AC/DC Bleak Days and Black Rock

AC/DC Bleak Days and Black Rock
Without AC/DC, rock’n’roll would be pretty drab. Virtually everyone has been inspired — directly or indirectly — by the infectious tendencies of their anthemic party rock. Throughout their illustrious 35-year career, these Australian wildcards have left us chortling at the randy humour of "Big Balls,” drunkenly wailing along to the stirring chorus of "You Shook Me All Night Long,” trying to cop the riff to "Back In Black” and simply watching in awe as spastic guitarist Angus Young flits about the stage. Nevertheless, while AC/DC has one of popular music’s greatest track records, selling 200 million copies of their 15 studio releases (16th effort Black Ice is to be released by Columbia Records on October 20) and a catalogue filled with innumerable live albums, box sets, bootlegs, videos, films and so on, life has been more of a highway to hell than even this undemanding blues-inspired boogie band ever expected.

1963 to 1972
William and Margaret Young move from Glasgow, Scotland to Sydney, Australia with their eight kids including George (age 16), Malcolm (ten) and Angus (eight). George readily assimilates into Australia’s music scene, joining the Easybeats as a rhythm guitarist. One of the first Aussie rock bands to secure an international hit with "Friday On My Mind,” the Easybeats eventually become the country’s most successful act of the ’60s. Witnessing his older brother succeed, Malcolm quickly picks up the guitar with similar aspirations, with Angus not far behind. Angus worships and frequently mimics Malcolm, who is in turn merely idolizing George. "Hearing a lot of early rock’n’roll records from a very young age was a huge influence,” says Angus now. "With seven boys and one sister, there was always a lot of music in the house. A few of my brothers were playing instruments so it was from hearing that, coupled with discovering early rock, which triggered me to pick up a guitar and try to pick out the notes.” The brothers ramble through a variety of garage bands, honing their chops.

While Angus remains content with the odd pick-up gig, Malcolm grows weary of contributing to other bands and wants to form one of his own. Indelibly influenced by the blues and straightforward rock teaching of George, the musical direction is obvious: no-frills, four chord rock’n’roll. He enlists local musicians Larry Van Kriedt (bass), Colin Burgess (drums) and Dave Evans (vocals) to realize that goal. Hoping to flesh out the overall sound, Malcolm approaches Angus, who accepts immediately. "Malcolm was playing in a lot of local bands so he had good experience,” Angus says. "One day he was putting together a new band and wanted another instrument. He said, ‘Why don’t you come and play the lead work?’ I felt kinda chuffed, ‘cause normally the two of us fought like cat and dog. My father said that with the two of us together, we’d be lucky to last a week. Malcolm used to spend most of his time kicking me out of his room whenever I’d go in there to see what records he had.” Hunting for a name, the brothers inadvertently stumble across a common acronym for an electricity (alternating current/direct current) on the back of older sister Margaret’s sewing machine. They feel this reference to power and energy is symbolic of their musical intentions. By November the line-up is finalized and the newly dubbed AC/DC is slotted for their first performance at a pub on New Year’s Eve.

