All the singer from Newcastle knew was that a rock band in London was looking for a front man. It was guaranteed worthwhile to come down and audition. He borrowed money for a rental car and made the trip. Arriving at the address, he found some fellows playing pool and assumed they were the musicians—but they were just the crew. After 20 minutes the band’s manager came downstairs looking for him and summoned him up to the rehearsal room. Brian Johnson was stunned when he entered, asking, “Is this who I think it is?”
The one-of-a-kind singer and lyricist Bon Scott had died of acute alcohol poisoning a few weeks earlier, in February 1980. His ill-timed departure occurred not long after AC/DC had completed its “Highway to Hell” tour, which positioned the band at the pinnacle of international success. Now they had to re-forge their identity, come out with a new album, and hope their fans would accept the result. By April, Johnson was leaving his car roofing and windshield replacement business and for Compass Point Studios in Nassau, the Bahamas, with his new band mates, producer Mutt Lange, and engineer Tony Platt. What resulted from their labors was “Back in Black,” one of the most powerful rock records ever. The subsequent tour established Johnson with the group, a position he still holds 29 years later.
His audition episode arrives more than 300 pages into “AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll: The Ultimate Story of the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” Authors Murray Engleheart and Arnaud Durieux keep their comprehensive history trundling along well enough so that an American reader, such as this one, can make it that far. It must be remembered that until “Back in Black,” the outrageous band had received very little airplay in the U.S., so few of us knew the story through the first five studio albums and one live release. Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles dominated the airwaves, along with disco tracks like “Funkytown.” As Shane cleared out a frontier town, AC/DC arrived to clean up all that with catchy ditties like “Hell’s Bells.”
The authors do a fine job of portraying the band’s origins. Malcolm and younger brother Angus Young came from a close family in which an older brother had enjoyed some success in the music world. Especially vivid is the gritty struggle AC/DC fought to achieve Australian success and then take that to London for something greater. On just a couple of occasions the narrative doesn’t satisfy. To the dilettantish reader like me, learning that Angus settled for a Gibson SG guitar instead of a Les Paul doesn’t mean a thing. And even though I like cars, I have only a vague idea of the significance inherent in drummer Phil Rudd’s choice of wheels, an HK Monaro. It sounds more like a brand of cigarettes. Sometimes I just need the full explanation.
On the other hand, the book more than answers questions about the dynamics within the band. Malcolm willingly ceded the soloist’s role to Angus, yet he has always called the shots. Despite Angus’s devilish posturing, their solid character is a Scottish birthright. Something I’ve always enjoyed about AC/DC is the lack of U2-style social philosophy. Why don’t we just rock? Perhaps there are blessings to be derived from going only so far in school. As Angus told Rolling Stone last fall, “I didn’t have any prospects for a career, with the education I had. When I started doing this, I thought, ‘You gotta give it 200 percent.'” Yes, there were drugs, alcohol, and women. But Angus seems to exist more on comic books, milkshakes, and sitcoms. And the Youngs have a fabulous work ethic. The mere fact that they had to endure until “Highway to Hell” before the money started rolling in attests to it. Not to mention the unshakable belief they would be big. But they hadn’t anticipated their charming crooner Scott’s death. How the Youngs found the perfect guy for the gig is a tribute to their astuteness.
“Brian sounded as if he had been buried alive for decades and had finally burst free,” the authors write. He warmed up for gigs by screaming. Working out became a necessity for keeping up with the sustained explosion of energy the shows required, and he once passed out onstage in the stifling St. Louis heat. But his earthiness and good humor, and an altogether different virility from Scott’s, helped to transform the band. The recent “Black Ice” album—which made its debut at number one here and in two dozen other countries—was acclaimed by Jason Fine, of Rolling Stone, as the best since “Back in Black,” and the world tour is showing legs.
Which brings us around to the (second) subtitle: Is AC/DC the world’s greatest rock and roll band? In the U.S., only the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Eagles have sold more records. After 35 years, AC/DC puts out a disc as good as “Black Ice.” In the live show, the school boy shtick and pants-dropping still works, at least a little bit. Elitists may laugh, but I didn’t hurry down the road a month ago when the Eagles came to town. They’re very good, but I was under the impression they cordon off their stage with yellow tape that warns, “Ballad Zone.”