Thirty-four years after he first put on the schoolboy uniform, Angus Young and his blue-collar bandmates return with their best album since 'Back in Black'
AC/DC singer Brian Johnson perches on the edge of a sofa in a New York hotel room with a blank look on his face, mumbling to himself in a grainy whisper, his head and shoulders drooping with exhaustion. There is nothing wrong with him. Johnson, a robust man who is built like a bear and who talks in a booming growl, is doing his imitation of AC/DC guitarist Angus Young on tour, backstage just before showtime.
"It's amazing, watching him in the dressing room," Johnson says with a raspy cackle through his thick northern-England accent. "He can be totally knackered, in the middle of a long stretch of shows, sitting there with a cigarette and a cup of tea." Johnson goes into that gnomish slouch. "Then it's, 'Twenty minutes, boys.' He gets up, hardly a word, disappears around a corner – and comes back in those clothes. He's got a fag in his mouth, a jaunty look on his face, his guitar slung on him.
"He's like Clark fucking Kent!" Johnson exclaims. "He goes into a phone booth and comes out as the 14-year-old imp, ready to rock!"
It is one of the most astonishing transformations in live rock & roll, the hilarious opposite of classic guitar heroism. At every AC/DC gig for nearly 35 years, Angus, who is five-feet-two in his stocking feet, has come out of the dressing room looking like he's headed for the principal's office, in a pre-puberty student's uniform – white shirt, tic and matching jacket, cap and shorts – based on the suits he wore to school as a boy in Sydney, Australia. Then, as drummer Phil Rudd, bassist Cliff Williams and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, Angus' older brother, hit the first iron riffs and sledgehammer chords, Angus erupts in a nonstop lead-guitar tantrum that doesn't quit until the final encore. He fires terse riffs and gnashed-note solos as he duckwalks furiously across the stage, bobs his head like a supercaffeinatcd chicken and spins on his back, his legs kicking the air. The only pause in the delirium comes during the song "Bad Boy Boogie," from AC/DC's 1977 album Let There Be Rock – when Angus drops his shorts and moons the audience.
That act and the music that goes with it – more than a dozen studio albums of strict blues-riff grammar, lewd vocal snarl and bull-elephant charge – have made AC/DC one of the biggest bands in the world. Their 1980 album, Back in Black, has sold 22 million copies in the U.S. alone. Over the past two years, AC/DC are second only to the Beatles in U.S. catalog sales, and they've sold a combined 23 million albums and DVDs worldwide since 2003, when the band moved from its longtime label, Atlantic, to Sony Music. And AC/DC's new Columbia album, Black Ice, their first studio release in eight years, is poised to be the bestselling rock album of 2008. Advance shipments by Wal-Mart, the album's exclusive retail outlet, to its stores reportedly totaled 2.5 million copies.
But there is another Angus inside that phenomenon – a passionate, quietly dogged craftsman pursuing the endless possibilities in Fifties-R&B and Sixties-British-rock guitar, in the fundamental slash and drive of Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, the early Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Offstage, without the suit, in AC/DC practice and recording sessions, Angus is "dead still," Johnson says with hushed awe. "He smiles, smokes, concentrates."
And he plays guitar sitting down.
On a warm day in mid-October, at a rehearsal facility in a northeast suburb of Philadelphia, AC/DC are preparing for their first world tour since 2001, playing songs from Black Ice and warming up old numbers like "Girls Got Rhythm" and "Whole Lotta Rosie" from the records the band made in the Seventies with the late Bon Scott, Johnson's predecessor. (Scott died in February 1980, choking on his own vomit in a car in London while sleeping off a marathon night of drinking.) In two weeks, on opening night in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Angus, now 53, will turn into the atomic schoolboy again.