The Young brothers, searching for the right band chemistry, continually replace members, a setback to the band’s tightness. But having abandoned other employment prospects, they’re depending on the band’s success. "Because the two of us quit our jobs, we realized we’d better make it work,” Young reflects. "We really went at it to make sure we’d have a really good rock’n’roll band. Along the way you just try to find like-minded people. That’s the hardest part. We all have that one thing in common: the band. We try to do everything as a band. We all have to kind of agree what we want to do, be it tour or make records.” It’s also a period of transition in terms of the band’s overall look and style, and they bandy about a variety of stage costume ideas. In biographer Clinton Walker’s 2001 book Highway to Hell: The Life and Times of AC/DC Legend Bon Scott, Angus admits to donning a Zorro mask, a gorilla outfit and a Superman parody "Super-Ang” outfit before eventually being prodded into his now-iconic uniform from alma mater Ashfield Boys High School. "My sister inspired me to get into the school suit,” he says. "She was saying, ‘You know what’d be really cool? You should get into your school suit. That would be a great gimmick.’ I was going, ‘Whoa…I don’t know about that,’ but of course Malcolm thought it was a great idea and then my older brother George heard it and thought it was wild. I had to do that. I was always very shy when I played. I’d try to sneak back to the amplifiers; more introverted. But the first time I put on that school suit, I thought I’d better get out there and keep moving, more out of fear than anything. I thought if I just stood there in that school suit and I mess up, I’m gonna look like the biggest jerk in the world. So I just kept moving, especially playing in a bar. I thought, ‘If I look like a mug, they’re gonna bottle me!’ Little did I know I’d have to wear it for the next 35 years. But I’ve saved the problem of what to wear onstage… I just have to pick a colour.” The rest of the band steps back when Angus comes out of his shell; he inevitably becoming the show with Three Stooges-esque floor spins, audience mooning and Chuck Berry-inspired duck walking, which become as memorable as the uniform itself.

The Youngs turn their attention to singer Dave Evans; they feel he is too entrenched in glam rock to properly represent AC/DC. After recording one single, he is sacked and manager Dennis Laughlin fills the front-man role temporarily until another Scot living on Aussie turf, Ronald Belford "Bon” Scott, happens upon a gig, prodded into attending by friend George Young. Having served plenty of time in bands himself, the 18 year-old Scott relates to AC/DC’s energy. Wanting to just be a part of the band, he originally signs on as their driver before ultimately appealling to become a member. As Paul Stenning notes in 2005’s AC/DC—Two Sides To Every Glory, Scott’s requests to be their drummer are nixed by the Youngs, who are more desperate for a singer than skinsman. By September, Scott is fronting AC/DC, his rough-hewn appearance, macho attitude and distinctive nasal voice a perfect fit with the band’s own brazenness. "[Evans] wasn’t really a rock-type singer. We were lucky when we met Bon Scott. We’d been playing in his town and he came and saw us. He thought it was the wildest thing he’d seen in a long time. He wanted to be a part of the band and it all came together from that point on,” Angus recalls. AC/DC quickly secures a deal with Australia-based record label Albert Productions, thanks in part to Scott’s wild, forthright stage manner but more due to the influence of George and his partner, former Easybeats member Harry Vanda. A hit making writing and production team for Albert Productions, Vanda and Young have some clout with the label, easily working the fledgling band into its roster via an understanding that the duo will have a heavy hand in guiding them. Jumping into the studio in late 1974, Vanda and Young produce AC/DC’s debut full-length High Voltage (one of the first rock albums to feature bagpipes, played by Scott) and will go on to man the boards for four more: 1976’s T.N.T. and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, 1977’s Let There Be Rock and 1978’s Powerage. By the time the band records High Voltage, the line-up — aside from Malcolm and Angus — is vastly different than the New Year’s Eve roster from mere months before: Scott on vocals, George on bass and drummer Tony Currenti, but AC/DC’s line-up woes are far from over. By the completion of High Voltage, bassist Mark Evans is hired.

1975 to 1978
High Voltage is released to Australia in February 1975 with little ceremony; it’s only released internationally, on Atlantic Records, in May 1976. AC/DC’s first four albums will be delayed to the rest of the world, and subject to convoluted revised track listings that merge albums and omit tracks at Atlantic’s behest. Finally reaching North American shelves, Rolling Stone decries High Voltage as an "all-time low” for hard rock. Undaunted, the quintet touring Europe relentlessly; they spend so much time there, they relocated to London in 1977 just prior to recording Let There Be Rock. T.N.T., the first album with drummer Phil Rudd, and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap fare only marginally better than High Voltage upon initial release, but ultimately stand the test of time, featuring some of AC/DC’s most energetic, enduring songs. It is not until Let There Be Rock that AC/DC truly begin to gel. The first album to feature their lightning bolt logo, it is a cohesive blend of clear-cut influence commingling with confidence and originality. Tunes including, "Go Down,” "Whole Lotta Rosie,” "Overdose” and the title track establish AC/DC’s own direct sound and the album as a whole manages to capture the vitality and energy of their live performances. Backstage drama continues when, unable to overcome mounting tensions with Angus, Evans splits during the Let There Be Rock tour. Little is said about the affair publicly, though Evans later tells Clinton Williams that, "both me and the band are better for it.” Another Young brother, Alex, is brought in on bass, but the stint is short-lived when they hire Brit Cliff Williams, who’s been stagnating in his own band, Bandit, despite a major label deal. After Evans leaves the band, Rudd is the only Australian-born member of AC/DC.

