Sunday Old School: AC/DC, The Brian Johnson Years
Last year when I wrote a Sunday Old School column to commemorate the 30th anniversary of frontman Bon Scott's passing, I asked readers to close their eyes and think of AC/DC. As I wrote back then, “If you're like most people, the first thing that enters your mind is the image of Angus Young in his schoolboy suit doing his Chuck Berry on speed duckwalk across the stage. The second thing for most is the image of singer Brian Johnson, cap pulled down nearly to his eyes, letting loose with a powerdrill wail.”
To be sure, part of the reason for that is the longevity of Johnson's tenure with the band. Scott's career with AC/DC lasted a mere six years, while Johnson's been with the band for 30 years and counting. But chalking it up to that alone discounts Johnson's skill as a vocalist, lyricist and frontman in his own right. The fact of the matter is that had Brian not been as adept as he was in taking over for Bon, the lights could've been permanently put out for AC/DC three decades ago. In fact, in the book “AC/DC: Maximum Rock 'N Roll,” there are several statements pointing to the fact that but for Brian, the band never would've taken off as it did in the United States in the 1980s. After all, the band had failed to catch fire supporting acts like Kiss, Aerosmith and Lynrd Skynrd during Bon's tenure.
Also, Brian brought a level of consistency that perhaps hadn't quite been there before. One could argue that he was less of a dynamic showman than Bon was — though in recent tours he's come out of his shell a lot more. At the same time, Bon was much less consistent in terms of vocal delivery. Even Angus admitted such in an interview, saying that Bon's vocal style was much more a matter of rhythm, where Brian's vocals were much more like a musical instrument in their own right.
Prior to his AC/DC gig, Brian was best known as the lead singer of the English glam rock band Geordie. In the early 1970s, Bon Scott's pre-AC/DC outfit Fang toured England, playing with Geordie. With a singing style reminiscent of Little Richard, Johnson had impressed Scott, who later told the rest of AC/DC of a particular show in which Johnson was shrieking and thrashing about on the ground. Scott believed it was all part of the show. In fact, Johnson was in agony from appendicitis.
"Geordie: She's a Teaser"
In the wake of Bon's death, Johnson was called in for an audition. Among the tunes he played with the band were “Whole Lotta Rosie” and Ike and Tina Turner's “Nutbush City Limits.” His performance at the audition secured him the gig of a lifetime — but what followed was a trial by fire.
Given “Back In Black's” status as the second-best-selling album of all time, and the fact that work on the album had begun before Bon's death, it would be easy to leap to the conclusion that its recording was a simple process. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
There was tension between producer Robert “Mutt” Lange and guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young over some song structures. And, worse yet, Brian found himself having difficulty writing the lyrics. It's hard to see a hurricane as a good omen, but in this case, the one that slammed into the Bahamas during the recording of the “Back In Black” album proved to be just the lyrical inspiration Brian needed, providing the “roarin' thunder” and “poundin' rain” that fueled the disc's lead-off track, “Hell's Bells.”
The title track is based off a riff created by Malcolm Young — one that Angus says he's never been quite able to duplicate either live or on the album.
“Back in Black” may have launched the band into the stratosphere, but its follow-up, “For Those About to Rock We Salute You” actually climbed higher up the charts in the United States. With Lange back in the control booth, the album essentially follows the same formula as “Back In Black,” with thundering cannons replacing the ringing of the Hell's Bell. That said, Johnson delivers another killer performance, hitting impossibly high notes on tracks like “Inject the Venom.” Also, if you're looking for laid-back blues rock, it's pretty hard to beat the happy vibe of “Let's Get It Up.”
Unfortunately, once you hit the top, the only place to go is down. For AC/DC in the 1980s, that decline started with 1983's self-produced album “Flick of the Switch.” Less of a commercial success than either of its two immediate predecessors, the album also marked the end of drummer Phil Rudd's first tenure with the band, owing to drug abuse, unresolved personal issues revolving around Bon Scott's death and disagreements with Malcolm Young that literally came to blows. Despite all that, “Flick of the Switch” does have some standout moments, particularly the title track, which, instrumentally speaking, wouldn't have been out of place on either “Let There Be Rock” or “Powerage.”
The slide continued with 1985's “Fly On the Wall,” which featured Simon Wright's debut behind the drum kit. Though he's a very good drummer — and went on to do great things with Ronnie James Dio — to this writer, at least, Wright never quite fit in with AC/DC. There's just something not quite right in the groove. Once again, Angus and Malcolm served as producers, cranking up the distortion and echo, making this one perhaps the most “heavy metal” of all of AC/DC's output. The album featured a few standout tracks ( most notably “Shake Your Foundations” and “Sink The Pink,” remixed versions of which would appear on “Who Made Who”), but also a lot of filler material and a lot of uninspired solos from Angus.
