Should AC/DC Continue Without Brian Johnson? Great Rock Debates
It was recently reported that 7,000 of them even requested refunds for the group's upcoming show featuring Rose at the Festivalpark in Werchter, Belgium, as a result of this change – or some might suggest, as a reaction to the way the band handled Johnson's departure.
In March, the group abruptly postponed the remaining 10 dates on the U.S. leg of its tour after doctors warned Johnson he would risk "total hearing loss" if he continued to perform onstage with the band. A month later, the group announced that Rose would be filling in for the remainder of their European and American tour dates.
It's another difficult blow for AC/DC, who had already lost founding rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young to a battle with dementia prior to the release of their most recent album, Rock or Bust. Soon after that, longtime drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for possession of methamphetamine, possession of cannabis and threatening to kill after an argument with one of his employees. The resulting legal battle forced the band to embark on its latest world tour without him. The departures of Young, Rudd and Johnson leaves only lead guitarist Angus Young and bassist Cliff Williams remaining from the group's 1994-2014 lineup.
But some people, including The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC author Jesse Fink, feel the band hasn't treated Johnson or fans properly in this instance, and that they should either retire completely or give Johnson more time to work on a possible solution so he can perform again. The singer issued a statement thanking Young and Williams for their support, but his fans argue that he's been unceremoniously "kicked to the curb," as comedian Jim Breuer put it.
We decided to debate the issue with Fink.
UCR: My No. 1 caveat whenever discussing this stuff is to note that we have no idea at all what is actually going on behind the scenes. I've seen a lot of Facebook comments that are angry about how they assume the band is treating Johnson, and how AC/DC are turning into a cover band rather than retiring with dignity. But really, who are any of us to judge them for wanting to continue to pursue their careers?
Jesse Fink: Yeah, you’re right in that AC/DC is a closed shop. They keep things very in-house and under wraps. There’s a code of omertà, for sure. They certainly don’t talk to serious biographers. I was chatting a few weeks ago to a guy I know who works for AC/DC, who is very close to the band, who said the Axl thing would never happen, that Angus would never countenance such an idea as working with someone like him, and Malcolm certainly wouldn’t dream of it. He didn’t know for certain, but he felt he knew enough about the way they work and their general attitude to say Axl was a no-go. Now clearly he was proven wrong. He was shocked when it was announced, and he’s as disappointed as everyone else now that it’s official.
I thought someone must have hacked AC/DC’s website and social media when the press release came through, because frankly the idea of having Axl fronting AC/DC is just incomprehensible. What a way to alienate 99 percent of your fan base in one fell swoop. I mean, AC/DC has made some questionable decisions in their time, but this takes the cake. I think what it indicates is that even people inside the AC/DC inner circle are scratching their heads at what’s going on inside AC/DC. Who’s running the show now? With Mal retired due to dementia, there’s a bit of a power vacuum. Angus, George [Young], Linda [Young], [manager] Alvin Handwerker, Sony – lot of interests involved. As for Brian, people I know who are close to him haven’t been able to shed any light on the situation and, apart from the statement he made, he’s effectively gone to ground. I suspect what Jim Breuer said in his podcast several weeks back was very close to the mark of what went down, and Jim just caught out for speaking out of school.
Brian’s statement was heartfelt. It’s the kind of thing fans expected from AC/DC’s statement but didn’t get. I’m sure the vast majority of AC/DC fans would have preferred to see him given time to recover and for AC/DC to wait it out. Brian made it clear he wants to go on. What does the reference he makes to “recording in studios” entail? More AC/DC albums? Solo projects? Projects with other people? AC/DC have not said Brian is returning to the band. A lot is still unclear. I don’t think fans have the full story at all.
I’m not convinced by anything I’ve read put forward by the band, such as the latest interview they did with the BBC and the video they made in Lisbon. Angus says he knew about Brian’s hearing problem when the tour began. If so, why’d the tour go ahead at all? Malcolm Young was already out. Then it was made clear Phil Rudd wasn’t going be touring. So according to Angus, they went out on tour with a singer with a hearing problem and minus two members from their classic lineup. If you’re going to go out with a singer with a hearing problem and book venues, ask people to buy tickets and your merchandise, you should have a fair idea if you can fulfill your commitments. If there were any doubts early on about Brian’s ability to finish the tour, it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
But remember, the new album is called Rock or Bust, and is very clearly a tribute to Malcolm. Johnson himself said the band promised to see things through on his behalf. Maybe Angus and Cliff are just trying to honor that pledge. Perhaps the band is planning to make this its final tour, or perhaps not, but after all they've been though in losing two members already, and after all the goodwill they've built over the past 40 years, don't you think they deserve more benefit of the doubt? Also, as a fan who had tickets in hand for one of those 10 canceled U.S. shows, I can tell you I'm very glad to see them making plans to visit our city.
