Some of the best reading might be between the lines. If you’re looking for dirt on AC/DC replacing decades-long singer Brian Johnson with Axl Rose for live shows in 2016, you won’t find it in the 353 pages of The Lives of Brian. In fact, the book concludes when the voluble frontman joins AC/DC in 1980. The prologue and epilogue briefly cover the fraught years of 2015-16, as Johnson came to terms with a devastating and potentially career-ending hearing loss as Rose carried on headlining stadiums in his stead.
The memoir covers the 75-year-old singer’s childhood and early musical successes in his band Geordie in an intimate conversational tone, however, Johnson’s lengthy and successful legacy with AC/DC is not discussed. He’s released 13 albums with the band to date, his signature vocals indelible on “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Back in Black” and “Thunderstruck.”
As for reading between the lines: AC/DC, for all its rock ‘n’ roll glory, extolling the virtues of brotherhood, booze, and broads, is by all accounts a tightly run family ship helmed by the Young family. (Eldest brother George Young of the Easybeats fame produced the first six AC/DC records. Angus Young and his younger brother Malcolm formed the band in 1973 and write the music. Stevie Young, 65, a nephew, replaced his Uncle Malcolm following the latter’s 2014 retirement; Malcolm died in 2016.)
Incendiary singer Bon Scott died on Feb. 19, 1980. Within weeks, AC/DC held auditions for his replacement. Johnson was in the band by the end of March, and within five months, Back in Black, featuring Johnson’s lyrics and voice, was released. (The 1988 LP Blow Up Your Video was the last AC/DC album to include Johnson’s lyrics; Angus and Malcolm took over the entirety of the songwriting duties.)
Johnson’s last show with AC/DC was Feb. 28, 2016 in Kansas City. While he’d had ear issues that had cleared up, this time was different. Doctors ordered him to stop playing or else he’d go deaf. The singer left the tour, desperately searching for medical cures. On March 7, AC/DC announced that the remainder of their American tour would be postponed, but said dates would be made up, “likely with a guest vocalist.” A month later, Rose was announced as that singer, showing that neither death nor deafness slows the AC/DC train.
But Johnson, his jolly, sociable likability and good humor palpable onstage and off remains circumspect when it comes to the inner workings of his longtime band. His reasons for not writing about the band in depth are likely myriad, but Johnson says, “I’m not going to write about AC/DC. That’s a cheap way out, that’s somebody else’s book, and I was not there at the start.” He’s no stranger to reserved men: Because of the taciturn, unknowable relatives on his father’s side of the family, Johnson dedicated The Lives of Brian to his “Great, Great, Great Grandchildren, who I’ll never meet. It’s nice to know we’ll connect through these words.”
SPIN spoke with Johnson from his home on the Gulf Coast of Florida, the sunny locale a far cry from the expansive frontman’s hardscrabble days growing up in Northeast England in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
SPIN: What were your favorite books as a child?
Brian Johnson: We didn’t have many books at all. But me mom had this big book she brought with her from Italy. [She was from Frascati, Italy.]. It was an atlas. It had photographs of the animals and that was the only real book we had in the house and was the one that was used for everything. It was in Italian, obviously. My mom tried to make us see [about] where we lived that there were better places. It was dark, all the houses were the same, with the steam trains going by every 30 minutes to feed the power station. And we had to walk way out to see green. She was always trying to make sure we were never gonna stay there. None of us. She said ‘this is not for you.’ God bless her cotton socks.
I think the first book I really got into was when I was about 15 or 16— Ice Station Zebra [by Alistair MacLean] was the first, his Bear Island came after that. The Antarctic and Russian submarines and good stuff.
You seem to be hearing me quite well. What percentage of hearing do you think you have now?
I have zero in my left ear. I’ve been told I’ve got about 42 [%] in my right ear. I’ve been working with Professor Stephen Ambrose for the last five years on these wonderful things which will change the future of hearing, which consist of inflatable buds in your ear. Modern hearing aids like the ones I’ve got in at the moment…I’m still waiting for mine [new ones] to come in. It’s taken five years. Miniaturization and getting [the technology] right, it’s been [very difficult]. But never give up! And four weeks ago, I walked on stage at Wembley in front of 100,000 people with Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters.
What a thrill to be a part of that.
There I was, [in front of] a real audience. Stephen Ambrose was there, Pab [Paul “Pab” Boothroyd], my front of house sound engineer, was there, who does me and Paul McCartney, we’re the only two he does. I said, “well, it’s shit or bust.” If these don’t work in front of the world and all the music world…because [previously] I couldn’t hear guitars on stage, not a thing. They were just monotone. I walked out there, the roof lifted up off Wembley and I sang my little heart out. I did two songs and the place went absolutely crackers. [With Metallica’s Lars Ulrich on drums with the Foos, he sang “Back in Black” and “Let There Be Rock” at the Taylor Hawkins concert in London on Sept. 3, 2022.]
