For a larger-than-life multi-millionaire rock star, in person, Angus Young is almost scarily diminutive, low-key and frail-seeming. In conversation he’s as basic as AC/DC’s music — not many frills or furbelows. As Young and singer Brian Johnson hang outside a midtown Manhattan office building, smoking and joking like the old friends they are, not a single passerby recognizes the duo.
Yet it’s been an uncharacteristically busy news cycle for the lineup: Drummer Phil Rudd was arrested on November 6 for the extraordinary charges of attempting to arrange a murder, threatening to kill, and possessing meth and marijuana. And in September came the incredibly sad news that Angus’s elder brother Malcolm was suffering from dementia, necessitating his permanent retirement from the band he co-founded in 1973 as its rhythm guitarist.
The band forges ahead, just as they did following the 1980 death of Bon Scott. The sum of AC/DC’s music and legacy are larger than its parts. The release of the aptly titled Rock or Bust (December 2, Albert/Columbia) marks the first album in six years, following the incendiary Black Ice, which entered charts at No. 1 in 31 countries and sold nearly 8 million copies worldwide. The Scottish-born, Aussie-raised Angus Young, 59, was joined by London-born Cliff Williams, 64, for a chat in a Manhattan radio studio, while Johnson’s contribution comes from a 2012 interview. Young and Williams are as understated as Johnson is voluble, as they reminisced about what a long way to the top it is if you wanna rock and roll.
You guys wrote a song called “I Feel Safe in New York City.” When was the first time you played in the city, and what inspired that tune?
Angus Young: It was around 1977, playing in New York.
Cliff Williams: We did CBGB’s.
Young: We played two: We did the Palladium, where we opened — oh, wait, we didn’t open, there was a band on before us — then after that we went to CBGB’s.
So the first time in NYC was with Bon Scott, who passed away in 1980, three years after your first NYC trip….
Brian Johnson: I’d met Bon about five years earlier, when he was with a different band, and he was supporting Geordie, the band I was in, and we got to know each other then. He was the funniest man and we had a lovely time. But it was all too brief. He wasn’t half as good as he was when he joined AC/DC. They brought something out in him, as they did with me. When they start playing, they bring something out in ya that’s just inexplicable. I can sing with a charity band, good rock ‘n’ rollers, all great players, and I’ll sing all in tune and do me thing, but it just doesn’t sound the same. But when I sit down with the boys in a rehearsal room — “let’s kick this one around” — and boom, this thing comes out that I really can’t explain, and I don’t want to. The first thing I noticed about these guys was how straight they were. There wasn’t two faces at all.
There’s so much out there about you — books, speculation — and these days, musicians are doing TV, radio, books…what about you guys?
Young: Well, you have to have good oratory. That was never one of my finer points.
Williams: Mine neither. Brian might.
Young: Yeah, Brian might, if you can understand him. With translation he’s fine. [Laughs.]
Williams: Ah, there’s a lot of them out there, and a lot of them are just fairy stories.
That’s why you have to do a book of truth, one from your voice.
Young: I think it’s better when it comes from “them” — it makes us sound so much more interesting.
You don’t think you’re interesting?
Young: Not from my own point of view, I think from other people’s points of view. I like it, actually, because it’s healthier that way; there’s always a balance. So it’s better to be total opposite sometimes.
In [Rockers and Rollers: A Full-Throttle Memoir], [Johnson] talks about the one and only time [Angus] got drunk…
Johnson: Angus didn’t drink and Malcolm…one day we got blasted, when Malcolm’s daughter was born. There was no email back then; you got your daily telephone call, and Malcolm came down and said, “It’s a girl,” and that was the first time I saw Angus take a drink. He got a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and he went, “Aw, fuckin’ great mate,” and he drank, and he was put on somebody’s shoulders and taken to bed. It was the first [and] last drink I ever saw him take, but he just so ecstatic for his brother; it was a wonderful night and we just continued and we got rambunctious and fuckin’ got plastered. We were so happy for Mal, it was his first child and that was a special night.
