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AC/DC Refuses To Give Up and Rocks On

Australia's raunchiest rockers overcome the death of their lead singer with another hit LP and hell-raising tour

Cliff Williams, Malcolm Young, Simon Wright, Angus Young, of Brian Johnson of AC/DC
Bob King/Redferns
October 30, 1980

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.

The 100 Greatest Albums of the Eighties: AC/DC, Back in Black

"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."

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 womanizers – 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.

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