Over the decades, I’ve spent my fair share of quality time with AC/DC. Along with seeing the band multiple times in various incarnations — from the legendary Bon Scott-led lineup to the short-lived version fronted by Axl Rose — I’ve interviewed longest-running frontman Brian Johnson umpteen times. Back in 2012, the fine folks at Sony even flew me over to London to sit down for a chat with the jovial Johnson (easily one of the nicest guys in rock ’n’ roll) and his more business-like foil, guitarist Angus Young. Fun fact: They’re both so wee you have to resist the urge to hoist them onto your lap and tickle them like toddlers. Anyway, since their new return-to-form album Power Up is out now, it seems like high time to resurrect our conversation. I even restored a few exchanges — and all the curse words — that were edited out for print. Enjoy.
LONDON — Lead singers and lead guitarists are supposed to have love-hate relationships. Think Mick and Keef. Steven and Joe. Eddie and Dave. Eddie and Sammy. Eddie and … well, you get the drift.
Then there’s Brian Johnson and Angus Young from AC/DC. The gloriously foul-mouthed frontman and his short-panted sidekick are too busy laughing to be feuding. They’re less like rockers and more like a comedy team. Think Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. The Two Stooges, if you will.
At least, that’s what I found when I met up with the dynamic duo in England for an exclusive Canadian interview about their DVD Live at River Plate, filmed in HD during the Australian rock gods’ Black Ice World Tour stop in Argentina in 2009. Relaxing on a couch in a posh suite at the luxe Connaught Hotel, the 63-year-old vocalist and the 56-year-old guitar hero aren’t exactly blending in with the decor. Johnson is sporting shorts, T-shirt and baseball cap. Young is in jeans, T-shirt and beat-up high-tops without laces. (Both seem even shorter in person than onstage, though the wiry Johnson could still kick my butt.) A tray of fancy little sandwiches and a bowl of fruit in front of them sit ignored, while the raspy singer bums smokes off his bandmate (“I’m trying to cut down; I know, I know, there’s no such thing,” he admits) and knocks back espresso (Angus sips tea). Between puffs and gulps, the pair riffed on everything from songwriting to jigsaw puzzles. It’s just too bad drummer Phil Rudd wasn’t there to supply rimshots.
It’s been nearly a year since the Black Ice tour ended. In hindsight, how do you think it went?
JOHNSON: Fast. Just whoosh. It didn’t seem like it in the middle, then all of a sudden we were saying goodbye on the tarmac. I was in shock for over two weeks. I was just sitting around back home, twiddling about with the wife looking at us, going, ‘Will you get off your arse and do something?’ I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to live a normal life anymore!
YOUNG: I stayed in bed for about a week, but then I just took the guitar down in the studio and started hammering away on that. And I did a few jigsaw puzzles. I got hooked on them.
JOHNSON: I did a jigsaw too. It only took us three days. But I was really pleased, because on the box it said: Five to six years.
Ba-da boom! So tell me about the new DVD.
JOHNSON: I think it’s cracking. It’s really done well. The cameras and all that were unbelievable — on wires and automated. All this modern stuff just takes your breath away.
YOUNG: And (the HD) really catches all the wrinkles!
South American audiences are known for being insane, and the one on the DVD certainly fills the bill. Does crowd response still mean anything after all these years?
JOHNSON: It certainly does. It gives me goose bumps some nights. You’ve really got to concentrate on what you’re doing, because if you start looking at the crowd, you forget what you’re doing.
YOUNG: Some shows, you can feel a buzz before you even come out. It’s almost like you don’t have to be there. They’re already having fun. And you can’t hype an audience. It never works.
JOHNSON: I actually think if you talk to an audience too much, you start to sound like a politician or a union boss. Just shut the fuck up and start playing.
Why not just put (rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and bassist Cliff Williams’) microphones at the back of the stage where they stand so they don’t have to walk 10 steps forward and 10 steps back all night long?
JOHNSON: What! You must be joking! We’d be lost! We’d be confused!
YOUNG: I remember Mick Jagger asked me once: ‘Do you think Malcolm would come forward and play?’ I said: ‘Those steps are ingrained in him. That’s his dance move. That’s it.’
Plus, it’s his only exercise of the night.
JOHNSON: Oh, no. He’s sweating when he comes off stage, believe you me.
YOUNG: Malcolm is the engine room. And what he does is unique. There are very few guitar players like Malcolm in the world. There’s more people like me: lead guitarists. There’s very few who say, ‘I just want to stand here and play a good rhythm.’ Malcolm is a very good soloist. Don’t underestimate him; he can do it and do it well. In the beginning, when we used to play bars, he and I would swap. He’d do a solo and then I’d do a solo. Then he just said, ‘I’ll concentrate on the backing and you can do all the colourful stuff.’
JOHNSON: There’s no imitating it. I’ve seen people try to play You Shook Me All Night Long or fucking Highway to Hell — and these are good players. But they do it wrong. I don’t know what it is — and obviously, neither do they!
You kept us waiting eight years for Black Ice. You’re not going to do that again, are you?
JOHNSON: Nah. Fuck, in eight years we’ll all be dead, mate. Fucking hell!
YOUNG: Promises, promises.
JOHNSON: Ha! ‘Oh, there goes another one!’
YOUNG: ‘Can’t he take his friends with him?’
How far along are you in the process of making another album?
