These days, AC/DC's immaturity is starting to look awfully mature -- and not just in years.
The band's membership may have shifted over the years (although not lately -- vocalist Brian Johnson is the new guy, with just 21 years of experience), but its sound remains much the same as it was shortly after its birth in Sydney, Australia, way back in 1973. Pore through the act's seventeen releases, from 1976's High Voltage to 2000's Stiff Upper Lip, and you're likely to be wowed by the awesome consistency. Same colossal riffs. Same lyrical dick jokes. Same impatience with the hifalutin. Likewise, AC/DC is virtually alone among its peers when it comes to avoiding embarrassing creative choices. The group's catalogue is blessedly unmarred by disco beats, synthesizers or capitulation to passing fads, because the men of AC/DC -- currently sibling guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, drummer Phil Rudd, bassist Cliff Williams and Johnson -- know what they do best. They rock. That's all they do. That's all they're ever going to do. And that's fine.
AC/DC has stirred controversy over the past couple of decades -- like when it was discovered that serial killer Richard Ramirez wore a baseball cap with the band's name on it, convincing some dullards that the group was made up of devil worshipers, or when the Parents Music Resource Center attacked the combo for its lascivious rhymes, or when three fans died at a 1991 AC/DC concert in Salt Lake City, resulting in bad press and an out-of-court settlement. But that seems like a long time ago now. There's something reassuring and almost quaint about knowing that AC/ DC is still around, still kicking and still singing about big balls and dirty deeds done dirt cheap.
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During the conversation that follows, the voluble, boisterous Johnson, a fifty-plus British native who joined AC/DC in 1980 following the death of original singer Bon Scott, was in a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, "just lookin' at the remnants" of the night before -- Sunday, March 25, when the Academy Awards were broadcast. According to him, "Everythin' was closed, so three or four of the lads came up to the room an' we raided the bus, got some whiskey an' some wine an' some beers. An' I remember we thought, 'Let's watch the Oscars,' but that lasted about five minutes. It made me want to vomit with all that flattery. So we started tellin' stories, an' I just remember being doubled up on the floor cryin'. It was great fun -- just like it always is."
Westword: One of the expressions we use here in the U.S. is "Change is good." But it seems to me that one of the things that's great about AC/DC is that, musically, at least, not a whole lot has changed. So is change good, or does change suck?
Brian Johnson: Well, change fer the sake of change sucks, ya know? [Laughs.] It's been proved in life. People have changed things fer the sake of changin' them, an' then they go, "Jeez, what did we do?" I think that's why we have so many fans around the world. They know what they're gonna get when they come to the gig. We just know what we're good at. You could call us one-trick ponies if ya like, but basically, we just enjoy what we're doin'.
WW: Was there ever a time when a record-company executive or a manager wanted you to do something else? Anyone who said, "This is hot right now; why don't you try it?"
BJ: Yeah, back in the mid-'80s, when there were horrible things like [croons in a lounge-singer voice], "We built this city on rock and roll." [Laughs.] That still makes me puke to this day. But anyway, we had a visit from one of the big boys who said, "Maybe ya should think about changin' the image." An' we looked at this guy an' said, "What do ya know about image?" An' he said, "We got this band an' that band." Like that English band, had a guy named Rob as the singer. Baldin' guy...
WW: Judas Priest?
BJ: Judas Priest! That's it, mate. I'm gettin' old, me memory's gone. But he said they'd gotten ahold of them an' transformed them into all wearin' leather. But the album was crap! As me father used to say, "Ya cannot polish a turd." An' we just threw the guy out an' told him to never come back again, an' if he did, it would be at serious risk to his health. An' it was tough for a while, especially with no exposure on radio or TV. MTV avoided us like the plague. If there was any excuse, they'd take it. They'd be like, "We can't show that video because ya can see part of a woman's breast." An' we said, "Yeah, but she's got clothes on!" An' they'd say, "No, no, it's too suggestive." An' then these rap videos would come on an' there's chicks with their whole asses hangin' out! So we caught on quick that they just didn't wanna know about us. But we kept pluggin' along, an' thankfully, people came with us.
WW: Are there some changes in your music that perhaps your fans haven't noticed? Or do you try to make sure those changes don't sneak in?
BJ: We definitely try not to let them sneak in. Obviously, ya change some from album to album: different songs, different feel, different time an' all that. But the basic engine room of the music, Phil an' Cliff an' Malcolm, who are just drivin' the whole AC/DC train, is pretty much the same. So it's a very subtle difference. An' it gets more and more difficult to write a new song just from the basic chords, ya know?
WW: Especially when you know the new songs will be compared to the old ones. Does that make it harder -- to know that after you play a new song, you'll be playing "Back in Black"?
