Historically, AC/DC have triumphed making the best of a bad job. When Bon Scott, the charismatic singer who fronted the band on their rise to fame died in London in 1980, they responded the only way they could. Namely, heavily: employing a new singer, and turning Back In Black into one of the 10 biggest-selling albums of all time. “Oblique strategies” aren’t something you imagine the band have a lot of time for, but their pragmatic problem-solving has often yielded spectacular results.
The news that Malcolm Young had left AC/DC prior to recording this new album, and is battling dementia, presents the band in late career with a different kind of challenge. While his younger brother Angus commands the spotlight with his duckwalk and wild solos, AC/DC remains Malcolm’s band. His three-chord tricks have always been the cornerstone on which their empire of hard rock and innuendo has been built, and his musical relationship with his brother seems highly likely to continue to define the dynamic of the group.
In light of recent developments, singer Brian Johnson suggested that a possible title for this new album was ‘Man Down’ – militarily correct, for sure, but ultimately suggestive of an unseemly vulnerable side. So here instead is the more forbidding Rock Or Bust, recorded with Brendan O’Brien, and featuring what one imagines will be the final Young/Young compositions. Life has again thrown down a gauntlet. With their 15th studio album, AC/DC have picked it up, and risen to the challenge.
As Angus Young describes it, it was simply the only thing to do. Though principally a good-time band, AC/DC have for the past 30 years or so seemed governed by strong management and their own (smallprint-filled) take on an honour code. The band aim to deliver shows that please fans old and new (but are, compared to say, The Rolling Stones, completely inflexible on setlist). They refuse to make fans pay twice for material, though have a lucrative line in live albums and DVDs. They refuse to consider “greatest hits” collections – but have contrived to achieve the same thing by exclusively soundtracking Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man movie franchise, the logical endpoint of their music’s appearance in movies and TV.
Rock Or Bust plays in a slightly different way in the light of this last development – a hard-rock version of the chicken and egg conundrum. As the band’s music has become a movie staple, an audio shorthand for scenes like “strip club”, “car is driven fast”, and “men dressed in leather jackets”, you’re left to wonder which comes first, the song, or the scene in the Mark Wahlberg movie it is ultimately destined for?
On a couple of the more minor compositions here (say, “Miss Adventure” or “Sweet Candy”) you might be left in some doubt. In both, there are strong choruses, but the journey to them certainly isn’t entirely memorable. The latter apparently evaluates the talents of a pole dancer, while the former inexplicably recommends “hot cross buns”.
These aren’t standout tracks, but they and the excellent “Dogs Of War” and “Hard Times” still go some way to illustrating the retrenchment that is in play here. As they did on their early 1980s albums, the verses on the songs here have diminished in importance, and are written to the choruses – which have become a good deal weightier. The album is heavy because it’s dense with detail. Hooks and backing vocal tricks from glam and hair metal are all pulled in and devoured by the band’s machine. At 34 minutes, this is the shortest AC/DC album – but stylistically it’s one of the leanest. Unlike Black Ice, you won’t find anything like a ballad on here.
Here, rock is all. On “Rock The Blues Away”, a blue-collar, good-time anthem somewhere between “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “I Fought The Law”, all pool halls and cigarette smoking, it is the soundtrack to the end of a thankless week. On “Rock The House”, where operative adjectives are “hot”, “wet” and “wild”, it occupies a heritage role as a euphemism for sex. On “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder”, the band simply celebrate the monolithic nature of their music since Back In Black: since which time their songs and production have served to make “rock” interchangeable with God, nation, and war – another pursuit that takes place on a global stage, demanding heavy machinery and great heroism. The word appears 70 times in the album’s duration, just over two rocks a minute.
Only with an AC/DC album can you unself-consciously talk in terms of an opening salvo of songs, and the one presented here is strong indeed. “Rock Or Bust” itself is a classic stop-start riff, the chorus outlining a band motto as clearly as did “For Those About To Rock” over 30 years ago: “In rock we trust/Rock or bust…” Verse two makes reference to sirens wailing, which might all have seemed a little fanciful prior to the recent arrest of drummer Phil Rudd.