YOUNG: It’s still early. But we’re hoping that it comes quick. it’s still early. but we’re hoping that it comes quick. During the Black Ice time, we also had other things going on. Different record things that I won’t bore you with. The good thing with Black Ice is that when we were ready, and we got in the studio, we had all the songs, and it was just a matter of capturing the good performance. We didn’t have a long drawn-out thing.
JOHNSON: I think if you put a date on something, you put yourself under pressure. As soon as somebody says ‘late November,’ it’s like, ‘Oh fuck.’
Angus, tell me more about how you and Malcolm write. Is there a division of labour?
YOUNG: The only formula is that there’s no formula. you might have something that’s a full song or you might just have a few ideas or a really good riff. Sometimes you have boxes and boxes of ideas. In our case, we have rooms full of them. It’s just a matter of taking the best between them. When we get together, it’s good. Probably because we’re brothers, we can easily say, ‘That’s good, that’s crap.’
Unlike the Gallaghers or the Davies brothers, we never hear about you and Malcolm feuding. Do you get along better or are you just more private?
YOUNG: Well, when Malcolm said, ‘Come and play in my band,’ my father said, ‘You two together won’t last a week.’ And we always fought like cats and dogs. But over the years, between the two of us, we know what we want. And that’s what keeps it in gear. We came from a bigger family. There was seven boys. And my other brothers were into music. That’s the kind of bond between the two of us.
You guys play the same set in the same order night after night. Doesn’t that get boring after 150 shows?
YOUNG: Well, I’m lucky. I’ve got a switch. I’ve always had it. I’ve got another persona. I put on the school suit and I become stronger. I become more powerful. Even my vision becomes better.
JOHNSON: Fucking Clark Kent, this one is.
So even after all these years, you still don’t regret the shorts?
YOUNG: Nah, I’m lucky. I don’t have to worry about style, fashion, whatever. I can just come in and go blue or black? Or find out what colour their flag is and wear that colour. I don’t have to worry about makeup.
Could you go out and play a show dressed like you are and would it be the same?
YOUNG: No, it wouldn’t. When I was younger and first started playing live in front of people, I kept out of the way. It was when I put on the school suit that I thought, ‘I’d better move.’ Because I thought there were going to be a lot of people out there going, ‘What’s this about? This guy’s weird.’ At first it was a challenge. people were going, ‘What is this?’ My thing was to show them there was more to it than a guy looking like a fool.
JOHNSON: What Angus says is dead right. Because when we walk on stage, I notice — especially on this tour — their faces light up: ‘They haven’t changed! It’s just like last time.’ Every one is very pleased to see it. It’s what’s advertised. We’ll never try to change anything. And it’s a wonderful thing. I just feel them going, ‘Yes! The fucking boys are back.’
YOUNG: That’s what we’ve always gone out for. We’ve always been a people’s band. People want to hear the songs from your old albums. We don’t come out and bash ’em with 15 new ones.
Tradition is obviously important to you. But how do you avoid getting stuck in a rut?
JOHNSON: Well, some bands are doing the same things as when they started off and now it looks silly. Or it looks dated. Or it looks daft. That’s never ever happened with these guys. We’re just lucky we didn’t jump on any old bandwagons that came along.
YOUNG: You can understand that — a lot of people look at the media and say, ‘This is what’s selling at the moment. This is what’s popular.’ You see why a lot of people fall in that trap. They think, ‘I’d better change. I’d better adapt.’ But we knew in the beginning — especially Malcolm knew — what was missing out there. He said, ‘There’s very few people’s bands, and they’re becoming fewer and fewer.’
Brian, you were joking about being dead in another eight years …
JOHNSON: Joking? I wasn’t joking!
Does that mean this tour took a little more out of you than the last one did? You play a pretty physical game.
YOUNG: Well, you get these things that happen. This tour, I had this leg thing. It wasn’t a hamstring; I can’t remember what it was. The doctor said it was something like a tube. But funny enough, it was affecting me more offstage. When I went onstage it was fine.
JOHNSON: But it is physical. What you’ve got to understand is that we do what a footballer does — but we don’t have a week to recuperate. And if we did, I would just sit and smoke! So instead, you keep yourself fit. I go to the gym every other day. Because you want to keep that level up there — the last thing you want is somebody feeling sorry for you, saying, ‘Oh, you should have seen them before.’ Thing is, I’m being physical, but Angus is doing what I’m doing, and he has to manipulate a fucking banjo at the same time. That’s like what I do — but with a rucksack on your back. To him, it’s not a tough gig. But everybody else in the world thinks it is.
But Angus, if your knees or the back go, then what? Would you want to play if you couldn’t move like you do?
YOUNG: I’ll get bionics.
Would you want the band to go on without you?
JOHNSON: That is a moot question, I believe the saying goes.
YOUNG: I suppose, if they could deliver it. You’d like to know that they did it well.
JOHNSON: Well, I ain’t fucking going on. Fuck that. Get the fuck out of here. It would be like a broken pencil; pointless.
YOUNG: Well, they’ve got the technology now; they could just put me up there on the screen.
JOHNSON: In 20 years time, we’ll be able to go watch ourselves!
The band’s 40th anniversary is coming up in 2013. What are we going to get?
JOHNSON: Fireworks! Nah, I think the best thing would just be to still be standing after 40 years and ripping shit out of the fucking audience. I don’t think anything could be more of a celebration than that. That’ll fucking set a few noses straight.