At the risk of sounding reductive, it’s fair to say that, for much of their storied career, hard rock legends AC/DC have largely drawn lyrical inspiration from a) street-tough men, b) sexually liberated women, c) booze, d) Satan and e) rock and the art of rocking. This doesn’t tell the full story of course - Big Balls, of course, dealt with the Australian rockers’ well-documented fondness for high society social soirées, for instance - but you get the general idea.
Imagine our surprise then when guitarist and bandleader Angus Young revealed this week that the inspiration behind of ‘DC’s most thunderous anthems, For Those About To Rock (We Salute You), from 1981’s For Those About To Rock was British poet, novelist and classicist Robert Graves.
Speaking to Zane Lowe on Essentials Radio on Apple Music 1 (opens in new tab), ’DC’s lead guitarist Angus Young explained that the song’s title was originally inspired by a twist on a line by Wimbledon-born Graves, who produced more than 140 written works in his lifetime.
‘For Those About To Rock, it came out with Malcolm and myself, it was a combination,’ Angus explained to Lowe, revealing how he wrote “a little guitar thing” in the intro to the song, and his older brother Malcolm “had this little guitar chordal progression.”
‘So the two of us worked on that and we came up with the verse idea of it,’ Young explained. ‘And the funny thing is, when we got to the chorus, we were going, "Okay, what are we going to sing on this?" And for me, I just thought, well, sometimes I go back [to] something I've read somewhere, and there was the writer Robert Graves, I believe his name was, I think he had a book out or a story he had put in one of the papers, because he did a lot of history stuff. And I had read it and it was, "For those about to die," and he went into a day in the Coliseum or somewhere in Rome at the time and the thing that the gladiators did. And I thought, "That might fit." So it was a case of, if I can come up with a way of singing something that can sing into it.’
‘I think at first Malcolm thought, "Wait. What is he on?" And I'm going, "Well, for those about to ..." And I got it in, I got it all in, "For those about the rock." So that kicked off that.”
Join us next week, when Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler explains how Love In An Elevator was actually inspired by Siegfried Sassoon…
Louder's Literary Ed says: Robert Graves was the author of I, Claudius (opens in new tab), a fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius published in 1934. The book was made into a TV series in 1976 starring Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed, and John Hurt as Caligula. It made headlines at the time, as it was full of sex and violence (opens in new tab) and drew huge audiences of around 2.5 million an episode.
We can't find any examples of the phrase "Avē Imperātor, moritūrī tē salūtant" (ie "Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you") in the show but it is completely possible that it made an appearance, or that Graves might have mentioned it in interviews at the time. The phrase is associated with Claudius: first appearing in The Twelve Caesars (opens in new tab), a history of the earliest Caesars of Rome published in 121 AD, it's attributed to an incident in 52 AD where convicted criminals, facing death in a gladiatorial spectacle, used it to appeal to Claudius' better nature. In some accounts, it worked: the emperor granted them leniency. In others, they were forced to fight to their death.
Another place the Young brothers might have heard the phrase was the 1969 debut album by Colosseum, entitled Those Who Are About to Die Salute You – Morituri Te Salutant. Legends in the British rock scene throughout the early 70s, Colosseum had morphed into Colosseum II by 1975 and featured Gary Moore on guitar and Don Airey on keyboards, both people who would have been in the same orbit as the Youngs in 1981: Moore had gone solo after periods in Thin Lizzy, and Airey left Rainbow that same year.
The phrase was later used in the movie Gladiator (2000), furthering the impression that it was used regularly by gladiators and the condemned. In fact, there are no other recordings of it in Roman history.