By Michael Corcoran
originally published in Jan. 1996
Most people who were alive at the time remember where they were when Kennedy was shot or when they heard that Mike Tyson had been knocked out by Buster Douglas, but for me an equally indelible time and place was that warm, sunny day in 1977 when I first heard a record by AC/DC. I was at home, my sister/roommate had been at work, and when she came through the front door a few hours after I had first put the needle down on Let There Be Rock, the poor girl was convinced that I had become possessed.
And she was right. “Listen to this,” I said in greeting, then played the sofa cushion along to the adrenalized tempo of “Whole Lotta Rosie.” My sister got just close enough to look at my pupils, shrugged and gave her purse a hard day’s plop on the table. “Have you ever heard anything like it?” I shouted as the power chords bit hard, but she just went to her room and closed the door. Good answer. Not since Mick Jagger yelled “Watch it!” into the gargantuan riff on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” had my world been rocked so hard. This was urgent, primal, chord-bashing rebellion and it spoke to me like the serpent to Eve. AC/DC grabbed me within 10 seconds of the first track and it’s never let go. The next day I went out and bought the first AC/DC album and the day after that my sis gave me money for headphones.
The appreciation gap concerning AC/DC has never closed, as the group is worshipped by everyone from author Stephen King (who can somehow write with AC/DC cranked) to MTV’s Butt-head. Yet they’re also reviled by a wide range of musical moderates, who couldn’t tell the difference between singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, which is a little like failing a taste test between vodka and Clorox.
The other night I dreamed that I’d had sex with Madonna and my primary concern was that she would let me live afterwards so I could tell everybody. It was a little like that when I first experienced AC/DC. As much as the music was tippin’ my canoe, I just couldn’t wait to play Let There Be Rock for the gang.
In my early 20s I ran with a group of kids who liked to chatter on about music, as they “jammed to some tunes,” occasionally taking on such hot topics as whether the guitar solo from “Green Grass and High Tides” by the Outlaws rocked harder than the end of “Free Bird.” We’d jam to Montrose, Zeppelin, Nugent and UFO and when it was time to come down it was either Caravanserai by Santana or Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. That was the thing: In our group, bands were allotted only one word, which was usually preceeded by “the.” Hence, Cheap Trick was “the Trick” and R.E.O. Speedwagon was “the ‘Wagon.” Anyway, at that age, you’re looking to fit in and so you talk like everyone else, even if it’s that horrible stoner talk, and you live to turn your friends on to new music.
Back in those days I was kind of a know- it-all, so the gang usually gave my discoveries the cold shoulder. When punk came around, a couple years late in Hawaii, I brought by records by the Ramones, Blondie and Television and everybody hated them. Punk just didn’t rock, not like Foghat.
I knew it would be different with AC/DC and you can believe it was. Right away they were everyone’s favorite band. There was nothing like them and Bon Scott was the best rock ‘n’ roll singer any of us had ever heard. One thing we’d do while listening to records was keep building intensity until reaching the apex of “rocking out” and the last album in the chain was always by AC/DC. You couldn’t rock any harder than that and anybody who’s thinking Zeppelin or Metallica or Sabbath can leave now.
When I told this story almost 18 years later to AC/DC‘s Angus Young, the human tomahawk chop in short pants, he had little reaction except to absently say “Is that right?” But then, you’ve gotta figure that Young has heard variations on that story for his entire adult life. AC/DC is not the kind of band that’ll change your life, but it can make it infinitely more bearable. I told Angus that I still listen to my old AC/DC records and he seemed to like that.“Our intention has always been to make records that didn’t tap into any trend,” Young said. “Our music comes from the blues, which has always transcended any flavor of the month. In fact, if you look at the bands who have remained vital the longest, like the Stonesand the Who, they’ve got strong elements of the blues.”
You’ve gotta think of the music scene, circa 1976, to understand just how remarkable was AC/DC‘s upgrade of the standard five-man, two-guitar, blues- based combo.The band played its first U.S. show in Austin at the Armadillo in 1976 opening for some Canadian band everyone’s forgotten.
