I’m on a six-pack kick lately.. What can I say? What can one say about a band like AC/DC whose idea of a ballad is, well, do they even have one? Frankly, they make almost every other rock band sound like a bunch of laid-back pussies who aren’t even trying. There’s no way on earth I can really pick six great AC/DC songs without leaving some out. But so be it. A little history:
Angus and Malcolm Young’s journey begins in Glasgow, Scotland where they were born in the mid-’50s. (Malcolm was a couple of years older.) According to Wikipedia: “The Big Freeze of 1963 was the worst winter on record in Scotland with snow eight feet deep. A TV advertisement at the same time offered assisted travel for families for a different life in Australia.” (Shrimp on the barbie, big draft beers and – surfing? – ME)
A whole slew of Youngs made the 10,000 mile (17,000 km) flight Down Under. Malcolm would have been about 10, Angus 8. As to musical ability, all the males in the family played one instrument or another. The Young family settled into a suburb of Sydney. Angus made it as far as high school and then dropped out when he was 15. His initial instrument was a banjo and he got his first Gibson SG around this time.
After kicking around in various bands including with their brother George, in November 1973 Malcolm (rhythm guitar) and Angus (lead guitar), formed AC/DC with bassist Larry Van Kriedt, vocalist Dave Evans, and drummer Colin Burgess. After trying out a bunch of different stage costumes (Spiderman, Zorra, a gorilla), Angus settled on a schoolboy look made by his sister.
“Malcolm and Angus developed the idea for the band’s name after their sister saw the initials ‘AC/DC’ on a sewing machine. The brothers felt that this name symbolized the band’s raw energy, power-driven performances of their music.” The lads moved to Melbourne, got rid of the glam-rock they’d been playing and focused on the down and dirty shit we know today.
Alas, Dave Evans’ style no longer fit the band and so just about a year after they were formed, another Scottish refugee Ronald “Bon” Scott joined the band. Scott had been coaxed on stage by friends since the band had no singer. (Scott was working as a chauffeur for the band interestingly enough.) And thus, the Acca Dacca we know and bang our heads to were born. Within a few months, the band’s line-up had stabilized, featuring Scott, the Young brothers, bassist Mark Evans, and drummer Phil Rudd.
Their debut album, High Voltage, was released in early 1975 in Australia. (Not to be confused with a different 1976 album with the same name). But let’s jump to their second album, T.N.T to hear a textbook dose of AC/DC subtlety and mellowness.
The first song I recall hearing by the lads is “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll.”). Bon Scott learned to play bagpipes for this fucking thing so there’s dedication for ya.*
The band started touring (the “Lock Up Your Daughters” tour!) London around the time punk hit. But they hated punk and would get pissed off if anybody mentioned it. They managed to survive that situation and thrive based on the greatness of their tunes and their flat-out raw energy. In 1976 they released an international (not just Australia) album also called High Voltage which was essentially a compilation and which also included “Long Way.”
And the lads were off and running increasingly becoming one of the great popular touring bands as well as a staple of FM radio. And for me, no list of AC/DC songs is complete without the title track from their third (1976) studio album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I love Wikipedia’s dry recitation of the song’s content:
“The song’s narrator, a hitman, invites people experiencing problems to either call his phone number or visit him at his home, at which point he will perform assorted unsavory and violent acts to resolve said problems.
Situations in which he offers assistance include those involving lewd high school headmasters and significant others who are either adulterous or who persistently find fault with their partners. As detailed by the song, the ‘dirty deeds’ performed at low cost include concrete shoes, cyanide, TNT, neckties, contracts high voltage.” Now if the congregation would please turn to page 13 of their hymnal ….
For some unfathomable reason I have never seen AC/DC live. If they come this way again, I may well get tickets, grab sonny boy, and head on down to see them. (All of my peers sit around in rocking chairs and complain about their aches and pains. “Oh, I just around these days sip tea and listen to Bach.” Fuck you.)
So we’ll go with the next best thing here, a killer live version of “Live Wire” originally from T.N.T.
This version of the band made it to 1980 when, unfortunately, Bon Scott went down the path of so many rockers and died of either acute alcohol poisoning or a heroin overdose, nobody seems to be really sure. (Is it creepy or what that Bon died in February of that year, John Bonham in September, and John Lennon in December?)
The band considered hanging it up but decided to plug on: Angus Young, “I remember the first time I had ever heard Brian Johnson’s name was from Bon. Bon had mentioned that ‘Brian Johnson, he was a great rock and roll singer in the style of Little Richard.’ And that was Bon’s big idol, Little Richard. I suppose when we decided to continue, Brian was the first name that Malcolm and myself came up with, so we said we should see if we can find him.”
They did indeed find Mr. Johnson and the first album released after Bon’s death was Back In Black. The album – and the song – were a tribute to Bon. There is a lot of heavy shit going on in this album and good luck turning on the radio today without hearing one of the songs from this album. Here’s the title track with the cool, not-so-easy-to-play lick:
I’ll jump ahead ten years to the tune “Thunderstruck” with the cool Angus lick. (Let us not underestimate the skills of Angus as lead guitarist or Malcolm, the rhythmic backbone of the band.)
Not to give Brian Johnson short shrift but let’s finish up this AC/DC-o-mania with a track from 1977’s. Let There Be Rock. (When Brian auditioned for the band he sang this tune.) Those who think Jimmy Page is the riff meister extraordinaire haven’t been listening to Angus:
While AC/DC are still very much around, the old band ain’t what she used to be. Malcolm was diagnosed with dementia in 2014, retired and died in 2017. In 2016, Brian Johnson’s doctors advised him to stop touring as his hearing problems risked permanent deafness. (Now how the hell did that happen one wonders? – ME). Axl Rose replaced him for a while. How well that went depends, I guess, on your love for the Guns ‘n Roses frontman.
I don’t know by what miracle he did it but Johnson returned to the fold in late 2020. They released an album called Power Up in November 2020. Surprisingly, it is an entirely acoustic version of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins tunes with guest appearances from Celine Dion, Beyonce, and Barbara Streisand.)**
Will they tour again when this fucking COVID thing is over? I can’t imagine they won’t. Will I go? Well, to paraphrase Tom Joad:
I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s rock and roll, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a slashing power chord, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way kids give the devil sign when Angus rips one off. Whenever amps are cranked to 11 I’ll be there. And when Brian yells “Let There Be Rock,” why, I’ll be there.
*”This was a signature song for Bon Scott. Brian Johnson does not perform it out of respect for his predecessor.”
**I am totally fucking with you.