While not instantly gratifying, these four years blend together, serving to hone AC/DC as a dominant live act thanks to endless touring and a win-‘em-over-one-by-one approach. Similarly, it will manage to instil humility in members throughout their career. "Nothing happened overnight,” Angus recalls now. "Every country we went into, we started at the bottom. We knew that because the music we were playing and the attitude we had, we knew we’d be at the bottom and have to work our way up. In all the years, it was like we’d move a little bit each time. Sometimes we’d wonder, ‘Are we going anywhere at all?’ But in hindsight, all of the touring and work set us apart from a lot of other acts. We earned our wings. We were looking at some of the tours we’d done [recently] and we couldn’t believe the amount of dates we did with no breaks. Even when I look, I’m like, ‘Did I really do that many shows?’” Williams’ recorded debut with AC/DC, 1978’s Powerage has slightly less impact than its predecessor. Despite a marginal hit with only single "Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation,” it is generally considered yet another collection of refinements to the band’s attack. Nonetheless, it helps set the stage for what will become one of AC/DC’s — and rock music’s — most crucial albums of all time.

Realizing their best work is the result of collaboration, the Youngs and Scott squirrel away and hammer out ten album-worthy tracks by mid-January. The quintet once again heads back into Sydney’s Albert Studios to record demos for what will become Highway To Hell, the title purportedly culled from an off-the-cuff response by Angus to a journalist’s request for description of life in touring band. Working outside the Young/Vanda production team for the first time, they hire producer Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Rolling Stones) and by February, recording is underway at Miami’s Criteria Studios. Before a single song is completed, Kramer is fired and replaced by Robert John "Mutt” Lange (Boomtown Rats, Savoy Brown) and they relocate to London’s Roundhouse Studios. Highway To Hell is completed by April and released in July. Despite never officially announcing the reasons behind Kramer’s departure, the results with Lange speak for themselves. Songs are still energetic, dirty and abrasive but display far more maturity and cohesion; premeditated, tongue-in-cheek wryness over the band’s previous balls-out, explosive fury. Lange also manages to flesh things out, giving Highway To Hell a more dynamic, voluminous sound as opposed to the tinny, almost monophonic tendencies of earlier albums. Released on July 27, 1979, Highway To Hell becomes AC/DC’s best-selling album to date, initially moving more than a million copies. While not yet a household name outside of Australia, they garner some international attention, breaking through to radio rock fans via "Shot Down In Flames,” "If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” and the inimitable "Highway To Hell.” By 2007, Highway To Hell will have sold more than seven million copies, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will include the title track on their list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” While Highway To Hell is a critical and artistic success for AC/DC though, their best is yet to come. However, its greatness is to be fuelled by tragedy.

