AC/DC Got "Back in the Groove Again" Thanks to New Technology and Old Friends

"I thought of Malcolm, of the early days, the happy times in rock'n'roll," says Brian Johnson

Photo: Josh Cheuse

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished Nov 9, 2020

AC/DC are consummate professionals — and that's where most people, even hardcore fans, seem to get it wrong. Despite all the bawdy lyrics, schoolboy iconography and bygone rock attitude, being a member of AC/DC is actually serious business.

Case in point: when AC/DC hop on the line for their interview with Exclaim!, they are perfectly punctual. As singer Brian Johnson quips, "We're always on time, you just gotta listen to the music!"

Since their formation in the mid-'70s, the band have refused to compromise their standards. They don't do greatest hits albums, they only tour when there's an album to support, and, when their popularity waned in the mid-'80s, they resisted the urge to follow their peers into new wave or hair metal. This eventually paid off when bare-bones rock returned in the early '90s and fans embraced the immortal "Thunderstruck."

That's why it was such a shock when, for part of 2016, it looked like AC/DC were finally ready to concede. On tour for their last LP, 2014's Rock or Bust, Johnson received the devastating news that he needed to stop touring immediately due to advanced hearing loss and a risk of going deaf. This bombshell left the group without a vocalist for the first time since Bon Scott's tragic death in 1980, pressing Angus Young to hire Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose to fill the vacated spot for the final two legs of the tour.

Johnson's departure, in conjunction with Malcolm Young's retirement in 2014 due to illness, and definitive-era drummer Phil Rudd's firing the following year following an arrest for a bizarre murder threat, proved enough for longtime bassist Cliff Williams, as he announced his resignation and ended his 39-year run with the band.

"Yeah, I retired at the end of the Rock or Bust tour. I just thought, 'I had a good run, I can't be doing a tour through all of this,'" says Williams now. "God bless the people that stood in and helped us finish it. But at that point, I was done."

But, as they've proven many times before, AC/DC always find a way to bounce back. Just as Johnson's doctors began experimenting with an untested hearing technology, fans were reporting sightings of the singer in Vancouver alongside Cliff, Phil, Angus and Stevie Young (who replaced his uncle after Malcolm died in 2017 due to complications from dementia). In September 2020, it was finally announced that the "classic" lineup has reunited to release a brand-new LP.

"After about a year and a half, I got the first call from Angus. And he just said, 'would you like to make an album?'" Johnson recalls. "'I would love to.' 'Cliff's gonna do it,' and I went, 'Oh brilliant'. 'And, you know, we got Phil back,' and I went, 'Oh, there you go!'"

The new album in question, POWER UP, shows the quintet coming off unscathed and resilient, laying down a dozen riff-forward rockers that captures their beloved recipe impeccably. The unbridled buoyance found on tracks like "Kick You When You're Down," "Wild Reputation" and lead-off single "Shot in the Dark" are direct results of the band relying on familiar faces and surroundings, as they wrote and recorded the album at the familiar haunts of Vancouver's Warehouse Studio with Pearl Jam/Bruce Springsteen producer Brendan O'Brien and local engineer Mike Fraser, who has worked with the band on every album since 1990's The Razors Edge.

"Brendan, the guy is just brilliant," beams Johnson. "I wasn't using any of this new technology yet, it was just me and the studio… and I just hate being in the studio. He said, 'Sing with just the room, as hard as you can, as powerful as you can, and as emotionally as you can.' And I think I damaged more furniture just getting carried away and hitting things in there. I think what he brings out when I do that is the passion that usually you can only get on stage."

Just as the band found themselves reenergized by a return to the studio, the real inspiration behind POWER UP came from Malcolm. After digging through older material Angus wrote with his brother, the guitarist decided to bring these jams to the rest of the group with expectation that they could craft an entire album from it. "Ang came to us with these 12 ideas, and he sifted through the backlog he had put together," explains Williams. "The standard was there as soon as we got together and started playing at the studio. Pretty much a couple of days playing and we were back in the groove again."

Forty years after Bon Scott's death, Williams sees similar emotional ties between the recordings of Back in Black and POWER UP. "Back in Black was [made] with Bon in mind, and this is [made] with Malcolm in mind." Says Johnson, 'Mal's presence was everywhere, in spirits.'"

Although AC/DC and O'Brien explore uncharted territory on the album — including the Muscle Shoals rhythm of "Through the Mists of Time" and the growled spoken word intro of second single "Demon Fire" — POWER UP is a quintessential AC/DC album, hitting all of the proper talking points: chanted choruses, ripping Angus solos and most importantly, that high standard of songwriting.

When asked how he was able to rebound from a half decade of strife and uncertainty, Johnson replies with a smile: "I thought of Malcolm, of the early days, the happy times in rock'n'roll. And I thought I could see the times when I was singing it. I tried to immerse myself and I still get goosebumps. I'm so proud of them, you know? The boys really stepped up to the fucking plate on this one."

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