Today, he wears a light-blue T-shirt and jeans and sits in a folding metal chair. He is hunched over a Gibson SG, and his eyes are glued to his left hand as it skitters up and down the neck. Angus viciously bends the strings for the dirty, metallic squeals in the Black Ice single "Rock N Roll Train," solos in machine-gun spasms during "Smash N Grab" and doubles Malcolm's meaty-chord riff in the Scott-era hit "Highway to Hell." But the only thing that moves, other than Angus' fingers, is his left leg, pumping in time to Rudd and Williams' steady swing. When Angus gets up from that chair, it is either for a cigarette break outside – Rudd, Johnson and the Youngs smoke like chimneys – or the drive back to the band's hotel.
After rehearsal, over a pizza dinner, Angus recalls a session with producer Rick Rubin for AC/DC's 1995 album Ballbreaker. "He asked me, 'Don't you ever get off that stool and move around?' " No, Angus replied. "I'm not going to put on a show for myself – I want the music to be right first," he continues with a hard, proud tone in his voice. "I have to have substance first, to feel it in me, before I can do the show.
"That was always the thing for me – I want to play guitar," Angus says in a distinctive accent he shares with Malcolm, a mix of Scottish burr and Australian drawl that reflects their divided childhoods in Glasgow, where the brothers were born, and Sydney, after their family emigrated there in 1963. Without that suit, Angus confesses, "I would never have made the effort to get out there and have a presence. I was a lot more shy before that. I would stand back and play." He flashes a toothy grin. "But the suit pulls me."
"It's like he's floating on air," says Malcolm, 55 years old and five-feet-two. He and his younger brother Angus co-founded the band in Sydney in 1973, but Malcolm has always been happy standing in the back near the amps, a compact pillar of rhythm guitar next to the drum riser, while his brother eats up the spotlight. "Angus really gets around. But it's not like..." Malcolm makes a foot-stomping noise, pounding his hand on a table. "When we did the video for 'Rock N Roll Train,' they put him in front of a green screen. It really mesmerized me, watching him go back and forth on this little footpath. He's a good little dancer."
Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry often saw Angus in action in the late Seventies, when AC/DC opened shows for Aerosmith. "Through all that gymnastic stuff, he never missed a note," Perry says. "If you closed your eyes, you'd think he was standing there, tapping his foot. But he would be all over the stage, all over the amps." The Aerosmith crew had a name for Angus' nightly flip-outs, when he fell on his back and pumped his legs in the air: "bacon frying."
"I'm sure Angus doesn't even know, when he runs around and does that manic stuff, that his playing takes that into account," says George Young, Malcolm and Angus' older brother. In the Sixties, George was a rock star himself, a member of Australia's answer to the Beatles, the Easybeats. He also co-produced all of AC/DC's early records with ex-Easybeats guitarist Harry Vanda. "One of the things we worked on was the live album," George says, referring to 1978's If You Want Blood (You've Got It). "When I listened to those performances, I could imagine Angus doing particular things at particular times. If he does a twirl or kicks his legs, you can almost hear it in the notes and phrases he plays."
"It's hard to say Angus is underrated," says Brendan O'Brien, who produced Black Ice. "But I don't think people can separate that persona from the fact that he's a spectacular guitar player. If he wasn't in AC/DC and you put him on someone else's record, playing solos, you'd go, 'Wow, that guy's a great guitar player.'"
Playing together in that rehearsal room, the entire band looks more like a chamber-music group than wild blues boys. Everyone but Johnson is sitting down. But that makes it easier to listen for the roots and diligence inside AC/DC's grinding guitars and Roman-galley choruses. Angus' solos are not long and sloppy; they are short and biting, tight clusters of sharp and strangled notes. And Malcolm and Angus, who write all of the band's music, are quick to cite the Fifties and Sixties records that influenced and inspired some of their best riffs: "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates ("Back in Black"); Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" and Elvis Presley's "Trouble" ("Whole Lotta Rosie").
