ve got a whole big machine with you, and you don’t know how Brian’s situation is going to play out. Well, maybe if we got somebody, another singer, we might be able to finish off those dates. 

I thought there probably wouldn’t be a chance to regroup for a long time, so it was best maybe that we get it done and get through it. But when something like that happens, I don’t think there is any great solution where everyone comes off happy, I guess. 

Brian: You did the right thing.

There was widespread disbelief when Axl was announced as Brian’s replacement, not least because Axl had only recently reunited with Slash and Duff McKagan for a Guns N’ Roses tour

Angus: Well, Axl contacted our people and said he could help us out. He had his own commitments, but he said if it doesn’t interfere with what he was doing he’d fill in. And we thought, well, give it a shot and see what happens.

The general consensus seems to be that Axl did a great job. 

Angus: Yeah. As I said, he was very generous to say: “Hey, I’ll help out.” And me personally, I’ve got to give him credit, and the band will be forever grateful that he did that. And remember, he broke his toe, so he was very lucky, I guess, to have Dave Grohl lend him a chair so he could sit on stage. He gave it his best shot, you know?

Axl Rose and Angus Young of AC/DC at The Palace of Auburn Hills on September 9, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan

Axl Rose and Angus Young of AC/DC at The Palace of Auburn Hills on September 9, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan (Image credit: Barry Brecheisen / Getty Images)

It also seemed that Axl learned an important lesson from AC/DC. When he went back to Guns N’ Roses, he went on stage on time. 

Angus [laughing]: You’d be surprised! He’s a very pro guy. Every night he was there earlier than us.

Brian, what did it take to get you singing again, without further damage to your hearing? And why are there limits to what you can say about your treatment? 

Brian: It’s non-disclosure stuff, because it’s brand new. What I can tell you is I worked for three years with his lovely old fella and thankfully it worked. I think [laughs]. It took a while. But it was just magical. It could have been smoke and mirrors, but it wasn’t, it was the real deal. So we’ll go forward with him. I’m still working with him. And I’ve got my fingers crossed. 

Well the new album proves that you can still sing like you’ve had a truck dropped on your foot

Brian: Correct! 

Angus: He could always hit the high notes. 

Cliff’s retirement didn’t last very long, did it? 

Angus: Ha, I guess not. I don’t know what he wants to do in the future. I think the touring thing is more difficult for him. But he was really happy doing the album. 

Presumably, without getting into too much personal detail, Phil Rudd has put his recent troubles behind him? 

Angus: Yeah. He had a rough time that he’s gone through. But he had help – professional help – and he’s really got himself together. Malcolm always wanted Phil on board. And when I thought about it, Phil was the drummer in AC/DC that I’ve always felt comfortable with through the years. 

And now there’s Stevie. As you once said, Angus: “Stevie’s like Malcolm, a real rhythm player. Like Keith Richards.” Is it all about feel? 

Angus: Yeah. Always. I’ll do a rough idea of how I think Mal would do his part, and then we’ll work it out, Stevie and me, to get the right feel for the track. 

This is the AC/DC line-up that the fans wanted

Brian: It’s the right dynamic. It proves the band has a special bond. It’s exciting. And when it gets together, somehow it brings this lovely music.

Back in 1980, an evocative line was written about AC/DC when they headed out on the Back In Black tour: “The ghost of Bon Scott rides with AC/DC.” Forty years on, during the making of Power Up there was, as Angus says, the feeling that Malcolm Young’s spirit was with them. But it’s Brian who reveals an unexpected twist, in a song from the new album – lyrics in which Angus writes about Malcolm, albeit in oblique terms. 

In all the years they were together, the two brothers were never much inclined to sentiment. The plain black cover of the Back In Black album was a memorial to Bon. But mostly, when speaking of him, Malcolm and Angus would rarely touch on the emotional impact of Bon’s death, reverting instead to anecdotal stuff, tales of the singer’s wild life, the boozing and the women. 

In contrast, a photo on the Rock Or Bust album carried great poignancy. Although Malcolm was still alive when the album was released, it was public knowledge that his work with the band was done. The photo of his and Angus’s signature guitars side by side, Malcolm’s Gretsch and Angus’s Gibson SG, had a powerful emotional quality. And in the new song Through The Mists Of Time there is, as Brian suggests, a sense of loss in the words written by Angus. 

