Speaking exclusively to Classic Rock, he tells the inside story of AC/DC’s rise to fame and how, after the death of Bon Scott, they rose again – with Brian Johnson and Back In Black – to become the biggest band in the world.
It seems a silly question now, but why did you sign AC/DC?
Simple answer? I thought that they were a great rock’n’roll band.
When you made that signing, in 1975, what was your position at Atlantic Records?
I was Executive Vice President, with responsibilities for the world outside of America. I started at Atlantic in 1969, as label manager for the UK. Shortly after that I became European General Manager, and then I became Executive Vice President, in charge of international A&R [Artist &Repertoire]. By then, I’d already signed Yes, whom Atlantic had dropped and then I re-signed them. So I had a bit of a track record going for me.
You once described Atlantic’s investment in AC/DC as “the most profitable deal in the history of the music business”. Can you elaborate on that?
It was a fifteen album deal. Normally you would do a deal for four or five albums over a period of five years. But I thought: “These guys can sell records.”
Did it feel like a gamble at the time?
Well, at that time Jerry Greenberg was the President of Atlantic in America, and at that time I had never signed anyone without running it by Jerry. Even though I could, I just didn’t. The reason being, if you sign something in England and the guy running the company in America doesn’t like it, he’s not going to work it. So I always deferred to Jerry.
But on this occasion he was on vacation, so I thought I’d better make a deal that he can’t possibly complain about. So I signed a deal for twenty-five thousand dollars per album, one confirmed album per year, with options going forward. And the math on that is I signed a deal for twenty-five thousand dollars with AC/DC that gave us the rights to fifteen albums.
In 1976, when High Voltage – the band’s first album for Atlantic – bombed, did you ever question the wisdom of your decision?
Not for one moment. If you ever saw that band back then, no one could question them. The unfortunate thing was, the people in the A&R department at Atlantic in America were not keen on the band, and High Voltage, which I compiled from the first two Australian albums [the original High Voltage and T.N.T.], didn’t do that great.
And it was even worse with the following album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, which, famously, Atlantic refused to release in the US. They really didn’t like that record. They thought that could never be a hit. So Atlantic dropped them – they actually dropped AC/DC!
I went to my then-European head, Nesuhi Ertegun [brother of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun]. I told him: “Listen, we can’t let this go.” He agreed with me, and I managed to secure the deal with AC/DC. But Dirty Deeds was never released in America until many years later.
You said you were confident that the band could sell a lot of records. But in the music business, for every success story there are a million failures.
Sure. There were a lot of bands that play great rock’n’roll who maybe sold a hundred thousand albums worldwide. But I always believed that AC/DC could go beyond that. I thought they had some great songs, and their connection with their audience was terrific. I really did feel that this band could do something. But I’d be lying if I told you I thought they would one day be the biggest band in the world.
From the beginning, AC/DC did good business back home in Australia, and by 1978 they’d had three hit albums in the UK, with Let There Be Rock, Powerage and the live recording If You Want Blood You’ve Got It. When, in your opinion, did Atlantic Records in America start to really believe in the band?
When the live album went gold, suddenly they perked their heads up in America – you know, maybe we’ve got something here. And you follow that up with Highway To Hell, which was a great album, with great songs, at which point there was real interest, like, maybe we should get our fingers out.
Highway To Hell, released in 1979, was the band’s first album with producer Mutt Lange. It must have been a tough call for Malcolm and Angus Young to make the break from their trusted production team – their elder brother George Young and his partner Harry Vanda. Was that a decision that you personally were involved in?
As far as the creative direction of the band was concerned, it was Malcolm and Angus driving that ship. But we as a record company did have some input. By this time Jerry Greenberg had really bought into AC/DC, and it was him that persuaded them to go with Mutt Lange.
A decision vindicated when Highway To Hell became the band’s first million seller.
Yes, of course. Mutt made a huge difference to the band’s sound on that album.
Sadly, that album was AC/DC’s last with singer Bon Scott. Do you remember where you were when you heard that he’d died?
I was standing right next to [AC/DC’s then manager] Peter Mensch. We’d been to a meeting together in New York, we were flying back to London from JFK, and that’s where we got the message, right at the check-in desk. Bon’s death was attributed to “acute alcohol poisoning” in the coroner’s report.
Had you ever feared that it might come to that?
Well, he was a chap who enjoyed a drink. But so did a lot of people. I never thought it would end that way, I really didn’t.
