AC/DC Has Improbably Become the Most Poignant Story in Rock

Axl Rose and Angus Young of AC/DC perform during their Rock or Bust World Tour in London. Photo: Neil Lupin/Redferns/Getty Images

Over its 43-year career, AC/DC has been called intentionally lowbrow, basic, repetitive, misogynist, Satanic, just plain bad. And you’d have to be a blindered diehard to seriously argue that at least one or two of those terms don’t apply. (The band’s pulverizing music has also been used as torture, but that’s not its fault.) That said, there's plenty of data to help make any criticisms go down a bit easier for guitarist Angus Young, always the quintet's focal point, who, over the last two years, has found himself as the sole key remaining member (no offense to bassist Cliff Williams) from the band's highest peaks. He can point to the 200 million total albums sold worldwide; the 49 million copies sold of 1980’s Back in Black, right on the heels of Thriller as the best-selling album of all time; and the fact that in 2015 alone, AC/DC played to 2.31 million fans, more than any other artist, and grossed $180 million in ticket sales. Blunt force. Mass scale. You can argue for or against the band’s merits, but you’re going to be swinging hammers either way. Yet in the year when an icon like David Bowie turned his death into an aesthetic triumph and the Tragically Hip remade a terminal diagnoses into a noble farewell tour, it is, improbably, the bludgeoning AC/DC, now winding down a troubled tour and apparently determined to persevere, that has become rock’s most poignant story. A band that never writes ballads has instead become one.

To appreciate how surprising this is, it helps to understand how allergic AC/DC has always been to both change and anything within sniffing distance of heartfelt emotion. For 42 years, since AC/DC were semi-Svengali’d out of Australia by George Young, the older brother to Angus and rhythm guitarist Malcolm, the band’s musical focus has never wavered. Not once. A lead singer howls, the bass and drums motorvate in unobtrusive mid-tempo, guitars crash and wail. ZZ Top look like Dylan-esque shape-shifters by comparison.

AC/DC's sound is simple, and can be close to perfect. Propulsive as it is, Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar playing is also full of subtle nuance, little chuks, stutters, and silences that give the monstrous riffs life. Lead guitarist Angus Young is a hurricane, but an economical one. His solos have a clear architecture and even sort of swing, in a frenzied, half-demented way. The drummer — Phil Rudd for 29 years, Simon Wright and current drummer Chris Slade for a handful each — lays down solid road for the Youngs to rev on. Snare on the two and four, kick on the one and three. (There are, I’d guess, a half-dozen drum fills spread across the band’s 16 studio albums.) Dependable old Cliff Williams will tell you he’s played the same bass part since he joined the band in 1977, a lifetime’s worth of downpicked eight-notes. The lead singer, a position famously filled during the first era of the band's career by the charmingly feral Bon Scott, who died after a marathon drinking binge in 1980, then occupied till earlier this year by the more affable, but to my mind less distinctive, Brian Johnson, shrieks and leers lyrics about having a really good time or a really bad time or being really horny. That’s it. No keyboards, no backing singers nor guest musicians, no slow tunes (well, one or two), no ornate flourishes, no concept albums, learning or love songs. I don’t know if it’s naïve to say any rock music is, or ever was, actually rebellious, but at its best, AC/DC sure sounds that way — it can certainly bother the hell out of all the right people.

(If you’re not familiar with the band’s music beyond “Back in Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” and are curious, I’d go Powerage, Back in Black, Highway to Hell, then the live If You Want Blood...You've Got it. Add in “Thunderstruck,” “Who Made Who,” and a six-pack and you’re set.)

There are problems with AC/DC that are tough to rationally refute. Regardless of the lyricist, whether it was Scott (who was capable of real wit and color), Johnson, or the Young brothers, there’s a deep strain of misogyny in the band’s output that veers from feeling terribly dated to straight-up reprehensible. The band members typically brush off charges of sexism by saying the music is all made in fun, but there’s no good excuse. This stuff is a problem, and one I’m not sure how to deal with aside from skipping crap like “Squealer” and admitting that people are allowed their musical fantasies, however distasteful. Aside from the gender problems, there can be a painful laziness to the words, an overreliance on bad puns and utterly nonsensical strings of clichés. Mostly, though, the Youngs’ music — so sturdy and catchy — is strong enough to render the words a functional afterthought. AC/DC is deceptively plain, devastatingly effective, and extremely lucrative. Thus it was, thus it shall ever be. 

Eh, not quite. As so many AC/DC songs suggest, it's a hard life. The band was undoubtedly lucky to have endured the years from 1980 to 2014 with only minor hitches — the hard-rock field isn’t known for its workplace stability — but the last two years have been a serious lulu. First, in the spring of 2014, Malcolm Young, the band’s talisman, its Keith Richards figure, was diagnosed with dementia at only 61 years old. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he’d been placed in a full-time nursing facility. Angus — now 61 himself and never an especially introspective interviewee — hasn’t said much about the situation, but what he has said is heartbreaking: “He still likes his music,” he told Rolling Stone about his brother. “We make sure he has his Chuck Berry, a little Buddy Holly.”

Then in late 2014, drummer Rudd was arrested and charged with, oy (oi?) threatening murder and drug possession. The Youngs, who, in case it isn’t clear, aren’t exactly sentimental types, ousted him and brought in Slade. There was more: In March of this year, the band canceled tour dates after Brian Johnson was told by doctors that he had to stop performing immediately or risk total deafness. It’s unclear whether or not he’ll ever rejoin the band. (Axl Rose took over for Johnson to help the band make up the canceled tour dates. You know things have gone topsy-turvy when Axl Rose is helping right the ship.) And last, Cliff Williams, who it both seems fitting and a little doofy to deal with in one sentence, said he’d retire at the end of the current tour, leaving the future of a band that has only ever dealt in musical certainties all up to Angus and all uncertain.

