‘AC/DC’s music is the best antidepressant there is’
AC/DC biographer Jesse Fink on the difficulties of telling the story of Angus, Malcolm and George Young
British singer Brian Johnson (left) and Scottish-born Australian guitarist Angus Young of AC/DC performing on stage in the Olympiastadion in Berlin last week as part of their Rock Or Bust World Tour. Photograph: Britta Pedersen/EPA
AC/DC are arguably the biggest band in the world with 200 million record sales, including Back in Black, the second highest selling album of all time. Their show tonight at the Aviva Stadium sold out in minutes. Yet the Young brothers, Angus and Malcolm, the hard rock geniuses behind their inimitable sound, remain elusive characters. Australian journalist Jesse Fink has written the first full-length biography of one of the most successful families in music.
What made you want to write a book about the Young brothers?
Firstly, the music they wrote with Bon Scott saved my life. I talk about that in the author’s note to the book. AC/DC’s music is the best antidepressant there is. Secondly, I couldn’t believe no author had attempted to write one about the three brothers before me. It seemed like a no-brainer. I soon found out why no other author had tried. It’s a very difficult job. But I succeeded.
When AC/DC fans think of the Young brothers, they think of Angus and Malcolm, but you believe their older brother George too is a pivotal figure. Why is that?
His experience with The Easybeats, who were Australia’s Beatles, really set the path for AC/DC musically and commercially. By all accounts, George was the genius in the family. He produced the early records, he advised his younger brothers on business matters, and still plays a significant role behind the scenes. AC/DC wouldn’t exist were it not for George.
You say the band is the subject to a lot of snobbery, particularly class snobbery, among music critics. What do you mean by that?
Simply because AC/DC plays hard rock or just straight up, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll. It doesn’t need to be complicated, it doesn’t need Dylanesque lyrics. The only thing it has to do is rock - make your body do what it’s supposed to do when listening to rock music. Move!
Some critics seem to think enjoying music in such a way just isn’t worthy of their great minds. AC/DC’s music is brilliantly played and very clever in its simplicity.
I don’t know a rock band that can make a mass of people react in such a profoundly physical and emotional way like AC/DC. Look at the footage from their concert in Buenos Aires in 2009. Truly amazing.
How much cooperation did you get from the band?
Of the current band I had a brief email contact with Stevie Young. I did the official thing and made approaches through Alberts (their Australian record company) and AC/DC management in New York, but got shut out.
I was asked to send 20 written questions through to Alberts’ people for George Young and Harry Vanda but nothing happened. A separate approach to Angus and Malcolm through their nephew Sam also got me nowhere.
I was expecting that. Not even Tony Currenti, who was the drummer on AC/DC’s first album, could get to Angus and Malcolm through Sam or anyone else at Alberts - and he played not only on High Voltage (both Australian and international releases), but “High Voltage” the single (on TNT and the international release of High Voltage), ‘74 Jailbreak and Backtracks. In my opinion, the way Alberts have treated Tony has been appalling. No credits. No invitations. Nothing.
AC/DC have a history of not cooperating with biographers who write books that ask the sort of questions I ask: tough ones. I spoke to Mark Evans, their bass player from the classic Bon Scott era, plus Tony, who has become a great friend. Plus over 100 other significant people who worked very closely with the band, from former president of Atlantic Records Jerry Greenberg, to engineers Mike Fraser, Tony Platt, Mark Opitz and David Thoener, to Phil Carson, who signed them to Atlantic, to the guy who designed their logo, Gerard Huerta, who never made a cent from its use in merchandising.
Someone who recently worked on the Alberts documentary, Blood + Thunder (documentary about AC/DC broadcast on Australian television), told me my book was a “bit of a Bible” for their own research. I think that says a lot about the work I put into the book.
I’ve had Mark Evans (bass player from March 1975 to June 1977) tell me it was the best book he’d read on the band, and even had Ross, Malcolm Young’s son, come up to me and tell me he and his family enjoyed the book. That was really unexpected. Ross is a very kind and good young man.
So I got no real cooperation, but that only made me more determined to write a book that was going to lift the veil on this very mysterious band who don’t offer much of substance in interviews to anyone, ever.
Why do you think the Youngs are such secretive people?
Malcolm retired due to dementia in 2014. Angus has been out and about doing much more publicity than usual for the new album and tour, Rock or Bust, but he’s now the only original member of the band still playing on stage for AC/DC.
George has long been a reclusive figure. I think it has to do with their Scottish upbringing, their aversion to the “showbiz” side of the media and the record industry, their normal need for privacy, and the fact that AC/DC is now a massive international business raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. When you become very rich you tend to shy away from too much public exposition, which is understandable.
You’re clearly a huge fan of AC/DC. You describe the Young brothers as probably the most important brothers in musical history, yet you’re not blind to their faults. What are those faults?
I think Angus and Malcolm have been unnecessarily disrespectful at times of other artists and even former members of their own band: for instance, Dave Evans (original singer) and Mark Evans (bass player).
I’m no fan of Dave Evans but the stuff Malcolm said about him was not funny. It was cruel. When they were trying to break through as a band in the late 70s AC/DC (and this sometimes included Bon Scott, who is one of my heroes) said disparaging things about a lot of very good musicians.
Their own talent was no excuse for being obnoxious. Angus and Malcolm handled things atrociously when Mark Evans was invited to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and then told not to come. Mark is a good fellow and an underrated bass player whose only mistake was getting on the wrong side of Angus. He didn’t deserve that treatment. If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had any integrity, they would induct him, irrespective of what his relationship now is with former members of the band. It could be done.
As for George, I’ve been told by several people working inside the Australian music industry that he has a reputation for not being the most amiable or approachable individual. Talented but not necessarily easy to get along with. All that said, I still admire all three men immensely. I wouldn’t have written the book if I didn’t.
You wrote the book before Malcolm’s diagnosis with dementia. You thought the band might not be able to continue without him, but they recorded a new album Rock or Bust and are touring it. How do you think they are faring?
I’ll see them in Sydney in November and see for myself. Angus is a marvel; a total freak. Stevie’s a very capable replacement but Malcolm was Malcolm. It’s not quite the same without him. Cliff is doing what he’s always done. Brian’s lost his voice. Chris Slade plays far too busily and you notice it on songs like High Voltage. They should get Tony Currenti up on stage in Sydney and ask him to play it. After all, it was Tony on that first single, not Phil Rudd. I’m sure the fans would love it. Because of the book they now know Tony’s story.
It’s like a real-life Billy Elliott or Full Monty: a feelgood yarn. Italian immigrant who never learned to play drums, records album for AC/DC, turns down joining the band, decides to open a pizza parlour, gives up music, and then makes a comeback 40 years later. You couldn’t make it up. If he played in Sydney it would be a fairy-tale. Make it happen for the fans, Angus.
The long-term drummer Phil Rudd has had so many well publicised brushes with the law and still faces charges relating to the possession of drugs. How do you think the band has handled his situation?
It hasn’t been ideal. It would have been nice to hear something from the band like a “We’re behind you in your recovery, Phil” official statement at some point. When Rudd’s situation came up on Howard Stern during the publicity for Rock or Bust and jokes were made, it was a bit off. The guy is part of the sound of AC/DC. No one but Phil is responsible for his own situation but let’s remember the guy was there from 1975-83 and 1994-2015. That’s a very long time. The way he was spoken about it was like none of it - including Let There Be Rock, Powerage, Highway to Hell, Back in Black - had happened. Those four albums are the essential AC/DC albums. So yeah, they could have handled it much better.
The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC by Jesse Fink is published by Black & White Publishing, Edinburgh, priced €17.99.