The elephant in the room has a name: Axl Rose.
AC/DC singer Brian Johnson’s actual room is illuminated by standing lamps on either side of a long, dark couch; he perches in the middle with his trademark cap and in his jolly British brogue begins the Zoom interview with an a capella tune. It incorporates my name and concludes with the lyrics “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
Disarming, charming and voluble, my chat with the AC/DC singer is a relief. Rose, the Guns N’ Roses frontman, had replaced Johnson on the band’s European tour in May 2016, after Johnson’s exit the previous month due to worsening hearing issues. Ironically, Rose himself was infirm; he performed some AC/DC shows seated and in a leg cast.
Four years and a ton of hearsay later it was confirmed: Johnson was officially back with AC/DC, his hearing improved due to top-secret technology. From his Florida home, Johnson’s beaming visage and brimming enthusiasm confirm he’s back in…well, the band. And Power Up is proof positive that Johnson is in full voice and the band at full tilt, despite the devastating 2017 loss of co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young.
“Four years ago people would have thought, ‘This ain’t gonna happen ever again,’” Johnson admits to SPIN. “It’s all screwed up; Brian’s lost his ears; Cliff’s retired; Phil is kind of screwed up in New Zealand with the situation [legal issues stemming from drugs and a “threatening to kill” charge] that he was in.”
It all began — again — Johnson says, when Sony and the band’s management asked Angus about doing another AC/DC record, to which he says the guitarist replied, “Well, if I can get the boys back together.”
“Angus phoned me, and I said, ‘You know Ang, abso-fucking-lutely,’” Johnson recalls. “Then he phoned Cliff, who said, ‘Well, if Brian and Phil’s gonna come back, absolutely.’ I think he said ‘yes’ twice. And [nephew] Stevie [Young] was there, obviously.”The band entered Warehouse Studios in Vancouver in 2018 and, as the album title indicates, “The electricity, it was just immediate. “Without anything being said. It was the first time we’ve got together since two years before at Malcolm’s funeral.
“After the funeral, we sat together. With the family and everything,” Johnson remembers, “and something felt right, something about the thing…Malcolm’s still working. He’s just saying, ‘Okay, you know, just because I’ve passed away doesn’t mean passed away completely.’
“Because Mal had such a personality,” the singer adds. “And of course he was there in the studio in Vancouver from the minute we went in. Back in Black was a tribute to Bon [Scott]; well, then Power Up is a complete tribute to Malcolm Young; I think he would have been proud of it.”
As much as Johnson, and Scott before him, are the sly, ultra-charismatic, vocally unsurpassed singers, the band belongs to the Youngs. Angus, with his devilish schoolboy stage demeanor, was more “visible” than Malcolm’s rock-steady rhythms. But that’s a misleading read on their dynamic.
“When Mal first dreamed up this idea [AC/DC], he thought ‘music’s too soft. I want to play rock and roll.’ And he got his brother and the rest of the boys in for the band. Malcolm Young, he really was relentless. He knew what he wanted. And he wanted to keep it like that.
“Even Angus would say Malcolm was the man who kept an eye on everything to keep everything AC/DC-ish, Johnson says. With three singers (Dave Evans’ tenure was 1973–1974), 17 albums since 1975 and sales of more than 75 million LPs according to the RIAA, you can say Mal succeeded. (AC/DC sit below Elton John and are tied with Pink Floyd on that RIAA list.)
Johnson says that both he and his late predecessor, Bon Scott, “learned [their] trade” from Malcolm Young. “Angus is now, basically, Malcolm Young. He’s taken over the reins, and he’s done it so well.”
At home in a room full of Marshall amps, Angus appears as calm as his singer is ebullient.
If there’s one secret to the Aussie-bred band’s success, it’s consistency. Power Up could have arrived in 1973 or 2033. Interestingly, the album’s dozen stellar songs were actually written by Angus and Malcolm during the mid-2000s, if not before.
“It actually goes back a bit,” Angus says. “A lot of them were [just] song ideas. We had so much time off, especially the time before Black Ice — we had a lot of years together, Malcolm and myself. A lot of the songs come from that period,” he affirms. “It was just my task to get through a lot of them and see which tracks I thought were good AC/DC tracks. Pull them out, more or less.”The culling process didn’t reveal any forgotten free-form jazz odysseys or other deviations. Steadiness is an AC/DC hallmark — but what about self-plagiarizing, where a new song sounds too much like a previous tune?
“That would be a bonus, actually,” Angus says, smiling. “Because in the beginning, that’s what you establish. That’s your sound, your style. When you hear our song, that’s the first thing you recognize: It’s AC/DC. Going back, people like the Beatles or Stones, they all had their own signature sound. That’s what they stuck to. And that’s the same for us. Our sound has always been rock music, and that’s what we stick to. That’s what we do best. And that’s what we’re known for.”
The last four years would have been fertile lyrical ground for an emo band. But AC/DC prefer more basic fare in their songs: women, booze, cars. Brian is quick with a quip, yet he’s not a lyricist.
“Over the years, Brian had done [lyrics] earlier,” Angus says. “When he started with this, he did some lyrics. But over the years, my brother and myself ended up dealing mainly with it all. You know, the songwriting, [including] the lyrics, and that took a bit of pressure off Brian to get into the performance side of it.”