At the risk of belaboring an obvious metaphor (though this is AC/DC we’re talking about, so I’m probably okay), it was easy to interpret the band’s recent troubles as standing in for something larger, the creaking conclusion of not just AC/DC, but also the genre to which that band belongs — the kings of hard rock and hard rock itself as culturally irrelevant colossi, creaking toward an undignified end. Or something like that. Angus maintained that the band wasn’t going away, but plenty of others, fans, alumni, peers, and press included, suggested it was time for him to hang up his signature schoolboy’s uniform. Something about adding Axl felt weird, too, as if cynical fat cats had just colluded to try and trick consumers into collapsing Guns 'N Roses and AC/DC in their collective memories. AC/DC has never cared much — or admitted to caring — about what those on the outside think, but Angus and George Young, who’s still heavily involved, had to understand all the skepticism.

Just as an aside: I have a hunch that the Youngs are more sensitive than they let on. Years ago, I wrote a short item about AC/DC, which someone involved in the band’s management believed was insulting to Brian Johnson. I was sent a mean email, then got a phone call, during which I was tersely told that the publication I was working for at the time was being blacklisted by the band. After taking the management dude’s mild verbal reaming, I apologized for having offended the delicate sensibilities of the band responsible for “Big Balls” and “Sink the Pink.” He didn’t find that as funny as I did.

Sorry, one more fast digression. Could someone please explain what’s the deal with Rose these days? This is a new man! He reunited with Slash for a massively successful Guns 'N Roses reunion tour, he’s been doing interviews and some solid geopolitical ambassadorial work, and, by all accounts, been a good egg on the AC/DC tour. Did he have a bunch of bills come due and decide to spend a year raking it in? Did he get bored with playing the difficult front-man and decide to give team-player a try? I want to know ... I never will. 

All of which is to say that it’s been a strange and presumably humbling time for Angus & Co., and my expectations for the Axl/DC roadshow were low. Would it be painful to watch a band that made a point of never adapting, adapt to this new weird version of itself? A friend of mine talked about AC/DC having entered, like so many classic-rock bands do, Ship of Theseus territory, which after I looked up what it meant, made sense. How many parts of AC/DC can change before it’s not AC/DC anymore?

What a bunch of dumb-ass theoretical questions, because it turns out that AC/DC remains fucking awesome. I went to Wednesday night’s show at Madison Square Garden half expecting a stumbling hard-rock Frankenstein, and a few songs in, right around "Back in Black," I turned to the person I was with and said, "Am I wrong or is this great?" It was more than that, one of the best, most inspiring things I’ve seen all year.

I’m sure there are experts who can quibble, but the sound, the fundamental attack, wasn't appreciably different than when I'd seen the band before. The rhythm section — Malcolm and Angus’s nephew Stevie filled in on second guitar — had that same inexorable drive. Axl’s singing was sharp and engaged. He sounded as comfortable handling Brian Johnson material (hard-rock touchstones like “Shoot to Thrill” and “You Shook Me All Night Long”) as he did the slightly more obscure Bon Scott songs (“Rock’n’Roll Damnation,” “Sin City”). There was a level of fannish detail in his performance, too, like when he imitated Scott’s quick dip into Southern twang on the line “You could hear the fingers pickin’” on “Let There Be Rock.” Even in his current, less-than-serpentine state, Rose has this charismatic air of dissolution that lent a fresh edge to the material. And he was courteous. When Axl wasn’t singing, he’d saunter off to the side of the stage, out of the spotlight. There wasn’t really any interaction between Axl and the rest of the band, which once you noticed felt a little hired gun-y, but to be fair, does Axl really interact with anybody? He certainly doesn't onstage. There is zero evident camaraderie between him and Angus. There was also no acknowledgment of the long-time band members who were no longer there. That could’ve come across as callous, until you realized that admitting painful emotions, slowing things down, is exactly the antithesis of what an AC/DC show is all about. 

Angus Young. Jesus. If there’s a walking argument against ageism, this tiny Scottish-Australian guitar player is it. I’ve seen Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen on their recent tours, and, slight as it may be, there was a physical dip from the last time I’d seen those guys perform. Not so with Angus. He duck-walked, he jumped and strutted, he soloed and soloed and soloed and riffed and riffed, bobbed his head, loosened his tie and lost his cap. He did that Three Stooges floor spinning thing he does. Angus’s (and to a lesser, still important extent Axl’s) vigor, charisma, and skill burned off any lingering doubts about the band’s viability. AC/DC’s music remains unabashedly crass, but Angus’s stubborn insistence on doing his job as well as he can, no matter that the world around him has changed, has given that music a nobility it never had before. There was — is — a real and beautiful defiance happening now with AC/DC — even on songs like “Given the Dog a Bone.” And yes, that spelling of “Given” in the song title is factually correct, and no, it doesn’t make any sense.

For decades, AC/DC has closed each concert by playing “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” as prop cannons fire out over the crowd. They did that again in New York, and will do it again Saturday in Washington, D.C., and Tuesday in Philly. Loud noises, fake guns. Depressing analogies could be drawn, and they would be false. As long as Angus Young is able, and maybe even if he’s just willing, why should this band ever stop?