Talkin’ AC/DC with Devin Townsend, Matt Good, and Michael Slade



By Steve Newton

The members of AC/DC aren’t doing any interviews in advance of their two shows at the Pacific Coliseum on Sunday and Monday (April 22 and 23), but that’s okay, because if they were, they’d probably just want to talk about their latest album, Stiff Upper Lip. And quite frankly, apart from a couple of tunes, it’s not worth talking about.

No, it’s the classics that I’d want to discuss—timeless blues-metal discs like Powerage, Highway to Hell, and Back in Black, which were devoid of the filler common to recent AC/DC offerings. It’s the undying strength of albums like those that still allows AC/DC to sell out arenas and stadiums, even though they haven’t had a hit single in 10 years. And if Angus Young and Brian Johnson don’t want to get in on the chat, there are plenty of other rock ’n’ roll types who will.

Like Matthew Good. Good grew up with Back in Black, which he ranks among the world’s five most perfect rock albums. “Let’s just put it this way, man,” says the typically up-front musician. “As far as I’m concerned, Back in Black is just a benchmark rock album. I think that for anyone who kinda missed the glory of the ’60s and early ’70s—you know, that whole Almost Famous kind of magical kingdom of rock ’n’ roll—for them that album is the early ’80s. When Back in Black came out, it’s kind of like… You know those samples of Tide that used to be left on your door at home? Well, Back in Black kinda came in the mail, if you know what I mean. Everyone got one, whether they liked it or not.”

When asked to pick his favourite AC/DC song, Good tries to sneak a few in, then settles for “Have a Drink on Me”. Of course, that’s a Back in Black track. Another local rocker who has a warm place in his heart for AC/DC’s 1980 masterwork is Mike Kischnick, lead guitarist and main songwriter with local prog-metal act Empyria, who’ve been garnering quite a following in AC/DC strongholds like Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

“I just recall it from lotsa parties and the slags on Surrey,” he says with a laugh. “Every Surrey pit party had AC/DC’s Back in Black; somebody was playin’ that.” Kischnick’s fave AC/DC album is Back in Black’s 1981 follow-up, For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), which also includes his fave AC/DC tune, “Evil Walks”.

J.J. Caithcart, owner of the heavy-metal specialty shop Scrape Records, is another Back in Black fanatic, although his top AC/DC tune is the title track of For Those About to Rock. “I remember playin’ a lot of football in the summer when I was younger and we listened to For Those About to Rock a lot of the time. We’d have the big stereo speakers outside the window of the living room when we’re playin’ in the front yard. We used that as sort of the energy/adrenaline music to get us goin’.”

After talking to various musicians and music fans about AC/DC, I got the impression that they’re divided into two camps: those who loved the band best when Bon Scott was the singer—before he drank himself to death in February of 1980—and those who love Back in Black so much they don’t care that Brian Johnson took his place after Highway to Hell. Stormin’ Norman Casler, local blues harpist and host of the CFMI Sunday Blues show, is a Bon Scott kinda guy. His favourite AC/DC album is 1978’s Powerage, and his favourite track is 1977’s “Let There Be Rock”.

“All I know is AC/DC reminds me of high school in Trail,” he says, “and the good old water tower, which is where we used to go all the time with AC/DC 8-tracks and our six-packs, you know, skippin’ outta school.” Unlike most of those surveyed, Casler has never experienced AC/DC in concert, but he’s hell-bent on seeing them this Monday. “They are the epitome of a rock ’n’ roll band,” he declares. “They party, they get naked, and they like it loud.”

Devin Townsend—former singer-guitarist with Steve Vai and current leader of local hardcore act Strapping Young Lad—also favours the Bon Scott era, which coincided with his hormonal awakening. “The first time I ever saw a porno magazine,” he recalls, “was at my buddy’s house where we were paging through a dirty one in his bedroom, and we had Highway to Hell playing in the background.” Not surprisingly, Townsend points to the unsubtle “Sink the Pink” as the top AC/DC tune on his personal chart.

While AC/DC has never been thought of as a punk band, the group has won favour among punk rockers. At least, so says local writer and musician John Armstrong, who performed as Buck Cherry with early-’80s pop-punks the Modernettes. He says that several members of seminal Vancouver acts such as D.O.A. and the Subhumans—including Joey Keithley, Wimpy Roy, and Dimwit—were big on AC/DC. While Armstrong admits that he’s not really a fan himself, he’s impressed by the fact that the band, like Chuck Berry, could keep finding new ways to write the same song. And he knows a pretty funny AC/DC story, concerning an employee of now-defunct local concert promoter Perryscope.

“One of the guys got the job of goin’ out to buy jeans and socks for AC/DC,” he explains, “because they hadn’t done the laundry and they were just like, ‘Fuck it, just go buy some.’ So they write their sizes down, and he goes to the Bay or Eaton’s or somethin’, and he’s lookin’ around, and the salesman goes ‘Can I help you?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, yeah, I gotta get four pairs of Levi’s this size, and 15 pairs of white cotton socks this size.’ And the guy says, ‘Oh, you want the boys’ department.’ ”

AC/DC may not be the world’s biggest band in physical terms, but there’s no denying their extreme popularity, and their universal appeal to everyone from ditch diggers to best-selling horror authors. Stephen King has often sung the praises of the three-chord Aussie headbangers, and so has Canada’s own best-selling fear merchant, Vancouver author-lawyer Jay Clarke, who has penned eight “horror whodunits”—with various cowriters—under the pseudonym Michael Slade. He was inspired by the band while writing his 1992 novel, Cutthroat.

“When I was writing Cutthroat I got lost in the middle of the book,” he relates, “because the plot was so difficult to bring together. But I went to see an AC/DC concert, and I was so pumped and powered when I came outta that, that I sat down and wrote myself right through the problem and pushed on to the end of the novel.”

In the author’s note to Cutthroat there’s a dedication to the band that reads: “AC/DC, for a jolt when juice was low”. Over the past quarter-century, millions of others have had their batteries recharged by the high-voltage shenanigans of a pint-sized guitar demon in schoolboy duds. Here’s hoping the current AC/DC makes good on that legacy someday, and produces another album as solid and unforgettable as Back in Black.

I’d even arm-wrestle the scrappy Matt Good over a copy of that.

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