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"Rock music is just one of those things," explains Angus Young, lead guitarist for AC/DC, in a recent phone interview. "When people look for something new, especially these days, the pressure is on -- especially when there's that much media that likes to be one step ahead and jump on what's the new thing. But I think the public itself is a pretty stationary thing, or at least it moves slower than what the media thinks. And when they do get into something, they might go and see it once; they might get hyped up about it. But then they go, 'OK, we saw that --now can we have our rock music back again?'"
AC/DC has lived through its share of next-big-things, consistently giving back the rock & roll music. They've been doing it for more than 25 years. The original bass player, Mark Evans, left the band in 1977 and was replaced by Cliff Williams. The original singer, Bon Scott, died in 1980 and was replaced by Brian Johnson. Drummer Phil Rudd left in the early '80s, but came back in the early '90s. Guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young have been leading this band since 1973. Despite the adversity and the lineup-juggling, their philosophy is as sound as one of their classic riffs: "Can we have our rock music back again?"
"Malcolm, my older brother, formed the band," says Angus Young. "He got myself involved as he was doing rehearsal things, looking to audition guys. He came in after a couple days of doing that, and he said, "Hey, why don't you come down and play the second guitar?""
As anyone who's ever seen AC/DC knows, Angus is not the type to stand in back playing second guitar. Brian Johnson may be the vocalist, the hardworking howler, but Angus Young is the focus, dressed in the funny Australian schoolboy outfit, one that he was actually wearing every day, gig or no gig (he was still in school), when the band was formed. He dominates the stage with his spastic presence: running in place and in circles, rocking back and forth while soloing, making the most amazing and distorted facial expressions in the business -- at his best, he looks like a chimpanzee chewing bubble gum.
Young continues reminiscing: "The two of us used to play lead guitar together, but then Malcolm said it was interfering with his drinking." As he says this, Young explodes in deep, rhythmic laughter, a laughter that appears frequently throughout the conversation; clearly Angus Young enjoys talking about his band. "He actually used to push me up to the front. He'd say, 'You've got to do your thing, you do it so well.'
"And what he does!" exclaims Young. "(Malcolm) had played guitar solos and stuff when he was younger, but for him, he thought the real art was elsewhere. He used to say there are so many guys who could sort of diddle on guitar. He felt what was lacking a lot was the good old solid rhythm that you used to get in the '50s bands.
"He's got a unique thing. I notice if he starts a song with a rhythm, it chug-chugs all the way through there. You think you can put your finger on it and try and copy it, but when you sit down and try it, it's a whole different game. I always look at it as he's got this great gift, between the guitar and him. It looks so simple, but actually when you get in there and analyze it, it's a complex thing. But he makes it look so simple."
Malcolm Young and bassist Cliff Williams stand toward the back of the stage, on either side of Rudd's drum kit. The three form what is perhaps the most formidable rhythm section in rock. Everything they do is in lockstep, square to the 4/4 rhythm, with little or no variance, no hint of syncopation, no essence of funk. AC/DC mean to hit you in the gut with their rhythm, and they tell you when you're going to be hit, and it feels damn good when you get hit there.
Malcolm's guitar riffs are among the most exhilarating of the last two decades. The classic AC/DC songs -- "Highway to Hell," "Back in Black," "You Shook Me All Night Long," "For Those About to Rock," "Flick of the Switch," "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," "Whole Lotta Rosie" -- all are based on a few notes or chords, endlessly cycling yet building up an energy that requires Angus' guitar explosions as tension release.
"I've always been a fan of the Chuck Berry thing," says Angus Young. "He gave some of the great guitar intros. When I grew up, you knew immediately that that was a Chuck Berry song when it kicked off with a couple of those licks in the first bar. And you had it with the Stones' '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' -- they would do the same thing. Just those little guitar-based things that people know straight away: 'Ah-ha, here comes those guys.' With us, it's pretty much the same. We do it with tracks like 'Highway to Hell' or 'Back in Black.' We've got that one note. You hear the first note, you know it's us." He laughs that laugh again. "We took great pride in that."
As well they should -- because in the world of popular music, with the next trend eternally on the horizon, musicians are always worried about how long they can maintain their fame. So it's reassuring to know at least one band can pretty much stay the same for 25 years. The brand-new AC/DC album, Stiff Upper Lip, has way more similarities to any track from High Voltage, the band's 1976 debut album, than differences. Different vocalist, sure, and a little more creativity in the chord structures, but the essence is the same; a metal-head Rip Van Winkle waking up after a quarter-century nap would easily recognize their sound.
"We strive for consistency," says Young. "We spend a lot of time working on it. Rock music is simplicity itself, but (you have to) come up with something that's a little bit different from what you've done before. You don't want to be a clone of what you were before. But you also know you've got to come up with something that sounds like AC/DC. So, you know, there's a lot of searching that we do.
"We have a song on the new album called 'Can't Stop Rock 'n' Roll.' I don't think anybody is trying to stop it anymore, but when we first released the album, a lot of the media were asking us, 'Yeah, but do you think what you do stands up to what today's youth is looking for?' I think it will always be that way. We know what we do best, which is rock & roll. I think there's always that little bit of hard wall you've got to get through."
AC/DC makes good, and even great, albums but truly shines in the live setting. Maybe it's the sheer extra volume that makes for such a completely visceral experience, or maybe it's simply hearing the band's best material performed back-to-back-to-back for a couple of hours. Or perhaps it's got something to do with the energy and enjoyment the band brings to the stage show. But, also, each tour brings a new trick. "Hell's Bells", from the classic Back in Black, is announced with the solemn ringing of a giant bell. "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" features a giant cannon, perched high above the stage, Spinal Tap-like, firing fake cannonballs. (If you value your hearing, get out of the building when they start to play that song; this usually comes at the end of the night, anyway.)
Young is coy when asked what we can expect for this tour, the band's first in four years. "There's a lot of surprises," he says. "It's a big show. I know, because I'm paying the bills." Another big laugh. "We've got a few things. I don't want to give away too much, you know. It's definitely different from what we've done in the past. There's a couple of big things. If you look at the cover for our new album, Stiff Upper Lip, that'll give you a good idea." The cover is built around what appears to be a large bronze statue of Angus Young in action onstage.
Five years ago, when AC/DC played Riverport, Brian Johnson was unable to come back onstage for an encore. Johnson and Young, in particular, work hard onstage, and on this night the heat was a bit too much for him. "He was struggling for air," said Young. "The medic thought it would be best for him not to go back on. I think in conditions like that, you've got to think. None of us joined a rock & roll band to sort of die." He laughs again.
"Brian goes for it, though," Young concludes. "I'm in amazement all the time, just watching. You've got to have good lung power, especially because it's a very hard rhythm section sitting behind him." And that's the essence of AC/DC: an incredibly hard, solid rhythm section with a powerhouse vocalist and an equally intense lead guitarist, playing the most basic yet infectious rock & roll songs with unequaled passion and intensity.