AC/DC: ‘We’ve never had anything but great times in Ireland’
Brian Johnson and Cliff Williams on their love of Ireland and the rock comeback of the year
Nothing has stopped AC/DC. Not even death or a global pandemic.
The return of AC/DC is one of the biggest surprises of 2020, not to mention a thoroughly pleasant one. The last decade was challenging for one of the most venerable institutions in rock, when it looked almost certain that their unstoppable juggernaut would finally grind to a halt.
Singer Brian Johnson stopped touring due to hearing issues, which were reportedly caused by his avid interest in motor racing rather than the cumulative damage of decades of rock’n’roll. The man who replaced Bon Scott in 1980 was temporarily substituted by Axl Rose from Guns n’ Roses to honour remaining live commitments on the Rock or Bust tour in 2016.
And that’s not the half of it. In 2017, Malcolm Young died after a battle with dementia. Widely considered to have been the driving force of the band, Young sculpted the group’s iconic sound alongside his brother Angus, who turned 65 last March. Rather than applying for his bus pass, Angus Young still dresses up as a school boy, keeps churning out those cascading guitar riffs and performs his own inimitable version of Chuck Berry’s duck walk.
AC/DC were at a comparable crossroads when Scott died prematurely in 1980, aged 33. Back then, they also considered calling it a day but their eventual response was a tribute to Scott entitled Back in Black, which became the title track of one of the biggest selling albums of all time.
Power Up (stylised as PWR/UP), the band’s newest album, is their tribute to Young. “This album was made with Malcolm in mind so we all wanted to be a part of it,” says bassist Cliff Williams. “All the guys were back together again and it was a fantastic and very happy time.”
Nothing has stopped AC/DC. Not even death or a global pandemic. Covid might have stopped them in their tracks, but even that couldn’t derail their comeback, which they found difficult to keep under wraps.
“It was tough,” Johnson admits. “We had this lovely thing going on and yet we couldn’t tell anyone. People would walk up to me on the street and go: ‘Hey, Brian! Are the band getting back together? Are you making an album?’ And I’d go: ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ‘Ah, come on man. You can tell me. I won’t tell anyone.’ Yeah, sure you won’t! With the whole social media thing now it’s impossible to keep a secret but we managed it somehow. Thank God.”
Johnson is speaking via a conference call from London, shortly before the UK went into a second lockdown. His distinctive Geordie accent is still very much intact after years of living in Florida.
“You’re ducking and diving and sliding into places to get a bit of food and leave before a crowd gets in,” he observes of life in a pandemic. “You try to do your best. I’m hoping to get back to my home in America sometime next week, so I’ve got to go to an airport and get on a plane for 9½ hours. It’s just pot luck, really. Obviously, I wear a mask and do everything I can.”
Williams joins us from North Carolina: “We’re in the mountains and it’s pretty remote, so we’re in a little bit more of a bubble here,” he says. “It’s still restricted and not what it used to be. But all this, too, will pass. Hopefully sooner rather than later.”
AC/DC had started rehearsing and tentatively thinking about the logistics of putting their gargantuan show back on the road. “When we finished the album we travelled to Holland,” Johnson reveals. “The idea was to shoot a video for the single but also to bring over all our equipment and do a big rehearsal. We’d got this new technology for my ears and we wanted to try it all out, which, by the way, worked brilliantly.
“The band got powered up and the boys did their stuff with the full backline, which is what we like to call battlefield conditions. For a couple weeks, we knocked it out every single day and had a grand old time.”
Of course, all activity was suddenly shelved. “Three days later, the pandemic started looking incredibly serious and stopped everybody in their tracks,” Johnson says. “The entire world shut down but it took a while for it to really sink in after we heard about all the lockdowns and entire cities closing. It was doubly frustrating as we’d just played together and realised that we really could do this again.
“It’s been a strange year. Everybody was trudging around with this thing hanging over us, so we thought it would be nice to cheer people up again, make some rock’n’roll and bring some joy. I hope we’ve done a good job.”
