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Flashback: AC/DC Refuses To Give Up and Rocks On

Despite a hostile press and Bon Scott’s death, the band has refused to give up.

Despite a hostile press and Bon Scott's death, the band has refused to give up.

In early 1980, the fate of AC/DC was unclear. With the sudden death of lead singer Bon Scott, the band faced the a crucial decision; to break-up or push on? This pivotal moment for the rock & roll institution was documented by David Fricke in the October 1980 issue of Rolling Stone. Now, thirty years later, the band is returning to Australia on their Rock or Bust World Tour, making stops in every major capital city before the end of the year. 

There is a full moon out here tonight, and it belongs to Angus Young, the twenty-one-year-old guitarist for Australian jock-rockers AC/DC. While his older brother and rhythm guitarist Malcolm, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd hammer away on a locomotive number called “Bad Boy Boogie” for 6100 raving fans in the barnlike Milwaukee Auditorium, the diminutive Young – dressed in a green-velvet school uniform complete with blazer, shorts and beanie – puts his guitar down after an ear-razing solo and starts his nightly striptease.

The jacket goes first, then the striped tie and, finally, a white shirt soaked through with perspiration. As sweat continues to pour off his five-foot-and-then-some frame, Angus struts like a rooster across the stage, pointing to his crotch with a lewd, toothy smile. The crowd screams with delight, as if to say, yes, we want it all off. So Angus jumps up on Rudd’s drum riser, turns his back to the crowd, bends over and drops his drawers. A split second of bared bottom later, Angus grabs his guitar and is off on another wild solo, as the teenage mob pressed against the stage roars its approval.

And that’s only three songs into the show. Before this ninety-minute sweatfest is over, singer Brian Johnson howls his way through most of the songs on AC/DC’s latest best-selling salvo, Back in Black, while Angus rides around the hall on the shoulders of a roadie, flailing away on his cordless guitar and, for his big finish, leaping off a six-foot-high speaker cabinet. During the encore, everyone gets into the act for “T.N.T.,” shouting “Hoy!” in a Nuremberg-style sing-along.

“Milwaukee,” barks Johnson at the end of the show, with a voice that could curl chest hairs at twenty paces, “you’re fucking brilliant!”

The audience returns the compliment by buying enough AC/DC T-shirts, jerseys, caps and tour programs at the Milwaukee Auditorium concession stands to set a new house record.

“They have this intense fucking loyalty,” muses Brian Johnson the next day over a late breakfast. “The kids don’t want to just come. They want to be part of it. They want a T-shirt that says ‘I like AC/DC, and I’ll fight anybody who says different.'”

A stocky, friendly bear of an Englishman who is rarely seen in public without a checkered flat cap tilted down over his forehead, Johnson joined AC/DC last April after the accidental death in London on February 19th of original vocalist Bon Scott. (Scott, 33, died of asphyxiation – choking on his own vomit after an all-night drinking binge – not of alcohol poisoning, as originally reported.) This is Johnson’s first U.S. tour after a rocky decade fronting his own band, Geordie, and he is genuinely impressed by AC/DC’s drawing power as well as the Top Twenty sales of Back in Black, the band’s sixth Atlantic album. “The kids just flock to see them,” he crows in the thick accent of his hometown of Newcastle.

Most reviewers do not share his or the fans’ enthusiasm. From the time the Glasgow-born Young brothers – who moved to Sydney, Australia, with their parents, sister and five older brothers in 1963 – formed AC/DC seven years ago, the group has been mercilessly slagged as heavy-metal morons and their audience as tasteless cretins. despite the bad reviews, a punishing tour schedule (their current trek began in July and goes through February) and Scott’s untimely death, AC/DC have continuously refused to give up, and Back in Black is their just reward. With the title and all-black cover meant as a silent tribute to Scott, the album entered the English charts at Number One and is a safe bet to match the platinum sales in America of last year’s Highway to Hell.

The band’s snowballing success can be attributed in part to the heavy-metal renaissance now sweeping both countries. But the only thing AC/DC share with such current metal champions as Ted Nugent, Van Halen and English upstarts Def Leppard, Judas Priest and Saxon is the universal scorn of critics. Compared to the boorish, macho plodding of most heavy-metal heathens, the AC/DC sound is nothing more and nothing less than aggressively catchy song hooks brutalized by a revved-up boogie rhythm, Malcolm’s jackhammer riffing, Angus’ guitar histrionics and Johnson’s bloodcurdling bawl.

“We just get out there and rock,” says Angus, who loses an average of three-and-a-half pounds a night through his manic stage routine. “If your amp blows up or your guitar packs it in, smash it up and pick up another one. And that’s how it always was with us. We can’t even stop and tune up. Those kids are all wound up. A second or two seconds is too much for them. They’ve gotta have it.”

Angus Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC. Chris Walter/WireImage

Offstage, Angus Young doesn’t look like the guy to give it to ’em. In high contrast to AC/DC’s reputation as troublemakers, boozers and womanisers–due in no small part to the lyrical content of songs like “Sin City,” “Kicked in the Teeth” and “What Do You Do for Money Honey” – Angus is a quiet, reflective sort, with a crooked smile, a Scottish accent only slightly more intelligible than Brian’s, an attractive Dutch-born wife, Ellen, and an addiction to hot tea with milk. Similarly, Malcolm does not look half so mean pushing a baby stroller with his four-month-old daughter in it as he does banging out the monster riff to “Hells Bells” on a wide-body Gretsch White Falcon guitar that’s almost as big as he is.