On February 18, hard-living Scott and mate Alistair Kinnear are out for a night of drinking at a London pub. In typical fashion, Scott exceeds his limit and Kinnear deposits him in the back seat of his car to sleep it off. The next morning, Kinnear struggles to rouse Scott, who is not breathing, then rushes him to King’s College Hospital. On February 19, six months after the release of AC/DC’s most successful album, Bon Scott is pronounced dead. His official death certificate cites acute alcohol poisoning and death by misadventure as the causes. Conspiracy theories about Scott’s death immediately emerge, ranging from accusations of heroin overdose to carbon monoxide poisoning via exhaust fumes redirected into the car (alternating between suicide and murder depending on the teller). The fact that Scott was asthmatic and London dipped below freezing — asthmatics are prey to extremely hot or cold temperatures — on that particular evening fuels the conspiracy mindset. Shocked and grieved by the news, AC/DC are at a loss as to how to proceed, feeling dissolution is the only option. "It’s a big thing because when you’re younger, you think you’re immortal,” Young says. "We were all quite young at the time and you don’t think anything like that can happen. You live things to the edge in a lot of ways. We’d play a lot and there was a lot of hard living. You’re pushing everything to the max. For us as a band, we thought that was it. It was done. Not to mention the personal impact. The amount of time we’d spent together was intense at that time because we’ve been criss-crossing the globe and doing a lot of touring from the bottom-up. Since he was 15, (Scott) had spent his life in bands and he had a heavy road life. At that point, we didn’t know what to do next. Actually, when we’d gone to his funeral, it was his father that said, ‘You should keep going.’ It was him — hopefully through Bon’s spirit — relaying it to us.”

Taking Charles Scott’s words to heart, AC/DC decide to continue; Malcolm and Angus resume writing and open auditions are held for Scott’s replacement. During auditions, one singer stands out, 33-year-old British native Brian Johnson. With his uniquely raspy voice and high-end register, as well as years of experience fronting glam-rock band Geordie as well as aa trademark look with his applejack cap, Johnson is the perfect successor to Scott’s throne. The band is instantly assuaged with Johnson’s casual attitude. "When it came time for his try-out, nobody could find [him],” chuckles Young. "They were saying this guy was coming in at one o’clock but he was playing pool downstairs in his rehearsal place. They had to go find him. He came in and he was a character but what impressed us most was that he had a great vocal range. After he left, he inspired us. He could hit Bon’s notes and that inspired writing for Back In Black

Johnson immediately takes to his new role, assisting in writing and arranging. By April, less than two months after Scott’s death, AC/DC is recording what will become Back In Black at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with Lange. Back In Black is finished by May and released on July 25, 1980, almost one year to the day after Highway To Hell. As a tribute to/in mourning of Scott, the album cover is all black. Once again, AC/DC is apprehensive. "We didn’t know how it would be received or even if it would be accepted,” Young admits. "So we gave it our best shot thinking that at least we’d finish what we’d started.” Back In Black receives top marks from critics and eventually is considered one of the most important albums in rock history. The songwriting team of Young, Young and Johnson deliver sophisticated albeit forthright songs in their distinctive fashion. Anthemnic tunes with rousing choruses such as "Hells Bells,” the title track and "You Shook Me All Night Long” are instant rock radio staples. Sonically, Lange tops his previous high-water mark with Highway To Hell, capturing crisp, forceful performances intensified by his vibrant production style. Back In Black eventually sells more than 20 million copies in the U.S. alone; by 2007, it’s sold more than 42 million worldwide — the second biggest selling album ever, after Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

1981 to 1989
Eager to capitalize on the success of Back In Black, AC/DC once again enlist Lange for 1981’s For Those About To Rock (We Salute You). It’s the first and only number one release for the band in the U.S. but also ends AC/DC’s hot streak for a number of years. Though widely revered, other than the title track and "Let’s Get It Up,” For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) fails to provide the sheer quantity of hits found on Back In Black. The Young brothers produce 1983’s Flick Of The Switch, attempting to recapture the live essence that dominated their earlier output. Rudd’s alcohol and drug consumption grow, becoming an issue with Malcolm, who presumes them to be symptoms of not having dealt with Scott’s death. Their relationship becomes vitriolic, resulting in physical violence during recording sessions. Session drummer B.J. Wilson is brought in to complete the album but his parts are scrapped. AC/DC eventually grab acquaintance Simon Wright, who sees the band through its least consequential years. Undaunted, the brothers again produce 1985’s Fly On The Wall but it lacks inspiration, has little impact and is panned by critics. AC/DC is approached by Stephen King to turn out a soundtrack for his 1986 film Maximum Overdrive, and they quickly assemble Who Made Who, an amalgamation of new songs, previously released tunes and instrumentals. Yet on the strength of its older, reputable songs, and a solid title track, it eventually sells five million copies in the U.S., surpassing For Those About To Rock (We Salute You). It’s not until 1988’s Blow Up Your Video that AC/DC are able to shake off the cobwebs. Once again returning to the Harry Vanda/George Young production team, Blow Up Your Video is the first album to live up to the success of For Those About To Rock (We Salute You). Tracks "Heatseeker” and "That’s The Way I Wanna Rock’N’Roll” are the only songs from this six-year period that will survive in the band’s later live sets. The Australian Recording Industry Association induct AC/DC into their Hall Of Fame. Ironically, after firing Rudd for booze issues a few years prior, Malcolm is forced to depart from the Blow Up Your Video world tour in order to address his own alcohol dependency. Nephew Stevie Young (son of older brother Alex) takes over rhythm guitar duties. Because of a striking resemblance to Malcolm, few fans really notice.