In the immediate aftermath, did you think the band was finished when Bon died?
I knew it was a disastrous moment for the band, that’s for sure. Bon Scott was the epitome of rock’n’roll: great vocal, great look. He was a terrific lead singer. To replace him was going to be incredibly difficult. But fortunately they found someone that was able to take it on.
Had you heard of Brian Johnson before he joined AC/DC?
I did know of Brian through the group Geordie. I also knew that Bon had said to Angus: “If anything ever happens to me, this is your guy.”
Did you ever watch Brian rehearse with the band, or hear the new material, before they went off to Nassau in the Bahamas to record Back In Black?
No, I left them to it. I knew that they’d got together with Brian and felt that this was the guy. By then Mutt was firmly in control of production, and we all believed in Mutt. The first I heard of Back In Black was the rough mixes when they brought them back to England.
And what was your first impression when you first listened to it?
I thought it was going to be a huge album and a major step for AC/DC. Honestly, how big did you think that album could be? I would never have thought it would be as big as it was. I was thinking it would be a two- or three-million-seller, perhaps. But it just caught fire.
Don’t forget, this was the moment when albums were just falling off the shelves, and a lot of great bands enjoyed that great rush – the Rolling Stones, Foreigner. The enthusiasm for great rock music was at its zenith at that point. Rock music was what the kids in America wanted, and if you got on heavy rotation at radio, which you could do with the songs on Back In Black, you were off to the races. It was a huge moment for us.
What made Brian the perfect fit for AC/DC?
Everything about him was right. He had the right voice, the right physique. You couldn’t have had Robert Plant in AC/DC, it wouldn’t have been right visually. And Brian was also a great lyricist. From anybody else it would be cheesy, but somehow he was able to connect with people.
And he managed to connect with AC/DC fans without in any way trying to imitate Bon.
Absolutely. He made no effort to be like Bon. He had his own personality, and the audiences embraced him.
How much did Mutt Lange contribute to the success of Back In Black?
Oh, amazingly so. The guy crafts songs in an incredible way. And don’t forget the role of the record company in all of this. We’d come a long way from the days when Dirty Deeds was rejected. When the band hit everybody over the head with this work of art that was Back In Black, everybody got behind it.
In your time at Atlantic you also worked with Led Zeppelin, who split in 1980 after the death of drummer John Bonham.
At the same time, Back In Black was just beginning to take off. In this there’s a sense that what Atlantic lost with Led Zeppelin, the biggest rock band in the world, they found again in AC/DC. I’ve never really thought about that, not until this very moment. It does seem a little strange, but at the time I was too busy doing my job to make that connection. More than anything, I was just glad that they carried on with Brian and Back In Black.
There was another strange twist to this story, when the runaway success of Back In Black led to Atlantic belatedly releasing the Dirty Deeds album in America in 1981.
By that time, Back In Black had sold five or six million, and Doug Morris had replaced Jerry Greenberg as President of Atlantic. Doug suddenly found out that there was an AC/DC album that they hadn’t released. I remember him pulling me up one day and saying: “Man, we’ve got to put out this Dirty Deeds album!” But I thought it was the most stupid idea in the world – to have this massive record with Brian Johnson singing, and to follow it with an old record with Bon Scott singing.
You said this to Doug Morris?
Oh yeah. His point was: “If we put this album out it will sell two million.” I remember what I said to him: “You’re absolutely right, Doug. It will sell two million. But you’ll also create a new sales plateau for AC/DC.” Which is exactly what happened. It was a situation where record company greed got the better of it all. Putting out Dirty Deeds when they did, I think it threw a bucket of water over AC/DC. To this day, I think that’s one of the worst decisions ever made by a record executive who didn’t turn down The Beatles.
That said, the genuine follow-up to Back In Black, 1981’s For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), went to Number One in the US and ended up selling four million.
For Those About To Rock was a good record, very good. But the fact is AC/DC never had another album that sold anywhere near the amount that Back In Black did.
Angus Young called Back In Black “our tribute to Bon”. Did that statement resonate with you?
Totally. I think that album was a great accolade to Bon. Bon and Brian were in some ways similar vocally, so the sound of AC/DC progressed, it didn’t regress. What Bon had helped build was a wonderful launching pad for a great record.
And what the band achieved with Back In Black was surely the greatest comeback in the history of rock’n’roll.
I have no doubts about that. It’s the greatest comeback there ever was.