AC/DC - Biography



By Jeff Hunt

 

AC/DC is rock ‘n’ roll as abject formalism, concrete minimalism, conceptual maximalism. Their entire reason to exist is to find a single, simple, sublime riff, then dig into it like a ten-thousand-pound backhoe. Heavy machinery. They are here to party. Period. They are filthy. They are here to sing about drinking, sex, partying, rock ‘n’ roll, drinking, oral sex, rock ‘n’ roll, and sex. There are no Hobbits in AC/DC. There is no Dungeons and Dragons. There is no satanic posturing. There are no records with the London Philharmonic or the Harlem Gospel Choir. AC/DC is a monolith, like that black f***ing slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey – an ultra-heavy, immovable, impenetrable thing that just floats there and stares you right the f*** down. They’ve been doing it one way – their way – since 1973, and there is absolutely nothing to indicate that they won’t be doing it the exact same way in 2073.

 

The core of the band are brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, Glaswegians whose parents emigrated to Sydney, Australia. They’re the guitarists in AC/DC. Angus on lead; Malcolm on rhythm. The Youngs started on their instruments young, Angus at age 5. Glam was in full swing when the band was formed in 1973; costumes were common. (The nadir? Elton John as Donald Duck.) Angus tried several before settling on a schoolboy uniform, with a cap and knickers. It remains his trademark. Before that he experimented with a Spiderman outfit and a gorilla suit. Let’s be grateful he didn’t go the gorilla route.

 

Bon Scott was a Scot, too; his parents emigrated from Kirriemuir to Melbourne when he was six. He cycled through a bunch of bands before 1974. AC/DC cycled through their share of bandmates before 1974. But when they met, it was a match made in heaven – on the highway to hell, of course. In advance of their first LP, the band had a number of people in the rhythm section, but it’s older brother George Young on bass and Tony Currenti on drums on the Australia-only High Voltage (Albert, 1974). TNT (Albert, 1975) featured the established 70s line-up, with Mark Evans on bass and Phil Rudd on drums. Excerpts from these two LPs would be combined on AC/DC’s first international release, also titled High Voltage (Atlantic, 1976).

 

It’s all here. The blueprint. “She’s Got Balls” is self-explanatorily lewd, funny and raunchy. “TNT” is classic minimalist grind, the sort of track that endeared the nascent punk community to AC/DC. But any talk of early AC/DC has to begin and end with a single, epic, joyous, bizarre, droning, stinking, whisky-drenched track: “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. One huge chord. A one-note bagpipe solo. Not to overuse the M-word, but it’s loud, aggressive, minimal bombast that would make Tony Conrad proud.

 

Ridin' down the highway

Goin' to a show

Stop in all the by-ways

Playin' rock 'n' roll

Gettin' robbed

Gettin' stoned

Gettin' beat up

Broken boned

Gettin' had

Gettin' took

I tell you folks

It's harder than it looks

 

It's a long way to the top

If you wanna rock 'n' roll

It's a long way to the top

If you wanna rock 'n' roll

If you think it's easy doin' one night stands

Try playin' in a rock roll band

It's a long way to the top

If you wanna rock 'n' roll

 

Hotel, motel

Make you wanna cry

Lady do the hard sell

Know the reason why

Gettin' old

Gettin' grey

Gettin' ripped off

Under-paid

Gettin' sold

Second hand

That's how it goes

Playin' in a band

 

It's a long way to the top

If you wanna rock 'n' roll

It's a long way to the top

If you wanna rock 'n' roll

If you wanna be a star of stage and screen

Look out it's rough and mean

It's a long way to the top

If you wanna rock 'n' roll

 

 