But the stories of AC/DC’s hair-trigger tempers and fast fists are legend. “That’s because we always stick together,” says Angus. “Like us Youngs, we’re all short. We walk into a show now, and we still get people hassling us. We used to pull up at a show in a car, and the security people wouldn’t let us in. We’d tell ’em, ‘We’re playing here tonight,’ but you couldn’t get through to half these people. In the end, we’d just crash through. We pulled many a Starsky-and-Hutch through the gates.”

For AC/DC, and the Young brothers in particular, life has always been an us-against-them proposition. Malcolm remembers his first few years of school in Glasgow as a series of schoolyard brawls. Angus was only four when his family moved to Sydney, but when he entered high school there, his older brother’s reputation preceded him. “I was caned the first day,” he says. “The guy said, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Young.’ ‘Come out here, I’m going to make an example of you.'” By the time he was fifteen, Angus was given what he calls “a very fine option – ‘Either you leave or we’ll throw you out.'” He left.

Music also ran in the Young family. Malcolm cites his second-oldest brother, John, as a big guitar influence. Another brother, George, was a founding member of Sixties Aussie pop sensations the Easybeats (“Friday on My Mind”). He later formed a production team with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda, and the two still record as Flash and the Pan. They also produced the first four AC/DC LPs.

Malcolm and Angus followed suit, taking up guitars and forming their own bands with little success until they decided to join forces in 1973. From the very beginning, the band was called AC/DC, and Angus’ gonzo stage act was part of the show. George even encouraged Angus to get wild in the studio. During the sessions for the group’s second U.S. album, Let There Be Rock, amps started blowing up in the middle of one Angus solo, but George made him keep playing. “There was no way,” a deadpan George explains, “we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up.” Angus also experimented with several different stage costumes in the early days – a gorilla suit, a Zorro outfit, even a “Super-Ang” get-up – but the school uniform was a natural, since he was only sixteen at the time.

The Youngs went through several drummers and bass guitarists, finally settling on Phil Rudd in ’74 and Englishman Cliff Williams three years later. Their original singer was given notice after two months when they discovered Bon Scott, a native Scotsman who was originally hired in Adelaide as the band’s driver. Thirteen years Angus’ senior, Scott sang with a lecherous growl that sounded like Tom Waits at 78 rpm, and he was the spitting image of the songs he sang. Onstage, he was usually dressed in nothing but faded jeans that looked like they had been poured on and tattoos that ran up and down both arms. AC/DC’s first English tour in 1976 was billed as the Lock Up Your Daughters tour in honour of Bon’s animal sexuality.

Angus admits being deeply affected by Scott’s death, which came in the middle of rehearsals for the new album. “I was sad for Bon. I didn’t even think about the band. We’d been with Bon all that time; we’d seen more of him than his family did.” Malcolm adds that the thought of quitting never crossed his mind. “I thought, ‘Well, fuck this, I’m not gonna sit around mopin’ all fuckin’ year.’ So I just rang up Angus and said, ‘Do you wanna come back and rehearse?’ This was about two days afterward.”

“And I’m sure,” Angus continues, “if it had been one of us, Bon would have done the same.”

Brian Johnson does not consider himself a singer. “I’m not even a screamer,” he insists, despite evidence to the contrary on Back in Black. “It’s just that when I go onstage, I feel it. That’s all I can do.” Even Angus Young concedes, “I’m a rotten guitar player if I’m standing still,” although he’d like to see a few of the big-name guitarists do better. “I know Robert Fripp can’t play twelve bars.”

But if it is not technical prowess, then what is it about AC/DC and the barbaric sound of such albums as Powerage and the live If You Want Blood You’ve Got It that appeals to the average rock & roll Joe? Johnson has a theory.

“The most important thing is, the band poses no threat to the kids,” he reasons, speaking into a bottle of Löwenbräu in a glitzy hotel bar shortly after the Milwaukee show. “The band poses no threat onstage and doesn’t look down at them. They know it would be so easy for those roles to be reversed, for Brian Johnson to be in that audience, for Malcolm Young to be in that audience and for those kids to be in Malcolm’s or my place.

“They know the band’s worked for all of five years, man, taken all the shit just the same as the kids have taken all the shit, and they know the band doesn’t have a snobby attitude, doesn’t try to change just to be clever or get in the press with Britt Ekland.”

Johnson is probably right. For all the critics’ malicious barking about bad taste and lack of talent, AC/DC have gone from an Australian bar band to a major headlining concert attraction with only those fans to cheer them on. The reviewers will say what they will, but Johnson has a little taste test he would like to try on a few of them anyway.

“I’d like to lock ’em up in a cell with AC/DC music for a week,” he cackles. “They’ll be crying ‘Let me out, let me out!’ Then I’ll put on a week’s worth of disco music – and I’ll bet you a pound to a pinch of shit they’ll be hung by their own belts. With AC/DC, at least they’ll come out singing the choruses.”

This feature original appeared in October, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.