All the music world is so saddened by what we hear about Malcolm’s current condition.
Young: Malcolm’s is great care, he’s happy and well looked after. His family is there supporting him. He very much appreciates everyone giving him their thoughts. And we were lucky that my nephew and Malcolm’s nephew stepped in to the role to do Malcolm’s guitar parts.
And of course, it was shocking to hear about the charges leveled at drummer Phil Rudd.
Young: Phil is a bit difficult; actually to get him to recording [for Rock or Bust] was difficult. He was supposed to do a few other things with us on a video, doing some photo shoots, and he hadn’t turned up for those either. So he’d been very erratic, but at the moment he got himself into a pretty bad situation down in New Zealand. Yeah, he’s still got a few other charges there, I think. He needs to really sort himself out. He’s a great drummer and he’s been with us a long time, but he needs some space to get himself sorted.
Your new record’s first single is “Play Ball,” which was used for Major League Baseball here in the States, but it’s a sport not really popular in Australia.
Young: Well, it’s that term — when they say, “Let’s play ball,” it always seemed to me the same as saying, “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
AC/DC hasn’t had much controversy in your career, but there was the song “Night Prowler,” which was one of your scarier songs and ended up in the mass media…
Young: Everybody watches zombies, and it was a song about that, pretty much. But it wasn’t meant to be about writing about a serial killer.
But of course, it became associated with Richard Ramirez. Is there anything on Rock or Bust that might be controversial?
Young: Controversial…not really. Some have mentioned “The Dogs of War,” but not in the modern sense. It’s a song about Hannibal that took all those elephants over the Alps.
Who knew you guys were so intellectual and historical?
Young: Yeah, I didn’t even know I could read. [Laughs.]
How much influence do you have on lyrics? What songs do you feel you “own”?
Young: Quite a bit, and I would say “Miss Adventure,” “Play Ball,” “Rock or Bust,” and “Baptism by Fire.” On the last song, I’ve always liked the title, and if you get a good title, you think: “Has anyone ever used that?” and you can create a song around that. So it was one of those; if it gives you that strong feeling and has a great riff, and fits well together…
It’s amazing that no one has used the title “Miss Adventure.”
Young: It’s our tribute to the early James Bond movies. When we were young, you paid to see those movies. You’d see Sean Connery, with his “Hello, Mr. Goldfinger,” “Bond, James Bond,” but they always had tongue-in-cheek gag names like Pussy Galore.
Who was your favorite Bond girl?
Williams: My favorite was Miss Moneypenny. She was a bit of a stunner. [Moneypenny has been played by six different actresses in the Bond films.]
Young: Oh, the one that came out of the water; that was a big deal, Ursula Andress. [Bond girl Honey Ryder in Dr. No.] In fact, I went to see her in another film a few months later called She . I think she was in the starring role. There wasn’t much acting, but wow, plenty to look at.
And as to your critics who say you haven’t branched out much musically or lyrically in your career?
Young: Well, I guess it was the whole concept of the idea with my brother Malcolm…when we kicked off as a band, I said, “What do we play?” and he said, “Just good hard rock n’ roll,” and that was what we aimed for in the beginning.
Williams: I think we have always done the same, exactly what we are all about, a guitar rock band.
Johnson: When I joined them, the lads just said, “Listen, we’ll put you on a wage for six months and if it doesn’t work out, then nobody’s hurt.” I said, “These guys are straight shooters, there’s no bullshit.” So of course, after three months, Back in Black went to No. 1, and their manager came and said, “I think we’d better talk.” Back in Black was No. 1, and I didn’t have a contract. I was still on a wage. I signed it and they were great.
And, of course, everyone asks: There’s no retirement on the horizon?
Williams: Nah, we’re still enjoying ourselves too much.