The brothers' emphasis on basic thrills has often been slammed in print as base instinct. AC/DC's first appearance in this magazine, a review of their 1976 U.S. debut, High Voltage, ended this way: "Stupidity bothers me. Calculated stupidity offends me." In fact, AC/DC do play calculated music. Malcolm and Angus have thrown out the stuff they don't want to hear in rock & roll: polish and frills. "When I was young and first heard harmonies, I thought, 'That's too nice,' "Angus says, sneering. "The Beach Boys always reminded me of the nice kids in school." Rudd, 54, keeps unyielding 4/4 time in every tune, mostly on his snare, kick drum and high-hat cymbal. "I'm not repressing skills," says the drummer, who is from Melbourne and, except from 1983 to 1994, has played with AC/DC since 1974. "Most drummers are scared to try this." Williams, 58, the band's other Englishman, who joined in 1977, freely admits that he plays "the same thing in every song, for the most part. In AC/DC's music, the song is more important than any individual's bit in it."
Angus confesses that, once the tour starts, he will miss that chair. "For me, this is probably the best time, playing and rehearsing. I can sit and enjoy the buildup with everyone else. Because once we're onstage, for me, it goes so quick. It's like I go on, and, shit, off I go. That bit of me is gone. The next thing I know, I'm backstage. I'm done. In between, I don't know where my fucking brains are."
There is another toothy smile. "They ain't on this planet, I can tell you."
Ask Malcolm and Angus a straight question – "Who runs AC/DC?" – and you get a straight answer. "We both do," Malcolm says immediately. "Because we were there from the start," Angus chips in right away. "It's mainly that. We've lived it from the beginning."
"They are determined lads in everything they do," says Johnson, who sang with a moderately successful English band, Geordie, in the Seventies and owned a successful car-roofing business in Newcastle, England, when he auditioned for AC/DC in the spring of 1980, a few weeks after Scott died. "Everything" Johnson says again, emphatically. "You can't change their minds. I've tried. If I say, 'I don't think we should do this gig, there's snow on the road, it's dangerous,' they say, 'But the kids got the tickets.' 'We could fuckin' kill ourselves going up that mountain pass.' 'Rut the kids got the tickets.' I say, 'I know, we can go tomorrow night.' They say, 'Nah, Johivo, they've got 'em for tonight.'"
Steve Rarnett, Co-chairman of Columbia Records, was AC/DC's co-manager from the mid-Eighties until the mid-Nineties. "They wanted to do things on their own terms," he says of the brothers. "That was important to them. At the end of the day, they had a very clear idea of the road they wanted to go down." The Youngs have licensed their music to the U.S. military for use in recruitment ads. "But a car thing, no," Malcolm says sharply. The band has partnered with Wal-Mart and MTV to produce an AC/DC edition of the interactive video game Rock Band, yet Malcolm and Angus refuse to allow AC/DC songs to be sold as MP3S.
Even George ran into a brick wall while he and Vanda were producing AC/DC's 1988 album Blow Up Your Video. Malcolm had long been a heavy drinker. (Angus, in contrast, is a teetotaler.) But during those sessions, George says, "I saw the signs. Malcolm had a problem. I said if he didn't get his act together, I was out of there. I don't recall it having any effect." George notes that he and his brothers come from stubborn stock. "In our family, if we have a problem, we deal with it ourselves. There's no point in people telling us we gotta stop this or that."
After the record was finished, just as AC/DC were about to tour the U.S. behind it, Malcolm abruptly decided to quit drinking and left the band for several months. (He is still sober today.) "I was not surprised," George says. "When Malcolm puts his mind to something, he does it." Angus is the same: He chose to go ahead with the shows, with the brothers' nephew Stevie on guitar. After all, the kids had the tickets.
Williams believes Angus "felt adrift without Malcolm" on that tour. "Their connection is quite profound. They may tell you that's nuts," he adds, laughing. "But to watch those two play guitar, just jamming, they know what they're going to play before they even play it."