AC/DC are one of the greatest bands of all time, which is why we’re here talking about them and why I’ve spent years of my life writing about them. I’m finishing another book on them now, much bigger than The Youngs. There’s a hell of a lot to their story that hasn’t been even remotely covered. So I respect them for their achievements, I respect them musically, I respect them for what they’ve done for rock ’n’ roll. At their best, they are the best in the world. Hands down. No debate. But that admiration doesn’t mean we have to suspend all our critical faculties when they make a bad decision, such as dispensing with Mutt Lange and producing themselves, or not getting Mark Evans onstage with them for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2003, or the way they spoke about Phil Rudd when he had his troubles in 2014, or the way they’ve handled the latest Brian Johnson business. If AC/DC had stopped, I don’t think people would have been unhappy, as Angus says. In all honesty, I think fans would be celebrating the fact the band lasted as long as it did. No Malcolm Young, no Phil Rudd, a singer with one bad ear and another ear that was about to go, and they still went ahead instead of wrapping it up with some integrity and dignity.
In my view, what we’re seeing now is a strategic play. It’s about keeping AC/DC – and the AC/DC brand – on the road for as long as possible. You have to see the bigger picture. Across the board in the United States, everywhere, in fact, royalties to artists from sales of albums are plummeting because of streaming and digital piracy. People just aren’t buying albums like they used to. Rock or Bust only went gold in the U.S. Back in Black was certified 22 times platinum and unofficially has sold well over double that amount globally. Rihanna went to No. 1 in the U.S. with less than 20,000 sales only recently. Numbers like that are extremely worrying for the music industry. Where the real money is for AC/DC is in touring. They gross millions of dollars a show not just from ticket sales but merchandise. They also make a lot of money from licensing their songs to advertising or films or licensing their logo to various products. Gerard Huerta, the guy who designed that logo hasn’t made a dime from it. He should.
It’s rumored the latest planned AC/DC release is a DVD called Live at Wrigley Field, a concert film. Now, when I saw Brian perform with AC/DC in Sydney, he was really struggling vocally. We didn’t know then of his hearing issues, but it was obvious his expiry date was looming. Brian is 68. Angus is 61. He could go on for another 10 years dressed up in that schoolboy outfit and no one would really notice he’s 70. So 10 years of touring, two or three world tours, do the math. That’s a lot of money for the Youngs and the AC/DC organization. As for Axl, I saw the abomination called ‘GnR’ in Sydney a few years back, and it was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen. Axl would just disappear from the stage when he felt like it and left his band to play interminable instrumentals, leaving no original member of the band onstage. So what were we watching exactly? It was like rock karaoke. I have the greatest respect for what the guy did in his prime – "Paradise City" is one of my favorite songs ever – but his prime was a long time ago, and in my opinion he just doesn’t belong in AC/DC.
Singers have it the worst when it comes to matching up to the heights of their golden years onstage. I saw a few Chinese Democracy-era shows and always had a good time. More importantly, I saw Axl perform with the partially reunited Guns N' Roses in Las Vegas, and he was in great form vocally, the best I've seen since 1987. So, put any thoughts of Brian's departure and the resulting drama out of your head for a minute. Are you telling me that if this team-up -- Axl Rose fronting AC/DC -- was presented as a one-off, a concert mashup, so to speak, you wouldn't be interested in checking it out?
No. Mashups are for YouTube. I love a good mashup as much as anyone – DJ Lobsterdust, Wax Audio – but not onstage. A friend of mine, the British producer/composer Tristin Norwell, said he thought the Axl–AC/DC union was like Batman vs Superman -- the sort of thing Marvel turns into movies. I think it’s a very apt comparison. It’s Guns N’ Roses vs AC/DC. Rock concert as Marvel comic.
I think it’s a real slap in the face to the fans who have invested so much of their time, affection and money into this band. They had an emotional investment in AC/DC. There was a great narrative – a myth, in my view – that came out of the death of Bon Scott in 1980, and AC/DC have benefited from that. It’s the story of a band that lost its lead singer in tragic circumstances and, when they were truly down and out and thinking of give it all away, they turned around and wrote – worldwide at least – the biggest selling rock album of all time. It’s a Rocky narrative. But there’s much, much more to that story than what you hear on VH1’s Behind the Music.
I think Brian Johnson represented something very meaningful to a lot of AC/DC fans: hope, resilience, perseverance, triumph. They were also very fond of him as a person. So I think it’s been a gross miscalculation by AC/DC to have gone and issued that emotionless press release the way they did and then to recruit Axl, someone who represents everything AC/DC fans hate. I’d wager most AC/DC fans wanted to see Brian given enough time to recover, at least for a few concerts, and go out on his own terms after 36 years. That has been very obvious from the posts AC/DC have made on their Facebook page and the comments fans have left.
