AC/DC, Angus Young, Axl Rose, Back In Black, Bon Scott, Brian Johnson, Cliff Williams, Etihad, Gibson SG, Ginger Wildheart, Heavy metal, Highway To Hell, Live music, Malcolm Young, Music, Phil Rudd, Rock, Rock Or Bust, SECC, The Wildhearts
I didn’t have a drop of drink in me on June 1st 1996. For a night out in my 19th year, this was rare indeed.
It was a Friday, and I took the night off my brain-numbing summer job to see the show with an old school friend. It was a hot, sunny evening – perfect conditions… for a sweaty concert in a black-curtained shed on the banks of the river Clyde.
My mate and I might well have been drunk, giddy as primary school kids as we both leapt around the street on the approach to Drumry train station. This was a notorious non-accident blackspot for travelling Drumchaplians through the ages. A couple of years beforehand the pair of us had to look lively in roughly the same area when some lads bearing what seemed to be a rackfull of car mechanics’ tools inquired if we had been “screwing hooses” in the immediate vicinity. Clearly our stripy tops and Dick Turpin masks were the dead giveaway, as well as the bulging sacks over our shoulders marked “swag”… Oh hang on, that was another night.
The height of bad manners, these tool-bearing chaps then attempted to repair the fuck out of us before we had a chance to reply in the negative. Fortunately, I was quite fleet of foot in those leaner times, though I always wonder what might have happened had the claw-hammer wielding lad’s fingers gained purchase on my collar instead of slithering off when he tried to grab me. Perhaps we’d have had a good laugh about it and become firm friends.
Thankfully, there were no trolls lurking beneath the bridge to put a spanner in the works, and possibly through our faces. This was one of the good nights.
They might not have been queueing around the block to get tickets on the first day of sale, but AC/DC’s fans came good eventually. The SECC gig was sold out. There was a brilliant atmosphere among the crowd on that weird peristalsis through the red-ribbed intestine of the pedestrian bridge over the Clydeside expressway. Lots of band apparel about, more than a decade before classic rock band logos briefly became an ironic fashion statement. I was wearing my Whole Lotta Rosie t-shirt, actually one of the less ugly garments bearing the AC/DC stamp.
Like one of the great love affairs, AC/DC had “stolen” me from Iron Maiden in 1990. Maiden were my brother’s favourites from the era when we shared a room, and so they became mine. I didn’t see anything unusual about the band’s monsters, studded gauntlets, uncomfortable trousers and galloping basslines, but AC/DC offered something different. They had a little bit of dirt in their engine; they talked about things that could happen to you in the real world.
The summer in between my third and fourth year at school – 25 years ago – I discovered lots of their music, particularly Bon Scott’s work. If listening to Brian Johnson screaming out “Thunderstruck” was a flashbulb moment, then hearing the Young brothers in tandem on “Let There Be Rock” was a true epiphany. Highway To Hell and Powerage followed that summer, the latter in particular becoming one of my enduring favourites. Keith Richards knew this band were onto something, citing the hard-edged sound of Powerage on his own all-time list.
Iron Maiden were dumped. I bought a live album in the next few years, but we were basically done. I did go to see them out of a lingering sense of loyalty in 1993, at the age of 16 (“I Only Saw Iron Maiden The Once”), but this wasn’t thrilling to me; more like an obligation. The gig equivalent of a night out with a sullen partner in the months before you finally split, where no-one says anything.
I felt like I was playing with toys I was too old for. Bruce Dickinson had already announced he was leaving, and you could tell he was fed up; he got booed for one or two statements, including a remark about “this shitty arena”. This might have been prompted by the somewhat embarrassing sight of a far-from-full SECC, with great banks of empty seating at the back. He was disillusioned; so was I.
(Of course I have reversed this stance as I’ve gotten older. I rebought some of Maiden’s classic albums and will blast them out unashamedly in the car. I wouldn’t rule out going to see them. You never truly forget your first love, do you?)