Malcolm, born January 6th, 1953, and Angus, born March 31st, 1955, are the youngest of William and Margaret Young's eight children – seven brothers and a sister, also named Margaret. George is six years older than Malcolm, and the oldest sibling, Steven, was 22 when Angus arrived. Another brother, Alexander, was the family's first rocker. He crossed paths with the Beatles while playing in clubs in Germany and, later, was one of the first songwriters signed to the Beatles' Apple publishing company.
After World War II, the Australian government instituted an immigration-assistance program to fill jobs and populate the country. Frustrated by the strains of postwar working-class life in Glasgow, the Youngs took up the offer. Their arrival in Sydney in 1963 was wet and miserable. "They had us in these tin huts, and it rained, relentlessly," Malcolm remembers. "When you got up in the morning, there was two inches of water in the hut and black worms swimming through it." They were stuck there for six weeks. Two years later, George was making hit records with the Easybeats, and the Youngs' house in a Sydney suburb was a magnet for besotted teenage girls. Once, Angus came home from school and found the place under siege, the front door blocked. He had to go around the corner, through a neighbor's house and over a back fence to get inside.
"But within our family, there was none of that crap," Malcolm says. "It was just down to life." His father, a gas fitter, insisted his sons take up a trade. When Malcolm left school at 15, he got a job as a mechanic in a bra factory. Angus quit at 15 as well and worked as an apprentice in a printing shop. To this day, they refer to their band in workingman's terms. "I've never felt like a pop star – this is a nine-to-five sort of gig," Malcolm says of AC/DC. "It comes from working in the factories, that world. You don't forget it."
"I look at it this way – I got this far," Angus declares bluntly. "I didn't have any great prospects for a career, with the education I had. When I started doing this, I thought, 'You gotta give it 200 percent.' Because it was your survival. It was the job, what was going to put food on the table."
Before starting AC/DC, Malcolm and Angus played in separate bands for a while. Malcolm was in a psychedelic-pop group coincidentally named the Velvet Underground. They had no connection to the American Velvet Underground. And they were "poseurs," Malcolm says with a snort. The brothers also did some early session work for George. But since then, the brothers have rarely played with other guitarists in public, and they've never had guest guitarists play on an AC/DC record. When pressed, they recall only one instance when they physically fought each other: in the parking lot outside an Australian radio station, because Angus refused to wear the school uniform to impress a program director. Angus began wearing the suit onstage in the spring of 1974, when the band decided to try some costumes to get attention. His sister Margaret made the first suit, using one of Angus' original school blazers. She also reportedly came up with the idea, inspired by the way Angus, as a boy, would race home from school and reach, right away, for his guitar, playing while still in his uniform. Angus also wore a gorilla costume and a Superman get-up at early shows. The suit, though, got the biggest laughs and quickly became his trademark.
But at the radio station, Angus says, "I saw all these straight people in there and thought, 'They're not going to get this.' I said, 'I ain't puttin' on that fuckin' uniform.' Malcolm said, 'You promised you would.' Then me and him are scrappin'. " The brothers crack up in unison as Angus tells the story. "In the end, I did it," Angus says. "We go in there, and the guy says, 'Well, I think your record's shit.' Malcolm puts his cigarette out on his desk, gets up and says, 'Bye.'" "
Angus has had a few swings at me, maybe two or three times in our whole career," Malcolm says, grinning at his brother. "But then it's done, and it's not gonna drag on, because it's not worth it. We have to stick together. And we know that."
One afternoon, a few weeks before the release of Black Ice, Malcolm and Angus sit side by side in a New York hotel. They are smoking, of course, and telling war stories, like the last-minute booking they once got opening for Johnny Winter. "It was a blues audience," Angus says. "They were all out there for him. But I got an electric shock that night. They liked that: 'Hey, the little guy's lighting up.'"
