During every Grammy season there is a squabble over the meaning of the term “hard rock.” For the exact definition, see AC/DC.
Australian rockers AC/DC formed in 1973 with the goal of combining the screaming of Little Richard with the swagger of the Rolling Stones, but, well, harder. In fact, never succumbing to that pesky need to evolve musically, lead guitarist Angus Young — the man who, in his trademark schoolboy uniform, invented head-banging — and his mates make it their mission to make sure every AC/DC song rocks, all the way through.
It wasn’t always easy. In 1980, just as AC/DC were breaking through in the U.S. on the strength of their Highway to Hell album, singer Bon Scott choked on his own vomit and died after a drinking binge. As Angus reflects below, he and big brother and rhythm guitarist Malcolm faced a big decision . . . and they chose rock.
How did you hear about your election into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
A buddy of mine called up and said, “You’ve been inducted.” And I said, “What, they’re taking the little guys in the army now?” Of course, this was early in the morning, so my first thought was that they were taking us to war, and I thought it wasn’t such a bad idea — you can get more little guys into a tank.
When you started this band, could you have imagined that there would be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and that you would be in it?
I never thought we’d be put into any sort of historical thing. When we started as a band it was a day-to-day thing. You sort of played a gig, you got your money and thought, “OK, where’s tomorrow’s gig?” You never thought you’d get past a summer.
What do you think is the key to you guys still being around twenty-five-plus years later?
I think it’s mainly the fans. They probably get more of a buzz out of it than us, so that’s kept us going. And they always seem happy — seeing us is like putting on old shoes for them.
What do you think Bon’s reaction to this whole thing would have been?
He would have had a giggle . . . and a drink. He’d have said, “Hey, I’ll do anything for a free beer.”
How were you able to carry on after his death?
Well, Bon was a frontman, and a very exciting frontman. Plus, offstage he was just a character you knew and loved. We knew we could never replace that. My brother got me together to finish off the tracks we were working on at the time of his death. He said, “We’ll lock the doors, take the phone off the hook, and we can at least finish what we started.” And it was after that that the guy who was managing us at the time contacted us and said, “Have you any interest in hearing anyone?” And we thought about it, and that made us even more depressed. But then we thought, “Well, we’re gonna need someone to sing the songs.”
How did you find Brian Johnson?
Years before Bon had died, he and Malcolm and I had been listening to a couple of rock & roll records in Australia. Bon was a great fan of Little Richard, and he always said that for someone singing rock & roll, Little Richard was the icon. He told us a story about how he’d seen Brian in a club in London really belting out a Little Richard tune, and he said it always stuck with him. So we thought, “Well, we gotta look up that guy first.” And when we met Brian, he told us, “Yeah, I remember that show. I had appendicitis” [laughs].
If I had never heard AC/DC, how would you describe them?
Like Florida’s worst hurricane [laughs].
How many times have you seen people imitate your head-shaking?
Oh, jeez. It would be hard to count now. Nowadays when you turn on the TV and flip through the umpteen music channels you see a lot of head-shaking. You even see the girls doing it now, and they’re probably better to look at. [laughs]
What are some AC/DC tracks that when you hear now you still think you wouldn’t change a note?
“Back in Black.” It was a riff that Malcolm played. We had been touring on Highway to Hell, and he put the riff on a cassette and played it for me. It was just on a little acoustic guitar that Mal used to trail around with him. He said, “What do you think of that? Is it rubbish? Should I trash it?” So I said, “No, don’t trash it. If you’re gonna trash it, give it to me and I’ll say I wrote it” [laughs]. And “Highway to Hell” also. We were in Miami and we were flat broke. Malcolm and I were playing guitars in a rehearsal studio, and I said, “I think I have a good idea for an intro,” which was the beginning of “Highway to Hell.” And he hopped on a drum kit and he banged out the beat for me. There was a guy in there working with us and he took the cassette we had it on home and gave it to his kid, and his kid unraveled it [laughs]. Bon was good at fixing broken cassettes, and he pasted it back together. So at least we didn’t lose the tune.
Talk about your relationship with Malcolm.
I think when we were kids we fought like cats and dogs, and then when we started playing guitar it was even worse. He wouldn’t let me in his bedroom because he’d say, “Angus has got a photographic memory: Play a lick and he steals it.” Whenever I’d walk in the room, he’d say, “Get out!” Nowadays, for AC/DC, we’re always there on form. It’s the thing that keeps us from killing each other.
How did you come to be the lead guitarist and he rhythm?
We used to both play lead, but one day, Malcolm said, “You do it — it gets in the way of my drinking” [laughs]. He used to always push me out in front of the stage, saying, “People want to see a show, and that’s what you do so well.” And it’s probably due to when we were young, I kind of started playing in reverse; I was playing solos before I could play guitar chords. He started on rhythm and worked his way into guitar solos. But he’s also very competent at knocking out guitar licks. Some of the great licks, like that little flicky one at the beginning of “Back in Black,” I played, but it was mainly me copying what he had from that cassette. He always says, “The two of us together, we play as one.”
What can you tell us about the songs you’ve been writing for the new album?
Well, needless to say, they’ll be toe-tappers.
Not a lot of ballads this time?
No ballads [laughs]. I think we’re just one of those bands that we know what we do best. When I was young and I would see bands playing, I would dig the rock & roll and get excited, but when they would start to take the pace down, my attention span would start going.
Do you plan to do AC/DC until you drop?
Well, not until we drop. I don’t want to get up there with a colostomy bag.