Sipping tea with AC/DC’s Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson before the launch of the Flick of the Switch world tour



By Steve Newton

The day before their October 11 concert at the Pacific Coliseum I journeyed downtown to the posh Four Seasons Hotel to meet with three of the five members of AC/DC–the loudest, raunchiest, and most popular heavy-metal band in the world.

Now I wasn’t too sure just what to expect. I had heard their songs “Hell’s Bells”, “Highway to Hell”, and “Rock and Roll Damnation”, but I didn’t suppose the door to their hotel room would open to a fiery inferno and suck me into a tortured eternity of nasty-sounding guitar riffs and howling, hellish vocals.

Then again, neither had I anticipated the sight that did confront me. For there, seated in a congenial semi-circle by a sunny window that looked out to the mountains and sea were three contributors to a sound that has surely raised the ire of many a protective mother.

And they were sipping tea, god-dammit!

With a hearty wave Brian Johnson–the steel-throated screamer who replaced Bon Scott after he drank himself to death–welcomed me into the room. So where was the raving lunatic that prowled the stage in a wooly tam and black Harley-Davidson t-shirt while crazed schoolboy Angus Young dealt brutal chords from atop his broad shoulders? All I could see was a cheerful, albeit slightly shy bloke with a craggy face and sepulchral voice layered thick with Geordie accent.

And what of Malcolm Young, the man responsible for AC/DC’s shattering rhythm guitarwork? He’s a dead ringer for one of his own fans, teenage thin and gaunt.

But if there is one thing that I noticed to be consistent with AC/DC’s badboy image, it is their attitude. Whether sipping tea or Jack Daniels, these guys are on a constant party. They were forever laughing and ribbing each other (and me) during our interview. One gets the impression that, whether they were selling millions of albums or not, AC/DC would still be churning out the rowdy type of music they love. And for that, I give them credit.

In the following conversation, Young, Johnson and new drummer Simon Wright (who remained mostly silent) talk of post-Bon Scott AC/DC, their fans, and their loathing for groups like the Bee Gees.

How did you happen to join AC/DC, Simon?

WRIGHT: I answered an advert in a music paper in London called Sounds. And I didn’t know it was for AC/DC, I just went along.

Why did Phil Rudd quit the band?

YOUNG: I think he’d sort of grown out of it a bit. He got a bit mature [laughter].

Did Angus ever really have to wear that schoolboy outfit he does in concert? Did he go to a private school?

Na, na–it was just something to do to get a bit of excitement. We started off in the Sydney club/pub circuit, and it was a bit like the redneck syndrome. Nobody would pay attention to anything that was going on until you kicked them right in the teeth with it.

And that caused a bit of a controversy. We just got more gigs through it.

Do fans ever come to your concerts wearing those schoolboy outfits?

We haven’t had a lot of it, but you always get the fanatics. We like the birds coming along with the short pants [laughs].

Do many birds come to your concerts? Or is it mostly a male audience?

No, sometime we get quite a few . We’ve got a good looking bass player [laughter all round].

I wanted to ask you about a song from the new album, “Bedlam in Belgium”. Was that written about a particular incident?

Yeah it was. It was quite a few years back. We had always wanted to say something about Belgium without really slagging it off, you know, which is hard to do. That was one of the memories that stuck with the band for a long time.

Well what happened at that gig?

It was just like a curfew scene. There was a lot of drinking and violence going on, so they decided to put curfews on the kids. Nine o’clock curfews at night, which is really silly.

And the cops just came in and started arresting kids right in front of us. We played to about 900 kids–and I think 300 of them like disappeared in front of our eyes while we were playing. We didn’t know what was goin’ on, and the next thing, we looked around and there were cops onstage with machine guns telling us to get off.

Machine guns?

Yeah! Really heavy scene. So one thing led to another, and it was pretty hard to stop the band from playing.

Has there been much violence at other concerts? Do you find that your rowdy style of music incites it?

Not really. We sort of find that music tames the beast, you know. Sometimes at the beginning of a show you might think it’s gonna be a lot of trouble, but once the band gets going they seem to get into us and forget about the violence.

What sort of guitar is that you play, the big one?

That’s a Gretsch, an early sixties model.

You don’t see too many of those around in rock bands.

No. I think they’re like an old country and western guitar [laughs].

Do you ever get the urge to step out and play lead?

Aw, I just tinkle. I mean you can’t outdo Angus. It’s a bit of a difficult one.

