AC/DC Returns To Rock The Masses With 'Power Up'

Nov 18, 2020
Originally published on November 18, 2020 8:47 am

AC/DC's latest album, Power Up, was released Friday. It's a tribute to the band's late co-founder, Malcolm Young. But it's also a big comeback.

On its last tour, only a few years ago, things weren't looking good for the group. Malcolm was too ill to perform. Singer Brian Johnson was losing his hearing and had to leave the tour midway through. And bassist Cliff Williams retired afterward. Some thought AC/DC was over — but not Malcolm's brother, guitarist Angus Young.

"No, I was just concentrating on doing what's there in front of me," Young says. "In my head I always knew, there'll be something to do for AC/DC." In the meantime, Johnson was seeing a hearing specialist. The results were positive enough for Young to reassemble the band.

"And of course, when we did get into that room, that bond of nearly 40 years of working together, it's there," Johnson says. "And the electricity in the room was just, you know, you could cut the air with it."

David Greene spoke with Young and Johnson about crafting a tribute for Malcolm and how an an old-school rock and roll record fits into 2020. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


David Greene: Brian, you had quite a journey to get there. You had to drop out of that earlier tour because of the hearing issue, and your doctors thought you might go completely deaf if you didn't stop. How bad did it get?

Brian Johnson: It was pretty bad — you know, being on the front line for many, many years. We were very lucky, somebody found me: a wonderful fellow that just said, "Listen, I can help you." I took a chance — because it could have been smoke and mirrors, but it wasn't.

Did you think your career was over?

Johnson: Absolutely! But at the same time, I was just thinking, I wasn't going to die of it. I was lucky to have had such a great life. I think we all had our heads up in that studio.

Angus, there's a huge missing piece here for you, obviously — your brother, who died in 2017. I'd love to hear you talk about what he meant to you, not just recently, but maybe in those early days when you started the group.

Angus Young: Malcolm was — it was his idea from get go. He said to me, "Whenever you go to a bar, the songs that get you going are the tough-sounding songs — something with a bit of grit in it. We just need a good, tough rock and roll sound." I was shocked he asked me, you know, "Do you want to be part of it?" And I was like, yeah, sure, I'll try [laughs].

What made you guys so successful, do you think?

Young: We didn't want to aim above people's heads. We wanted to, you know, kind of hit 'em in the gut. Don't try and be the clever musician. When I was younger I was a little bit shy of going forward on a stage, but Malcolm used to say, "If you're gonna go out there and play the guitar solo, let 'em know you're doing it."

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On this new album, a lot of these riffs are things that Malcolm came up with, or that you guys came up with together. What are the songs where you feel like we hear his presence the most?

Johnson: We're not a spiritual bunch of guys, but there was something that was just — Malcolm was there for us. He always was. When we did "[Through the] Mists of Time," I just see him.

You guys are not known for reinvention — you do your thing and you stick to it — and somehow, it just feels like we need you in 2020. What are you bringing us that you guys feel we need in this moment?

Young: A good rock and roll album, I believe. Something you can tap along, sing along, and take your mind away from what's around you.

Johnson: I agree with Angus. Especially at this time, we're surrounded by bulls*** and virus. Just forget about it, you know? Turn the TV off and put the record player on — if you've still got one. Just rock. It's easy.

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DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Guess who's back?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REALIZE")

AC/DC: (Singing) The moment you realize.

GREENE: Doesn't take more than a few notes, does it? Yeah. It is AC/DC. And they have a new album out. It is a tribute to the band's late co-founder, Malcolm Young. His brother, guitarist Angus Young, leads the band now, still wearing his schoolboy uniform.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REALIZE")

AC/DC: (Singing) When you recall and realize.

GREENE: It is a big comeback because a few years ago, on their last tour, things didn't look so good for AC/DC. Malcolm was too ill to perform. Singer Brian Johnson was losing his hearing and was forced to drop out midway through. And their bassist retired. Some thought AC/DC was over, but not Angus Young.

ANGUS YOUNG: No. I was just concentrating on doing what there in front of me. In my head, I always knew, yeah, there will be something to do for AC/DC - what it would be or what it was. But I always knew there'd be something.

GREENE: What had to happen to make this comeback possible?

YOUNG: We had finished that tour. You have a downtime in space. And then you can clearly think of what you're going to do. I thought, well, have a little break. And then start getting back to going in my little room and putting together a lot of the song ideas.

GREENE: In the meantime, Brian, the voice of AC/DC, was seeing a hearing specialist and having amazing results, so good Angus reassembled the band. Here's Brian.

BRIAN JOHNSON: And, of course, when we did get into that room, that bond of nearly 40 years of working together, it just - it's there. And the electricity in the room was just - you could cut the air with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AC/DC SONG, "SHOT IN THE DARK")

YOUNG: That's the most Brian ever rehearsed, I think. He never did any tune-up.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Normally, he'd do a couple of songs and look for an escape route, you know?

