AC/DC, Black Ice, and 30 years of highly synthesized atomic boogie.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Oct. 29 2008 6:53 AM

Still Current

Thirty years of AC/DC.

Brian Johnson (left) and Angus Young of AC/DC. Click image to expand.
Brian Johnson (left) and Angus Young of AC/DC

The zeitgeist can be a keen ironist. Even as the punks of the mid-1970s were fuming and scheming in their English or American ratholes, menacing the future with dreams of a stripped-down rock 'n' roll noise that would kill all the hippies forever, their omens were being unexpectedly fulfilled by two tiny Scotsmen in Sydney, Australia. By 1975, the band built by Malcolm Young and his little brother Angus was already the complete statement: sawn-off Chuck Berry riffs, blood-throb bass, pistonlike 4/4 drums, and boisterously anti-social lyrics, everything delivered with a special edge of mania. Their only technology was amplification (and just a bite of distortion on the guitars). It was all in the finest sense reactionary, which meant that nothing like it had been heard before. With hindsight, it seems inarguable: It may have been the Dead Boys who wrote the call-to-arms "Sonic Reducer," but at the dawn of punk rock, the planet's most severe and animally empowered sonic reductionists were AC/DC.

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They weren't punk rockers, of course—they didn't snipe or thrash or clatter. This sound was huge-boned, blues-rooted. Scowling Malcolm (5' 3"), chop-chopping out the chords on his Gretsch with a skinny arm, was a rhythm player of pulverizing succinctness. Lead guitarist Angus (5' 2") was a duckwalker and a headbanger; between the goblin-wing stumps of his two sticking-out elbows, his head flailed slowly back and forth, mouth open, in massive gestures of affirmation and assent. His performances were paroxysms, but his solos were clean—crisp picaresque mini-narratives that screamed and chuckled and resolved. Vocalist Bon Scott was a tattooed brawler, shirtless, more of a working-class Dionysus than an anarchist, with a unique quasi-flamenco wail that he maintained (according to a source in Murray Engleheart's excellent AC/DC: Maximum Rock 'n' Roll) by gargling port before shows. There was a romance to him: Mark Kozelek, in his 2001 album of acoustic AC/DC covers What's Next to the Moon, managed to distill a doleful poetic essence from the Scott-era songs. "Love at First Feel," in particular, was transmuted in Kozelek's hands from pub-rock smut into something approaching the authentic ache of eros.

They were punk-ish, nonetheless: The incoming kids could find common cause with AC/DC. "You can stick your 9-to-5 livin'," rasped Scott in "Rock 'n' Roll Singer," "And your collar and your tie/ And stick your moral standards/ 'Cause it's all a dirty lie!" Angus—an ex-skinhead—liked to drop his trousers for the camera, spazzed out onstage in a school uniform, and waded into the audience as required: "I'll shit and piss on people if need be," he promised a journalist. Scott always seemed to have a freshly knocked-out tooth. The artwork for their debut album, High Voltage, featured a dog cocking his leg on an electrical service box. Notorious moments had occurred live on Australian TV. Aggro, furore—an "Antipodean Punk Extravaganza" as John Peel dubbed them upon their arrival in London in 1976.

Indeflectibly, they did their thing: not punk rock, not heavy metal, but the same highly synthesized atomic boogie that they would continue to play for the next 30 years. A significant hiccup occurred in 1980 when the amazing Scott rather bathetically exceeded his body's capacity for intoxication, passing out in a parked car in a London side street and never waking up again. But the band hardly faltered. Within six weeks, the Young brothers had installed flat-capped screamer Brian Johnson at the mic, and preparations were underway for perhaps the greatest comeback album of all time: Back in Black.

As a frontman, Johnson has more than held his own against the Scott legend, and as a writer, he started strong ("Knockin' me out with those American thighs," one of the great AC/DC lines, is his), but over the long haul it must be admitted that, lyrically, there has been something of a falling-off. Scott was a wag and a storyteller. Johnson is a straight-up double-entendre merchant ("Sink the Pink", "Givin' the Dog a Bone," etc.), and by 1990 he'd worn himself out, at which point AC/DC's lyrics department was more or less taken over by the Young brothers. "Her hot potatoes/ Will elevate you/ Her bad behavior/ Will leave you standing proud" ("Hard as a Rock").

Musically, however, the compound admits of no adulteration. One cannot be influenced by AC/DC—one can only rip them off. The Cult did it, as did the Darkness and most recently Jet ("Cold Hard Bitch"). AC/DC rip themselves off all the time: Like Motorhead and the Ramones, their worst productions tend to mechanically travesty their best. The hero of Black Ice (Columbia), their latest, is producer Brendan O'Brien, who seems to have approached the band almost anthropologically, honoring their manners and rituals with a scrupulous recording process. The songs are tired, but Phil Rudd's kick drum sounds, literally, like magic. And every AC/DC album has its bull's-eye moment: On Black Ice, it's "Rock 'n' Roll Train," a euphoric stomp with a startling zigzag riff that only the Youngs could have written. A kind of fertile monomania possesses them, sonically and thematically. Witness, for instance, the careerlong fidelity to the motif of balls: "She's Got Balls" (1975), "Big Balls" (1976), "Got You by the Balls" (1990), and—most triumphant—the album Ballbreaker (1995). Around 2017, expect an AC/DC greatest hits package called Balls in the Air.

Naturally, they have been accused of devil worship, though there's never been the faintest whiff of occultism about them. The devil in AC/DC songs ("Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be") is a bloke-ish and convivial presence, a sort of cloven-hoofed drinking partner. And in the mid-'80s they had their obligatory flap with Tipper Gore and the PMRC. But that's all over and done with. These days they are held in the ageless, half-mystical global esteem accorded to certain religious personages and royal families. They move millions of units and play to hundreds of thousands. A recent profile in the New York Times could do little but numbly recite their enormous sales figures. Brian Johnson is now 61; his voice is rubble. Angus, continuing to wear the schoolboy shorts, has thrashed his little body almost to a standstill. Such things no longer matter. AC/DC's music, in all its pulse-lifting, mind-canceling, ball-breaking obviousness and enormity, persists like a cosmic punch line: What if this is the meaning of life?

James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.

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