'It can look a bit strange – 'Who's this old guy in a school suit?' " says 61-year-old AC/DC guitarist Angus Young. "Somebody once commented, 'From a distance, he looks quite youthful.' It's only when you get up close that you can see the weathered look." That wear and tear are real for Young as he leads AC/DC through their toughest and possibly final world tour, which ends September 20th in Philadelphia.
But he speaks candidly and as cheerfully as possible about the severe hearing problems that recently forced singer Brian Johnson to retire from touring; the immediate offer to fill in from Guns N' Roses vocalist Axl Rose; bassist Cliff Williams' recent announcement that this tour would be his last; and the current health of ex-guitarist and Angus' older brother, Malcolm, who suffers from dementia. "It's hard to communicate," Angus admits. "I do pass on messages. I can't be 100 percent sure it goes in there. But I let him know there are a lot of people missing him."
Axl is used to running his own ship. Did you have to talk to him about how you do things – like being on time?
He's been really good. He prepares himself, ready to go. We sit and chew the fat before we get on, work out what songs we want to do. It's gotta be fun for him, and for us. In the beginning, he was confined [with a foot injury] to that chair he borrowed from Dave Grohl. But as soon as he could, he was out and moving.
How did you get Axl to step in for Brian?
Axl contacted a production guy who had done stuff for us. He said, "I know these guys. They have a work ethic. They want to finish these dates." He volunteered. He came to a rehearsal place we set up in Atlanta, and he'd done his homework. He had a few songs like "Touch Too Much" [on 1979's Highway to Hell] – "Can you play this one?" "No, we never learned it." We had never attempted to play it live.
Does Axl sound more like Brian or the late Bon Scott?
He's more in the Bon style – the rock & roll character. And he's got his own folksy humor. He's pretty quick with a quip. Axl has different vocal ranges. You can hear him one way in a Bon song. Then he can flip and do Brian, the higher register.
Was Brian having hearing problems before you started the tour?
He was having problems when we were rehearsing for Coachella [in 2015]. He already had one bad ear. He damaged it in a car accident. The one good ear was rapidly dropping. We were in Australia, and he was seeing a specialist. Each show he did, he had to get monitored and treated. But it was becoming too hard for him.
Do you think Cliff's decision to retire is related to Brian leaving?
Cliff made it known before we'd even started touring – this would be his last. Besides myself, Cliff has been there the longest, since 1977. Cliff and Brian are in the same age bracket. They like to go out, hit the pubs. They had the bond.
What is it like touring without Malcolm on guitar? Is your nephew Stevie filling that hole for you?
Sometimes I do a double take. I hear the sound behind me and think, "That sounds so Mal." When Stevie was younger, he really focused on what Mal did. It's not an easy thing. You gotta be solid, confident. It looks simple. It is definitely not simple.
Malcolm's guitar-playing sounded a lot like his personality – forward and determined.
He was older than me – I always looked up to him. In the studio, I would fiddle about with guitar sounds – and fiddle my way right out of the ball field [laughs]. Malcolm would dial me in, a big, fat sound, and I'd go, "Oh, wow!"
Do you now wonder if it was time to quit when Malcolm couldn't continue – that you pushed the band too far?
That might be the case. But Malcolm was always one to battle through. He would look at me in times of crisis and go, "We'll just go in and do some work. We'll sit and write some songs." He had that drive, and I feel obligated to keep it going, maybe because I was there in the beginning with him.
Have you thought about your own future after the tour ends? You've never played in any other band.
That's true. At this point, I don't know. We were committed to finishing the tour. Who knows what I'll feel after? When you sign on and say, "I'm gonna do this and that," it's always good to say at the end of it, "I've done all I said I would do."
That was always the idea, especially when we were younger – me, Malcolm, Bon. You had to show up and be on time. You'd be playing in a pub in the afternoon. Then late at night, you'd be playing a club. You got into that habit: "If we don't play, we don't eat."
Who else would you like to play with if you had the shot?
You'd have to resurrect a lot of people from the dead, I think [laughs]. I'd sit down with Keith Richards, do something. He's a rhythm guy like Mal.
AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams said he will "back off" touring and recording after the band finishes the final leg of its Rock or Bust tour. Watch here.