JOHNSON: You couldn't keep me away. I was like a spring chicken.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOT IN THE DARK")

AC/DC: (Singing) I need a pick-me-up, a Rollin' Thunder truck. I need a shot of you. That tattooed lady wild like a mountain ride. I got a hunger, that's the loving truth.

GREENE: Well, Brian, your journey to get there, I mean, you had to drop out of that...

JOHNSON: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Earlier tour because of the hearing issue. And your doctors thought you might go completely deaf if you didn't stop. I mean, how bad did it go?

JOHNSON: It was pretty bad, being on the front line for many, many years. And this, we were very lucky. Somebody found me, you know, this wonderful fellow that just said, listen; I can help you. I took a chance because it could've been smoke and mirrors, but it wasn't.

GREENE: Did you think your career was over?

JOHNSON: Absolutely (laughter). But at the same time, I was just thinking, I wasn't going to die of it. And I was lucky to have had such a great life. I think we all had our heads up in that studio.

GREENE: Well, Angus, you - you know, there's a huge missing piece, obviously, your brother...

YOUNG: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Who died in 2017. I mean...

YOUNG: Yeah.

GREENE: ...I'd love to hear you talk about what he meant to you not just recently, but, you know, maybe in those early days when you started the group.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, Malcolm was the - it was his idea from the get-go. He said to me, whenever you go to a bar, the songs that get you going are the tough-sounding songs, something with a bit of grit in it. So that's what he said. We just need a good, tough, rock 'n' roll sound. I was shocked he asked me, you know, to - you want to be part of it? And I was like, yeah. Sure. I'll try, you know? Yeah.

GREENE: (Laughter) Why not?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE WIRE")

AC/DC: (Singing) Well, if you're looking for trouble, I'm the man to see. If you're looking for satisfaction, I'm satisfaction guaranteed.

GREENE: What made you guys so successful, do you think?

YOUNG: Just being, you know, that bold and being very tight. We didn't want to aim above people's heads. We wanted to, you know, kind of hit them in the gut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE WIRE")

AC/DC: (Singing) I'm a live wire.

YOUNG: Don't try and be the clever musician. And as my brother - as Malcolm used to say - you know, when I was younger, I was a little bit shy of going forward on a stage. But Malcolm used to say, if you're going to get out there and play the guitar solo, let them know you're doing it. Yeah.

GREENE: Don't hold back.

YOUNG: Yeah, don't hold back.

GREENE: After years of writing together, Angus and Malcolm had a ton of unused material. And so for the new album, Angus went to the archives looking for unfinished gems.

YOUNG: I tried to get, you know, a lot of the songs that I knew he really wanted to get recorded.

GREENE: And when they recorded those songs, Brian and Angus say it was almost like Malcolm was there.

JOHNSON: We're not a spiritual bunch of guys, OK? But there was something that was just - Malcolm was there for us. He always was. When we did "The Mists Of Time," I just see him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THROUGH THE MISTS OF TIME")

AC/DC: (Singing) Through the mists of time - the mists of time. All the restless cries....

JOHNSON: The album is a tribute to Malcolm Young. It's simple.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you both, it's - you guys are not known for reinvention.

YOUNG: Yes.

GREENE: (Laughter) You do your thing, and you stick to it.

YOUNG: Yes.

GREENE: And somehow, it just feels like we need you...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...Like, in 2020. We need your music.

YOUNG: Yes.

GREENE: I mean, but what are you bringing us that you guys feel we need in this moment?

YOUNG: A good rock 'n' roll album, I believe, you know, something you can tap along, sing along and take your mind away from what's around you, you know? You don't want people to drive along and have (laughter) an accident. But, you know, you want them to be able to - (laughter) you know? But the best rock 'n' roll - I remember, when I was younger, the radio would be on. And you'd kind of go, (mumbling). And then something catch your ear, a bit of rock 'n' roll. And immediately, you went for the volume switch and went, boom (laughter).

GREENE: Yep.

YOUNG: You can get some tricky driving going on (laughter).

GREENE: Yeah. Brian, you have a thought on that? What's the - what role are you guys playing right now?

JOHNSON: No, I agree with Angus, I mean, especially at this time. You know, we're surrounded by [expletive] and virus. Just forget about it, you know? Turn the TV off and put the record player on if you've still got one. You know, just rock. It's easy (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF AC/DC SONG, "REJECTION")

GREENE: Well, guys, it's been a real pleasure and honor talking to you. You know, best of luck with this album.

YOUNG: Oh, thank you.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you, David. Thanks, me son.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REJECTION")

AC/DC: (Singing) You better give me what I want or I'll beat on you.

GREENE: Brian Johnson and Angus Young of AC/DC. Their new album is called "Power Up." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.