Sunday 19 November 2017

It's Time to Take AC/DC Seriously (No, seriously...)

Malcolm Young died yesterday, Saturday 18th November 2017, at the age of sixty-four. He’d been suffering from dementia for some years, leading to his departure from AC/DC in 2014. Malcolm was the older, and probably lesser known, of the two Young brothers who founded the band in Sydney, Australia, in 1973. While Angus and his school uniform were the face of AC/DC, Malcolm was the one at the centre of it all, the man who lead from the back. According to Angus, he was also the better guitarist of the two, even though he always played rhythm.

I cried when David Bowie died at the beginning of 2016. The entertainment and arts worlds rightly genuflected at his genius and mourned his passing. I don’t expect Malcolm Young will get anything like that attention. There’ll be no evenings dedicated to AC/DC on BBC4 or SkyArts. A lot of people will shrug at the news and think, yeah, I liked that one that Simon Mayo plays on a Friday, the one with the thunder. Despite their extraordinary success, including recording the second biggest selling album of all time, many will dismiss AC/DC as that band whose songs sounded all the same, who had that funny looking bloke in the shorts, and that other guy in the flat cap. To many who consider themselves cultured in popular music, AC/DC’s catalogue is one extended knob gag and not to be taken seriously. The musical equivalent of a lecherous old uncle who gets pissed at Christmas dinner and tells dirty jokes to the kids.

I’m here to argue otherwise.

I’ve never liked “cool” music; my tastes have always veered to the crusty, dusty, slightly embarrassing end of the market. As a teenager, I liked Queen, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Status Quo, T-Rex, Van Halen, and any number of guitar-driven bands who had long passed their sell-by dates when I started listening to them. Cool has never concerned me in the slightest. In fact, this is the first of the core beliefs that I’m going to share in this essay.

Core Belief #1: If you only like music that’s cool, then you don’t like music.

I was a teenager in the Eighties, and that was a horrible decade for music journalism in the UK. The papers of the time – the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, even Smash Hits – were staffed by holdovers from the punk era, the same smug gits who would go on to be talking heads on those terrible “Top 50 of Whatever Old Shite We Thought of This Week” shows that seemed to be on TV every night in the late Nineties and early Noughties. Born in 1972, I was too young for the punk movement, and I was only vaguely aware of it at the time. I grew up in a small town in Northern Ireland, and punk was very much an urban thing. Whatever it began as, by the late Seventies punk had become a middle class affectation. All the teenagers from my working class estate were into Quo, Iron Maiden, and – yes – AC/DC. I remember the denim jackets and the patches with jagged band logos. Punk was from another place, another time, and, frankly, another social class. It wasn’t ours.

As a result, when I got into music as a teen and started paying attention to the music magazines, I always felt completely out of step with them. In the mid Eighties, they were all about The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Fall, The Wedding Present. Hardly anyone I knew was into those bands – with one or two exceptions – yet they dominated the music press of the time. It wasn’t The Queen is Dead or Psychocandy that was being passed around our school playground, but rather The Number of the Beast or Twelve Gold Bars.

Morrissey famously lamented that the music on the radio “says nothing to me about my life”. Well, The Smiths said nothing to me about mine. In 1986, at the age of fourteen, I was a spotty, awkward boy with not the slightest sense of fashion, who was getting quite good on the guitar, but had no idea how to hold a conversation with anyone but my best mate. I was lonely, isolated, afraid, unsure of who I was and who I wanted to be, and felt like I’d be an outsider for the rest of my days. There were millions like me. And it was Iron Maiden and their kind who said something to us about our lives, because they were the outsiders, the ones who were despised by the cool kids of the music press. I remember Smash Hits reviewing a Smiths album alongside a Maiden album in the same column; of course, Morrissey and Marr’s work was God’s gift, while Maiden’s was no more than the irksome grunting of Neanderthals. No wonder I identified with the latter rather than the former.

Yet despite my full acceptance of the uncool at the time, I didn’t like AC/DC. They seemed a step too far in that direction. I mean, all their songs sounded the same, and they were all about sex and the devil. But one Friday evening on Channel 4, on something called The Chart Show, they played a video for Who Made Who. I bloody loved it. I recorded it on our VHS and watched it over and over, then went to Woolworth’s and bought the single. Who Made Who is a minor entry in the AC/DC canon, but it captures all that’s great in their work: the glorious sound of the band in itself, the pop sensibility of the chorus, Angus’s guitar work, Brian Johnson’s Harold Steptoe-meets-Sid James persona.

