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Exclusive: Angus Young, Brian Johnson, and Cliff Williams on the Resurrection of AC/DC

“This record is pretty much a dedication to Malcolm, my brother,” Young says of the band’s new ‘Power Up’ LP. “It’s a tribute for him like ‘Back in Black’ was a tribute to Bon Scott”

AC/DC's Brian Johnson, Angus Young, and Cliff Williams discuss their new record 'Power Up' and how they pieced the shattered band back together.

Josh Cheuse*

When AC/DC wrapped up their Rock or Bust world tour in September 2016, the band truly seemed to be done forever. Rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young was in the final throes of a battle with dementia that forced his retirement two years earlier, drummer Phil Rudd sat out the entire tour after being arrested by New Zealand authorities for “attempting to procure a murder,” singer Brian Johnson missed the last 23 gigs due to hearing loss — with Axl Rose stepping in as a temporary replacement — and bassist Cliff Williams announced he’d simply had enough and decided to retire.

But during the past four years, guitarist Angus Young — the last member of the classic lineup still standing by the end of the tour — gradually put the shattered pieces of AC/DC back together, aided by a mysterious new hearing technology that restored Johnson’s singing voice and brought him back into the group.

The result is POWER UP, the band’s upcoming album that reunites the four surviving members of the Back in Black incarnation. (Malcolm Young died in 2017, and his nephew Stevie Young has been playing in his place since 2014) “It’s been a long, long road,” says Angus on the phone from his home in Australia. “But it’s good that everyone came on board and we get to pump out a bit of new rock & roll for the world. At this time, with the pandemic, hopefully it gives people a few hours of toe-tapping enjoyment.”

The LP was recorded in late 2018 and early 2019, but Angus raided the AC/DC vault of unreleased songs before they began and every track is credited to Angus and Malcolm Young. “This record is pretty much a dedication to Malcolm, my brother,” says Angus. “It’s a tribute for him like Back in Black was a tribute to Bon Scott.”

The road to POWER UP was the most arduous one that AC/DC has walked since Back in Black, which was cut in the immediate aftermath of singer Bon Scott’s death 40 years ago. Brian Johnson was recruited shortly before Back in Black was cut and he remained at the front of the group for the next 36 years, but during the 2015–16 Rock or Bust tour, he started to encounter significant hearing issues.

“It was pretty serious,” he says by telephone from England. “I couldn’t hear the tone of the guitars at all. It was a horrible kind of deafness. I was literally getting by on muscle memory and mouth shapes. I was starting to really feel bad about the performances in front of the boys, in front of the audience. It was crippling. There’s nothing worse than standing there and not being sure.”

Most fans had no clue what was happening, but it was painful for his band to watch up close. “He’d pull his in-ears out and just shake his head,” says Williams via phone from his home in North Carolina. “He couldn’t pitch. He was having a real hard time.”

The band attempted to limp through the remaining dates on the tour, but Johnson’s doctors eventually interceded. “The docs said, ‘Deaf is deaf, son,’” he says. “Cliff and Angus didn’t want to be responsible for me damaging my ears any further. … Shit happens. At least it wasn’t terminal.”

With Brian unable to continue, the remaining members of the band faced a difficult choice. “Brian was running the risk of going deaf permanently,” says Angus. “We had a few days to let everyone know the situation and get the message out. You don’t want people showing up and being disgruntled and finding out at the last minute.”

A brief press release went out on March 7th, 2016, saying that the remaining U.S. dates on the Rock or Bust tour were postponed due to Johnson’s hearing issues. “Tomorrow’s show in Atlanta through Madison Square Garden in New York, NY in early April will be made up later in the year,” it read, “likely with a guest vocalist.”

Those last five words sent shockwaves through the AC/DC fan community. The band hadn’t done a single gig without Johnson since the moment he joined in 1980, and the prospect of bringing in a new singer was almost unthinkable. And then a month later, they dropped an even bigger bomb.

“AC/DC band members would like to thank Brian Johnson for his contributions and dedication to the band throughout the years,” read a press release. “We wish him all the best with his hearing issues and future ventures … Axl Rose has kindly offered his support to help us fulfill this commitment.”

Johnson wasn’t quoted in either of these press releases and rumors began to swirl that was unhappy with how the situation was handled. Three days later, he released his own statement. “I don’t believe the earlier press releases sufficiently set out what I wanted to say to our fans or the way in which I thought it should be presented,” he wrote, before breaking down his health situation in great detail. “I am hoping that in time my hearing will improve and allow me to return to live concert performances. While the outcome is uncertain, my attitude is optimistic. Only time will tell.”