David McWilliams once astutely noted that one of their best-loved songs, Thunderstruck, has replaced Amhrán na bhFiann as the curtain closer at the end of the night in virtually every Irish nightclub and late bar. “That’s absolutely brilliant,” Johnson says with a laugh. “Well, let’s just say that now we thoroughly endorse it becoming the official Irish national anthem. You won’t even have to take your hat off.”
AC/DC always struck a particularly strong chord in rural areas. Whenever they played in Ireland, their faithful flocked in from all over the country. Traffic was so heavy before their Punchestown show that many fans ended up walking for miles.
“The Irish people are truly extraordinary,” Johnson says. “The audience in Ireland always generates such an intense excitement that you could cut with a knife. We played that big hall by the river that always keeps changing its name, the telephone stadium or something like that. It was simply fantastic. I also fondly remember Punchestown because it was raining so much. The runway came out from the stage and I swear on my mother’s life that as the show went on it was sinking into the ground and the crowd just seemed to keep getting bigger. It was a tremendous night. Even the drivers who take you to the gig in Ireland are always characters.”
No AC/DC trip to Dublin is complete without enjoying a meal in Kites Chinese restaurant in Ballsbridge.
“Cliff and I have a thing that we do every time we land in Dublin,” Johnson says. “We get in the car that takes us to the hotel. We check in and pick up our room key – but we don’t go to the room – and [we] walk straight into the bar and order two pints of Guinness. I don’t care what anybody says, nothing tastes like it anywhere in the world. It’s different in Ireland and it’s as simple as that. We just sit there and suck on a Guinness. It’s our tradition every time we come to Ireland. We’ve never had anything but great times in Ireland. It’s just a fact. And the Irish are very musical people.”
Ireland’s musical heritage also inspires AC/DC, especially a certain Donegal-born guitarist. “I went to see Rory Gallagher in Newcastle City Hall and that kid rocked,” Johnson says. “He was just brilliant and almost like a one-man show. He was on for absolutely hours playing away. Rory Gallagher had a big following in the north east of England. He was truly worshipped and was a bit of a god-like figure up there.”
Back in Black, one of the stone-cold classics of rock, propelled AC/DC into an exclusive blockbuster-selling club alongside such exemplar albums as Thriller, Bat out of Hell and Saturday Night Fever. Not even The Beatles, the Stones or U2 have reached their heights.
“Back in Black was just a complete and utter dream album,” Johnson says. “Nobody goes in to do an average album or a rotten album but when you get an album like that where everything in our world was in exactly the right place at the right time in the right six weeks of that year. We were just the lucky ones to have been there making the music.”
Everybody dies. However, Back in Black immortalised Bon Scott. Now, Power Up exalts the memory of Malcolm Young. “I love the idea of that,” Johnson agrees. “I think I’ll cancel my funeral and burial plot.”
Young’s presence haunted the recordings. “Whenever we’re all together his spirit is in the room without a doubt,” Williams says. “You can just feel him. We were together for so long that he’s just there. He is certainly in the songs. Angus and I had a boat load of riffs, so he’s all over the music, even though he doesn’t physically play the parts.”
When they recorded Back in Black, did they ever think they could be discussing its impact and legacy for years to come? “We never really thought that far ahead to be honest,” Williams says. “You just don’t. Time goes by and here we are, 40 years on from Back in Black.”
Johnson is equally surprised. “When you’re younger, if someone was 40 years of age, you thought they were absolutely ancient,” he says. “It’s pretty scary when you look at it. The bad news is that it all flies past so quickly. The good news is that you have such a brilliant ride while you’re doing it.”
It has been suggested that Power Up could be a farewell album. “We just don’t know,” Williams says. “We’re happy with what we’ve done and we’re still enjoying it, so we’ll just have to see what comes down the line.”
Johnson cautiously broaches their future. “We’d be pushing it if we kept saying there will definitely be another album or that we’d be around forever,” he says. “We’ve done absolutely everything that any musician ever dreams of. We’ve played the greatest theatres for the greatest people. We’ve been honoured by our peers with awards and accolades. We’d be greedy if we wanted more.”
Williams wholeheartedly agrees. “We’ve been blessed,” he says. “I’m just looking forward to that next Guinness.”
Power Up is out now