There are tales of dodging bottles at Aussie pub shows and quick getaways from clubs in remote bush country where the audience came with its own artillery. "We had to fly through the window one night," Malcolm says, looking at Angus. "Remember, in south Australia? There were all these guns. We were shitting ourselves to get out of there." Malcolm recalls a corny photo shoot set up by an ex-manager at the prison in Melbourne where the outlaw Ned Kelly was hanged in 1880: "We had to put our necks through the noose on the gallows. We thought, 'Fuckin' hell, what if the fuckin' door drops?'"
And there are plenty of Bon Scott yarns, mostly involving drinking, cursing and a rowdy good time. Angus remembers playing in an Australian town where the local council made the band post an insurance bond before the show. "If we did anything bad," Angus explains, "we would lose the bond. It was more than we were getting for the gig. Anyhow, Bon goes out there and says, 'Let's get this over with quick fuck, shit, piss...' And that was it – our money gone."
There was also the band's after-show party on one U.S. tour in a cabin with a gang of Hells Angels. "They had their own bootleg whiskey – stills out there with this stuff," Malcolm says. Scott was there until midafternoon the next day. But Scott had a gift for making friends over a bottle, anywhere, anytime. "He's playing pool, telling jokes, drinking the same rotgut these guys there are drinking – he's wild, just like them," Malcolm says. "By the end, they're like, 'Don't go!'"
AC/DC had just cracked the Top 20 in America with 1979's Highway to Hell when Scott died. He was 33 years old, and was in AC/DC for less than six years, replacing their first singer, Dave Evans, in 1974. But in that time, Scott was a perfect foil – with his rough, nasal howl and carnal-pirate bravado – to Angus' little-devil conniptions. Onstage, Scott typically wore nothing but tight jeans and the tattoos running up his arms, and much of what he sang he knew from experience, like the Tasmanian woman he immortalized in "Whole Lotta Rosie" ("42-39-56/You could say she's got it all!"). "When I saw his first gig with the guys," George says, "I thought, 'He is it, what they need.' He was Captain Jack Sparrow."
Joe Perry recognized something else in Scott, up close. "Bon had so many miles on him," Perry says. "You could tell when he sang, 'I'm on a highway to hell' – he was there, man."
Six and a half years older than Malcolm, Ronald Belford Scott was, like the Youngs, born in Scotland and moved to Australia as a boy, growing up in Perth, where he worked on a fishing boat after leaving school. He had been in and out of two semisuccessful Australian bands, the Valentines and Fraternity, when he met AC/DC – as their driver at a gig in Adelaide. "Shortly after he joined," George says, "he told me it was the best thing he had ever done in his musical life." Scott was also AC/DC's biggest fan.
"We just want to make the walls cave in and the ceiling collapse," Scott told me in late 1978. "Music is meant to be played as loudly as possible, really raw and punchy, and I'll punch out anyone who doesn't like it the way I do." Scott smiled as he said it – with a challenging gleam in his eye.
But Williams, who roomed with Scott on tour, says the singer was not a brawler or a destroyer, "apart from the odd glass. You'd hear it break, and then this cackle of a laugh you couldn't miss." In AC/DC, Malcolm says, Scott was "like the dad. He was only a few years older than us, but he had that thing – he could sort something out with two words. When we were living in Melbourne, in the tough times, he'd come wake you up, with coffee: 'C'mon, get up, get your ass out here.' He loved life."
On the night he died, Scott had been with the Youngs in a London rehearsal room working on material for AC/DC's next album. "He said, 'I'm going to see some friends,' " Malcolm says. "And that was when it happened."
Malcolm and Angus talk about Scott now the way they talk about everything else, including their music, their success and the way they run the band – with a relaxed frankness and emotional distance. They laugh readily but seem reluctant to expose deeper feelings. Williams suspects that the Youngs were seriously shaken by Scott's death "but didn't show it. It's not in their characters. They carried their grief within them and just got down to business." Barely four months after Scott's passing, Johnson played his first concerts as AC/DC's new singer.