I went back to Woolworth’s and bought the album of the same name, and my best mate ripped the piss out of me for it. Although I listened to the album over and over, it was fifteen years before I bought another. I did the most awful and self-defeating thing a music fan can do: I let someone else’s scorn steer me away from what I liked. That was what the UK music press of the Eighties was best at. Which brings me to:

Core Belief #2: Don’t let anyone piss on your chips.

Do you like Morris dancing? Good for you. Do you think Dan Brown is a literary genius? Great. Do you enjoy sitting in your pants in a darkened room listening to Taylor Swift? Nowt wrong with that. Whatever gets you through the night, as John Lennon said.

As a society, we spend far too much time judging others for the things they like. The Internet has made a sport of it. For every cultural phenomenon that comes along, there’ll be a swathe of think-pieces from every outlet pointing out why that thing you really like is actually steaming garbage. Or, God help us, how that thing is “problematic”.

And you know what? The people who write that kind of crap are the contemporary equivalent to that kid who pointed at the band logo you’d drawn on your schoolbag and said, “Ha! You like them?! They’re rubbish!” It’s not just the wrongness of this kind of judgement that bothers me, but the sheer mean-spiritedness of it. Anyone who is so spiteful that they need to deride the things that give others pleasure is not someone to be taken seriously. No one is the arbiter of your tastes but you, and anyone who tells you otherwise should be treated with suspicion. And I don’t mean proper informed criticism; I think we all know the difference between a considered review and a hatchet job.

Anyway, back to the point. I remained partial to a bit of AC/DC as the years went by, but I was never a fan. That is until about fifteen years later when, ironically, the same mate who pilloried me for buying Who Made Who mentioned that he’d bought a copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black and thought it was great. Indeed, in his flat on a hungover Sunday morning, while enjoying a fry that his other half had prepared, we listened to the album together. It was the first time I’d heard it all the way through. And sweet Jesus, it was spectacular. I bought it a few days later, immediately followed by Highway to Hell.

Thus, in my early thirties I became an AC/DC fan. At first, it was the trio of Mutt Lange produced albums – Highway to Hell, Back in Black, For Those About to Rock – that I focused on, but as I dug in a little deeper, I began to appreciate the Bon Scott years more. Powerage in particular stands out, and might be their best album. The quality that sets those earlier albums apart can be summed up in one word – honesty – and segues nicely into my third core belief:

Core Belief #3: Good music is honest music.

Three chords and the truth, as the saying goes. That phrase works up to a point, in that Miles Davis used many more than three chords, and his music was never anything less than truthful. But the idea that honesty, authenticity, is a quality to be cherished in music is one that I absolutely believe in. The truth is a slippery thing, though. Led Zeppelin’s toying with Tolkien-esque imagery is as truthful to me as Jarvis Cocker’s musings on the rich-poor dynamic. I suppose it comes down to this question: is the musician’s heart in it? I have no use for cynicism in music. I want an honest expression of who the artist is, nothing more, nothing less.

When one considers that AC/DC were a bunch of toe-rags, scumbags, and chancers, then it’s clear that their music was never anything but honest. Just look at those early photos, all the missing teeth and back street tattoos. These were lads from the rough parts of town who picked up guitars and said what was on their minds. This is important for anyone who doubts AC/DC: they were the real thing. They sang about getting drunk and getting laid because that was what they knew. Consider the early lives of the key members…

Malcolm and Angus Young were two of eight children born to poor parents in Glasgow, Scotland. At that time, the Australian government was offering assisted resettlement to families willing to emigrate, and thus in the early Sixties the Youngs became “Ten Pound Poms” and moved down under. They had a surprise when they got there: rather than a new life of plenty they found themselves encamped with hundreds of other migrants in the Villawood Migrant Hostel outside Sydney, living in shared Nissen huts. It was essentially a prison camp for new arrivals, and the brothers literally had to fight for survival. While still living in the camp, their elder brother George joined a band called The Easybeats who scored some chart hits and gained enough of a foothold in the music industry that he was able to become a record producer. That was about the only lucky break the junior Youngs got.