Last weekend in the Scottish town of Kirriemuir, a statue of Bon was unveiled. Fans paid for that statue – over $70,000 was raised through a public fundraising drive. It was a big event in Kirriemuir and people from all over the world made the effort to be there: Mark Evans, former AC/DC studio drummer Tony Currenti, AC/DC video drummer Bob Richards, Bon’s friend Mary Renshaw and many more. Now you’d expect to hear something from AC/DC about that, a message of support from Angus and Cliff, the two guys still in the band who played with Bon, a post about it on AC/DC’s Facebook page, but there was nothing at all. That says so much to me. AC/DC have been posting every day or every second day since the Axl backlash began, thanking their fans for this and that, asking them to post photos of them in AC/DC T-shirts or show their AC/DC memorabilia collections, stuff like that, and it’s been cringe-worthy. Axl looks so out of place in the photo they issued. He looks out of place sitting next to Angus and Cliff in the video they made.
AC/DC’s PR has been appallingly bad. The majority of fans have rejected Axl and sadly they’re starting to reject what AC/DC has become. Which is why AC/DC is very worried and we’re seeing so many posts from AC/DC on Facebook. If they were smart, they’d not only have said something to acknowledge what happened in Kirriemuir but also properly addressed the Brian situation, answering the questions fans want answered.
Your thoughts on Johnson and the tour are understandable, but I'm sure you also realize the economic pressure behind such a decision. Just storing the equipment and keeping the road crew on hold for a massive production such as an AC/DC tour must be costing them a ton of money. And again, when you consider the obstacles the band overcame to get Rock or Bust made and to embark on this tour, their determination to get moving again makes more sense. You mentioned the death of Bon Scott, it bears mentioning that he passed away in February 1980, and the band hired Johnson about six weeks later, then recorded and released Back in Black in just five months. So it seems possible that this is simply the way they deal with things. Imagine the drive and determination they must have had to learn their craft, rise to the top of the music world and stay there for over three decades. How can you ask them to shut that off?
As for the decision to hire Rose, Eddie Trunk made a smart observation: that the band needed a big name to keep people from returning their tickets for the rescheduled shows.
I don’t agree with Eddie at all. The exact opposite has happened. When was the last time so many tickets were refunded or resold en masse? I think many fans would have had more goodwill for a new singer that auditioned for the gig and got the job – as long as he wasn’t Axl. Someone they didn’t know. The blessing of Brian would have been very helpful when AC/DC announced they were going with Axl, but Brian tellingly and very conspicuously said nothing about Axl. He also made a very cursory mention of Angus and Cliff: just one short sentence. Not what you’d expect from a guy who’d played with those two in a band for 36 years.
You’ve got to remember Brian wasn’t exactly a household name when he was hired in 1980. He came through an audition process. What surprised me is that AC/DC didn’t seek out Terry Slesser from Paul Kossoff’s band Back Street Crawler, who went up against Brian for the AC/DC position in 1980. It was down to Terry and Brian. Terry’s still out there singing. Lovely individual and a Geordie to boot. Exactly the kind of down-to-earth, “everyman” personality that is suited to AC/DC.
Vocally, I think Georg Dolivo from Rhino Bucket would be truly amazing with AC/DC. Once again, a great guy. The decision-making has been very poor on AC/DC’s part. AC/DC fans want someone who is no bulls---. The music is no bulls---. The band built themselves on a philosophy of no bulls---. The brand, the logo, represents no bulls---. But there’s been a lot of bulls--- lately. Is Axl the kind of no-bulls--- performer AC/DC fans demand? I don’t think so. Hence the backlash.
Like any true AC/DC fan, I think this all sucks, and wish Brian and Malcolm and Phil were all able to perform with the group until they all decided to retire together. But I think it gets really tricky when you try to tell somebody else how they should react to these situations or to live their lives. It would seem 7,000 fans in Belgium agree with your point of view, and it was very cool of the band to offer those refunds to anybody who felt that way. I'll play my Brian Johnson AC/DC records for the rest of my life, fondly remember every concert with him and hope he finds a way to keep making music and perform again for as long as he wants. But I’m also going to go see Axl perform with AC/DC the first chance I get.
So here's my last question, brought to mind by all the tragic losses classic rock has endured in recent months. When you see how quickly we can lose these one-of-a-kind performers forever, why on Earth would you advocate any position that involved Angus Young doing anything else besides playing AC/DC music in front of as many people as possible as often as possible?
Because AC/DC fans know that AC/DC is bigger than one man. It’s not the Angus Young Show they come to see. It’s AC/DC; it’s the sum of many parts. All the members of the band are important to AC/DC fans. They all have a story: Phil, Cliff, Mal, Bon, Mark, Brian, Simon. Even guys like Tony Currenti, the drummer from the High Voltage album. They all represent something meaningful to each and every fan, whether they’re still playing with the band or not. They are living music history – and for AC/DC fans history is much more important than money. The Beatles knew when to quit. So did Led Zeppelin. I think AC/DC have tarnished their legacy with this decision.
Jesse Fink is the author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, out now through St Martin’s Press.
AC/DC Albums Ranked Worst to Best