“That song is just a beautiful story,” Brian says. “Every time I listen to it, I get goosebumps, thinking of Malcolm. I’m just telling you the truth."

Malcolm was always practical and a very strong character. He always used to say: ‘You plough on.’”

Angus Young

Asked whether that song is a eulogy for his brother, Angus backs off a little, a trace of unease in his voice. “It’s just a ride through time, in a kind of way,” he says. “A bit of a journey.” 

He won’t be drawn on any further detail. Instead he says that the lyrics to a rock song should be left open to interpretation. At which point, for a suitable comparison, he makes the surprising mental leap from low to high art: “It’s like the Mona Lisa. People still argue today – is it a smile?” 

Inevitably, this comment is the cue for a couple of jokes. “I don’t know where we sit in culture,” Angus says. “We are a kind of culture. Not bacteria…” 

“The only culture I’ve got is a tub of yoghurt in the fridge.” Brian adds, without missing a beat. 

When the conversation returns again to Malcolm, there’s more laughter from them, more funny stories to tell, mixed with moments of quieter reflection, memories of a man who gave everything he had to AC/DC.

Alt

Is it true, Angus, that Malcolm told you to keep the band going as long as you can? Didn’t he say that to you near the end? 

Angus: Yeah, he always pushed. That was how he was. He was always practical and a very strong character. He always used to say: “You plough on.” Even in times when we were young. When we were playing those early shows, some of the audiences in those places were really rough and rowdy. I’d go: “Am I going on there with my school shit on?” [laughs]. And he was always the one saying: “Hey, I’m right behind you, I’m right here.” 

Didn’t he say that to you one time just before he gave you a kick in the arse to get on stage? 

Angus: Yeah! He pulled a trick on me. He said: “You’ll be fine, we’ll just peek behind this curtain to see if you’ll be okay.” And as I was peeking behind the curtain I got a boot and I was on! 

There was so much power in the way you played together. What was the secret to that? 

Angus: It was just that two of us were always a unit together. It was Malcolm’s idea in the beginning to put together the AC/DC band, and when I was younger I was kind of shocked that he even asked me to join. We used to do our own little thing, you know? So from that point on it was the two of us together and we worked as that one unit and tried to do our best and make it one big guitar. 

Can you describe this sense that Malcolm’s presence is still with you? 

Angus: I guess it comes from when I’m playing. After all those years of how it had to be and how I had to play, working with Mal all that time, I’ve got this in-built thing. Some of that also comes from my other brother, George, who also passed away not long ago. He was also a big part of my life. 

As you know, he did a lot of the early albums with Bon and Mal and myself and Phil, and he always had this attitude about guitar playing. I remember the first time I was in a studio, and George said to me: “Don’t tickle it, play it”. 

That sounds like something that Malcolm would say

Brian: You know, I was always amazed when we’d have all these guitarists coming backstage, fellow pros and all that, and they’d always say to Malcolm: “How do you get that sound?” They were always fascinated by it, this heavy sound. They kept asking and asking, and Mal used to say to them: “There ain’t no secret. Just hit ’em harder, mate!” 

How tough is it, emotionally, to carry on without Malcolm? 

Angus: Well, even when we did the last tour, Rock Or Bust, I’d go up the front of the stage, and it’s one of those things – every now and again you do a bit of a flip because I think I feel him there, you know? 

Brian: That’s a lovely sentiment, Ang. And for me, knowing this fella for, like, thirty-six years, what I remember is standing right there with him on stage, and how we used to wink at each other at certain times, or smile, you know? 

Is that how you remember him best – on stage, blasting out those riffs, driving the band on? 

Brian: Aye. There ’s one thing I always remember about Mal. We’d get to the end of a song and his arms would be pumping, and I used to watch his guitar pick bend like a band-saw going through a plank of wood. 

Angus: I saw that in For Those About To Rock. You’d see it going, his pick… 

Brian: You could see this plastic powder coming off that fucking thing. I used to catch it in the spotlight. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see it. And I used to look and think: “How does he do that?” 

Do all of the band feel, as Angus does, that Malcolm’s spirit lives on in AC/DC? 