The decision to carry on without Johnson seemed a little callous to some fans, but Young insists that he had nothing but terrible options. “When you run through the different scenarios, none of them were the best options,” he says. “You think, ‘Should we cancel?’ Then we’d have the other pieces, the legal stuff and whatnot. We got suggestions from management. ‘Maybe if you try put something together that you might get …’ There was a list of people that might fill in. Out of the blue, Axl Rose contacted and said he could help out, which was very good.

“I suppose we could have canceled,” he continues. “But either way … when you look at all the options … it’s a tough decision all around.”

Johnson avoided discussing the matter publicly in the immediate aftermath, but in 2019 he did briefly talk about it with Dan Rather. “It’s like being shot on the battlefield; it’s just your turn,” he said. “I’ll be quite honest with you, I went in my office and buried my head in a bottle of whiskey, good whiskey.”

Johnson phrases it slightly differently today. “I didn’t feel too good myself about the whole thing,” he says. “But that was then. With all bands and things, there are little bumps in the road.”

With Axl Rose’s help, AC/DC finished the 2016 Rock or Bust tour. But Williams made it clear that that was his final stand. “To be quite frank, it was not an easy tour to finish,” the bassist says. “I had some health issues that I won’t bore you with the details of. But I had stuff going on while I was on the road, terrible vertigo. For me, I just thought that it was my time.”

They wrapped up with one last “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center on September 20th, 2016. As the final shots of the cannon died down, the band walked off into a very uncertain future. Stevie Young had done a stellar job throughout the whole run, and Razor’s Edge–era drummer Chris Slade slid back into his old role with great ease once it became clear that Rudd couldn’t tour. But Axl Rose wasn’t a long-term solution to the lead-singer problem, and now they had no bass player.

Angus returned to Australia, took a long break and then began poring through an extensive backlog of unreleased songs he’d written over the years with Malcolm. The majority of them come from the period around Black Ice in 2008. “There was a lot of great song ideas from that time,” he says. “At that time he said to me, ‘We’ll leave these songs for now. If we keep going, we’ll be overboard. We’ll get them on the next one.’ That always stuck with me. When I went through and listened to them, I said, ‘If I do anything in my life, I have to get these tracks down and get these tracks out.’”

The work paused in October 2017 when Angus and Malcolm’s older brother George Young, guitarist in legendary Australian rock band the Easybeats and producer of seven AC/DC records, died. Malcolm followed just three weeks later. “My brother George was a very big part of AC/DC, especially in our early years,” says Angus. “George and Malcolm were always the two guys I relied on. It didn’t matter if we were in a studio or wherever, I always asked for their advice on whatever I was doing.”

The back-to-back losses were a devastating blow to Angus, but they also paved the way for his fractured band to begin coming back together when Brian Johnson, Cliff Williams, and Phil Rudd all traveled to Australia for Malcolm’s funeral. It was the first time that Angus had seen Rudd face-to-face since the Rock or Bust sessions three years earlier.

“He just looked so good,” says Angus. “He was there and in good shape. He was keeping himself well-together. He was getting therapy and sorting himself out. It was really good.”

The initial charges against the drummer seemed quite serious, but many of them were ultimately dropped and his sentence was a rather lenient eight-month period of home confinement. “I speak for all the boys with Phil,” says Johnson. “We defend Phil to the hilt. What happened up there, that’s not the Phil we know. That was just something else. He’s really looking brilliant now and doing everything great.”

Johnson’s own situation was more complicated. Smoothing things over with Angus wasn’t going to mean much if his hearing problems remained an issue. But he found a specialist willing to try an experimental treatment on him. The singer is hesitant to share many of the details, but an unnamed hearing expert came to his home once a month during a three-year period to try and figure out a solution.

“The first time he came down he brought this thing that looked like a car battery,” says Johnson. “I went, ‘What in the hell is that?’ He said, ‘We’re going to miniaturize it.’ It took two and a half years. He came down once a month. We’d sit there and it was boring as shit with all these wires and computer screens and noises. But it was well worth it. The only thing I can tell you is that it uses the bone structure in the skull as a receiver. That’s as much as I can tell you.”

Miraculously, the secretive in-ear device allowed Johnson to sing again. “We’d get updated on how he was going with it and everything,” says Angus. “It was very good. I know how much a part of his life this is for Brian. It’s the same as the rest of us.”

Once Rudd and Johnson were back in the AC/DC fold, it didn’t take much to convince Williams to return as well. “It was like the old band back together,” says the bassist. “It was not like starting over again, but as close to the band that’s been together for 40-plus years as we can possibly make it. I didn’t want to miss that.”

They convened in August 2018 at Warehouse Studios in Vancouver with producer Brendan O’Brien, who also worked 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust. “What I like about Brendan is that he keeps you working when you’re doing a project with him,” says Angus. “He’s talented himself. He knows his bass and his guitar and a bit of drums. And piano. He covers the spectrum for what we can do musically. It’s very good because you’re working with a musician, since he can apply that musical knowledge.”

