AC/DC Discuss ‘Rock or Bust,’ Malcolm’s Absence and the Death of Rock – Exclusive Interview
As AC/DC suit up for the release of 'Rock or Bust' next week, Angus Young and Brian Johnson stopped by our office to offer some insight into the creation of the album and the state of rock today.
You heard that rock is dead? Well, Young and Johnson are here to present a rebuttal during a rangy talk with Ultimate Classic Rock and our sister site Loudwire that ends up covering AC/DC's earliest days, their suggestions for bands just starting out, a few of their odder moments out on the road and how they're carrying on through a period of loss.
After all, whatever happens with sales, whatever anyone thinks of the songs, 'Rock or Bust' will forever be defined for what it doesn't include: co-founding riff-master Malcolm Young, who has retired after being diagnosed with dementia.
AC/DC Discuss Malcolm Young's Absence
Still, Angus and Johnson say there was no question that AC/DC would go on, because that's what their ailing bandmate insisted they do.
"Malcolm did say one statement, and when Malcolm says things, you usually listen -- and I'm not kidding," says Johnson. "He said, 'Keep making music.' He knew what was happening to him. He's the hardest man I've ever met in me life. I'm talking hard. And the straightest shooter I've ever talked to in me life. He didn't stand fools gladly; he just said what he meant. And what he said usually meant a lot. He didn't want any memorial. He said, 'Just keep making music.'"
Once 'Rock or Bust' arrives, the next emotional hurdle will inevitably be mounting a tour without Malcolm. Luckily, Angus and Malcolm's nephew Stevie has made a seamless transition into that role. "Stevie's done it before; he filled in for Mal in the '80s," Angus says. "He plays like Mal, that same style." And that wasn't by accident, Johnson adds: "He worked his tail off in the studio to make sure he did it right. He's a bit like Mal, isn't he?"
Now that the album is finished, AC/DC are ready to debunk one of the most well-worn rumors about 'Rock or Bust' -- that it took just 10 days to finish.
AC/DC Talk About Making 'Rock or Bust'
“No, no -- it’s impossible,” Johnson says of finishing ‘Rock or Bust’ in a week and a half. “You’ve gotta have four or five days of getting the sound right. It was very rapid, don’t get me wrong. It was like four, four and a half weeks to get in and out of the studio. But after that, Angus went with ['Rock or Bust' producer] Brendan [O'Brien] and did some more work. You know, figuring out which was best to keep in and keep out. So, that took a bit longer, but that just goes with the territory.”
For Johnson and Young, 'Rock or Bust' represents an affirmation in their long-held belief in their chosen musical genre -- no matter what contemporaries like Gene Simmons say about its supposed demise.
AC/DC on the State of Rock 'n' Roll
"With all respect to the lad, I think he's terribly wrong," Johnson says. "I really do. I don't think anybody should have the nerve to stand there and say a certain genre of music has just disappeared. 'It's no longer gonna be, because I say so.' Well, I'm here to tell you, 'Gene, you're wrong.' I'm saying, 'It's alive and kicking. My name's Brian, how're you doing?'"
Young joined in the fun, offering this quip about rock's impending doom: "It's been a long, long funeral then."
Still, they both recognize the changes that have swept the industry since AC/DC came of age. Still, Young says, he thinks the group would have found their place anyway. "It probably would have been pretty much the same," he says. "I think we'd have to prove our worth. You'd still have to go out and prove who you are."
To begin with, he says, the fundamental concepts for making it as a rock band apply, even in a world that's shifted from the vinyl of their initial hey day to digital downloads and streams.
It starts, Young asserts, with being true to yourself. "If they think they've really got something, you ought to stick with it," he says. "When people find their direction in what they are doing, and they finally kind of define what they are as a band, then they should hang onto that. If you're getting an audience, and they're digging what you do, hang on to that."
Then, take advantage of the opportunities that exist. "I think kids have got a better chance now to get their stuff out with social media," Johnson offers. "We couldn't buy a four-track recorder. To go to a little studio say in Newcastle where we lived, we'd have to save up. Then we'd have to physically take it to London, or wherever it was. Now, you can literally do it in the garage, and put it out."
Lastly, Johnson adds, you'll need a truckload of persistence. "You've gotta keep at it," he says. "You've gotta dodge the people saying, 'Get yourself a proper job,' and take the path less traveled. You've gotta take all that stuff on the chin."
As famous as they are now, Young recalls, it was the same when AC/DC were starting out. "Even for us in the beginning, it wasn't so easy," he adds. "A lot of times, there was not much money. You were living on debt, more or less, to get by and get through. There is a lot of years of, you know, being lean. But you've gotta believe in it."
AC/DC Share a Real-Life Spinal Tap Story
That includes both when times are bad, and when things get weird. Also, when times are both bad and weird -- something that can affectionately be referred to as a Spinal Tap moment. It happens, out on the road. And sometimes, years later, you can actually laugh about it.
"On the last tour," Johnson remembers, "we were leaving this huge stadium -- was it in Denmark? Or Sweden? There were 60,000 people. And we were like, 'Quick, in the car! We've gotta get back to the hotel before the crowd gets to you. We'll be stuck in traffic.' So, we're all running to the buses, these little VW things, and the drivers go straight out -- and, instead of turning right, they turned left. Right to the main exits of the building." Soon, he says, fans "were climbing over the top of us, and banging. We were, like, 'Oh, f---!' We were stuck there forever! Those stupid, daft moments can happen at anytime, but that was fun."
AC/DC Talk About Scary Tour Moments
Less fun was when an aircraft engine blew on take off, or when the band was forced to take cover on the bus ride away from a venue amid protesters who claimed AC/DC stood for “Anti-Christ Devil’s Children.” (“I didn’t know that,” Angus interjects with a laugh. “That was new stuff to me.”) A rabid fan base has kept them steady, whatever the pitfalls -- sending every single U.S. release to at least platinum-selling status.
AC/DC on the Making of 'Back in Black'
None was more popular than 1980's 'Back in Black,' which found Johnson streaking to worldwide fame as an unheralded replacement for the late Bon Scott. "It was kind of a go-for-broke," Young says. "We really didn't know if the people who knew AC/DC accept this. Would they accept Brian? It was a lot of pressure on him. But I think everyone wanted to make it all happen."
Out of that uncertainty, however, emerged a juggernaut that sold some 50 million copies worldwide. "It was a force of nature, that thing," Johnson adds. "It really was."