Brian, does your vocal style–full force all the time–ever give you trouble? Do you ever lose your voice?

JOHNSON: [Whispers] No. [Laughs]. Aw, just at the start of the tour, if you haven’t been doing anything for a long time and you rehearse for five or six hours a day. Then you feel it. It’s not so much your voice–it’s your lungs that hurt. It’s like training for another season; you’ve got to get back into it. And that’s all, touch wood.

Do you do anything to keep your vocal chords in shape?

Not really. I’ve heard all these stories about these singers that have got these new neck vibrators that they put on before the gigs. And they go and see nodule specialists to show them their throats and all this shit.

Naw, I think the worst thing I’ve ever had done was take honey before six or seven gigs.

At the volume you play at, do you ever fear for your hearing?

Huh? [looks at his watch]. Quarter past eleven [laughter].

Do your ears ring after the concerts? I know mine do.

YOUNG: For a little while. Nothing serious. You see the audience is in front of the P.A. system–that’s where most of the volume is. We’re behind that. Everything we hear comes from our own stage sound, which you adjust to your own range anyway.

Brian, how did you feel about joining AC/DC after the tragic death of Bon Scott? Was there a lot of pressure going into such a popular band?

JOHNSON: I was going through the same as what Simon’s going through now. Not pressure in the sense of real pressure. You felt it, and that was it. But you just do it, you know.

How did you come to join the band? Did they just come up and ask you?

I think at the time it was just word of mouth, ’cause the boys weren’t sure themselves what was happening yet. It was a couple of weeks after Bon’s death, and they just put a few feelers out to see what would happen. And I went down, had a sing with the lads, and it worked out allright.

I thought Back in Black was a pretty good album. What was it like for you, Malcolm, to make that first album without Bon?

YOUNG: It was different. But that material, we were working on it for Bon at the time. So that was the weirdest part. And when Brian stepped in he stepped in right on that album, having not even gone on the road or anything. It was a bit strange, but it was good because we really had to work hard on it.

JOHNSON: I think I was a bit luckier than Simon to actually go into the studio, work with the lads first, and then go on the road. Cause I had the chance to know them better and live with them for a few weeks.

Most of the Australian bands doing well these days are more pop than anything else. Is there much of a heavy metal scene down under?

YOUNG: Well, there’s no Australians in the band. Angus and I are Scottish. And we’ve been out of Australia for seven, eight years now. It’s basically just me that goes because I’ve got parents there. So we’re really not in touch with that place at all. Why do you think we worked so hard to get out of there? [laughs].

JOHNSON: I think you’ll find that with most Australian bands. You’ll go up to an Australian band and say, “How ya doin'” and you’ll get a big thick Scottish accent or an English accent back.

I interviewed the singer for Men at Work a couple of weeks ago and he was born in Scotland too.

YOUNG: Yeah, you’ll find that with lots of them. Even the Bee Gees. They were all born in the Isle of Man, wasn’t it?

WRIGHT: Manchester.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Simon knows. They’re his cousins.

The Bee Gees are your cousins?

YOUNG: No way! Do you think we’d have got Simon in the band with a reputation of having Bee Gees for cousins? [laughs]

JOHNSON: I’d chop his medallion off [more laughter].

Which are your favourite songs on the new album?

YOUNG: Well, I actually don’t know, because it takes me about a year before I can put them into the same category as the other stuff. But just off the top I like “Rising Power” and “Flick Of the Switch”.


JOHNSON: “Nervous Shakedown”, I must admit, is my personal favourite.

WRIGHT: I think my favourite is “Badlands”.

Which songs tend to go over best in concert?

WRIGHT: “Sin City”.

YOUNG: Most of the songs that go down well with the kids are like “Rosie”, “Let There Be Rock”, “Highway to Hell”, and “Back in Black”. It’s what they want that we really go for–what gets the most reaction.

Which groups do you like to listen to in your spare time?

WRIGHT: I like a lot of different ones. ZZ Top.

JOHNSON: I like ZZ Top. I’ve listened to them for years. They don’t give a fuck. And their new song is good, “Sharp Dressed Man”. I just saw the video for it the other night.

Speaking of which, do AC/DC have any videos out?

YOUNG: We just did one in L.A. Not an epic or anything like that. We’ve got this type of thing where if our audience saw us looking a little bit cabaret I don’t think we’d be around much longer. So we just keep it raw and basic, like our music.

To hear the full audio of my 1983 interview with AC/DC subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 400 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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….with hundreds more to come

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