When AC/DC‘s first LP came out in the U.S., rock was becoming as shiny and reflective as Spandex pants and as layered as Justin Hayward’s hair. Such rock perennials as the Stones and David Bowie were dabbling in disco and the unicorn magic sounds of James Taylor, the Eagles, Billy Joel and John Denver were giving a teen-age Garth Brooks songs to learn on the guitar.Then AC/DC hit the scene like a sack of cement through the roof of a greenhouse. It took a while for the masses to notice and when they finally did come around, Scott had already drunk himself to death, but the band just kept sustaining its popularity — becoming, in effect, the Grateful Dead of metal because its members refuse to update their sound. “Instead of going into every album wondering where the music’s heading, we’re always going back to what we do best,” Young said. Like Jerry Garcia before him, Angus Young wears the same thing every night.
Because of his schoolboy attire and flashy, headbanging leads, Angus Young is the star of AC/DC, but you can’t give enough credit to older brother Malcolm Young, who plays rhythm guitar like Pete Sampras serves.“If AC/DC was a ship, Malcolm would be the engine room,” Angus said. “Malcolm likes to play in the background. When we first started playing, he’d kick me up front and that’s how it’s been ever since, so it feels like a privilege when I get to play in the back every once in a while.” There’s no way to underestimate Malcolm Young’s contribution to AC/DC.
George Young, seven years older than Malcolm and nine older than Angus, is another brother who figured heavily in the early AC/DC sound. A member of the Easybeats, who had a big hit in 1967 with “Friday on My Mind,” George Young co-produced the first few AC/DC records with Harry Vanda and the two were also recording artists as Flash and the Pan. “George came from a pop background so the sort of music we were playing was a big departure and he pretty much gave us free reign,” Angus said. “If we were adamant about something, he’d say, `OK, do it your way.”’The Young brothers met Bon Scott when he was dispatched by a nightclub in Sydney to pick them and their first incarnation of AC/DC up at the airport. “Bon was a rough sort and he used to watch out for me and Malcolm,” Angus said. “After he joined up he told me, `Whatever I do, you do the opposite.”’In order to comply, Angus stayed relatively sober most of the time. Not that Scott was uncontrollable. In fact, Angus said Bon worked hard when it was time to work, but he also cut loose when it was time to party. “We’d get off a six-month tour and Bon would say, `It’s time for a wing-ding’ and you wouldn’t see him for a while. But he also used to say that no matter what he did, he always got eight hours of sleep.”
Often that meant waking up in the early evening, but there was one time that Bon Scott didn’t wake up, and it only takes one. He’d been out drinking all night in London and a friend drove him home, but Scott had passed out so the friend let him sleep it off in the car. The next morning, Scott was found dead in the car. He had drunk himself to death and AC/DC would never be the same.With the Young brothers on guitar, they’re still a great band, and Johnson really has made the best of the situation, but Bon Scott just can’t be replaced. The guitars still conjure massive swells, but the surfer is gone, replaced by a buoy that bobs at all the right times.
So even as Johnson logged three decades as “the new singer,” Angus Young still has to say that the very best AC/DC album was 1977’s Let There Be Rock. Angus was 22 years old when that hard-rock classic was recorded and now he’s 40 and very well-adjusted about reaching that milestone. “The media would have us all disposed at age 25, but I don’t really even think in terms of age. When you think about it, I’m pretty lucky,” he said. “After all, how many 40-year-olds get to work in schoolboy outfits?”
Besides you and me, Angus, not many.
TEN REASONS WHY AC/DC, NOT THE ROLLING STONES, IS THE GREATEST ROCK BAND OF ALL TIME
1. AC/DC‘s drummer wouldn’t rather be playing jazz.
2. As bad as “Fly on the Wall” was, it’s still better than “Emotional Rescue.”
3. Ron Wood wouldn’t last 10 minutes at an AC/DC audition.
4. The Beastie Boys never sampled the Stones.
5. AC/DC has never had to rely on horns or back-up singers.
6. When you wear an AC/DC T-shirt, it says more about you than when you wear a Stones T-shirt.
7. AC/DC has never recorded a disco song.
8. Original AC/DC singer Bon Scott died from drinking too much alcohol; charter Stone Brian Jones died from too much water.
9. The members of AC/DC have no other interests besides rock ‘n’ roll, while the Stones are always acting in movies or having art openings.
10. “Whole Lotta Rosie.”