How Brotherly Love Got AC/DC Back to Basics on ‘Stiff Upper Lip’
AC/DC rocked back into action with Stiff Upper Lip on Feb. 28, 2000, almost exactly a quarter century since the release of their Australia-only debut High Voltage. This 13th studio album proved once again that millenniums could come and go, but it would take a lot more than some silly Y2K hysteria to slow down this hard-rock institution.
In fact, that textbook AC/DC approach to blue-collar rock 'n' roll on steroids was never more in evidence than on Stiff Upper Lip. This was likely because, for the first time in 12 years and only the second time in 20, guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young were leaning on their elder brother George to handle production duties, just as he had (alongside longtime Easybeats partner Harry Vanda) for the group’s first handful of career-defining LPs back in the late '70s.
This decision to go back to the basics was not one taken lightly, but rather one specifically motivated by AC/DC’s dissatisfaction with producer Rick Rubin during the protracted Ballbreaker sessions five years earlier. Though it was hard to argue with the results, Rubin’s exacting perfectionism and snail-paced recording style simply rubbed singer Brian Johnson, bassist Cliff Williams, drummer Phil Rudd and especially the Young brothers the wrong way.
It’s therefore no wonder that reconnecting with George for Stiff Upper Lip brought forth some of Malcolm and Angus’ most direct, unencumbered and unembellished songwriting instincts. The dozen tracks they captured in a matter of weeks at Vancouver, Canada’s Warehouse Studios notably replaced unbridled bombast with unusual restraint that, in many ways, harked back to the band’s founding musical principles. Tellingly, Warehouse became AC/DC’s go-to recording studio thereafter.
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Sure, the first single and title track possessed the requisite double-entendres, irresistible chorus and clever music video that was naturally expected from AC/DC. But such predictable, if tried-and-tested, musical tricks were in short supply thereafter – despite the urgent charge of second single “Safe in New York City” (which predated the events of 9/11 by some 18 months), “Give it Up” and even the catchy third single “Satellite Blues.”
Instead, AC/DC presented a slew of decidedly understated standouts (“Can’t Hold Me Back,” “Can’t Stand Still,” “All Screwed Up”), consistently deliberate tempos (“House of Jazz,” “Can’t Stop Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Damned”), and some of the downright bluesiest licks ever heard in the band’s long, long career (“Meltdown,” “Come and Get It” and, again, “Satellite Blues”).
At first, it seemed fans needed a little more time to be convinced of the group’s surprisingly spartan approach on Stiff Upper Lip, which debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard charts after shifting 130,000 units in its first week. That's comparably modest by AC/DC standards, seeing as Black Ice would sell more on its first day in 2008.
Once the band's formidable touring machine finally kicked into gear that August, however, nearly 140 shows spread over the ensuing 12 months duly pushed Stiff Upper Lip beyond AC/DC’s customary platinum sales plateau.
In other words, AC/DC had once again triumphed by simply being themselves.
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