AC/DC: An Appreciation
The Independent, November 2000
LIKE all the best rock’n’roll stories, it probably never happened. And, like all such time-served legends, the details change subtly according to who is telling it, but the essentials are constant and the truth it illuminates is important. It is said that, in the course of promoting one of AC/DC’s records, the band’s lead guitarist, Angus Young, was accused by some or other journalist of “having made eleven albums that all sound exactly the bloody same." “That’s just ignorant,” bristles the Angus Young of our pub fable. “We’ve made twelve albums that all sound exactly the bloody same.”
If this never happened, it should have. If it did, then Young is rare indeed among rock musicians in having such a lucid awareness of the essence of his own genius. As AC/DC prepare for a British tour in support of “Stiff Upper Lip”, their seventeenth album that sounds exactly the bloody same, it should be understood that it is precisely this rigid reductivism that makes them great. AC/DC’s 27-year-long creative stasis is not, as might be assumed, the result of chronically limited imagination. It is, rather, an acceptance that they got it right the first time they tried, and that there is little point in attempting to improve on perfection, though they have certainly repeated it: “If You Want Blood”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” and “Let’s Get It Up” will all echo down the ages like feedback.
Never recorded a ballad. Never hired a string section. Never written a lyric remotely relevant to the real world. Never grown up – and, for that reason, never grown old. Loved across all boundaries of fashion and music, and just as universally influential, AC/DC are the greatest rock’n’roll band on earth, the best there ever was or will be. The interior life of anyone who does not relish the prospect of seeing them live next week must look like Swindon on a damp Tuesday night.
THE manifesto to which AC/DC have remained faithful all these years is their 1975 debut album, “High Voltage”, which no home should be without. Three of the musicians who played on it are still with the band: the Glasgow-born, Sydney-raised, Young brothers, Malcolm and Angus, whose elder brother (and frequent AC/DC producer) George had already enjoyed success with The Easybeats; native Australian drummer Phil Rudd. On “High Voltage”, all the now-familiar elements are present and correct: the metronomic bass and drums, the ringing open chords of Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar, the hyperactive soloing of Angus Young’s lead, and a swaggering, rasping vocalist (more or less reformed hooligan and fellow Scottish Australian Bon Scott, at this stage) delivering words that were roughly equal parts richly self-mocking braggadocio (“Gonna be a rock’n’roll star. . . I hear it pays well”) and puerile, if often hilarious, innuendo.
Even the look had already been decided upon. Malcolm Young still performs in the faded jeans and white singlet that would have been sensible for the sweaty Sydney pubs in which the nascent AC/DC learnt their trade (and has used only two Gretsch guitars from the outset.) Angus, more famously, persists with the school uniform that seemed funny at the time (he was just 16 when “High Voltage” was released.) On the cover, he is pictured clasping the Gibson SG he has not been seen without since.
AC/DC’s immutable devotion to their founding principles is best illustrated by their response to the death of Bon Scott, whose prodigious consumption of alcohol caught up with him in February 1980. A lesser band would have packed it in completely, or altered course substantially, or recorded a sombre, Proustian rumination on mortality by way of tribute to their fallen comrade. . . or, basically, given the slightest indication that they’d been knocked out of their stride. Not AC/DC. Within a year, they had hired a new singer, Newcastle-born Brian Johnson, who sounded exactly like Scott, and recorded and released the global chart-topper “Back In Black”, which included a track called “Have A Drink On Me”.
This awesomely single-minded constancy has been the key to AC/DC’s massive popular appeal, allowing them to transcend the shifts in musical fashion that often prove fatal to those foolish or uncertain enough to pursue them. It has also helped that AC/DC’s oeuvre is dazzlingly simple to deconstruct. Their canon is, fundamentally, a vast collection of rewrites of Free’s “Alright Now” and The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash”, almost always rendered in the key of A. This ruthless boiling down of rock’n’roll to its barest bones makes AC/DC records irresistible to anyone learning to play guitar – it is no reflection upon Malcolm Young’s exemplary rhythm playing that a recognisable “Highway To Hell” is possible after barely an afternoon’s tuition.
By keeping it simple, and keeping it pure, and keeping it up for so long, AC/DC have become a touchstone for musicians representing every genre of modern music. Their influence is unsurprisingly discernible among modern heavy metal acts, especially Guns N’Roses and The Cult, but AC/DC’s reach extends much further, into the realm of alternative rock (the opening chords of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could have been one of Malcolm Young’s choppy progressions) and hip-hop (The Beastie Boys’ incalculably important 1986 debut album, “Licensed To Ill”, was riddled with borrowed AC/DC riffs and shared a similarly juvenile lyrical sensibility). More anecdotally, the two furthest-gone AC/DC trainspotters this correspondent has ever encountered have been a Christian country singer, and a songwriter best known for dance-influenced pop.
A JOY forever though AC/DC’s albums are, the band are at their best on stage. Though the music is delivered with their customary rigorous lack of embellishment, they allow themselves some latitude with the visuals, creating what amounts to a glorious two-hour vacation from common sense. Previous AC/DC stage sets have included an exploding staircase, a wrecking ball, an immense inflatable woman (to illustrate “Whole Lotta Rosie”, AC/DC’s immortal tribute to the fuller-figured female) and a battery of cannons to accompany “For Those About To Rock”, without doubt the most stylish marriage of music and artillery since Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. If you don’t have a ticket, find someone who has a spare and marry or kill them as seems appropriate.
It is perhaps the most eloquent of all tributes to AC/DC that, despite being a long-serving veteran heavy metal band, they have never been the target of any cleverer-than-thou parody – there is not a trace of AC/DC anywhere in “This Is Spinal Tap”, and they, along with late-80s American noiseniks The Butthole Surfers, were the only band who ever elicited unequivocal admiration from Beavis and Butthead. Quite right, too: AC/DC are as pure, elemental and beyond criticism as the air we breathe and the water we drink. One forward-thinking municipal authority in Spain has already named a street after them; the debate about the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square should go no further.
copyright Andrew Mueller