The fantasy monsters and the songs based on epic poems were cast out the window with AC/DC. The Scots/Australian band’s stripped-down sound and unrelenting hard rock style gives them a certain mental cache. This was boys’ music, right enough, a world of hard-drinking working class men chasing their women and their dreams, and bumfluffed little brother types like me trying to emulate them. I often wonder if, at some level, I’m still trying to live up to that toxic example.
For me, it was always about the music. I was addicted to heavy riffs and frenzied guitar solos. I wanted more notes, a great swarm of them buzzing around my ears. The lyrics, the art direction and the fashion were distant considerations. It’s a paradox in that I’ve always wanted to write novels, and at the time, I wanted to be a guitar player and write songs – but I never wanted to write lyrics. It just didn’t interest me. Even now, I’m far more entranced by a melody or a good hook than I am by a finely-turned line. It’s hard to explain. It’s visceral, not cerebral, and that certainly describes AC/DC.
In examining his work today, Bon Scott’s songwriting betrayed a melancholy tone in between the sleaze (see “Overdose”, “Ride On”, or even the lachrymose-for-all-the-wrong-reasons pubic lice infestation lament of “Crabsody In Blue”); but you can’t make that excuse with Brian Johnson’s early songs, which saw AC/DC at their commercial peak.
There was some aggressive and plain nasty imagery in there among the power chords and the steady, remorseless beat. In the same way as some feminists applaud Viz’s Fat Slags because they do what they want, when they want, with men entirely subordinate to them, I can make a case for “Whole Lotta Rosie” actually being about Bon Scott enjoying an unforgettable erotic experience with a confident plus-size woman, and do it with a straight face, too.
But these days it’s difficult to justify lyrics like “Let me put my love into you… let me cut your cake with my knife” or “You bitch, you must be gettin’ old” to women (both songs on Back In Black). “First Blood” from Fly On The Wall became one of my favourite songs of this era purely because of Angus Young’s violent, epilepsy-inducing, thrashy guitar solo, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out what the song was about – and it had nothing to do with Sylvester Stallone in a vest and headband.
Maybe AC/DC will always be the preserve of spotty, sniggering, spunk-stained, dirty-joke swapping teenage boys; perhaps this is the true genius in Angus Young’s famous stage costume.
It’s ironic that AC/DC should have this 4/4 macho stance, given their early stylings. They started out in the glam rock era, when Bowie, Bolan and arguably Jagger before them had made sexual ambiguity big business. The band’s name would certainly have raised eyebrows at the time, and couldn’t possibly have been coined naively.
The same is true of their early, rarely seen photographs, where the band is definitely flirting with sexually ambiguous imagery (what’s Bon Scott wearing, and what is he doing with his hands?). It certainly gives us pause for thought when we consider Angus Young’s choice of outfit; as I joke to people these days, I grew up not with Pamela Anderson or Eva Herzigova on my walls when I was a teen; instead, the woodchip wallpaper was covered with pictures of an ugly middle-aged man dressed as a schoolboy.
This all sailed cheerfully over my head. It’s a bit like the old Judas Priest conundrum. I smile when I imagine your classic homophobic rock fan – and it pains me to admit that this does describe me as a 14-year-old – punching the air at Priest concerts, oblivious to Rob Halford’s leather bar costume stylings and his lyrics, which could be quite unambiguously gay. Although the “metal community” rallied round Halford when he eventually came out, there must have been plenty of people in denial beforehand, singing along to “Hell Bent For Leather”.
When the Manic Street Preachers bandied around their “all rock and roll is homosexual” slogan, they might have been closer to the truth than I would have admitted back then.
Before he emerged in his familiar guise as a broken-toothed, denims and leather-wearing barroom brawler, Bon Scott looks astonishingly camp in his early days; take a look at him singing with the early Australian boyband the Valentines on Youtube, flaring his eyes whenever the camera fixes upon him.
Yep, that’s right – Bon Scott, ex-boyband singer. He’s not even the lead singer, he’s on back-up – he’s the equivalent of that lad in Boyzone who looked like a potato. The paths to success can be strange indeed. Remember that, the next time you fancy sneering at young lads aiming for a foothold in the music industry on talent shows. Every Zayn Malik could simply be the larval stage for a tattoo-winged rock god… Odder things have, indeed, happened.
