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.
Music also ran in the Young family. Malcolm cites his second-oldest brother, John, as a big guitar influence. Another brother, George, was a founding member of Sixties Aussie pop sensations the Easybeats ("Friday on My Mind"). He later formed a production team with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda, and the two still record as Flash and the Pan. They also produced the first four AC/DC LPs.
Malcolm and Angus followed suit, taking up guitars and forming their own bands with little success until they decided to join forces in 1973. From the very beginning, the band was called AC/DC, and Angus' gonzo stage act was part of the show. George even encouraged Angus to get wild in the studio. During the sessions for the group's second U.S. album, Let There Be Rock, amps started blowing up in the middle of one Angus solo, but George made him keep playing. "There was no way," a deadpan George explains, "we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up." Angus also experimented with several different stage costumes in the early days – a gorilla suit, a Zorro outfit, even a "Super-Ang" get-up – but the school uniform was a natural, since he was only sixteen at the time.
The Youngs went through several drummers and bass guitarists, finally settling on Phil Rudd in '74 and Englishman Cliff Williams three years later. Their original singer was given notice after two months when they discovered Bon Scott, a native Scotsman who was originally hired in Adelaide as the band's driver. Thirteen years Angus' senior, Scott sang with a lecherous growl that sounded like Tom Waits at 78 rpm, and he was the spitting image of the songs he sang. Onstage, he was usually dressed in nothing but faded jeans that looked like they had been poured on and tattoos that ran up and down both arms. AC/DC's first English tour in 1976 was billed as the Lock Up Your Daughters tour in honor of Bon's animal sexuality.
Angus admits being deeply affected by Scott's death, which came in the middle of rehearsals for the new album. "I was sad for Bon. I didn't even think about the band. We'd been with Bon all that time; we'd seen more of him than his family did." Malcolm adds that the thought of quitting never crossed his mind. "I thought, 'Well, fuck this, I'm not gonna sit around mopin' all fuckin' year.' So I just rang up Angus and said, 'Do you wanna come back and rehearse?' This was about two days afterward."
"And I'm sure," Angus continues, "if it had been one of us, Bon would have done the same."
Brian Johnson does not consider himself a singer. "I'm not even a screamer," he insists, despite evidence to the contrary on Back in Black. "It's just that when I go onstage, I feel it. That's all I can do." Even Angus Young concedes, "I'm a rotten guitar player if I'm standing still," although he'd like to see a few of the big-name guitarists do better. "I know Robert Fripp can't play twelve bars."
But if it is not technical prowess, then what is it about AC/DC and the barbaric sound of such albums as Powerage and the live If You Want Blood You've Got It that appeals to the average rock & roll Joe? Johnson has a theory.
"The most important thing is, the band poses no threat to the kids," he reasons, speaking into a bottle of Löwenbräu in a glitzy hotel bar shortly after the Milwaukee show. "The band poses no threat onstage and doesn't look down at them. They know it would be so easy for those roles to be reversed, for Brian Johnson to be in that audience, for Malcolm Young to be in that audience and for those kids to be in Malcolm's or my place.
"They know the band's worked for all of five years, man, taken all the shit just the same as the kids have taken all the shit, and they know the band doesn't have a snobby attitude, doesn't try to change just to be clever or get in the press with Britt Ekland."
Johnson is probably right. For all the critics' malicious barking about bad taste and lack of talent, AC/DC have gone from an Australian bar band to a major headlining concert attraction with only those fans to cheer them on. The reviewers will say what they will, but Johnson has a little taste test he would like to try on a few of them anyway.
"I'd like to lock 'em up in a cell with AC/DC music for a week," he cackles. "They'll be crying 'Let me out, let me out!' Then I'll put on a week's worth of disco music – and I'll bet you a pound to a pinch of shit they'll be hung by their own belts. With AC/DC, at least they'll come out singing the choruses."
This story is from the October 30th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.
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