Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young had a simple vision when they started AC/DC in 1973. “It was basically that we didn’t have to have day jobs and could get out and play guitar for a living,” recalls Malcolm, 55. “That was our ambition and our vision. There was no grand sort of plan.
“And it just got bigger and bigger as the band evolved.”
Since the hard rock group formed in Sydney, Australia, it’s sold more than 200 million albums worldwide — 69 million of them in the U.S., second only to the Beatles. It sold 1.3 million copies of its older albums alone last year. AC/DC’s 1980 release “Back in Black” is a juggernaut that’s moved 42 million copies around the world and 22 million on these shores, making it the No. 5 top-seller of all time according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
Now the group — which also includes singer Brian Johnson, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd — has returned to active duty after a nearly eight-year hiatus and found that absence has made fans’ hearts grow fonder.
Despite being available only at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores and via the group’s Web site, AC/DC’s new album, “Black Ice,” burned its way straight to the top of the Billboard 200 chart with first week sales of 784,000. It also debuted at No. 1 in 28 other countries, including the U.K., Canada, Japan and, of course Australia. It’s the first of AC/DC’s 17 albums to debut at No. 1 and only the second — after 1981’s “For Those About to Rock” — to reach that pinnacle.
Shows on the group’s current concert tour are instant sell-outs, meanwhile, even in dire economic times.
Clearly, AC/DC remains “the litmus test of what rock does,” as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler noted when he inducted the group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
Malcolm Young, however, contends that “we’re just doing our duty. We want to make good albums. We’ll deliver our best that we can. We certainly won’t just give ... a bit of tripe, because it’s your fans who go buy it. So we want to make a great album for them. We’ll always make it the best we can.”
The Young brothers’ ethic was fostered early, growing up in their native Scotland with four brothers and a sister, learning to play guitar simply because it was the thing to do in their family.
“All the brothers played guitar,” Malcolm explains. “We were playing guitar before the Beatles, picking up instrumental tunes and things like that, playing the open strings because our fingers weren’t big enough for these big, gold acoustic guitars.”
The Youngs moved to Australia in 1963, and it was there that a desire to play music for keeps took hold when older brother George started scoring hits such as “Friday on My Mind” with a band called the Easybeats. “We never really listened ’cause they’d just go off and practice,” Young remembers. “It wasn’t until they made a record and he came home with it, and the next thing you know it was No. 1 in Australia and we thought ‘Jeez, how did this happen?’”
The younger Youngs tapped George and his Easybeats partner, Harry Vanda, to produce AC/DC when they started the band. The group recorded frequently and toured hard, gradually making inroads in Australia and the U.K. The “Highway to Hell” album gave AC/DC its first major breakthrough in the U.S., climbing to No. 17 in 1979, but that triumph was tempered by tragedy.
In February of 1980, flamboyant and jovial frontman Bon Scott died after a night of binging on drugs and alcohol in London. Authorities ruled it “death by misadventure,” and AC/DC was on the verge of packing it in until Scott’s family urged the group to go on.
Still, Young says, Scott’s spirit remains an integral part of AC/DC’s makeup.
“He’s always there. He never left the band. He’s always there as far as we’re concerned,” Young explains. “There’s too many stories with him, with Bon. It just creeps in every day; if it’s not one of the band, it’s a fan.
“It’s great for us. It just shows you how popular and how long back it remains. The more time passes, the bigger Bon gets, in a way. I think it’s great.”
AC/DC accomplished the improbable, however, and became even more popular when new singer Johnson from the band Geordie joined for “Back in Black,” ushering in an era of greater record sales and bigger stage shows that have featured the giant bell from the “Back in Black” track “Hell’s Bells” and cannon, as depicted on the cover of “For Those About to Rock ...”
“People pay good money for tickets, and they want to see things,” Young explains. “They want lights, they want this and that. We understand that. The band’s all about entertaining.
“We just try to make sure it makes sense. Like the bell and things like that, the cannon — they’re all from records. It gave us a license to do it on stage. So you’re giving people more than just a great band on stage. You’re giving them something extra ... so people go home elated. And now it’s expected all the time.”
There have been rumors that AC/DC, whose members worked out with a trainer for its current tour, plan to make this their farewell trek, but nobody in the band is confirming that. Young, however, acknowledges that taking another eight years between albums, which would put the musicians in various points of their 60s — and Johnson, who’s now 61, pushing 70 — and, with apologies to their friends the Rolling Stones, seems an unseemly age for men to be singing about how “She Shook Me All Night Long.”
Nevertheless, Young says. “We never stop, to be honest. We write all the time ... and it’s just a matter of when everyone’s in the same spot and we get together and take it up take it up a gear.
“From the get-go, we said it was a rock ’n’ roll band. ‘We’re gonna play rock ’n’ roll.’ That’s how we went, and that’s how it’s evolved. And it’s still that way.”
How big is AC/DC? Here’s some fast facts ...
The group has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, 69 million in the U.S. (second only to the Beatles).
“Back in Black,” its 1980 top-seller, has moved 42 million copies worldwide, 22 million in the U.S. (No. 5 overall).
AC/DC ranks fourth on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock list and seventh on MTV’s Greatest Heave Metal Bands of All Time.
The band is No. 72 on Rolling Stone magazine’s survey of the 100 Greatest Artists of all Time.
AC/DC was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
Schoolboy In Disguise
The most indelible image of AC/DC’s 35-year career is lead guitarist Angus Young’s schoolboy outfit, which he donned in the early ’70s and turned into a trademark. His older brother, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, recalls how it came to be ...
“It sort of evolved through all these pub gigs we did in Melbourne and Sydney. We started moving around and people thought we were nuts. So Angus with his school uniform said, ‘They all think I’m ... nuts anyway, so I may as well act nuts,’ and he just took off with it.
“It took us by surprise. He just did it; he didn’t say, ‘I’m gonna do this’ or ‘I’m gonna jump around like a madman’ — he just got on their with this outfit on and threw in a bit of Chuck Berry, the duck walk, and what have you, to go with it. And he’s been doing it ever since. I don’t think he can ever take it off now, you know?”
AC/DC and the Answer perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 5) at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are sold out. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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