With well over 100 million records sold worldwide, countless unforgettable concerts performed, and a catalog full of some of the greatest songs in hard rock history, few bands can boast of the track record AC/DC has had since forming in 1973. The excellence of their recorded output is the model of consistency itself, from their 1975 debut album, up to their latest, Rock or Bust, which came out last week. Powered by the incendiary guitar work of Angus Young and the cord-shredding vocals of singer Brian Johnson - who took over for Bon Scott after his death in 1980 - the new album is a testament to the band’s songwriting skills and inability to not rock. Though the band recently announced the retirement of founding member Malcolm Young due to health problems, and the drummer’s chair is currently in question after the legal woes of Phil Rudd, the band is still determined to carry on and give fan’s what they want with all they’ve got. Young and Johnson sat down with VH1 to discuss the new album, somewhat-new rhythm guitarist Stevie Young and how they’ve kept it up for 40 years in the rough and tumble world of high voltage rock n’ roll.
VH1: When do you get the itch to do a new AC/DC record?
Angus Young: When you get all the material together, all the songs. That pretty much dictates what you’re going to do next. Then you kind of coordinate with all the guys and see if everyone’s fit and healthy to do the project. There are some songs that just jump out at you like, that’s AC/DC. Sometimes if you’re experimenting, you’re trying a few different things, you might go, is that AC/DC or is it, you know? It’s just a case of how much material you’ve written that you can kind of sit down and say, have I got enough stuff here that is AC/DC. And then, when we get to the studio, the producer going through the material with him and he’ll certainly give you his opinion if that’s an AC/DC track or not.
This is your second record with Brendan O’Brien. What does he bring to the table?
AY: Well he plays a great game of cards, you know, that’s one thing. (laughter)
Brian Johnson: He’s a cheating bugger, isn’t he? He’s taken all of our money off us I think on this album. (laughter)
What card games do you play with him?
BJ: He makes it up as he goes on, I swear.
AY: He’s got this great card game that only he knows the rules to.
BJ: Brendan’s cool, you know. He’s an accomplished musician. He’s been blessed with these great ears. He can hear stuff, you know. I’ve never seen Angus look so comfortable with someone. I mean, they connect. And with me, you know, he calls everybody by both names, “Angus Young, let’s make some music…Brian Johnson, downstairs, let’s sing, now.” He just gets the best out of everybody. He’s a fun guy. And he loves his music and he knows what’s right and wrong.
Was there anything different that you did on this record, recording or song wise?
AY: Anything different, uhm…well I guess every AC/DC album is pretty much the same basic format; you got two guitars, you got bass, drums and Brian doing the vocals. That’s not changed. It’s still AC/DC style music. Brendan you know worked with us on Black Ice, that was the first time he ever worked with us, and on the first day when we’re all set up he turned on the tape and we started playing and he turned around and said “Sounds like AC/DC!”
With so much great material to choose from, how do you put a set together for a tour?
BJ: The problem with the songs is, none of them sound like from any era. They all sound like they could have been done on this album. “Shot Down In Flames,” let’s just take that. “Hell or High Water,” “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place To Be” could have been on this album. Honestly. And that makes it much more difficult. It gets tough, you can only play so many songs before you drop.
AY: And whenever we play live, we got to keep the energy level up, you know? We’ve been lucky through our career. There’s a lot of strong songs that connect with different eras so we’ve got a big catalogue of tracks. It does become a little bit hard. We try to cover all territories.
When AC/DC started you were such a breath of fresh air. What music were you listening to then that inspired you either positively as an influence or negatively as something to react against?
AY: I think the ‘60s was a great time for music, especially for rock and roll. It was the era of The Beatles, of The Stones, and then later on The Who and Zeppelin. But at one point in the ‘70s it just kind of became…mellow. When Malcolm put the band together, it was obvious what was missing at the time, another great rock band. So it was basically a reaction to that because the music at that point had just turned into that soft, melodic kind of period, and that seemed to be all over the world. For us it was a pretty easy choice, especially because Malcolm and myself - we’re two guitarists - so from the get-go it was going to be a guitar band.
With your nephew Stevie Young replacing your brother Malcom, was it important that he was literally already a member of the family?
AY: It’s not so much being a family member, it’s his ability. Malcolm had a very unique style and it’s a rare way of playing. Very few play like that. The only one that was close was Stevie. Stevie had filled in for Malcolm around 1988 and he’d done a great job then. So it was the obvious person to see if he could do the role again. And it worked out great on the album.