The band's commercial fortunes brightened a bit with 1986's “Who Made Who,” which served as the soundtrack to the Stephen King film “Maximum Overdrive.” The disc featured three new songs — who of which were instrumentals — and a collection of other tunes from the band's history. The title track was a chart success and the band filmed a new video for “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Part of the reason for the success of the album — and a part that the band had issues with — is the fact that it was marketed with a sticker declaring it to be AC/DC's “greatest hits.”
“Blow Up Your Video,” released in 1988, was also a commercial success, but also represents a low point for the band. By this time, Malcolm Young's alcoholism had become a severe problem, and to my mind, it shows in the uninspired songwriting. Malcolm entered rehab after the recording of the album and was replaced on the tour by his nephew, Stevie Young. Also, whether it's age or the effects of too much whiskey, cigarettes and screaming, the first signs of wear and tear on Brian's voice begin to show up here. The band returned to their Bon-era producers of George Young and Harry Vanda for this album, and those roots show up clearly on the disc's best track, the '50s-rock-infused “That's The Way I Wanna Rock 'N Roll.”
Artistic renewal and even greater commercial success came with 1990's “The Razor's Edge.” With Wright's departure to join Dio for the “Lock Up the Wolves” album, drummer Chris Slade joined the fold. Slade, who previously played with Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page in the Firm, brought a harder-hitting approach than either Rudd or Wright, with an approach vaguely reminiscent of John Bonham. Again, the weather played an important part in the band's songwriting, with Angus Young coming up with the idea for the lead-off single “Thunderstruck,” with its distinctive opening, after being on a plane that had been struck by lightning. “Moneytalks” and “Are You Ready” were also released as singles. During the songwriting process for “The Razor's Edge,” Brian was sidelined by divorce proceedings. The end result was that Malcolm and Angus wound up writing all of the lyrics. Though the effects were minimal on “The Razor's Edge,” in this author's opinion, the next two albums suffered a bit for the lack of Johnson taking an active hand in creating the lyrics.
“Ballbreaker,” released in 1995, brought the return of Phil Rudd to the band. Slade, who also played on the “AC/DC Live” album that chronicled the “Razor's Edge” tour, has stated that he cried upon hearing that he'd been dismissed from the band, and that he was unable to go near his drum kit for some time to follow. Rudd's return is most keenly felt in this disc's percussive title track, which has an old-school feel feel to it. In fact, the album represents a bit of a return to the band's roots, with an almost sparse sound. It also features Brian Johnson utilizing a new vocal trick, singing in a much lower register than listeners had become accustomed to on tracks like “Boogie Man” and “Hail Caesar. The band brought in super-producer Rick Rubin to create “Ballbreaker,” after having worked with him on “Big Gun,” a track that appeared on the “Last Action Hero” soundtrack. Malcolm has said that working with Rubin, who apparently was much more focused on drum sounds than on the guitars, was a mistake. Lyrically, the album is among the band's weakest, with tunes like “Honey Roll,” “Love Bomb” and “Cover You in Oil” also suffering from poor, repetitive riffs. The mighty “Hard As A Rock” was the first single and, along with “Ballbreaker,” “Hail Caesar” and “The Furor,” is one of the better tracks.
If “Ballbreaker” was a step toward returning to the early sound of “High Voltage” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” 2000's “Stiff Upper Lip” was a quantum leap in that direction. With George Young returning to the control room — this time minus Harry Vanda — the band goes for straight-ahead blues on tracks like “Meltdown,” while still showing a flair for fancy fretwork on the boogie-ing “Can't Stand Still.” In general, the album works better than “Ballbreaker,” though a couple of bum tracks (“House Of Jazz” and “Come And Get It”) really stick out.
After an eight-year wait, during which the band eased fans' hunger for new material by releasing the “Family Jewels” and “Plug Me In” DVD sets, AC/DC released “Black Ice,” which many reviewers (including this one) have cited as being the band's best since “Back In Black.” Just as “Mutt” Lange did in the early '80s, producer Brendan O'Brien gave the raw rock sound just enough of a pop sheen to be irresistible to record buyers, who packed Walmarts everywhere to get their hands on this disc. A catchy first single, “Rock 'N Roll Train” (with a song structure quite similar to that of “Highway To Hell”) didn't hurt either. Also, Brian Johnson is in better voice — in both high and mid-ranges — than at any time since “Fly On the Wall.” Brian has given some of the credit for that to O'Brien, who urged him to sing like more of a soul singer than a rock singer and made him more comfortable in the studio than he had been on the band's last few discs.
The band toured behind “Black Ice” for the better part of two years, and recently released the “Live at River Plate” DVD. At more than 60 years old, Brian has said that he'll consider retiring if the time comes that he can't perform a full concert. Let's hope that time is a long way off.
"Back in Black"
"For Those About to Rock We Salute You"
"Flick of the Switch"
"Shake Your Foundations"
"That's the Way I Wanna Rock N' Roll"
"Hard as a Rock"
"Stiff Upper Lip"
"Rock 'N Roll Train"
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