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Angus Young on Why AC/DC Never Changed Their Sound and the Legacy of ‘Back in Black’

The guitarist also talks rebuilding the band on ‘Power Up,’ and shares the wisdom from his late brothers that still guides him

"It always helps if it's got a groove," Angus Young says of how he knows a riff is right for AC/DC.

Josh Cheuse*

On AC/DC’s most recent tour, in 2016, the band seemed to be falling apart. Frontman Brian Johnson’s hearing was failing, and Axl Rose wound up replacing him for part of the run; rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young — the bedrock of the band — had developed dementia and could no longer play; bassist Cliff Williams was planning his exit; and drummer Phil Rudd had been placed under house arrest for threatening to kill a man.

Improbably, though, lead guitarist Angus Young has pulled the band back together. Johnson, Williams, and Rudd are all back in the fold, along with Angus’ nephew Stevie, AC/DC’s replacement for Malcolm, who died in 2017. Last year, the group released Power Up, its 17th trip down the Highway to Hell. Angus has described the foundation-shaking record as a tribute to his late brother Malcolm, the same way that 1980’s blockbuster Back in Black was an epitaph for fallen frontman Bon Scott. “We’ve had lots of things go wrong,” Angus says over Zoom, dressed comfortably in a hoodie and sitting between two high-powered Marshall amplifiers in a Sydney studio one day in early November. “But Malcolm always said, ‘See what we can do. Make the best out of the situation.’”

How did you go about writing Power Up? All the songs are credited to you and Malcolm.
A lot of the ideas come from around the time just before [AC/DC’s 2008 LP] Black Ice. When we made that album, we had so much material because we’d had a lot of years off and the two of us had written so many songs. So I just thought, “I’ll concentrate on the ones I knew that he really loved so much and get them out.” That was the guide I used.

How did you and he come up with the AC/DC sound early on?
Through the years, Malcolm and myself would come up with our own ideas and then the two of us would sit and go through them and be the critic of each other. There was no use for me ever coming in with song ideas that were not what we thought were AC/DC. So it wasn’t like we would come in with jazz or blues jams. You came in with what you felt were good ideas that was going to work with AC/DC. So that was always the guide for us.

It’s always been that from the beginning. We know the style. We know what we’re looking for, so when people hear it, they go, “Well, that is them. They have their own stamp on who they are.”

How do you define a good AC/DC riff?
It always helps if it’s got a groove. That’s an important element of it.

Some have said that AC/DC have made the same album over and over again. Does that bother you?
Malcolm used to say, “Yeah, well, they said we sound the same, because we’re the same band. That’s what we are.” We never aimed to be going into territory that was not ours. And Malcolm always used to say, “Look, we get them somewhere. We might get them in the early years, before they go to college and head off to Pink Floyd, or something [laughs]. But we get them young.”

Didn’t your older brother George, who produced the early AC/DC albums, discourage you from going with the trends?
Yeah. He said conforming is the kiss of death. He always said it was the kiss of death for any of the great bands. No one likes to see them come out and start changing who they are and trying to be something they’re not. So he always said, “When you’re playing live, it’s so powerful. And the art is to get that power on a record and do it justice.”

Malcolm encouraged you to keep AC/DC going without him. Was it hard for you to want to continue?
It’s very hard because he was the start of the whole thing. He was the founder of it, and I mean, he gave me a job in the beginning, which at the time, I was kind of shocked.

Why were you shocked he would want you in the band?
We grew up and we played together, but I thought, “Why?” He said, “Well, the band needs another instrument. And you’re as good a guitarist as who I know.”

What was his attitude about AC/DC like toward the end of his life?
Even when he was becoming very ill, he was still doing his best to try and keep going. And that’s what he always [told me to do].

How did he handle it in 1980, when Bon Scott died?
He called me up and said, “Come on, we’ll get back to it.” Because we’d been writing songs at the time, which would later on become tracks that we’d done on Back in Black. He said, “Look, instead of the two of us moping about, we’ll just get into the studio and just do what we were doing before. We’ll just play away and help us hopefully get through.” And that’s what we did. It was good therapy, and it was probably his and my way of dealing with things. That was probably Malcolm’s strength. He’d say, “OK, we’ll see what we can do.”

“We know what we’re looking for, so when people hear it, they go, ‘Well, that is them. They have their own stamp on who they are.’”

One of the new record’s best songs is “Through the Mists of Time.” It’s almost introspective, with Brian singing about looking at old pictures on a wall. Do you find yourself considering the past much?
It wasn’t that. Sometimes when you’re doing a song, you might just write down any words as long as they fit. Somebody once told me Paul McCartney used to sing “Yesterday” with [the words] “scrambled eggs” to remember [the melody]. With us, it’s a bit the same. In this case, Malcolm had written down some phrases on the first verse. And when I was going through and trying to find [something] better … his words sung so well. The lines just fitted. And I thought, “I’ll leave them as is.”