Meanwhile, another little thug in the making called Ronald “Bon” Scott left Scotland with his parents, bound for Australia. This one was trouble from the start. After a couple of stints in prison, he began playing and roadying for various bands before winding up doing odd jobs for a booking agency that handled an up-and-coming glam-rock combo called AC/DC. When the band’s then-singer, Dave Evans, left over creative differences, Scott was in. They immediately stripped away the glam aspects and focused on what they were good at: no-nonsense blues rock, four-to-the-floor, heads-down boogie.

They were hated from the start. AC/DC were always the poor cousin, the black sheep of the family, the red-headed stepchild. In the era of glam- and prog-rock, they were neither. When the radio was populated by either pretty-boys in glitter or serious musos with Hammond organs, AC/DC were playing the kind of rock’n’roll that no one had cared about since the days of Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry. But they did it so well, and with such conviction, that people began to take notice.

A modicum of success in Australia prompted a move to London to see if they could crack England. By sheer luck, their arrival coincided with the emergence of the punk rock scene. Due to their no-frills aesthetic, AC/DC were begrudgingly – and mistakenly – accepted as a part of that movement. They were always interlopers, never truly belonging. That rather crafty co-opting of another musical scene sustained the band just long enough for them to record Highway to Hell, the album that finally gave them the step up to the big time. While it certainly has more polish, thanks to Mutt Lange’s production, that album still captures the controlled chaos of the band’s sound, the tight-as-a-gnat’s-chuff rhythm section, the joined-at-the-hip guitars, the sneering, leering vocals.

And those lyrics. Let’s talk about those. All crass innuendo, single entendre, boorish misogyny set to music, right? That’s a fair summary of what AC/DC became in their later years, but it’s not what they were in the late Seventies. Yes, Bon Scott’s lyrics always bathed in the gutter, but they were also very clever. He knew where he was from, where he was, who he was. He knew he was street trash who got lucky, and his lyrics reflected that. The smut was there, and he was seldom subtle about it, but the words were shot through with a self-awareness that AC/DC’s songs lacked in his absence. Bon Scott was the kind of anti-hero we love in crime fiction, the man who knows he’s no damn good, but ploughs on regardless. Problem Child (“With a flick of my knife, I could change your life”), Riff Raff (“I never shot nobody, don’t even carry a gun”), Bad Boy Boogie (“They said yes, I said no”) all paint the picture of the life lived wrong. Thing is, the picture was accurate. There was no pretence, it was the God’s honest truth. Likewise, the lewd sexuality. Whole Lotta Rosie might be a crass ode to the pleasures of generous flesh, but it’s also written about lived experience. I’ll take crass truth over politically sensitive platitudes any day. And there were real glints of intelligence in those songs; listen to Powerage in particular, and tracks like What’s Next to the Moon and Down Payment Blues. I’ll put those lyrics up against those of any other rock band.

Alas, when Bon Scott died, so did the smart lyrics. Thus:

Core Belief #4: Success can ruin a band.

ZZ Top spent more than a decade as a good-time boogie band from Texas with a string of radio hits and a dedicated following. Then they released an album called Eliminator, sold millions of records, and wasted another decade trying to replicate it. Likewise Status Quo found chart success with Rockin’ All Over The World and subsequently abandoned their straight-ahead blues rock for pop-inflected twaddle. My favourite band ever, Van Halen, scored a number one single with Jump, and then pissed away their rock credentials with a string of synth-rock AOR efforts. The moral of the story here is that while incredible commercial success seems like a good thing, as often as not, it will kill a band’s creativity as soon as platinum status is reached. Exhibit four: Back in Black.

When Bon Scott died a horribly sordid death, choking on his own vomit while passed out drunk in the back of a car, everyone thought AC/DC were finished. With more haste than some thought tasteful, the band found a new frontman in the affable Brian Johnson, decamped to the Bahamas, and recorded one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Let me be clear: Back in Black is a stellar record. Every song is a knockout, and at least three are among the greatest ever in the genre. Mutt Lange’s production is a wonder; Back in Black is often cited as a touchstone in how to record a band in a room, capturing the energy of the members’ interplay along with a pristine clarity and power. Angus’s guitar work has never been better. It’s a great album by a great band, and although I personally favour Powerage, it’s generally regarded as their best.

