The history of Australia’s AC/DC can be divided into WBS and ABS: Their early history with lead singer Bon Scott (With Bon Scott) and the rest of their career after his untimely death in February of 1980 (After Bon Scott). The time WBS covered a mere seven years but laid a foundation strong enough to withstand the loss of the band’s spark plug, front man, and brother. Scott’s passing would be but the first loss the band would endure, but as their more recent history has shown, it takes a lot to kill a band like AC/DC. Classic Rock Magazine began 2019 by including a small pulp compilation about the band (The Little Book of AC/DC) collected from various features run in issues from CRM 82 to CRM 245 (for the record, the booklet came with the CRM 255 issue). I knew of AC/DC / WBS, but knew very little about them until they resurfaced ABS with Back in Black, now the second biggest selling album of all time after Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The Little Book of AC/DC filled in a lot of blanks in my limited knowledge of the band. CRM followed up a couple of months later with a cover story and also included another booklet (featuring extensive notes about all their albums) and a double sided, wall sized poster of the band.
The Young brother’s story began in the early 1970s, well after the family had emigrated from their Scottish homeland to Australia. Oldest brother George had already made a name for himself in one of Australia’s biggest pop bands, The Easybeats. In his late teens, Malcolm Young was in the process of putting together his own band and as is usually the case, there were many shifts in membership before the band began playing the brutal Sydney bar circuit as AD/DC. Malcolm was always the boss and when his younger brother’s band Kentuckee folded, Mal brought Angus in for an audition. When they made their debut at the fabled Chequers Club on December 31, 1973, there was a bit of a buzz surrounding them because of their connection to older brother George. The band included the Young brothers on guitar, vocalist Dave Evans, bassist Larry Van Kriedt, and drummer Colin Burgess. Drummers and bass players came and went. Eight months after the band recorded the single Can I Sit Next to You, Girl (in early 1974), Evans was replaced by the band’s roadie, Bon Scott.
Bon Scott had bounced around a bunch of bands while holding down a job at a fertilizer factory. At age 27, he began wondering if he was already too old to have a career in rock. Oddly enough, his last band before joining the road crew for AC/CD was a country rock outfit called the Mount Lofty Rangers. His tenure with the band only lasted four months and twelve gigs before he derailed his plans by being too drunk to perform. He got in a dust up with the Rangers’ bassist when he went over to explain to the band why he couldn’t perform that night and then left in a huff on his motorcycle. The band tried to keep him off the road (too drunk to perform but not too drunk to ride his bike?) but he went anyway. Scott met a car head on, spent three days in a coma, and then travelled a long road to recovery. The accident occured in May of 1974 and the next time Scott would record with a band would be as a member of AC/DC in November of 1974. The band put out two albums in Australia (High Voltage and T.N.T.) under the guidance of big brother George and his Easybeats bandmate, Harry Vanda. With four outstanding tracks that have gone on to become staples of their live shows (It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock and Roll), High Voltage, The Jack, and T.N.T.), they had their musical template in place. No matter what transpired in the music universe over the next forty plus years, AC/DC would not waver from their mission to be a hard rocking band.
AC/DC were exposed to the world at large via a ‘compilation’ of seven T.N.T. tracks and two taken from High Voltage. For some reason the record company labeled the ‘new release’ with the recycled title of their first Australia only release: High Voltage. To say they took Europe by storm would be an understatement. Their follow up LP, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap came out in late 1976 (though it wasn’t released in the United States until 1981 because some of the label executives thought the band too crass for public consumption on this side of the pond). Dirty Deeds showed the band had now hit its stride in the WBS years, followed by more heavy duty albums in the late 1970s. Mal Young claimed that Scott’s last album with the band (Highway to Hell) was the one that finally turned the critics around about Bon Scott. As Malcolm tells it, “After Highway to Hell, some of the critics started to realize that Bon did have a talent. Then, when he died (February 1980), everyone was suddenly saying what a great performer he’d been… and these were the same people who were saying we should ditch Bon and get someone like David Coverdale! What hurt me was that Bon never got the recognition that he deserved.” It wouldn’t be the first or last time an artist’s reputation improved after they passed from this mortal coil.
No one would argue that Bon Scott wasn’t an accident waiting to happen. One can not drink and party as hard as Scott did without risking disaster. A good illustration of his reckless ways was provided by music writer Harry Doherty’s rolling interview with Scott enroute to a gig in Cardiff, Wales. Doherty and Scott met at Paddington Station in London, had a few drinks and then managed to board a train heading north instead of the southbound train to Wales. Forty five minutes later, they interrupted their drinking long enough to make a connection to Reading where they would then (finally) get on the right track to Cardiff. Scott’s explanation for his behavior was to the point: “I like drinking. It must be the Scot in me. As I often say, ‘I’m a special drunkard – I drink too much.’” As for his band, Scott continued, “We’re a real down ‘n dirty lot. The songs reflect just what we are – booze, wimmen, sex, and rock‘n‘roll. That’s what life is all about.” That he died alone in a car after a period of prolonged partying was a tragedy, but certainly it wasn’t a big surprise. Scott’s ‘normal’ was spelled ‘EXCESS’ and like too many people in his condition, he thought he was bulletproof. AC/DC paused to mourn their old friend and then decided the only thing they could do was write more songs, find another singer, and keep playing their music. The only question was, “How do you replace Bon Scott?”
