For all the critical flack AC/DC has taken over the years for their sometimes formulaic, three-chord, blues-influenced heavy metal, “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black” still perennially top lists of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made. The former — the band’s last record with original vocalist Bon Scott, who died in February 1980 after a drinking binge — put AC/DC on the map in the U.S. and began a decade-long crusade by First Amendment revisionists to censor lyrics containing any references to the devil. The following year, Brian Johnson — whom Scott had once seen perform with the band Geordie — joined the group and AC/DC recorded the Scott-tribute “Back in Black.” Once again, right-wingers were outraged by songs like the suicide-glorifying “Shoot to Thrill,” the overtly-sexual “Let Me Put My Love Into You” and another devil-related tune, “Hells Bells.” For their part, AC/DC were thrilled by the controversy, which helped make “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” their first and only No. 1 album in the U.S.
While that album was the band’s commercial peak, AC/DC is still hammering away sixteen years later. But they’ve also taken some time to look back. In between writing material for their 13th album, lead guitarist Angus Young and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young (his brother) sat down to sift through vintage AC/DC material to put together the group’s first box set. Rather than regurgitate four “best of” discs, the brothers decided to again pay tribute to Scott — arguably the catalyst for the band’s most prolific era. The five-disc collection, named “Bonfire,” contains early rarities, the live soundtrack to the 1979 film “Let There Be Rock,” previously unreleased live material from 1976 and all of “Back in Black.” Calling from England, Angus Young talked his band’s history, Scott’s living legacy and the musical kindling that became “Bonfire.”
What do you think Bon Scott would have thought about this box set?
I think he would have got a good kick out of it, because he used to always say to Malcolm, “If ever I become a big shot and I gotta make a solo record, I’ll call it ‘Bonfire.'”
It’s been more than 17 years since he died. Do you still think about the years he was in the band?
Yeah, sure. As a band, it’s your history and you reflect back on it, and sometimes you laugh. Sometimes you’re somewhere and you remember something. What he did — he could be an adventurous-type person.
Were you surprised how he died?
There were times you could say he lived on the edge, but I was still pretty young. He himself was not an old guy and I suppose in those times you think you’re immortal.
Not a lot of time elapsed between the time Bon died and the time “Back in Black” was released in July 1980. Do you regret not taking more time off?
At the time, we were pretty much shocked. And it was my brother that picked me up a bit from [his death]. And he said to me, “Let’s get together and just continue what we were doing.” We were writing songs at the time Bon died. He said, “Let’s continue doing that.” It kept you going and was good therapy, I suppose.
I always thought it was interesting that Bon had an indirect hand in picking his own successor.
He had pointed [Brian] out, especially to me. Me and Bon were great rock & roll fans. Bon would always come in and give me a record of Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard — something that he bought in a record store — and if I saw one, I’d pick it up for him. Late at night, if we had a little get together, we always had on those records.
He always told me the story of when he first saw Brian [on stage].
And you thought about those conversations when it came time to pick his successor?
Brian’s name came up right away. The guy who was managing us at the time he said, “What do you wanna do? Are you gonna continue on?” He suggested a list of people. At the time I said, “Maybe check out this guy [Brian] and see what he’s doing.” Maybe in hindsight, it was [Bon’s] way of saying it’ll never happen to me.
Most people consider either “Back in Black” or “Highway to Hell” to be the best AC/DC album. Do you have a favorite?
I like the album “Powerage” [from 1978]. I think because it’s got a good mix for me. You’ve got rock tunes, but you’ve got a few things in there that are different. I always thought that album set us apart from a lot of other bands. I know a lot of people judge success on numbers. For us, that was always a great record.
So what’s next for AC/DC? I understand you’re working on a new album.
That’s right. That’s what we’ve been in the process of doing. We had been in the middle of writing it when the box set idea [came up] … this year we owed it [to Eastwest Records]. We had to deliver.
Hopefully we’ll get it out for next year, otherwise we’ll be another year older. [laughs]
If I were to name an old AC/DC song that you no longer perform, could you remember your guitar solo?
I could try.
How ’bout “Live Wire?”
Yeah, sure. You want me to hum it?