How AC/DC conquered the globe


AC/DC have been on the road for more than two decades and, in record sales at least, can legitimately claim to be the biggest band in the world – beating U2 and catching up fast with The Beatles

IN AN INTERVIEW with shock-jock Howard Stern last year, AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson let slip that the only band in the US to have sold more records than them in the past two decades has been The Beatles.

Strictly speaking, what he said was not what he meant. AC/DC were not the second highest selling band in the US for that particular year. He was referring, instead, to their astonishingly lucrative back catalogue. Between 1991 and 2007, AC/DC sold 26.4 million copies of albums they had previously released in the US.

The title of best band in the world has been vacant since The Beatles split up in 1970. No band has come close to matching their creative or commercial success, not even U2, despite Bono’s hubris when he said they were reapplying for the “best band in the world job”.

Such presumption sits uneasily with the facts. The title of best band in the world is a matter of opinion. It is a fact, though, that AC/DC (180 million album sales) are a bigger band than U2 (140 million album sales) and probably the biggest selling band in the world. In the US last year, AC/DC’s new album Black Icesold 784,000 copies in its first week of release, 300,000 copies more than U2’s No Line on the Horizon. With these kind of figures there is no contest in what is probably the biggest music market in the world.

Back in Black, the album AC/DC recorded in the immediate aftermath of the death of their first singer Bon Scott and the band’s finest achievement, is now the second biggest-selling album of all time after Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

AC/DC have managed to reach this elevated status by breaking every music convention and doing it all on their own terms. They are rarely heard on the radio, they have never released a greatest hits collection and they are one of the few acts in the world who can reject iTunes and still sell millions of records.

They have stuck steadfastly to their riff-driven, fist-pumping sound, a stance which once seemed bloodyminded, but now looks like the secret to their longevity.

They have also never espoused a cause, good or bad, make no pretentions to being anything other than a good-time rock and roll band and have no interest in “politics and all that s****,” as Johnson once said.

Fans who spotted the band’s elfin-like lead guitarist Angus Young outside the Four Seasons Hotel after their concert at the O2 in April, remarked at how most of the hotel guests passed by without recognising him. In essence, AC/DC have succeeded in achieving megastardom without ever being megastars.

Tomorrow’s concert at Punchestown Racecourse, with a capacity of 70,000, will be the biggest AC/DC have played in Ireland. For most in attendance it will be the gig of the year, following on from the other gig of the year, AC/DC’s barnstorming performance at the O2 in April which sold out in a couple of minutes.

Playing to such a mass audience seemed unthinkable in 1996, the last time AC/DC toured Ireland before this year. Concerts scheduled for Dublin and Belfast had to be amalgamated and even then The Point show was not a sell-out.

It was around this time that the band reached a creative low. They struggled for two decades to live up to the brilliance of Back in Black, which was released in 1980. Many argue that the best thing the band did after touring their forgettable 2000 album Stiff Upper Lipwas to disappear, save for a few dates as support to The Rolling Stones in 2003.

Like so many counter-intuitive things surrounding AC/DC, it proved to be their best career move.

In the intervening years, their absence only added to their reputation. With no contemporary hard rock acts coming close to matching their power or consistency, a new generation was drawn to their music.

Their Live At DonningtonDVD, released in 2003, is the most successful live DVD of all time and still their records keep selling. In 2007, seven years after their last album release, they sold 1.5 million copies in the US alone.

Their comeback was perfectly timed. Black Icehas sold eight million copies and their world tour has been a sellout everywhere.

It helps that Black Iceis their best since Back in Blackand a fine album in its own right. The band benefitted from the long hiatus and also from the attentions of Bruce Springsteen’s producer Brendan O’Brien who has given their music an edge it has lacked in recent decades.

AC/DC’s rise to world domination has happened under the radar of the music press and the industry itself, but it is no secret to their fans. The crowd that will travel tomorrow will be overwhelmingly male and, for the most part, from rural Ireland. They will come from every town and village and, the more off the beaten track, the bigger the turnout.

There is something about the escapism and lack of pretence in bands like AC/DC which appeals to small-town audiences. The more unfashionable the place it seems, the higher the head-banging head count.

The same phenomenon occurred in the 1970s when Led Zeppelin were the biggest band in the world and the disdain of urban critics was at odds with the band’s mesmeric grip on small-town America. It is not a coincidence that some of Britain’s finest metal acts like half of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest come from the deeply unfashionable West Midlands in England.

Ultimately, AC/DC has grasped a fundamental truth about music. Other bands might strike a solemn, deep and meaningful pose, strive to save the planet and call their music art, but ultimately, as one of AC/DC’s songs go, “rock and roll is just rock and roll yeah”.

Tomorrow, there will be a train belching smoke, bells, cannons, a giant inflatable doll and a middle-aged man running around in shorts playing some of the most inspired riffs in the history of rock and roll. AC/DC do entertainment better than any other band. That’s why they are the biggest band in the world.

AC/DC play Punchestown Racecourse tomorrow