One doesn’t just ‘replace’ Bon Scott but in an ironic twist, it was Scott who had first introduced the band to his successor, Brian Johnson. He had seen Johnson perform with the 1970s band Geordie and proclaimed that the singer had done the best Little Richard imitation that he had ever seen. Scott said he was impressed by Johnson’s ‘act’ – rolling around on the stage and screaming is head off. The truth is, Johnson was screaming in agony trying to finish the gig while battling a bad appendix before being whisked off to the hospital. Nevertheless, his name was implanted in the band’s subconscious before Scott died. Johnson’s name came up again after Scott’s death when they were sent a Geordie album by a fan in Cleveland who encouraged AC/DC to have a listen. When producer Robert “Mutt” Lange mentioned that they should listen to Johnson during the singer search, Malcolm pointed out, “That is the second time we have heard the name” even though it was really ‘third time’s the charm’. The only problem? They couldn’t find him. When Geordie’s string played out, the newly divorced Johnson was broke, living with his parents and detailing cars to make ends meet. Had it not been for an advertising jingle he landed at the same time he auditioned for AC/DC, he may not have been able to afford the time off. As Johnson later related to CRM: “I was old. I was 32, well passed my ‘sell by’ date.” Fortuitously for all parties involved, he shook off his doubts, and attended the audition in London. Both the band and Johnson found it an easy fit, musically and socially. Within weeks, they offered him the slot and were in the studio recording what would become their most important album ABS – Back in Black.
Music writer Mark Blake tried his hand at interviewing Malcolm (who was at home in Sydney) by phone from the record company’s office in London. The release of their new Live album set the stage for Blake to pick Mal’s brain for his take on some of their best loved tracks. The only problem? Malcolm had a hard time remembering what inspired certain songs or who added what to the mix when they were recording those songs. Blake switched gears and tried to get Young to talk about the bands he listened to back in the day” “The Stones and The Who.” Blake pressed on and asked about which bands Mal listened to now: “The Stones and The Who, that’s about it.” Blake asked about Led Zeppelin: “Me and Agnus went to see Led Zeppelin once. We left after a couple of songs. Singer was a blond feller, kind of a poser.” Eventually Malcolm opened up with some specifics about their albums, but the underlying theme was, “This is what we do and if it ain’t broke, why fix it.” Blake’s interview took place in 1992 well into the band’s ABS period, but he didn’t really want to go back and talk about the events of 1980 at this point. When asked about the current bands that might challenge AC/DC, there was a long pause before Malcolm offered up, “Seen a few of them bands on MTV.” Which ones? “Well, me daughter listens to that band…” Which one? “Neeeervana”. What did he think of Nirvana? “Singers a blond feller. Bit of a poser.” Mal Young may have been the band’s spokesman, but that didn’t make him a great interview.
Having righted the ship after Bon Scott’s death, the next crisis came when Malcolm had to pull back to sober up. As he recalled to CRM in 2004, “The funny thing was I was never drunk in heaps, I just drank constantly and it caught up with me. Angus was going, ‘I’m your brother, I don’t want to see you dead here. Remember Bon?’ So I took that break and cleaned myself up.”
Malcolm’s health began to deteriorate again long before he recorded his last album with the band (Black Ice). The band was aware that he was struggling, having to relearn parts to old songs before gigs, but they kept a stiff upper lip about it. By the time Black Ice was done, it was apparent that he could not longer tour and his spot was taken up by nephew Steve Young who had also subbed for him during Mal’s stint in rehab. From 2014 until his death on November 18, 2017, Malcolm was receiving around the clock care for his dementia with the band releasing a statement that said in part, “From the outset, Malcolm knew what he wanted to achieve and, along with his younger brother [Angus], took to all the world stages giving their all at every show. Nothing less would do for their fans. He leaves behind an enormous legacy that will live on forever.” It proved to be a double shot for the band as Mal passed away just three weeks after their eldest brother/producer George.
AC/DC mourned their rhythm guitarist the same way they had mourned Bon Scott: they toured. Then Brian Johnson was taken from the stage to prevent himself from becoming totally deaf. Avid race enthusiast Johnson had damaged his hearing from prolonged exposure to loud engines and found he was having a hard time hearing well enough to sing properly. Guns ‘N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose stepped in to finish what began shaping up as their last tour. The band has never officially broken up, but drummer Phil Rudd is having legal problems and bassist Cliff Williams has said he is now retired. Johnson’s hearing prognosis is still up in the air leaving Angus Young the last member of AC/DC still standing.
Is the band done? The rumour mill says Angus may be working on new music and might be thinking about touring again, but it remains to be seen if it would be a new version of AC/DC or something else. Like Sasquatch, there have been reports from the Pacific Northwest that members of the last incarnation of AC/DC have been spotted at a recording studio. Oh yes, and then there is this: Brian Johnson now says, “Yes, we are doing a new album and I am sick of denying it.” WOAS-FM will keep you posted.
Top Piece Video: Yes, I have used this clip previously, but to me, it cuts to the core of what AC/DC do best.