When Johnson was unable to perform any longer in 2016, his world understandably crumbled, with or without Rose at the helm of his band.
“When I had to stop singing, it was probably the worst time of my life,” he says with uncharacteristic somberness. “There was no way out of it; I had to stop. I couldn’t hear onstage. I couldn’t hear the guitars. And it was getting worse and worse. I couldn’t get through 45 minutes. It was terrible.”
Ultimately, though, Johnson is a pint glass-half-full guy: “You suddenly stop and think. I was 68, and I thought, ‘I’m a lucky guy. I’ve had a great life.’ First of all, it’s not terminal. When I think of all the people in the world who are going through so much shit, with cancers, all these horrible things….
“All right, I’ve lost me hearing. I’ve been one of the great rock and roll bands in the world. I was upset. But instead of crying like a baby, I didn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t go on social media. I just buried me head in a bottle of whiskey for a couple of months. That’s what I do,” he says. “And I just manned up, just got through it. I didn’t get that didn’t get psychiatrists or drugs or pills. I just drank whiskey. And it was good.” [Laughs.] It got me through. I said, ‘I’ll do other things, race cars,’ you know, which I did do. I didn’t sing. I didn’t think I needed to. Because I’d sang with the best. What was the point?”
While the details of his hearing healing are protected by a non-disclosure agreement, Johnson is as potent as ever on the album, singing the Young brothers’ songs with a fervor of a man with something to prove.
“There was something to prove,” he agrees, looking for the right words. “I think to say that we’re still here. And we got back together. And against all the odds, which proves that there’s a bond between the boys in the band that obviously has to be after 40 years, since 1980. And let’s not forget Bon’s massive contribution to all of this.”
“And, you know, I’ve just had the greatest ride, and contributed as much as I possibly could to it,” he adds. “This new album, I think, is the probably the most enjoyable thing I’ve done for a long, long time.”
And it shows. Power Up — produced, like their last two, 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust, by Brendan O’Brien — is all killer, no filler. Expect the expected, and revel in it. Among the most powerful are the poignant (but still virile) “Mists of Time;” “Demon Fire,” with its hints of “Whole Lotta Rosie” meets “Safe in New York City;” and the 2020-relevant “Systems Down.”
Angus is reserved when discussing lyrics such as “a shot in the dark / Beats a walk in the park, yeah” on Power Up. But when pressed, he offers, “To me, a shot in the dark is a drink. When I was younger, if I ever had a cold my mother would put me to bed, you know, give me something to sleep through the night, and she put a few drops of alcohol, like whiskey. If I had a cold, it would help, and by morning, I was good enough to go to school.”
While AC/DC have written classics about STDs (“The Jack”) and heavyset women (“Whole Lotta Rosie”), apparently fans and critics alike have found meanings other than Angus and Mal intended.
“A lot of people always think that’s what we aim for,” Angus says. “In actual fact, no. Some people just mistake what we actually do. … [With] ‘Highway to Hell,’ people would say, ‘They’re singing Satanic songs.’ [We’re] not. It’s a road song. It’s just our description of being on the road. Even if you took a song like ‘You Shook Me All Night Long,’ a lot of people go, ‘What are they singing about here?’ If you actually tune in, it’s almost like a car song — somebody who has a passion for their motorcar.”
While Johnson’s bawdy delivery can make anything sound dirty, the song that affects him most on Power Up is the poignant “Through the Mists in Time.” The singer notes that the track — which includes lyrics like, “Hear the whisper of the whirlwind / Monster shadows, a light gone dim / Dark horses roam in my sleep” — is “definitely about Malcolm.”
Johnson may not tell his own stories via song, but the frontman is glad to share some emotion stirred up by the pandemic. “Me darling, I’ve learned that we’re all the same,” he says. “Jimmy down the street, you know? We’re exactly the same, all going through the same shit. It’s this wall of sadness of uncertainty that hangs over us. Well, you know, we’re all trying to be human and fun,” he says. “And every time we do that, there’s another lockdown. And so, you know, it’s a bit of a bugger, me darling.”
Is AC/DC a panacea? Johnson tips his hat — figuratively — to the record label, saying the strategy for releasing a record when they couldn’t tour because of COVID-19 was about Sony showing their commitment to rock ‘n’ roll. At a time of such global uncertainty, an AC/DC record is a nice life raft.
“They’ve stuck with us like glue,” he says. “I think they just wanted to make the world feel happy again. ‘Hey, listen, in this time of uncertainty, here’s something: AC/DC coming back with a record and the world’s alright, because the boys are back again.’”
The talented and driven Youngs could rest on their considerable laurels: Both Back in Black and Power Up are close to hard rock perfection, and despite exactly 40 years difference between them, they’re not far apart sonically or song-wise. The spirit of the past lives on in every track and onstage moment.
Johnson affirms that. “Malcolm is what drove us on in the studio, you know, he was in every chord. He’s in every song and every thought, and we’re not spiritual people. He wouldn’t stand for anything that didn’t excite him personally. I think that’s what we’re always gonna remember: that the core of AC/DC was Malcolm Young.”
As time runs out, I give Johnson a long-distance Zoom cheers to everything AC/DC. He quickly jumps off the sofa, scurries out of the camera’s reach and returns with a glass of whisky, happily toasting to the band’s past, present and future.