The rock’n’roll icon speaks to Double J about what it means to be AC/DC in 2020.
When you hear ‘Shot In The Dark’, the new single from Australian rock’n’roll legends AC/DC, you’ll probably say it sounds exactly like an AC/DC song.
According lead guitarist and founder Angus Young, that’s the point.
“Malcolm used to say to me, ‘Even if we did something ‘other’, it would still come out that way’,” Young tells Double J.
“It still comes out like AC/DC.
“That’s the bit that was always enjoyable for me. When you made a song and you knew in your heart that it was an AC/DC song.
“That was always, for me, the big puzzle. ‘I’ve put something together I know is us’.”
AC/DC’s new album
Malcolm Young‘s fingerprints are all over Power Up, the forthcoming 17th album from the Australian rock’n’roll icons.
The fellow founding member and rhythm guitarist was the unflappable backbone of the Australian band for 40 years.
His taut riffs were not just the foundation of the band’s stomping, bluesy classic rock, but the crux of what generations of music lovers have come to know as rock’n’roll.
Malcolm Young died in 2017, after a dementia diagnosis had forced him to leave his band three years prior. But thanks to a fruitful 40 years of writing with his brother Angus, his legacy lives on.
“A lot of the ideas Malcolm and myself had through the years,” Angus Young says of AC/DC’s new album, which will be out next month.
“They were ideas that the two of us together had worked on. At the time we always said, ‘Oh yeah, we got to get to that’. We always put aside the songs that we always thought were good AC/DC style songs.
“So, with this album, it was a case of, ‘Alright, I’ll go through and get a lot of those ideas the two of us worked on that we always believed should have gone out there as AC/DC tracks’.”
Power Up will feature a selection of songs put together by the Young brothers over many years. Angus assures their quality, saying they simply didn’t fit on the records they were making at the time.
“I can think of a few [that are] probably from the 90s,” Angus says. “At the time there were good, strong ideas. I mean, a lot of them I’ve remembered in my head and I’ve always at some point said ‘Oh, we’ve got to get to that track, and that track’.”
Young says he has “a few boxes” of ideas from writing sessions with his brother that didn’t make it to their past records.
“We did a lot of stuff together over the years,” he says. “A lot of stuff we would say ‘That’s definitely an AC/DC track, that one’s gonna work, this is gonna work’.”
Who is in AC/DC today?
The reformation of AC/DC as they stand today – lead singer Brian Johnson, bassist Cliff Williams, drummer Phil Rudd, guitarists Angus and Stevie Young – feels miraculous.
While Malcolm’s departure in 2014 was an almighty blow, his place was seamlessly filled by the Young brothers’ nephew Stevie.
Stevie had previously filled in when Malcolm was admitted to rehab in the late 1980s, and his playing and presence on the band’s Black Ice tour in 2015 was flawless enough to trick the uninformed into believing Malcolm hadn’t gone anywhere.
It was an easy fix. AC/DC had far bigger issues.
In 2014, drummer Phil Rudd was charged with attempting to procure a murder, threatening to kill, possession of methamphetamine and possession of cannabis.
In 2016, lead singer Brian Johnson shocked fans by announcing his immediate departure from the band due to hearing problems.
AC/DC has overcome tragedy before, famously reaching new commercial heights after the death of their original iconic frontman Bon Scott in 1980, but this was a tall order.
This time around, Angus enlisted Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose as the new lead singer of AC/DC. He invited former AC/DC drummer Chris Slade back into the band to fill Rudd’s stool.
But it wasn’t over yet. Just months after Johnson’s departure, bassist Cliff Williams left the band stating it was “a changed animal”.
Despite Angus Young’s undeniable stature as the face, the sound and the spirit of AC/DC, surely this was it for the iconic stadium rockers.
But last week, everything came back together. Except for Stevie Young replacing his late uncle, AC/DC re-emerged in the same form as they had 40 years ago.
“Life doesn’t have a roadmap,” Angus Young says. “At the time we were in a little bit of the unknown. Especially when Brian had his hearing problem.
“I guess we didn’t know. It was a big unknown for us what would happen. Cliff had said that was his last touring…
“A few years ago, our management was saying, ‘Are you gonna do a new album?’. As I said, I’ve always got material that me and Malcolm put together, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll see if I can put together some of these tracks and see how I feel’.
“Then it was a case of contacting everyone and talking to everyone to see if they were all eager to be part of it. Everyone was excited.”
Asked whether any members were resistant to the idea, Young assures there was no need for any dirty deeds.