1990 to 1992
Having co-written much of AC/DC’s music since joining a decade earlier, Johnson is preoccupied with a lengthy divorce, and doesn’t participate in writing 1990’s The Razors Edge, leaving it to the Young brothers, who hire Aerosmith and Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairbairn. Malcolm is back and reinvigorated, but Wright departs to pound skins for Dio and former Uriah Heep drummer Chris Slade is brought in. He will be amicably released from service four years later when Malcolm reconciles with Rudd, who is deemed to have a better understanding of the band’s simple rock groove. Rudd’s return in 1994 marks the end of AC/DC’s line-up changes. Receiving great critical and fan praise, The Razors Edge reaches number two on U.S. album charts, spawns two hits ("Moneytalks” and "Thunderstruck”) and sells five million copies in the U.S.

1993 to 2001
In 1993, they write and record "Big Gun” with legendary producer Rick Rubin for Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Action Hero. They continue the successful collaboration on their next album, 1995’s Ballbreaker and Rubin prods them to return to their formative sound, bringing in the same vintage amplifiers and guitar strings utilized during their ‘70s sessions. In essence, he achieves what the Young brothers so desperately strived for on Flick Of The Switch and Fly On The Wall. Despite a lukewarm critical response, Ballbreaker sells two million copies. In 1997, a five-disc box set pays tribute to Bon Scott. Named after Scott’s running gag about what his solo album would be called, Bonfire is comprised of an expanded Let There Be Rock soundtrack, unreleased songs, in-studio live recordings and a remastered version of Back In Black, as well as booklet, backstage pass, key chain and guitar pick. Diehard fans ridicule the lack of content and inclusion of post-Scott effort Back In Black; the band defend it on the grounds that it’s the last of the unreleased Scott material and looks ahead to a new album. Delving further into their original influences, 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip features an even bluesier, less raucous AC/DC; George Young produces at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver. Stiff Upper Lip is looked upon favourably by media but sees more slippage sales-wise, just over one million sales. Yet the AC/DC brand remains a hot commodity, and they remain a top-grossing touring act. Despite having little connection with the band, the city of Leganes, Spain renames a street "Calle de AC/DC” on March 2, 2000, two weeks after Stiff Upper Lip’s release.