The early ambiguity was just an affectation in order to gain notoriety, of course, and the band quickly adopted a harder sound and harsher imagery once they hit on their winning formula. Though Bon Scott’s tragic end on a bitterly cold night in London in 1980 might have finished them, that basic template hasn’t changed, right up to the present day, despite a Spinal Tap-style retinue of drummers, Malcolm Young’s sad decline and retirement and now, Brian Johnson’s shock departure.
But here was the strange thing. Since becoming an AC/DC fan and acquiring all their albums, my roving eye had been captured by another band – British lads, from Newcastle. I first saw the Wildhearts in late 1993, supporting local heroes The Almighty at the Barrowlands. It’s not strictly speaking fair to say that the support blew the headliners offstage, but Ginger and the boys made an incredible impression on me despite the presence of a quarter bottle of neat vodka in my 16-year-old bloodstream. They stayed in mind, and I bought their debut album, Earth Vs The Wildhearts in early 1994. AC/DC weren’t dumped, exactly… but if you ask me to name my favourite band, it’s The Wildhearts. Earth Vs remains my favourite album of all time. And the Wildhearts were supporting AC/DC on the Ballbreaker tour. This was, and remains, my dream gig line-up.
My mate and I were split up for the show; he’d been tardier than me with getting tickets, so was perched in the seated area, while I was in standing. I enjoyed the Wildhearts, though I didn’t know the band was on the verge of imploding. They sang “Sick of Drugs”, their big single from that year, but lead singer Ginger was about to embark on some unpleasant travels with his crack pipe, unbeknown to the audience. They got a great reception. Then the main event began.
The stage set was covered by a huge brick wall, as if the stage were a castle. What is this, some Spinal Tap shit? I wondered.
Then came a video, introduced by Beavis and Butthead (ask yer dad…). Then, a huge wrecking ball descended, swaying perilously over our heads before demolishing the castle walls. Then AC/DC ran out, and tore into “Back In Black”.
It was a joyous show. There they were, right in front of me, at long last. The setlist was pretty much the same as their Live CD from a few years beforehand, with a couple of surprises in “Dog Eat Dog” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, as well as a creditable number of tracks from Ballbreaker. There was still a lot of sleaze in the mix when it came to the songwriting subject matter, but it was quite comical in tone. “Hard As A Rock”, the lead single from the year before, still raises a smile when I consider its unforgettable couplet: “Her hot potatoes… Will elevate ya!!!”
The title track saw Brian Johnson astride the wrecking ball, taking his life in his hands from a long way up, and no sign of a harness either, while never missing a note. Was Miley Cyrus even alive at this point? If so, she wouldn’t have been out of nappies – yet here was Beano Johnson, doing what she would later become famous for (as a number of internet memes pointed out). Johnson also hung upside down from Hell’s Bell itself, causing further palpitations in any watching health and safety inspectors.
Meanwhile, Angus was as Angus did, still pinwheeling around the stage, and soloing away on his own platform near the end, doing the same old strip tease. The video screens showed Angus getting oxygen as he travelled through to his solo platform – an old gimmick, to make it appear if he was hyperventilating in the same way as James Brown made it look as if he had to be helped off the stage. In much the same way as James Brown might have actually needed a helping hand in his latter days, I wonder if Angus now actually needs the oxygen as he closes in on old age?
A nod to his and Malcolm’s Glaswegian origins, Angus played The Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond before “Highway To Hell”, as we knew he would, before the cannonade of “For Those About To Rock” brought the curtain down in time-honoured, ear-splitting fashion.
I went home tired, hoarse and happy. What could be finer when you’re 19 years old? Going back to a girl’s flat, I suppose. But I shouldn’t be greedy.
AC/DC have toured three more times since the Ballbreaker show – and I’ve missed them every time. I bought Stiff Upper Lip in 2000 on the day of its release, but something happened before I got to see the band for a second time at the SECC; an adult relationship with a live-in girlfriend. The show came and went; I didn’t go. I felt only mild regret. This was a truly strange time in life where I flirted with full-fledged adulthood. I now regret not going; the girlfriend wasn’t a good fit for me.