But it ruined them.

As often happens, a band finds mainstream success with one album, and they spend the rest of their career trying to fill a second bottle with the same lightning. 1981’s follow up, For Those About to Rock, is a good album. Not on the same level as the previous three, but it’s pretty decent. But it was the last really good album AC/DC made. Part of it was down to Malcolm Young’s hubris: notoriously tight-fisted, he resented giving ten per-cent of the band’s royalties to producer Mutt Lange and took over the studio reins himself, resulting in Flick of the Switch, generally regarded as the band’s worst effort.

They never really recovered, at least in the studio. A series of underwhelming albums followed, all of them wallowing in the worst excesses the band’s critics had been denigrating them for. The lyrics went from the gutter to the sewer, a signature sound turned to formula, and AC/DC finally became a parody of themselves. Alas, it’s not a unique story.

There were, however, some bright spots in these dark years. The aforementioned Who Made Who remains a terrific number, 1988’s Heatseeker is how AC/DC should have spent the Eighties, and 1990’s Thunderstruck is a rock anthem for the ages. But apart from those highlights, AC/DC’s recorded career pretty much ended in 1981. But:

Core Belief #5: Everything Old is New Again

Or, if you wait long enough, everything becomes cool. Somehow, some time in the Nineties, AC/DC became cool. Sort of. While their albums remained in the doldrums, the band graduated from arenas to stadiums. Even though – like many of their contemporaries – AC/DC became their own tribute act, they came to epitomise a certain spirit, a certain era, a kind of spectacle that can only exist in a bowl that holds at least fifty thousand people. And by God, they were good at it. Tens of thousands of people, form toddlers to pensioners, all shouting “Angus!” in unison while a middle-aged man dressed as a schoolboy duck-walks across a stage. At the end of the show, the pomp and excess will breach the limits of credulity. And herein is my final core belief:

Core Belief #6: All great rock music should be ridiculous.

Pete Townshend’s windmill arm; Peter Gabriel’s flower costume; Freddie Mercury’s leotard. They’re all nonsense. We know it. They know it. Yet we buy into the theatre of it all, willingly, again and again. It’s what rock music does best, and it’s what the misery-guts music journalists seemed to forget: it’s ridiculous and we love it. The very best rock bands are those who fully commit, those who lean into it. There’s a good reason why Kiss still sell out arenas decades after they made an album that mattered to anyone; likewise AC/DC, who became a stadium band long after their studio career was a thing of the past.

Is it nostalgia? I don’t think so. Yes, we’re singing along to songs that were recorded before many in the audience were born, but there’s something far more primal at work. We love the spectacle. At the end of the night, as AC/DC rattle through their last numbers, cannons rise from the huge stage set. Timed to the lyrics, they fire, a twenty-one gun salute for the faithful. It’s a glorious thing to behold as a grownup, a chest-thumping affirmation of one’s self, of sticking with it, of outlasting those awkward years of adolescence and surviving into an adulthood where you’re no longer ashamed of who you are. Where, for perhaps the first time in your life, you and fifty thousand other people are the cool kids.

For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) is the song in question. On one level, it’s a heartfelt thank you to the fans. But it’s also a love-letter to the form itself. There’s something special about a song that glorifies its own genre, and fully embraces its own nonsense. This song, more than any other, exemplifies everything that is wonderful and ridiculous about rock music. It knows exactly how dumb it is, and revels in it. When Brian Johnson summons those cannons in the final verses, it is perhaps the most perfect moment in the history of rock. Listen to it on a stereo with a decent low end, maybe something with a sub-woofer, and relish each blast of the guns. Feel the force of it as the band goes into double time, chasing down that beat to the song’s explosive climax. It is everything that great rock music should be. It’s stupid, it’s clever, it’s preposterous, it’s sublime, it’s daft, it’s vital, it’s completely ridiculous, and it’s absolutely glorious. If this one song doesn’t fill your heart with joy, then you are a cold hollow shell of a human being.

AC/DC were fucking brilliant. Don’t you dare try to deny it.