BJ: He was great. I mean he came in to the studio, because we played together before you know, that was out of the way. And there wasn’t any strange thing or feeling, it was just – he was with the boys. I think he did a brilliant job. You just listen to the album, what he did on there, he worked his socks off to get it right. He really did. He wanted it to be the best. And we’re proud of him, we really are. He’s done a fantastic job.
What do you think is the key to your longevity, not just how long you’ve been around, but how you keep writing great songs.
AY: Key to longevity..drinking embalming fluid every year. (laughter)
BJ: Ah man, that’s a toughy you know. I think if you answer, you might sound like you’ve got some kind of arrogance. I’m really not sure. I just know we enjoy playing with each other. We enjoy playing the songs, singing the songs, that we’ve created from a blank sheet of paper and we do it again and again. Before you were talking about what makes you want to get in the studio and of course Angus answered the obvious thing; you’ve got to have your material, but you’ve always got to have that itch in your boots to get back together with the boys. You know, you take time off to relax, be with family, then after a while you realize that there’s something else inside here that was born to do something else, that was the whole reason you started in the first place. But the longevity thing, I have no idea how to start answering that one. I’ll just take it the way it comes, you know.
AY: You know, that’s probably hitting right in the head. We never take anything for granted. We always do what we do best, which is we still play rock music. That’s what we’re best at and maybe that’s part of it. That we’ve never changed when other trends come. We just stuck to what we did best. Maybe that’s why people plug into us and go “They never change.” We’re reliable. A bit like old shoes. (laughter) They just feel good on your feet.
Watch DJ Nik Carter sit down with Angus and Brian and go to VH1 Classic On Tap for more interviews.
Your sound has always been so timeless and referenced back to the earliest rock n’ roll. Who are some artists that every young rock musician should listen to?
AY: I guess I’d just say if you want somebody looking for a Led Zeppelin type, plug in to Elvis Presley. A lot of the early Presley there’s a bit of Led Zeppelin you know? I mean, in Presley, you’re definitely hearing Robert Plant. And in our case you could probably plug into something like Little Richard, ‘cause he always just went for it. He was just had power-packed vocals and power-packed songs. If I still hear those early Little Richard tracks, it’s like a hurricane, my hair goes up, you know?
BJ: It’s exciting stuff. Those were the guys that broke the ground. I mean, a little lad on a piano with a coif, against all the odds, it was crackers! And he opens his mouth and that comes out? I mean, “Tutti Frutti,” are you kidding me? It shook my world when I saw it on BBC in black and white. And they just shoved it in between two programs, probably to get it out of the way as fast as they could. But for me and the people who saw that, the next day that’s all we’re talking about at school. That guy Little Richard. It was fantastic. I think it’s the attitude. Rock and roll is just attitude. You look at them guys, you look at Elvis and Little Richard and the attitude in them, it’s just marvelous.
AY: Or even Jerry Lee Lewis. I mean especially when they said, “This guy’s the killer.” He was singing about balls before we did, you know “Great Balls of Fire.”(laughter)
As the band that sang “It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll),” when did you finally know that you’d made it?
AY: I don’t know about that.(laughter) I know Cliff (Williams, AC/DC bassist) says when we all got our own hotel rooms, he thought that was an accomplishment.
There’s a lot of myths about your early audiences and how rough it was playing bars in Australia.
AY: Yeah, there were a lot of rowdy crowds. If you could get through to that crowd, it was an accomplishment in itself. Sometimes it was an accomplishment if you actually survived the night. (laughter) But you got through and in hindsight if you asked us “Would you do it again?” I’d go, “Yeah, twice over.” I loved it.
The music world was heartbroken when we heard about Malcolm retiring from the band due to his health issues. I just wanted to ask what will you miss most about playing with him?
AY: It is kind of hard you know, being brothers…just being brothers we always had a kind of psychic thing going on. I don’t know how to explain it but we just seemed to know what each one of us was going to play next. It was bizarre sometimes. He could go to play something and I’m following him and then he would change something and I had anticipated him. So there was that kind of thing. And I don’t know what it is. It’s a strange thing. I guess maybe it’s just a brothers thing, because when the two of us used to play together in the beginning, Malcolm would always, even if we were playing in a bar or something, and somebody said they wanted to hear some song, Malcolm would just go into it and I wouldn’t know what to do about it and I would just have to follow him. Usually by the time we finished, that would be when I’d actually learned the song. But you just get into this thing of you, the two of us would be in sync with each other. With Stevie, he plays the same as Malcolm but probably I’ve got to sync in with him. But yeah, it will be tough. But in the ‘80s we got through it, so you know...
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]