BJ: Ya hit it right on the head there, mate. Ya have to strive fer that elusive riff, because I believe these days there ain't riff-makers anymore. You get these duh-duh-dum things, an' they're nothin'. But a good riff is fabulous, an' kids love 'em! An' in the late '60s an' early '70s, ya had yer Jeff Becks an' yer Black Sabbaths an' people like that who came up with these superb riffs. But just a few people can do it now.
WW: So where have all the great riff-makers gone?
BJ: It's a puzzlement to me. But I never cease to be amazed by what Malcolm an' Angus come up with. We usually meet up in London to lay the seeds fer somethin' new, and they'll play me somethin', an' I'll go, "Where did you pull that from?" An' ya can imagine what it feels like, bein' the first person in the world to hear it. That's the big thrill.
WW: "Stiff Upper Lip" is part of a long and proud history of AC/DC songs that play off phallus references. What is it about the subject that keeps you guys coming back?
BJ: We're all from workin'-class people, an' swearin' was never allowed in the house -- absolutely nowhere. Me father never swore in his life. So workin' men used these little phrases all the time to say what they're really thinkin'.
WW: Like "stiff upper lip," but with a big pause after "stiff"?
BJ: Absolutely. Ya see, there's a million things you can do with it -- an' that's half the fun. Of course, the English have always been fabulous at satire, from Monty Python an' so on, an' our sitcoms have always been the best. The problem with American comedy is, it lacks irony. There's always a message at the end -- like, "The bruiser really was a bully," and by the end of the show, he's an angel. Jeez...
WW: Is our lack of irony one of the reasons some people decided your music was satanic?
BJ: I love America. I live here now, an' it's the greatest country in the world, as far as I'm concerned. But unfortunately, ya have some of the biggest looney tunes, meanin' the religious right. They're just nutcakes, an' if they can get advertisin' for themselves, they'll pick on somethin' people are enjoyin' just because they're enjoyin' it. An' of course they never listened to our lyrics, because there's nothin' satanic in there. Like "Highway to Hell," which we explained was about a three-day drive across a desert in Australia. Which was hot, ya know? Like hell? But these people, they've got so many gullible followers down in that Bible Belt. They'd say if ya play the record backwards, ya can hear evil things -- like, "Grrrrrrrr." An' I would think, "Jeez, I didn't know the devil sounded like that. I thought he was coherent, like the rest of us."
WW: Some of this gets touched on in the Behind the Music documentary that VH1 made about you -- and I was kind of surprised you did that, since VH1 would never play your music otherwise. Why did you decide to go along with that, and did it bother you how it turned out?
BJ: Absolutely, it did. We said we'd do it, an' we spent two hours each sittin' in a chair in New York tellin' about all the good times. An' when it came on, I thought, "What in the name of shit have they done to us?" I got straight onto the telephone with the guy who produced it an' said, "Ya bloody plunker." An' he said, "Hey, man, don't ya like it?" An' I said, "No, I don't like it. I think it stinks." He said, "Why?" An' I said, "We've got a bass player called Cliff Williams who's not even in it. He's been in the band fer 25 years, he was Bon's best friend, an he's not even in it, ya bloody plunker." An' the worst thing was, Cliff was sittin' at home in front of the television with his children, his neighbors, his wife, his mother an' father, to watch it. How do ya think he felt?
WW: "Did they do anything about that?"
BJ: Yeah, they changed it. They put Cliff in at the end. But ya know what their excuse was fer leavin' him out? "He doesn't talk very well." An' I said, "You rude git. Cliff's the nicest speaker of the lot. He's a lovely man. He's a gentleman." But they don't care about that, because they're too busy makin' it into a bloody soap opera. Every time there's an advert, a voice comes on an' says [in an announcer's voice], "When we come back, more death stalks AC/DC..." And I'm like, "Oh Jesus, I can't stand it." I was gonna cut me wrists. I thought, I'm not in this group. An' then they put in all that about that creep murderer, Ramirez, a real piece of shit who mutilated people before he killed them. They had a policeman on there sayin', "The AC/DC baseball cap had nothin' to do with it." But they put it in there anyway, an' glorified that creep again. An' I'm like, "Why did ya do that?"
WW: Because it gave them another dramatic twist.
BJ: Yeah, another dramatic twist before the adverts. I said to the guy, "I think ya've only got one script, an' ya just change the name of the band." You look at the one fer Mötley Crüe: "An' when we come back, more drugs, more death..." Oh God. Just insert the band name, put in a couple of clips, and bingo.
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WW: What did the fans think of it?
BJ: Some of them liked it. They'd say to me, "That was fantastic." An' I've just got to bite me lip an' pretend. But it still makes me mad. We gave them the chance to make somethin' good out of a band that's been quite successful, and they treated it like, "Where are they now? Can you believe they survived?"
WW: To me, AC/DC isn't just about survival. It's about continuing to do the job.
BJ: That's it exactly, mate. An' the day I start becomin' a parody of meself, that's the day I'm out of there. I'll climb on me horse and just disappear into the sunset.