One of the saddest things I’ve seen in recent years is the gradual but relentless demise of the heavy metal band AC/DC.
First of all, in 2014, AC/DC lost its founder member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young after memory-loss and concentration-loss caused by dementia left him unable to play. Later that same year, the band parted company with long-time drummer Phil Rudd after he ended up in court on drugs charges and, bizarrely, an allegation of ‘attempting to procure a murder’ (though this was dropped soon after). And then early in 2016, its cap-wearing gravel-voiced Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson departed due to damaged hearing, although Johnson claimed this was caused less by his fronting one of the world’s loudest bands than by his love of auto-racing. And finally, a week ago, AC/DC’s veteran bassist Cliff Williams, who’d announced his retirement in July, played his final gig with the band.
It reminds me of one of those Final Destination horror movies, wherein a group of people manage somehow to cheat death. But then by way of revenge, Death – though in AC/DC’s case it’s plain old Bad Luck – starts to ruthlessly hunt them down one by one.
AC/DC and myself go back a long time together, so seeing the band disintegrate like this feels as painful as seeing a once-strong friend grow old and succumb to infirmity and senility. Their 1979 album Highway to Hell was among the first albums I ever bought and rarely have the opening chords to an album (and its title track) sounded so much like a statement of intent: DUH-DUH-DUH! DUH-DUH-DUH! DUH-DUH-DUH, DUH, DUH-DUH! Here were an outfit, it seemed, who were seriously determined to blow your arse off with their guitars. Which was surely what heavy metal – and for that matter, rock and roll itself – was all about.
© Atlantic Records
Around the same time I took it upon myself to throw a party for my school friends at my family’s farmhouse near Peebles, Scotland, one Friday while my parents were away for the evening. The inevitable happened. Most of the guests turned up armed not only with copious and illegitimately-purchased bottles and cans of booze but also armed with AC/DC records. Indeed, it seemed that the AC/DC song Touch Too Much, recently released as a single, wasn’t off the turntable for the entire, chaotic, alcohol-drenched evening. No wonder that after that the music of AC/DC was indelibly linked in my mind with images of drunken teenage debauchery.
(During the short margin of time between the party ending and my parents returning, I managed to cram all the empty bottles and cans into two big sacks and hide them in the rarely-accessed roof-space of a rarely-used outhouse, where they remained undiscovered for nearly 20 years. They weren’t found until the late 1990s when my parents had the outhouse converted into a holiday cottage. After the discovery, the building contractor jokingly asked my Dad if he was a secret drinker.)
Briefly, it looked like I’d discovered the band too late, for in 1980 AC/DC’s original vocalist Bon Scott died a sudden and very rock-and-roll death – heavy-partying-related alcohol poisoning. The band’s two driving forces, Malcolm Young and his brother and fellow guitarist Angus Young, considered calling it a day at this point. Instead, though, they recruited Brian Johnson as a replacement and AC/DC rumbled on for a further three-and-a-half decades. It helped that the band’s first post-Bon Scott album was a cracker – 1980’s Back in Black, featuring such splendid tunes as the title track, You Shook Me All Night Long and the epic Hell’s Bells, which begins with the clanging of a huge church-bell before Johnson starts hollering apocalyptic lines like “Lightning flashing across the sky / You’re only young but you’re gonna die!” By now I was a senior pupil at Peebles High School and Hell’s Bells never seemed to be off the turntable of the stereo in the senior-school common room.
The nice thing about AC/DC was that they never changed. No matter what terrible events took place in the world – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, plagues, Simon Cowell – they just carried on, churning out the same (or very similar) riffs and singing songs about partying, shagging, boozing and having a generally good time. I tracked down and listened to their back catalogue: albums like 1976’s High Voltage (whose opening track It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll exposed me to the lethal combination of electric guitars and bagpipes – despite being officially Australian, the Young brothers and Bon Scott had been born in Scotland and liked to honour their Caledonian roots); the same year’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, with its storming title track and the naughty music-hall pastiche Big Balls (whose lyrics included such gems as “Some balls are held for charity / Some balls are held for less / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best” – yes, it’s sad that I still remember this stuff); and 1978’s Powerage, which no less a personage than Keith Richards has identified as one of his favourite albums ever.
There was a lot of love for AC/DC in the world, though you wouldn’t have thought so reading the music press then. Writers in 1980s music magazines like the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, if they got around to acknowledging the band’s existence at all, were of the opinion that AC/DC and heavy metal generally represented everything ignorant, crass and embarrassing in modern culture – unlike the two ‘in’ musical genres at the time, punk rock and indie music. (For the record, I should point out I’m a big fan of punk and indie too.)
This disdain was shared by many people I met when I went to college in the early-1980s, who seemed to be either Smiths fans or Style Council fans or Simple Minds fans. I remember one early college flatmate, a supercilious type who’d been schooled at the prestigious Glasgow Academy, wandering into my room one day, finding me listening to Highway to Hell, and demanding, “How can you listen to that shit?”
To be honest, AC/DC didn’t help their cause during the 1980s because they released a series of shonky albums that were shadows of their 1970s predecessors: 1983’s Flick of the Switch, 1985’s Fly on the Wall and 1988’s Blow Up Your Video. In 1986 they also did the music for the dire Stephen King movie Maximum Overdrive, released as an album under the title Who Made Who. Stephen King is a huge AC/DC fan, by the way.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the band rediscovered their mojo with The Razor’s Edge. Although it wasn’t great, it served up two of their best songs for a long time, Are You Ready and Thunderstruck. The latter track is still considered so rousing that, Wikipedia informs me, Atlético Madrid play it on their team coach every time they approach their opponents’ stadium for an away game.
Another reason why the band’s star was back in the ascendant was because those pretentious music critics who’d dissed them in the 1980s had been replaced by a younger generation of critics who, like me, had grown up listening to and loving AC/DC and were happy to give them some praise. AC/DC had also proved more influential than anyone had predicted – their sound imprinted on the DNA of acts like the Cult, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and the Beastie Boys. It’s even said that Back in Black was the first song a 14-year-old Kurt Cobain learned to play on guitar.
Thankfully, the band managed to preserve their reputation through the 1990s and early 21st century with a series of albums that, while not earth-shattering, at least delivered the goods and always yielded a single or two that sounded satisfyingly AC/DC-ish: 1995’s Ballbreaker, 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust, which contained the jolly single Play Ball. As you may have gathered, the word ‘ball’ has an important place in the AC/DC lexicon.
But sadly, it now looks like it’s almost over for AC/DC. I say ‘almost’ because since Brian Johnson left the line-up, the band has continued performing with vocals provided by Axl Rose of the legendary Los Angeles metal band Guns n’ Roses; and it’s lately been reported that Angus Young and Axl Rose intend to keep recording and performing under the AC/DC moniker. Rose’s recruitment was met with dismay by many fans, though I have to say I don’t dislike Axl Rose or Guns n’ Roses. Indeed, I have their albums Appetite for Destruction (1987), Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident (1993) in my record collection. It’s just that Rose’s tremulous American voice doesn’t sound right singing the AC/DC back catalogue.
And call me superstitious if you like… But the fact that he debuted with AC/DC confined to a wheelchair, with a broken foot, and looking like a heavy metal version of Doctor Strangelove, doesn’t seem a good omen for the vitality and longevity of this weird new incarnation of the band.
No, I can’t help but think of AC/DC now in the past tense. But I’m sure I’ll be reliving that past in years to come by listening to Highway to Hell, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Powerage and Back in Black a billion more times.