'Rock or Bust' for Real: Inside the Making of AC/DC's Defiant New Album

With Malcolm Young unable to record, the band rallies and roars back with another dose of high-voltage rock & roll

Cliff Williams, Brian Johnson, Stevie Young and Angus Young of AC/DC Credit: James Minchin

It was a surprise, I must admit – I didn't know which way it was going to go," Cliff Williams says. The bassist is recalling the moment when he got the call at the beginning of this year at his home in Florida, telling him that his band, the Australian power-blues juggernaut AC/DC, was going to make a new album. "I always hoped for the best. It was great to hear we were going forward – to know for sure."

Williams is sitting next to AC/DC lead guitarist Angus Young, who is bent over a cup of tea, growling in affirmation in a gnarly Scottish-Aussie accent. It is the first week of October, and the two men are in the small, quiet salon of a London hotel, talking on the record for the first time about their hard road to that new album, Rock or Bust. Singer Brian Johnson will join them after an hour, filling the room with his volcanic, lad-ish bonhomie and equally thick, gravelly diction, cackling at his own jokes from under the brim of his trademark newsboy's cap.

"Remember, I suffer from CRS, so no difficult questions," Johnson announces as he sits down. "That's short for Can't Remember Shit," he adds, shaking with mirth. Johnson has been AC/DC's happy joker since he joined the band in 1980, replacing the late Bon Scott, and he takes that part of his job seriously, lightening the mood whenever he enters a room.

His humor is an extra blessing today. The conversation starts with and frequently returns to a still fresh, resounding absence at the center of AC/DC: the retirement of rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, 61, who is suffering from dementia and in full-time care in Australia. A few weeks after the London interview, the news gets weirder and worse, with the arrest in New Zealand of drummer Phil Rudd, who faces charges of threatening to kill and drug possession. That leaves Angus, 59 and still a pint-sized blitzkrieg in schoolboy shorts onstage, in charge of the band that he and Malcolm started in 1973 – and alone to figure out how to fill that backbeat chair on AC/DC's 2015 world tour.

"Every year has its ups and downs, I suppose, but it's been pretty rough, yeah," Angus will admit in a later interview. "But we will definitely be out there. We are committed to do this."

Lost in that trial and uproar is this fact: An album did get finished, and it is impressive defiance. Rock or Bust, AC/DC's 16th studio LP, is unusually crisp in its trademark brutality, with 11 songs clocking in at barely 34 minutes. Angus solos in hot, terse flourishes, framing the hooks and Johnson's vocal choruses with declarative concision. "It's short, snappy and different," Johnson confirms, noting that Rock or Bust reminds him of "old Beatles albums, where every song was tight and pop-y." Producer Brendan O'Brien believes Rock or Bust is still business as usual. AC/DC "write great pop songs," he claims. "They just sound kind of crazy."

That day in London, Angus, Williams and Johnson speak of the record with good humor and pride. The next day, at a video shoot for the first single "Play Ball," new rhythm guitarist Stevie Young, Angus and Malcolm's cousin, mentions with a grin how "I had to clean up my sound a bit for this – I actually play a lot dirtier than Mal does." And on the phone, O'Brien marvels at how, during the sessions in Vancouver last May, AC/DC cut through the pressures of recording without Malcolm's firm direction and steely strumming arm. "You don't get a lot of explaining with those guys," the producer says. "To them, talking doesn't get anything done."

"Malcolm – he always pushed on," Angus says flatly, "even with Bon," referring to the Youngs' decision to keep going after Scott's death, hiring Johnson and cutting the global smash, Back in Black. "We just did what we normally do – continue what we started."

Angus notes something another, older brother – George, who played with the Easybeats and co-produced AC/DC's first albums – told him on the way to Rock or Bust. "He said, 'It's really down to what you want to do.' Maybe I'm punch drunk," Angus suggests. "This is probably all I know."

Angus looks up from his tea with a flinty smile. "Hey, I enjoy doing it. That's why I do it."

Johnson says he got his call last January, also at his house in Florida, where he lives close to Williams. "They rang: 'You fancy getting into an album?' I was like, 'Who with?'"

By then, Angus had spoken to and recruited Stevie, 58, who lives in Birmingham, England. Stevie is the son of Angus and Malcolm's oldest brother (also named Stevie) and was, like the AC/DC leaders, born in Glasgow, Scotland. The three went to school together in Sydney, after most of the large Young clan emigrated to Australia in 1963, and Malcolm later produced demos for Stevie's own bands. In 1988, during an AC/DC world tour, Malcolm asked Stevie to take over on rhythm guitar while the former took a break to fight his alcoholism.