I mean, there it all is: Bon Scott, in his primal strut and swagger; the band flush with all their greatest strengths. That’s what AC/DC is all about: straightforward, cash on the barrelhead, Hoss. There is an absolute genius video for “It’s a Long Way to the Top” that you should really check out on YouTube. It’s 1976, and AC/DC are on the back of a flatbed truck, with all of their instruments, amps, et cetera. They’re young. Angus doesn’t look perverse in the schoolboy outfit. Bon is wielding a set of bagpipes (he used to take them on stage in concert, too). He doesn’t need to carry them – there’s also a pipe band squeezed on board. Bagpipes and Marshall stacks: what a combo. They’re in full regalia: kilts, sporran, hose, ghillie brogues – the works. And this song has the rock-solidest, rhythm-guitar beat of all time, and Malcolm is kicking it. And they’re driving up and down Swanston Street in downtown Melbourne, lip-syncing this thing – this ecstatic, exuberant, kick-ass thing – and the headbanging Youngs are just a blur of hair and militarily precise guitar, and Bon mugs for the camera, and they block traffic, and teenage girls start running alongside the truck, and one of them reaches up and tries to pass Bon a joint and he can’t reach out and take it because he’s playing a flipping bagpipe, because the chorus of the song has a one note bagpipe solo.

 

Sheer genius.

 

Next was another Australian release, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (Albert, 1976). It featured some gems like the title track, “Problem Child,” and “Squealer”; there was a European version, but Atlantic didn’t give it a US release until 1981. The confusing plethora of divergent Australia-first/belated-to-the-world releases nearly ceased with the international debut of Let There Be Rock (Albert, 1977); it’s spare, Spartan, bluesy, and nasty. There was an even more coherent release for Powerage (Atlantic, 1978). “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation”; “Sin City”; “Up to My Neck In You.” The new rhythm section is Cliff Williams on bass and Phil Rudd on drums. On the Powerage tour, the band recorded a live album at the Apollo Theatre in Glasgow, in front of an insanely enthused crowd. If You Want Blood You've Got It (Atlantic, 1978) features “The Jack” (V.D.), “Whole Lotta Rosie” (plus-sized love), “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation” (rock ‘n’ roll damnation), and more; it’s the last AC/DC record produced by big brother George, and the last record before the band’s inevitable US breakthrough.

 

Highway to Hell (Atlantic, 1979) was AC/DC’s US breakthrough, rising to #17. Robert John "Mutt" Lange produced, and he vivified their sound, inflating the power-chord bombast, and adding layer upon glistening layer in the choruses. “Highway to Hell,” “Girls Got Rhythm,” and “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got it)” are all fantastic, and, as usual, Bon Scott’s lyrics reaffirm his basic manifesto: Get f****d, and get f****d up. The band was poised for superstardom. On February 19, 1980, Bon Scott, aged 33, got seriously drunk in a London nightclub. A buddy left Scott in his car to sleep it off. Whether or not he choked to death on his own vomit, or simply expired due to alcohol poisoning seems to be a point of contention, but either way, in the morning he was dead. The band considered breaking up, but within a matter of months, they were back in the studio with Lange, recording the next record, Back in Black (Atlantic, 1981). Brian Johnson was the new vocalist.

 

Back in Black sold 42 million copies. It’s second only to Thriller as the biggest-selling album of all time.

 

So there are more records, tons more, and AC/DC are still together. Of course, there’s For Those About to Rock (Atlantic, 1981), with its sprawling – “FIRE!” – title track. There are some decent moments elsewhere: Flick of the Switch (Atlantic, 1983); Fly on the Wall (Atlantic, 1985); Who Made Who (Atlantic, 1986); Blow Up Your Video (Atlantic, 1988); The Razors Edge (Atco, 1990); Live (Atco, 1992); Ballbreaker (Elektra, 1995); Stiff Upper Lip (Elektra, 2000).

 

However there’s not much point in detailing every last one of them; AC/DC is one of the most consistent bands ever. As their discography unreels, there’s not a whole lot of wow and flutter. Start with the early stuff, of course, and Back in Black. If you want to hear the recent stuff just go to Wal-Mart. They’ve got exclusivity in the US for Black Ice (Columbia, 2008). Upon release, it immediately went to #1 in 29 different countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom and United States.

 

Brian Johnson won’t sing “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll),” out of respect for Bon Scott.

 

Gettin' old

Gettin' grey

Gettin' ripped off

Under-paid

Gettin' sold

Second hand

That's how it goes

Playin' in a band

 

It's a long way to the top

If you wanna rock 'n' roll

 

 

Really. Check out that video. It’s priceless.

 

And not a Hobbit in sight.

 

 

 

 

 

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