Brian: Yeah. It’s like Ang says, every now and again I turn and he’s not there. But this feeling we have, it’s just one of those strange things in life. It’s wonderful. You just have this feeling that he’s keeping an eye on people. 

Angus: He certainly is.

AC/DC

(Image credit: Josh Cheuse)

Even before the release of Power Up, 2020 was already a landmark year for AC/DC, marking the fortieth anniversaries of both the death of Bon Scott and the release of Back In Black

“I always remember Bon,” Angus says. “I don’t have to have a special day for it. I always think of him.” 

For Brian, there are mixed emotions when talking about Bon, with whom he toured in the early 70s, when Bon was fronting the group Fraternity, prior to joining AC/DC, and Brian was the singer with British band Geordie. There is a trace of sadness in Brian’s voice as he pays tribute to Bon. “He was larger than life. Just this great singer, wordsmith, frontman – you name it, he had it.” 

But when he thinks back to the making of Back In Black – begun just two months after Bon’s death – what he remembers above all else is the sheer excitement of what was for him a life-changing experience. 

“It was the happiest six weeks I ever had,” he says. “It was something new happening for me. It was just a joy. And when the album was done… well, bloody hell, it was great. And that was that. That was the end of civilian life as we know it.” 

Looking to the future, both Brian and Angus are itching to get back on stage. Beyond that there’s nothing written in stone. Only one thing is certain: that Angus will continue to stick by those three little words that Malcolm repeated to him year after year, like a mantra: “You plough on.”

Alt

The dream that Brian mentioned he had recently, about watching a rock’n’roll show, it’s pretty obvious what that says about your frame of mind right now

Brian: Oh yeah. I can’t wait to get out there every night and bust some chops. 

Angus: Yeah! The quicker the world gets back to normal… 

Do you have to get in shape ahead of a tour, or are you always fighting fit? 

Angus: I do a little bit before. I get myself psyched up. I don’t like to overdo it, though. I might spend a couple of weeks getting the rust out of me. But it doesn’t really matter how much exercise I’ve done before, always after the first night I go: “Jeez…” [laughs]. The next day I’ll be stiff and sore, but from then on I’m into battle shape. 

It’s difficult to imagine you going jogging

Angus: I’m not a jogger, no. I just do a little bit of skipping with a rope. I used to watch Muhammad Ali do that, and I thought if it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me! 

One of the best AC/DC shows ever filmed must be the one in Buenos Aires in 2009, featured on the DVD Live At River Plate

Brian: Oh, whenever I see that, the part where me and Angus are out there in the middle, two little fellas at the end of this walkway, and these thousands of people jumping up in unison… I mean, holy shit, just look at them. No wonder we’re smiling there. Well, I don’t know if it was a smile, or just fear! 

When you play to an audience like that do you forget about any aches and pains you might have in your bones? 

Angus: Oh yeah. You don’t feel it when you’re doing it. It’s usually afterwards. 

So you’re planning a tour, but then what? Angus, you’ve said you have more songs in the bag, but realistically is Power Up likely to be the last AC/DC studio album? 

Angus: I’ve no crystal ball. Whatever you do, you do it, it’s done, and what comes in the future you hope is good. But you never know how life is. We’ve no road map for life. I wish we did, but we don’t. 

While recording the new album were there times when you thought you had to make the most of it? 

Brian: I think you should, always. I think for everybody, that’s a great lesson in life. Like Ang said, you’ve no crystal ball, so whatever you’re doing you should grab it with both hands. For me, I thought I would never, ever go in and do another album. But I did, and to come back it was fantastic. 

I got the opportunity and I’m very grateful for it, it’s as simple as that. And I enjoyed it ten times more than normal because I didn’t ever think I would do it again. When you listen to this album you can tell that I loved doing it. And I hope it’s not the last, that’s all I can say. 

Will there be an AC/DC as long as Angus is still standing? 

Angus: Well, as I say, I’ve got no crystal ball. But as Malcolm used to say: “You’re like the Titanic – when the ship goes down, the band goes down with it.” 

But for now it’s good to have AC/DC back

Angus: Yeah, it’s a good thing. The world gets another good old hard shock of AC/DC. 

Brian: That’s what we all need.

Power Up is out now on Columbia Records.