"You can't replace what Mal is – it's a unique signature," Angus acknowledges. But Stevie, he goes on, "knows how Mal plays. He knows my style too. It's a common bond. Didn't Bob Dylan play in his cousin's band when he was younger? Similar thing."

The '88 tour was "nerve-wracking," concedes Stevie, who was thrust into a riff-and-rhythm role already honed to perfection by Malcolm. The new album is "a different thing. I tried to do what I thought Mal would do, in my own way. I didn't try to imitate Mal. Because we're not exactly the same."

O'Brien got his call in April, shortly before news reports began to circulate about Malcolm's illness. The producer had also worked on AC/DC's last album, 2008's Black Ice ­— unaware, he says, that Malcolm was already showing signs of dementia. "I remember Angus and Cliff saying, 'Malcolm seems a little off. He's forgetting things.' But he played great."

This time, O'Brien goes on, "I was told, 'This is what's going on with Malcolm. Keep it to yourself.' I got a call a week later: 'Mal is not going to be there. Stevie's going to do it.' My mind started racing on how that was going to work."

In fact, AC/DC recorded all of the basic tracks for Rock or Bust in Vancouver in under four weeks – including, as Angus revealed in that subsequent interview, the 10 days they waited for Rudd to show up. Angus did another week in Los Angeles with O'Brien, nailing guitar overdubs.

"It was a wonderful experience," Johnson claims in a big, delighted voice. "It was over, and I didn't want to leave." Angus' Dutch wife Ellen cooked dinner every night, and there was enough time between sessions for small-change wagers over cards. "I had this little game," O'Brien says. "It's really no skill. Everybody puts five bucks in and gets seven cards, all up. You see who gets the best hand. And no matter what happened, Angus was convinced I was swindling him."

"It's true – we miss Malcolm," Johnson confesses. "I think Stevie felt it more on the first, few days. But once he started working, and once I started singing, it just flew by. Honestly, I can't say enough about Stevie. He's not a demonstrative lad. He is a Young. I shouldn't say too much. One of the emotions the Youngs hate more than anything is embarrassment."

"The vibe was . . . " O'Brien's voice trails off in thought. "I really like Angus a lot," he says after some pause. "And I think he trusts me to appreciate and protect the AC/DC thing. He knows I have their thing, for lack of a better term, at heart." But, O'Brien notes, "We didn't get into a lot of personal stuff" while making Rock or Bust. "And frankly, he wasn't offering a lot."

Life in AC/DC, under Angus and Malcolm, had a predictable rigor. "We'd finish an album and tour," Williams says, "and there would be a break time, where Mal and Ang would be kicking ideas around. When they were ready, they'd give us a holler."

"We never stopped." Angus says of the working relationship with his older brother. "We came off the road, and we knew we'd be sitting around, swapping ideas away." For Rock or Bust, Angus turned – alone – to the mountain of snap and crunch he and Malcolm accumulated, then set aside, while making AC/DC's 15 previous studio albums.

"Even bad things we never threw away," Angus says with a gruff chuckle. "Sometimes we'd hear something we'd done five, 10 years ago: 'Hey, what's that?' Riffs are a repeating thing. They come back to you. Some of the things on Back in Black were ideas we had knocked around on tracks before that: 'That bit – maybe we should take a chunk of that and slug it in here.'" Angus has credited all of the songs on Rock or Bust to Young-Young, because most of the guitar licks were played or endorsed by Malcolm at some point. "And when I worked on things on my own," Angus says, "I'd always think how Mal would hear it."

Angus picks up a promo CD of Rock or Bust on the table in front of him and scans the track listing. The opening title song has a swinging-thunder riff that, he says, "I kicked around for years in different forms." The sporting-life anthem "Play Ball" and the self-explanatory "Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder" both have "bits that have hung around for a long time, even further back" than Black Ice. Angus recalls playing the guitar hook in "Baptism by Fire" "a few times" for Malcolm. "He would say, 'That's a good one. Hang on to that.'"