But when asked if he ever wonders what Scott would be like now, in his 60s, with AC/DC, Malcolm briefly lets his guard down. He mentions a dream he once had about Scott: "He was walking through this park, and I'm in there, talking to Bon, telling him all the things that he missed.
"It was weird," Malcolm says. "I've never forgotten him."
Angus is a self-confessed "aspirin junkie." He's been one since he was a kid. "My mother would put 'em in milk for me," he says, "for an earache, a toothache. Usually it was on a school day, made sure it got me out the door." He still takes "a hell of a lot of aspirin," particularly before he goes onstage. He also has a supply of oxygen standing by at every show.
"Your shoulders, your neck, your knees," he says, checking off a few of his body parts that pay the price on an AC/DC tour. "I get the odd cut, bang my head. I've lost many a toenail. I've done a lot of miles in my shoes."
But Angus says that he and Malcolm have never seriously discussed quitting the road or recording as AC/DC: "We just do it. The worst thing is if you start thinking about it. When I'm at home, if I see something we've done, a bit of a show or something, I get tired just looking at it. I feel like asking myself, 'Can you just stand still for a little bit? You're wearing me out.'"
When AC/DC are not recording or touring, they are spread out across most of the globe. Malcolm has homes outside London and in Australia. (He is married and has a son and daughter, both in their 20s.) Angus lives with his Dutch wife, Ella, in a small town in Holland. (He has no children but says, turning to Malcolm, "I can borrow his.") Rudd lives on a boat in New Zealand, while Williams and Johnson are practically neighbors. They live a hundred miles apart on the west coast of Florida and socialize a lot together.
Given that they are in a band that rivals Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in career record sales and still sells out arenas and stadiums around the world, Malcolm and Angus do not flaunt their wealth – they respectively arrive at rehearsal in plain leather and denim jackets. And they like their privacy. They don't turn up in paparazzi photos and they mostly hang out with each other, periodically meeting at Malcolm's home in England to share home demos and work on riffs. The only thing Malcolm says about his house is that it's "in one of those green areas with all the trees" – and it looks like "a gangster's house." Angus doesn't give up much about his life away from the band, other than that the village where he lives is near the German border and that a big moment in his day is a walk to a nearby garage to buy cigarettes. "You can see every curtain opening, following him up the road," Malcolm says. The neighbors leave him alone, Angus says. "Rut they kind of look at me – 'There goes that little tramp again.'"
Johnson, who comes from the same struggling working-class background as the Youngs, talks about money with similar reluctance. "We can buy things we couldn't before – with cash," he says. "You don't have a guy knocking at the front door asking for weekly payments. I guess that's the best way to say it."
He also suggests that AC/DC's current tour could be his last. "It's not that I want to give in," says Johnson, who is 61 and has a second career as an accomplished auto racer. "But there's a time when you say, 'I'm gonna give it one more try.' You shouldn't go out there and have people say, 'You should have seen them 10 years ago, but God bless 'em.' I hate that."
Angus makes another of those toothy grins when he hears about Johnson's comment: "He can say that five times a day: 'Oh, I'm an old man.' Then another day, he says, 'C'mon, lads!' There are times when I go, 'Shit, how old am I now?' Then I remember – I enjoy this as much as any one else."
"My wife's mother came up to me once and said, 'How long are you going to be doing this?' " Malcolm says. "I told her, 'I don't know, two or three years.' I thought, we'll be over by then." He makes a "what was I thinking?" face. "You always underestimate – rather than be disappointed."
"It's not going to go on forever," Angus concedes. "But if you're in the thick of doing something, stopping is the last thing on your mind." He pauses. "And if you do finish, you want to do it well. You'd like to make something good.
"We've never been a band," he says, "that's come on and said, 'Get up and clap.' It's up to us to do something. And if you like it, then you clap."