The future looked bleak for AC/DC. Singer Brian Johnson’s severe hearing issues forced him off the road, resulting in Axl Rose being drafted to finish some touring commitments. Rhythm guitarist, co-founder, and brother of Angus, Malcolm Young died as the result of dementia. Drummer Phil Rudd was in the wilderness dealing with some serious legal charges leading to house arrest. Had we seen the last of the Thunder from Down Under?
Thankfully, no. Six years after the last album, AC/DC returns Friday, Nov. 13, with POWER UP, with their 17th album and first since Rock or Bust in 2014. How did they manage to turn it around? I had a chance to Zoom with singer Brian Johnson from his home in Florida and bassist Cliff Williams in North Carolina.
Alan Cross: First of all, Brian, I’m glad you can hear me. What miracles did the doctors pull off?
Brian Johnson: It was technology. It was an amazing man who tried to get in touch with me to tell me about what he’s been working on. He came down and worked with me for a couple of years — Steven Ambrose is his name — and we worked for two years with him coming down every couple of months while trying to make this device he had miniaturized. We worked at it so it wouldn’t lose sound quality. Honestly, I’m very lucky he came along.
AC: I heard this all began after you played an outdoor show in Winnipeg. (The date was at Investors Group Field on Sept. 17, 2015.) It was damp and cold and wet and then you got on a plane and then something went wrong.
READ MORE: (April 2015) Aussie rockers AC/DC to play IGF in Winnipeg on Sept. 17
BJ: It was horrible there, the weather. I remember that night. I think Angus already had a bit of a virus. I caught a bad chill and we ran to the plane after the show for a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Vancouver. After that, my ears wouldn’t pop. After about two months, they still hadn’t popped. There was a good doctor down there (in Australia) and he said, “Well, we’re gonna have to operate immediately. And I went, “That’s fun. And we start gigging again in about eight days.” (Turns out) the stuff crystalized behind my eardrums and it was just eating away at it and caused considerable damage. It was steadily downhill from there so that it was almost impossible to function and do my job.
AC: With all this — your hearing problems, Malcolm’s death, everybody scattered about — did you ever sit down over a beer and say, “Okay, lads, that’s it?”
BJ: We don’t speak like that. It’s not in our language to say it’s all done. We pretty much knew, you know, that was it. But we all felt we had a pretty good run, a pretty good journey. You couldn’t ask for much more. I was 68, for God’s sake. That’s past my time. I just thought you shouldn’t complain. It’s nothing terminal. But about a year after that, Angus reached out, wasn’t it, Cliff?
Cliff Williams: We never had a conversation about, “this is it.” I was done, but then Ang reached out saying we ought to do something with Malcolm in mind. We obviously all wanted to do that so we all went for it and went to Vancouver to do the album. A studio is a controlled sound environment, so for Brian, it was very doable. And then we moved it to the next step to see how playing live would be and that went very well.
AC: Where did you play live?
CW: In Amsterdam. We went there to shoot a video for (the new single), Shot in the Dark. It was all the backline and the original band and we’ll try some rehearsals. We spent about three weeks rehearsing and it gave Brian an opportunity. It was battle conditions (full PA and lights) to see how it was. And it worked really well for him.
AC: When did this Rock or Bust lineup get back together? Because there were rumours about you guys working at The Warehouse Studio in Vancouver but nobody could really confirm it except some guy who had a window overlooking the studio and said he saw you and Brian and Phil coming and going.
CW: He didn’t see me. The boys would go out for a smoke on the balcony and I’d quit smoking by that time so I never got snapped.
AC: What was it like working with producer Brendon O’Brien again? What is it about him that works so well with AC/DC?
BJ: He’s just an “up” guy. He likes AC/DC. He likes the music, he likes the boys. We’ve had a good rapport with him. He’s a man you can respect because he can play just about any instrument. He understands the music and he brings a positivity to the whole thing. It’s just this wonderful, get-up-and-go, let’s do it, nothing’s impossible, guy. It’s just this urgency but it’s relaxed. He knows what he wants and he knows what the band should play. And he loved Malcolm as well and understood that this album was for Malcolm, a tribute to Malcolm. And he, just like us, wanted it to be something special. He’s one of those special blokes.