Angus also turned to George Young for riff judgement. It was George who encouraged Angus to develop the falling-down-stairs lick and cadence that became Rock of Bust's funky-Zeppelin closer and double-entendre winner "Emission Control." "I had a lot of stuff to go through, listening from the past," Angus explains. "It was good to have somebody who knows what you're about. I had Stevie with me. When we got to the album, I'd play things for Brendan. He'd say, 'That one works. That's a stinker.'"

The extent to which Malcolm's avenging-blues ideals – grounded in Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and the early Rolling Stones – and hids aversion to sentiment still drive AC/DC is evident in the lyrics on Rock or Bust, all written by Angus. Everything is straight talk – the title song, "Hard Times," "Rock the Blues Away," "Rock the House" – laced with the usual doses of improper suggestion. "You can imagine him going into the studio," Johnson says of Angus, "without this person – not just his brother but his mentor, his workmate from the age of 15 when he left school. There was always this man he could turn to and say, 'What do you think?' And Mal was always, 'You can't do this – that's not rock & roll.'

"We went through a pretty bad time," Johnson says of AC/DC's mid-Eighties hangover, a combination of record-label apathy, personnel tensions and pale followups to Back in Black like 1983's Flick of the Switch. "Our fans and Malcolm's ethics got us through that period. He wouldn't fucking budge. And slowly, surely, we came back with [the 1990 single] 'Thunderstruck' and [the 1995 album] Ballbreaker."

Johnson claims he "knew Angus had something good in him" when AC/DC convened in Vancouver for Rock or Bust. He also saw something new: "I believe he shared more with the boys, because he'd always had Malcolm to talk to. This time, he involved us. All he would say is, 'You think that's alright?' 'Oh, it's brilliant, mate.' That's all he needed. He wasn't asking for a discussion. He wanted someone to talk to." Then the singer quotes Angus' opening lines in "Rock or Bust": "We be a guitar band/We play across the land."

"Which is exactly what we are," Johnson insists. "The singing is a good bit of it," he declares, beaming, "but really it's a guitar band and always was. And how simple and straightforward is that? Nobody else would write that – because it would sound too easy."

At a legendary AC/DC session in Sydney for the 1977 album, Let There Be Rock, Angus was soloing furiously through the long title boogie when his amplifier erupted in smoke and flames. History repeated itself, the right way, 37 years later in Vancouver. Angus' amp caught fire again while the band was in the middle of a take for Rock or Bust. "I've got an arsonist that's followin' me around," the guitarist cracks, like he expects this to happen on every album. "I told everyone, 'Move to that side of the room.' I kept playing."

"I remember being in the room, going 'Do you guys smell anything?'" says O'Brien. "Then I thought, 'This is going very well. We're officially blowing up an amp.'" O'Brien can't recall which song AC/DC were playing when Angus' amp ignited. "Just pick a solo as awesome as that one [on Let There Be Rock] – that was it."

"We've always been that band," Angus affirms, accepting the compliment when it is suggested that Rock or Bust mostly sounds like every AC/DC album that came before it – as it should. "It's pretty hard to disguise it. George knows it best. He said that even when me and Malcolm picked up acoustic guitars, 'You don't play them like they're acoustic. It just comes off like you're sitting there with your electric guitars.' Even Malcolm rapping about on a keyboard – it's the same as he plays guitar. Whatever he picked up, that's how he sounded."

There is a telling switch in those last sentences – from present tense to fond retrospect. Asked about details on Malcolm's current condition, Angus responds with a spare, neutral frankness: His brother can no longer play guitar and has not heard the new album. Still, it is a shock to see AC/DC's updated biography on Wikipedia, which lists Malcolm as a "former member" of the band. "It says that?' Williams asks, appalled.

In that London hotel, sipping the last of his tea, Angus openly admits he's not sure his band's fans are ready for an AC/DC without Malcolm. "It's like an architect designing a house," he suggests. "Once the building's up, did it work? You never know with the public." The guitarist picks up that promo CD of Rock or Bust again, gazing at it with a questioning look on his face. "I don't know if they'll accept this." He shrugs. "That's part of life."

But Angus believes he is moving forward – without Malcolm, through the mess and 2015-tour complications left by Rudd's arrest – according to his brother's wishes and standards. At one point in the interview, Angus answers a question about outtakes from the new album. There are none, he replies. He also says this, proudly, about the record – and, in effect, the band that made it against very high odds.

"There's nothing worse than trying to patch something or make do," Angus contends in that rolling-granite growl. "If there wasn't something there in the beginning, it won't be there at the end."