Decades from now, historians will look back at 2016 as a time when the fabric of the universe broke down and chaos reigned. It wasn’t just the year when David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Prince, and Leonard Cohen died, England voted to break free from the European Union, and Donald Trump pulled the biggest surprise victory in the history of American politics; it was also a time when AC/DC parted ways with Brian Johnson under murky circumstances and brought in Axl Rose to fill the void.
The saga began on March 7th, 2016, when AC/DC announced that the remainder of their American tour would be postponed because Brian Johnson was experiencing significant hearing loss. “Tomorrow’s show in Atlanta through Madison Square Garden in New York, NY in early April will be made up later in the year,” they said, “likely with a guest vocalist.”
The words “guest vocalist” sent shockwaves through the hard-rock community. Did that mean Johnson was out forever? Some random person is really just going to step in and this tour will keep going? Is this real life or the movie Rock Star? Things got weirder on April 16th when they sent out another press release saying that Axl Rose would be fronting the band for the makeup dates. “AC/DC band members would like to thank Brian Johnson for his contributions and dedication to the band throughout the years,” they wrote. “We wish him all the best with his hearing issues and future ventures.”
Come again? “We wish him all the best with his future ventures”? Are they really talking about the frontman of one of the greatest rock groups of all time in such a casual, blasé way? Why hasn’t Brian himself addressed any of this? Is his departure truly voluntary or is there something we’re not being told? We weren’t the only ones taken aback by the band’s approach to this massive change and just three days later, the group released a letter from Johnson to try and undo the damage.
“I want personally to explain the reason because I don’t believe the earlier press releases sufficiently set out what I wanted to say to our fans or the way in which I thought it should be presented,” he wrote. “I wish to assure our fans that I am not retiring. My doctors have told me that I can continue to record in studios and I intend to do that. For the moment, my entire focus is to continue medical treatment to improve my hearing. I am hoping that in time my hearing will improve and allow me to return to live concert performances. While the outcome is uncertain, my attitude is optimistic. Only time will tell.”
In the meantime, the group hit the road with Axl Rose. Here’s video of them doing “Back in Black” in Denmark on June 12th, 2016. His tenure in the group lasted just 23 shows. When it wrapped, bassist Cliff Williams announced he was retiring from the group. That meant that Angus Young was the sole remaining member of the Back in Black lineup still around even though all five of them were still present as recently as 2010.
There were rumors that Angus and Axl were going to record a new album shortly after the tour ended, but that never happened. Instead, the group went completely off the grid as Rose returned his attention to Guns N’ Roses. Earlier this year, rumors began swirling that Johnson, drummer Phil Rudd, and Williams had all returned to the fold and were recording a new album in Vancouver. Photographs have even hit the internet of all of them near their usual recording studio in town. If all this is true and AC/DC do support the new album with a tour, the insane events of 2016 will just seem like some hazy fever dream to most fans. This turn of events might also play a small role in returning balance to the universe — and offering a sign that the chaos of 2016 isn’t permanent.