READ MORE: (Nov. 18, 2017) Malcolm Young, AC/DC guitarist and founder, dies at age 64
AC: Are there any of Malcolm’s parts on this album?
CW: No, not that he played. Stevie (Young, Malcolm’s nephew and longtime touring member of the band) played the parts Malcolm would have played.
AC: If you look at the liner notes, Malcolm is credited as a co-writer on every single song.
CW: That’s because Angus and Malcolm were writing whenever we were off the road and were together every day putting down ideas. So they had a massive pool of stuff to draw from, which Angus did. So when we came together for this album, he’d gone through everything and picked out 12 ideas that he thought would make a good album and brought them to us. So they are essentially Malcolm and Angus’ ideas.
AC: So no wonder the album is dedicated to Malcolm.
CW: Not just that. We were together for over 40 years. When you’re with someone that long and you lose him, you want to do something.
AC: How does an AC/DC song come together? Is it the riff first or the lyrics?
BJ: It’s usually the riff. But it’s very important in an AC/DC record that the chorus is strong — like Thunderstruck. Any of them, actually. I can’t explain it. It just works. We’ll try and see where the lyric can kick like a drum. If you listen to a lot of AC/DC songs, the vocals are basically part of the rhythm section. Each line kicks. It’s not magic. It’s just five guys who produce this fabulous noise.
AC: I have this theory that the world needs a new AC/DC album more than ever right now because things are so weird that you’re actually performing a couple of functions. First of all (a) you’re a reminder of the way things used to be in the Before Times. And (b) you’re kinda like comfort food. Whatever may happen wherever on the planet, we can count on AC/DC being AC/DC. I think you’re actually performing a really important public service just by being you.
BJ: That’s nice of you to say, my son. I’ve been trying to figure it out myself. We often talk about the wonderful fans that follow us — they’ve been with us for 40 years and beyond — and they’re still here. And they drag other fans with them. What I think makes people happy is the music itself. It’s so bloody honest. There are no themes behind it. There’s no science to it. There are no hidden messages. There’s no directive. It’s just honest. And in this day and age, honesty is a rare commodity. I think people just say, “Get me away from politicians and viruses!”
AC: This is a really weird time to release an album given that we have absolutely no idea when we’ll get back to live performances. How do you see things shaking out in the near- and long-term future for AC/DC what we’re dealing with?
CW: Well, we don’t know. It’s unfortunate. We’d love to play some live shows but we can’t. Hopefully next year we can get to some live stuff. But right now, we can’t even try to plan anything.
AC: Things have changed so much with the music industry compared to the way things used to be. You used a Dodge commercial to get the word out on the album. And if you dig into the liner notes, you’ll see that there’s a 30-second clip for Shot in the Dark.
CW: You’ve got to do it how you can. Sony has been fantastic with the whole approach to the release, especially with the little song snippets.
BJ: Even my pals were asking me, “What’s happening next? Have you got the next bit?” It’s just exciting. It gives you something else to think about.
AC: I loved when the posters for the album starting showing up in weird places. “This is a clue! Something’s happening!”
BJ: I was in the back of a cab in London and I looked up at St. Paul’s Cathedral. And there on the top was the AC/DC lightning bolt! Of all places! Bloody hell! And then we approached Marble Arch and there it was again! I’m in the band and I didn’t know this was happening! If I didn’t know what was happening, I’d feel a bit scared, thinking maybe this has to do with the virus and “Ha-ha-ha! The end is nigh!”
AC: I’m very glad to have you guys back. Like I said, if the world is going to hell, at least there’s an AC/DC record to play us out.
BJ: That’s brilliant. Thank you.
POWER UP will be released on Friday, Nov. 13. Parts of this interview were edited and condensed for clarity.