AC/DC wouldn’t be back for another nine years, and it’s here that we go back to the top. There was initially a furore that the band wouldn’t tour the Black Ice album in Scotland. This prompted a petition, which I even signed – as Victor Bull. As marketing strategies go, it was brilliant; we all had fish hooks in our mouths. A date was duly announced – not at the SECC’s breezy expanses, but at Hampden Park. AC/DC at Hampden Park! I contacted my old school friend. This had to be done. We had to go.
I went down to the new ticket venue, based at the St Enoch Centre – at 8am this time. I had my 1995 experience in mind, but I still wasn’t taking any chances. I expected to walk in off the street, though I was wary of some delay, given the hype surrounding the Hampden show.
Fourteen years after I stood outside the Virgin Megastore, wondering if I’d got my dates mixed up, I got out of Central Station, saw the queue snaking its way all the way up the street, and my chin hit the floor.
The queue was bigger than the one for Nirvana. Times had changed, fashions had come and gone, new bands had risen and fallen… but AC/DC were more popular than ever.
The nightmare came true. We were told the concert had sold out, just as we rounded the final corner to approach the sales desk, two hours later. I missed the show. AC/DC at Hampden Park!
I harboured pure rage for some long-haired, pierced nu-metal teenagers who walked past me, with their tickets secured. “They’re like, my dad’s favourite band… but they’re so cool!”
Skateboarding fucks! I thought. I hope your next half-pipe has a jobbie in it!
And the hell is not over. The Rock Or Bust tour, just last year. Hampden Park again. I was living in England, but I manned the phones to get a brief, in hope rather than expectation.
Nothing doing. It was sold out immediately.
I couldn’t believe it. I might never see them again!
I will, though. Extra dates were announced, totally unexpectedly. They’re playing at the Etihad in June – much closer to where I live now than Hampden Park. The announcement was made in December, possibly allowing for the less frenzied uptake of tickets this time out.
Finally, I’ve got the tickets. My old schoolmate is going to be there too. It’ll be an incredible 20 years since we saw them, almost to the week, just that one time.
But, as you’ve no doubt heard, there’s a Problem.
AC/DC’s ranks are diminished, now – perhaps fatally. Band fulcrum Malcolm Young is in an enforced retirement thanks to Alzheimer’s, and now even Brian Johnson is out of the picture, his eardrums having taking a few beatings too many over the years (he claims this is mainly due to his love of motorsport, though). Phil Rudd is off the scene, thanks to some bizarre legal difficulties back home in Australia. He’s been replaced by Chris Slade, the drummer from The Razor’s Edge era. Angus and Malcolm’s nephew Stevie Young is on rhythm guitar duties, and while you can tell he’s a Young all the way just to look at his face, it’s simply not the same band without Malcolm.
Brian Johnson’s loss grieves me terribly. I have heard stories from several sources about this man (one from Ginger Wildheart, but many from people who have simply bumped into him) who affirm that he is one of the loveliest, most down-to-earth, genuine people in showbusiness, who will always take the trouble to spend time with fans. It makes me uncomfortable to think he won’t be there; that perhaps we’ve seen the last of him.
Axl Rose – yes, that Axl Rose – is replacing him, at least temporarily. I had mixed feelings upon hearing this.
I’ve never seen Axl Rose live – I did see Slash, and various members of Guns N’ Roses, in the guitarist’s solo project band in 1995 – but not Axl. He doesn’t have a great track record with showing up for concerts in his own band, let alone other people’s. This doesn’t square with AC/DC’s work ethic at all. I wonder if Angus is headed for trouble on this tour.
I guess I’ll find out. Angus Young stops when he drops. Just like the rest of us.
You can bet, though, that when Angus starts playing the opening bars of “Thunderstruck”, there’ll be one gadgie in that crowd transported back in time.
If 2016 has taught us anything, we should embrace our heroes while they’re still around. And that’ll be the topic of the final part of our journey…
Read the first part here.