I thought Brian might have been singing about AC/DC’s past.
No, no, no. AC/DC was never about a message or a statement. Our only message was we want more people tuning in to rock music.

It seemed like AC/DC were disintegrating on the last tour. How did you keep things going?
Well, again, I looked at how my brother dealt with a lot of things. He could be calm in a storm. Sometimes when you’re in the thick of something, it is hard to make decisions, but you try and go, “Well, I’ll try and do the best with a bad situation.” And when Brian got his hearing problem, he was advised he shouldn’t be continuing [touring]. We had a few commitments that we were locked into and I didn’t want to sit in a room full of lawyers and battle [cancellations] out with a lot of people. So the suggestion was, “OK, maybe somebody might be able to fill in and do those dates.” And Axl Rose contacted us. I’ll be forever grateful for him for doing that. He was very pro about doing it. He really gave a great performance.

When Axl Rose sang with you, he asked you to perform a lot of songs that AC/DC had never done live or had abandoned a long time ago, like “Live Wire” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation.” Did that give you a fresh appreciation for any past AC/DC stuff?
He always reminded me of songs, and at that time, I’m going, “Yeah, I think we played it somewhere.” And the trouble was he’d usually do it on the day of the show. He’d say, “Can we do that?” And I’d go, “Oh, all right. I’ll try.” I was lucky. I’ve got a guitar tech that played in a cover band. And I would go, “Tell me the first chord, and then I’ll pick it up.” It was fun. It kept us on our toes, too.

At the time, Axl said that he thought you and he might work on some music together. Did that ever come about?
Nothing really came out solid. I know that he has a lot of things he’s involved in. I don’t even know if you would say it was music. But he had a lot of things that he was involved in.

He made it sound like he maybe wanted to write music together, the two of you. That’s why I was curious.
No, no. That never happened.

“I’ll be forever grateful for [Axl Rose] for [filling in]. He was very pro about doing it. He really gave a great performance.”

Some of your fans were pretty upset with how quickly you replaced Brian. Do you regret the way that came out?
AC/DC has never been in the PR business. We were just trying to inform people of what we knew, and we didn’t want to put anyone under an illusion. To be honest with you, Cliff and I thought, “Well, at least we can end what we had signed on to do.” I get it that a lot of people would be looking at something like this as a train wreck [laughs].

How did Brian end up rejoining for Power Up?
Well, it wasn’t a case of him rejoining. I knew he’d been seeing hearing specialists, and somebody had come up with some new technology that he seemed to think might really work with Brian. He was letting us know that he was having really good results with it and he was positive about it. So I knew he felt he could do a studio album, and so I thought, “Well, that’ll be really good, because that’ll give me the opportunity to get the songs together.” Everyone was eager to be on board with it.

When did you get in touch with Phil Rudd again?
I saw Phil at Mal’s funeral, and I was just so glad to see him. He got himself working with a lot of therapy, and he was looking really healthy and the best that I’d seen him in a long, long time. I had a talk with him and kept up contact with him.

What about Cliff? Didn’t he say he wanted the band’s most recent tour to be his last?
When he came off the road, I had said to him, “If I do anything or if I’m going to do any project, do you want me to contact you, and you can say whether you want to be on board or not?” And he said to definitely contact him. So he was eager to be a part of the album.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Back in Black, which has become the second-best-selling album of all time—
The second? Who’s the first?

Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Gotta get rid of them [laughs].

Why do you think Back in Black was so popular?
With Brian [replacing Bon] in the band, we were going into the unknown, so we didn’t know how it was going to be received. We knew the songs were strong, and we had Mutt Lange producing. We recorded it in the Bahamas, getting the best performances out of everyone. And after that, we didn’t know how it would be received.

I mean, it was even a struggle to try and get the cover for that album how we wanted it. We had to keep saying, “No, we want it black,” black being the color of mourning. A lot of people thought that could be seen as very in a negative way, but we insisted, “No, that is how it should be.” And so when the album came out, there was a lot of positive results. And then we were actually touring on that album. And when we finished touring, it wasn’t really until after that tour was when I started to hear it’s doing really well. For us, that was a good thing.

But I didn’t know it would sell well. Because the people who were doing our management at the time told us, “You might sell a couple of million or something if you’re really prominent.” And they were shocked that it had sold so much. So I guess it’s just an album that grew on people. It just got bigger and bigger as it went along. But it never even got Number One in the U.S. at the time, which Malcolm thought was really good. He said, “If you get to Number One, there’s only one other place you can go.” [Laughs.]

From Rolling Stone US