2002 to 2007
After almost 30 years with Atlantic Records and its various subsidiaries, AC/DC relocates to Sony Entertainment offshoot Epic in 2002. As a part of the deal, Sony Entertainment expands and re-releases the band’s back catalogue under the AC/DC Remasters mark and will deliver any future albums. By 2003, the majority of their albums are re-issued aside from Ballbreaker and Stiff Upper Lip, which receive the Remasters treatment in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Now elder statesmen, on March 10, 2003, the band are inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and four months later — July 30 — they perform alongside the Rolling Stones as a part of the Molson Canadian Rocks For Toronto Festival commonly known as SARS-Stock. The concert intended to combat negative publicity related to a citywide outbreak of S.A.R.S. (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) draws 500,000 attendees, breaking the record for largest paid music event in North American history. The band’s set is regularly cited as being the most engaging and entertaining of the event. Even Young fondly reminisces fondly on the moment: "From the moment we stepped into there — you can sense things coming in a building. What impressed me most was when we were going to the stage, an audience gives you a sensation. You can tell they’re gonna rock whether we’re on or not. For you, it’s rewarding because you’re just walking to the stage and you can already feel that no matter what you do, they’re gonna party. It’s great to feel that and on that day, we could feel that magic.” Melbourne, Australia honours AC/DC in October, 2004 by renaming the street utilized during shooting of a promotional video for 1975’s "It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” ACDC Lane. Finally, in the midst of working on forthcoming album Black Ice, AC/DC compiles the Plug Me In DVD set for release in October, 2007. A comprehensive retrospective dating back to the band’s high school days, the set is split evenly between the Scott and Johnson years.

In August, after years of skirting the digital issue, the band sign an agreement with Verizon Wireless to release their catalogue as full-album downloads but still have not made a move regarding iTunes. As of mid-September, both Sirius and XM Radio offer 24/7 AC/DC-exclusive stations playing songs and interviews spanning the band’s career. On October 20, 16th studio effort Black Ice, the first fresh AC/DC output in eight years, and the first with writing contributions from Johnson in almost two decades, is released. Recording again at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studios, this time with Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine), Young feels Black Ice’s 15 tracks are another return to the essential rock’n’roll that influenced the likes of Highway To Hell and Back In Black. "With the last couple of records before, they were ballsier, more blues-based. This time around, we were just picking out songs that were more rock-oriented. When you first start getting songs together and you pick songs like that, you tend to follow that theme. When you do a whole batch of new ideas, you sense the good rock tracks. [The writing process] is still the same probably because we can put our heads together but because Malcolm and are brothers, we can really nitpick each other. You can be very direct. You don’t have to worry about ego. You can say if something’s good or crap. Then again, we’re pretty much that way with everyone in the band at this point.” Stirring up controversy even before Black Ice’s release, AC/DC follows in the footsteps of Garth Brooks and the Eagles, giving big box corporation Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club exclusive sales rights to the album, a decision that leaves angers some supporters. Young skirts the issue, simply looking forward to the album’s reception and ensuing world tour. Even when it comes to calculating these future steps, however, he is guardedly concise. "We’re gonna be on the road for two years so that’s a long time gone,” he laughs. "That’s the one thing I’ve never tried to do: predict what we’ll get up to next.”

Essential AC/DC

Let There Be Rock (Atlantic, 1977)
While its precursors were stunning works of youthful vigour, it wasn’t until this fourth effort that AC/DC managed to flawlessly capture the hunger and passion of their live performance in a studio setting. Muscular and raunchy while still loose and catchy as all hell, each of these eight tracks has become a timeless classic. Let There Be Rock continually enthrals with a raw drive and unmatched hyperactivity; it barrels along like a freight train that threatens to derail yet miraculously prevails time and again.

Highway To Hell (Atlantic, 1979)
Their most cohesive effort, Highway To Hell is the perfect fusion of AC/DC’s bare bones rock’n’roll with unsubtle intimations of sleaze. Relentlessly hammering through ten tracks at a driving pace, the album is fuelled by singer Bon Scott’s wily humour, mature confidence and an aggressive rhythmic prowess that appeals to both primal instinct and intellectual fancy. From the incendiary title track to slinky closer "Night Prowler,” Highway To Hell is an unforgettable ride.

Back In Black (Atlantic, 1980)
Difficult as it is, when overlooking the absurd popularity of Back In Black and getting into the nitty-gritty of tracks such as "Given The Dog A Bone,” "Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” and "Shoot To Thrill,” one realizes that although featuring new singer Brian Johnson, this is still the same old AC/DC, albeit with ramped-up production and streamlined to stealthy sleekness. Decades after its release, Back In Black still boasts some of AC/DC’s finest songwriting ever.