By the time of the session, Young had flagged 12 tunes he wanted to cut. None of them stray far from the AC/DC formula established back in 1973: Anthemic, stadium-ready choruses, loud guitars, and devilish titles like “Demon Fire” and “Witch’s Spell.” As always, there wasn’t a ballad or a love song anywhere in the mix.

Lead-off single “Shot in the Dark” is a perfect example. “It’s got that great AC/DC vibe about it, great swagger, and a good AC/DC rock & roll chant,” says Angus. “The title is a little bit cheeky because we all like a little nip [of alcohol] in the night or a few shots in the dark. I was very glad when the record company heard it [that] they felt it was a very strong song and should be the first one that people hear.”

“Money Shot” sounds like an unambiguous ode to the climax of many pornographic films (“Doctor, what’s the antidote?/Lady, try the money shot/Doctor, what’s the antidote?/Lady, just try the money shot/Best taken when hot”), but Angus swears that wasn’t his intent.

“Photographers used to say to us, ‘Do this,’ and they’d go ‘You’re on the money — that’s the money shot,’” he says. “When we were putting the song down with Brendan, I was telling him about it. He says, ‘Everyone knows what the money shot is.’ I’m going, ‘Huh?’ It was by accident.”

“Through the Mists of Time,” meanwhile, finds the band in an uncharacteristically reflective mindset. “See dark shadows/On the walls,” Johnson sings. “See the pictures/Some hang/Some fall.”

“We’ve been together all these years — it’s almost like you’re going through time,” says Angus. “You’re kind of still in that time where you’re playing rock music. It’s not like we’re playing other music. We’ve stuck to what we do best. It had a bit of a museum flavor to it, I suppose. Paintings like the ‘Mona Lisa’ are timeless. That’s how I look at that song.”

The band assembled in Vancouver as a five-piece, but Johnson worked extensively on his own with O’Brien to get his vocals just right. (He hasn’t played a part in the songwriting process since 1988’s Blow Up Your Video.) “I’m singing what someone else has done and I want it to be what the writer has in his mind,” he says. “We’d have a shot with a verse and I’d listen back and say, ‘Brendan, I think I can do better than that. I’m not happy with that.’ Then I’d take another crack at it. Brendan was always the judge. He’d say, ‘I think we’re on the right track.’”

This is the first AC/DC album recorded after the death of Malcolm Young, though his presence was felt strongly by everyone throughout the entire process of creating it. “Even when I sit at home and pick up my guitar and start playing, the first thing that enters my head is, ‘I think Mal will like this riff I’m playing,’” says Angus. “That’s how I judge lot of stuff.”

“Malcolm was always there,” says Johnson. “As Angus would say, the band was his idea. Everything in it ran through him. He was always there in your minds or just your thoughts. I still see him in my own way. I still think about him. And then in the studio when we’re doing it, you have to be careful when you look around because he seems to be there.”

“AC/DC without Mal isn’t AC/DC,” adds Williams. “He’s just there somehow. He’s always here.”

Stevie subbed in for Malcolm during portions of their 1988 tour and his reintroduction into the band in 2014 was effortless. “Stevie has done a great job because he grew up playing that style of the music, the same as Mal,” says Angus. “It always sounded like there was two guitars whenever Malcolm played. It just seemed so full and so big.”

Most of the album was recorded across six weeks in the summer of 2018, though the band continued to tweak it into 2019. They originally planned on releasing POWER UP earlier this year, but the pandemic forced them to reconsider. “We were hoping to get the album out before all this happened,” says Angus. “They were getting ideas together for packaging and video promo things. And then that virus thing came along. It kind of put everyone on hold.”

A tour was also in the works, but they wanted to proceed cautiously due to Johnson’s hearing condition. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do a couple of small shows to start?’” says Johnson. “That was as far as it got. We flew home [after that meeting] and two days later the shit hit the fan. It was China and Europe and then it started spreading like wildfire. It just didn’t seem possible.”

They did manage one live rehearsal before the pandemic. “It was with the boys in full battlefield conditions and it was smashing, brilliant,” says Johnson. “I felt like I was a kid again.”

They hope to take POWER UP on the road whenever the pandemic clears. For now, however, they’re just happy that AC/DC is once again a functioning band and that they have the chance to share some of Malcolm’s final songs with the world. “I remember visiting with him after he had an operation,” says Angus. “This is when he still had the capability to talk. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be there fighting for you.’ He always backed us.”

“He’s the founder of this whole thing, AC/DC” he continues. “At the very beginning [of the band] I said to him, ‘What are we going to do?’ He said, ‘I know what we’re going to do. We’re going to do some rough, raw rock & roll.’”

From Rolling Stone US