“We didn’t have to use muscle,” he grins.
It’s difficult to believe that fans would respond to a new album by an Axl Rose fronted AC/DC in the same way as they would an almost complete return of their classic line-up.
While Angus won’t say that a new album hinged on a reunion of old members, he knows what the people like.
“It’s hard to say,” he says when asked if he’d have gone into the studio with a different line-up.
“This is what the band’s known for a long time, since the Bon Scott era. This is basically what the world has seen and knows as AC/DC.”
The key to writing a good AC/DC lyric
New single ‘Shot In The Dark’ is classic AC/DC.
Angus’ classic lead breaks and lead singer Brian Johnson’s potent screech are the only elements that can cut through the thick, driving force of rhythm guitarist Stevie Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd.
The chorus lyric is one of the band’s best in years, as Johnson opines ‘A shot in the dark beats a walk in the park‘.
Angus Young could easily take a walk in the park right now. His illustrious career as the lead attraction in the world’s biggest rock band has lasted almost half a century.
AC/DC have sold more than 200 million records. Their 2015-16 Rock Or Bust tour grossed over $US220 million across just 88 shows (which led to Forbes naming them the year’s biggest-earning rock band), while their previous Black Ice tour from 2008-10 was the fourth highest grossing tour of all time upon its completion.
His songs are inescapable. No matter where you are on the planet, you’ll hear AC/DC. They’re on radio, TV, film, at sporting fixtures, in supermarkets… everywhere. Before ‘Shot In The Dark’ was even released, it soundtracked a commercial for the Dodge car company.
The passing of his brother and bandmate, and the upheaval of his band for legal and medical reasons, might have been a message for Angus to put AC/DC to bed.
But rather than take a walk in the park, Angus decided to take another shot in the dark. The new single’s chorus seems a perfect statement of intent for a band returning against the odds, but according to Angus, he just wrote it because it fit with the guitar part. Just like he’s always done.
“Malcolm sometimes would say to me, ‘Do you have any hooks in your little book?’,” Angus says.
“I’ve always got little books of song titles. I’d go through and try and find something that fits that song and that’s gonna sing good.
“That’s always been our guide. Because sometimes you get a song, or you get an idea, and you put together a few words and sometimes you say, ‘Oh, I’m going to improve on that’, get a better title or something.
“But, chances are, as you’re singing something, you’re so stuck with that idea that when you change to something else, it doesn’t have the same feel. It doesn’t grab you the same.
“Sometimes even just a title kicks you off. Or even if you get a good riff or something; you go ‘Well, what does that remind me of?’ You conjure an image in your head. And you can you roll from that image.”
Grief and guitars
The Young family’s grief extends beyond the loss of Malcolm.
Less than a month before the AC/DC guitarist’s passing, the family lost the great George Young.
George was founder of influential chart-topping bands the Easybeats and Flash and the Pan, and one half of the Vanda and Young songwriting and production duo, who wrote and produced massive records for Stevie Wright, John Paul Young, The Angels, and, of course, AC/DC.
Getting his head back into music has served as both a distraction and a way for Angus to pay tribute to his brothers.
“I’m best when I’m doing something,” Young says of using music to process grief. “I like to keep busy. So yeah, it’s part of the process, I guess.
“I mean, of my family, especially with George going and Malcolm… they were a big part of what AC/DC was. George – even before we were AC/DC, when we were younger – gave us a lot of guidance, especially with studio work.
“He was always good when we were in our early teens, taking this into the studio and showing us how you made a good record.”
Angus Young’s legacy as a guitarist will perhaps live forever. While his approach is different, his influence is up there with that of Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards and Brian May.
But does he still feel inspired by the guitar?
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “The guitar is my instrument. It’s what I know best. I mean, I diddle about with a lot about with other stuff. I might tap a keyboard, or bass, or drum.”
‘Shot In The Dark’ features a raging guitar solo that proves Angus still has plenty of fire in the belly when it comes to making a racket on his trademark Gibson SG.
He says he doesn’t struggle to stay inspired, because you can always teach an old dog new tricks.
“I just find try and find new things for it all the time,” he says.
“A good thing about it is you can always learn something new. So that’s how I look at it and that’s what I do. As Malcolm always used to say to me, ‘Have you got a few little tricks you’re gonna wow us with?'”
Next month, for the 17th time, Angus Young and his AC/DC brethren will unleash a new bag of tricks on the world. It was a long way to the top, and he’s not coming down yet.
Power Up will be out on Friday 13 November.