I think I floated off [stage]. It was absolutely wonderful. So we knew it worked. We were absolutely jumping for joy at the side of the stage. It was something special.
You were onstage with AC/DC in Canada when you first realized you couldn’t hear properly. Did the band realize something was wrong?
No, they didn’t know; I don’t think they could tell. But I was talking to Pab asking, “Am I in tune, am I in key”? It was horrible. And of course, I wasn’t enjoying it because I like to sing and to jump up and down and have a fun time, and here I was desperately using muscle memory with my mouth and neck to get through a song. This couldn’t go on. It was absolute agony.
And the horrible thing about it is there’s no blood, there’s no visible sign. You’re just deaf. You suddenly realize when it involves your job you’re pretty much fucked and there’s not much you can do.
The book covers much of your life, but only until you join AC/DC. What do you say to fans who want to know about all the albums, the last seven years, and Axl? Will that be addressed in the future?
That’s somebody else’s book, me darling.
You’ve been in the band for more than 40 years. That’s your book.
I think what people want to know is really how the band started; the early years, which are always the most interesting and exciting. If the rest of the boys come and say “Jonna [what the band calls Johnson] just fucking write,” you know. But that’s an awful lot of years to remember.
There are memoirs and there are autobiographies. The Lives of Brian is a memoir. What is the difference?
I don’t know! I said, “every week some old fart comes out with a book; I can’t be bothered.” Then I thought, why should I do it? Why should I write this? Who’s interested? I’m not going to write about AC/DC. Because that’s a cheap way out. That’s somebody else’s book, and I was not there at the start.” I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, to be quite honest, apart from somebody saying to me “Brian, you tell great stories, so why don’t you just write a couple down.”
I will offer my opinion; you don’t have to say anything. I feel that the Youngs are a fascinating but very close-knit family who play it close to the vest, to put it mildly. You seem much more open and easygoing. It’s frustrating.
You’re not the first to say that. The boys and the family have always been people that really do keep things close to them; they don’t like to share different things, which is, you know, the way they are. Their prerogative.
I would hope one day that Cliff [Williams, bass], Angus or Phil [Rudd, drummer] might put pen to paper and say “you know what, let’s cover the early years of this band” and how it went up till I walked in the door. We’d love to hear from that perspective.
I found it interesting that when you joined and were getting ready to write and they had all the song titles ready to go. You had to write words to the titles. Was that unusual for you?
Yes, but the boys always did that. They always get a title that the title is very very important, and of course, they’re right. A good title, which can be a good hook line, it means a lot to them and they’ve come up with some fucking stunning ones.
Are you getting calls to guest or collaborate with people?
Absolutely. That never stops. But you’ve got to be careful with Sony Records or whoever it may be; they don’t like ya just wandering around! But this time with Dave Grohl and all that, as long as it’s on stage, that’s ok, but as soon as it comes to putting down records, they get all funny.
Do you write for yourself? Do you play acoustic guitar? Do you make music?
Yeah, I’ve got some songs that aren’t out yet that I’ve written with a couple of people which I think are pretty damn good. In fact, I know they’re good. And one day I’ll put them out when everything’s finished. I don’t know when, but I think they deserve an airing, you know? I wrote this wonderful line in one of them: “Home of the brave/land of the free/national pastime: Me, me me.” That’s America.
When you finished this book, what was your feeling at the end? Sad that your mom’s life wasn’t all she wanted, but happy that you and your brothers and sister did well…
It was a mix of all that you said, and actually, I wish that me Mom was still here. To see all of this. Obviously, dad lived a few years longer to see a bit more. And then you suddenly start finding yourself getting selfish about people that you want back.
I feel your book should be turned into a movie. Has it been optioned?
I hope not! But there’s about six scripts out there at the minute, based on me life. And there’s not one of them worth a good goddamn. I read them all to about 30 pages in, then I go, “Who is this person? Because it’s not me.”
But they can make a film or show even without your approval.
I think they can do whatever the hell they’d like. But if they get your backing, I think that’s when the money comes in for them. There’s plenty of scripts; whether they’ve got the money to make them, that’s two different things, you know?
And then you can pick George Clooney to play you.
Absolutely. George Clooney as me because he’s tough and good looking. I don’t mind George. We’ll see what happens. When you finish a book, it’s always like you have to lock it away because you’ll pull the bloody thing out again [to write] one more thing. So it ended when it did and I cannot even remember what I wrote at the end!