This is followed by first single, “Play Ball”. On one level, the song is fairly transparently a strategy to have material used on television during the maximum possible number of montaged sports action highlights. On another, it’s a classic AC/DC song, the brutality of the main riff complemented by the delicacy and fluidity of Angus Young’s lead. There’s a solo, of course, but ultimately, the song is all about the collective power of the group. The sequencing of the album is about pacing a good time, which doesn’t peak too early in the evening. The mood change of “Hard Times”, say, is immediately regulated by the great “Baptism By Fire” which appears to recall elements from 1976’s “Live Wire”, and resumes things to the album’s customary clip.
Still, for all the drinks poured, cars driven, ladies enchanted and cigarettes smoked during the course of the record, this is nonetheless an album made by a group arguably in extremis: singer nearly 70, rhythm guitarist retired, drummer out on bail. Rock sincerely hopes that this isn’t the last word from AC/DC, but if it is, we will know that they died as they lived – and didn’t go down without a fight.
For Rock Or Bust you worked again with Brendan O’Brien, who produced Black Ice. What did you enjoy about working with him that you wanted to repeat? How long did recording take?
About four weeks. We had all the material, we were well-prepared to do the album and that helped a lot. We’d done a lot of the work before going in the studio. Brendan is a very accomplished musician, so that’s part of why we work with him. He knows all his instruments. He seems to know, for us, how his input could help.
You’ve been making records 40 years. Do you even need a producer?
It’s always good to have an outside ear because then you have someone who takes control of the project, you let him be the boss. It’s good in that respect – you trust him, that he’s going to do his best to get the best album out of you, you know?
Tell me about the title. I read that you considered ‘Man Down’. Rock Or Bust sounds a lot more determined… Is that the idea?
For the band it was a stronger title. Rock Or Bust is a thing we’ve always done – when we play live, it’s always been a do or die effort. And everything we’ve ever done has always had that approach.
Stevie Young [rhythm guitar] does a great job on the album. But it must have felt odd being in the studio without Malcolm? How did you work through that?
Stevie did do a great job. He’s the only person I could think of who is a second Mal, he plays that style. Still, he adds his own little touches, so that’s also good.
All the songs are co-writes between you and [your brother] Malcolm [Young, rhythm guitar]. How have your songs come about, historically?
It can come any number of ways. Sometimes you’ll have a good guitar riff, and think “this is good”, then other times you might just need a good title and it sets you thinking – what if I try this, see how it goes? Most of the songs that we’ve ever sat and played about with have been guitar riffs – any songs we came up with, they were always in combination with each other. It’s something we always did. Sometimes we borrowed bits from each other. Like Malcolm would say, “You know that riff you had from that other period? Let’s try that with this…”
As we’ve read, Malcolm is seriously ill [Young has dementia and has retired from AC/DC]. How was he able to participate in writing the album?
A lot of writing, it was stuff we had done in the past together. There were also other ideas Malcolm had done on his own, and the same for myself. So a lot of it is a combination. There’s hidden material we’ve always had. Sometimes we’ve borrowed from the past, sometimes created something new.
When did these get written? Did you have stuff left over from Black Ice?
Well, they came together basically in the last year before the album. We just start over – in this case, we did go through a lot of tapes, ideas we’d had from the past, but I do that for every album.
You researched particularly hard, because you couldn’t write with Malcolm in the normal way?
Yes – and Malcolm and I had stuff that he had done up until he could no longer do it.
How is Malcolm?
He’s in good spirits at this point, and he’s getting the best of care where he is. He’s being well looked after.
Since Malcolm has been such a big part of AC/DC, how will you be able to work going forwards?
We do what we do best. Malcolm’s had the illness for a while. He had the onset of it when we were doing the previous album – he toured. I said to him, do you really wanna do this? He said, I wanna do this as long as I can keep doing it. He’s got a do or die spirit – it’s the strength of his character. It is a big thing that he’s not there.
Are you looking forward to touring the album? How do you keep things fresh?
If everything comes together, we’ll be out there. It’s always exciting because we’ve been lucky over the years – because the younger generations, there’s a lot of people who have never seen us. It’s always exciting.
You have a very vocal fanbase who are quite opinionated about your setlists. How do you decide what to put in?
We’ve always played a lot of songs from the beginning to the present, so it becomes a bit of a juggle sometimes – in how long we can sustain that show. We like to do a show that’s exciting. We don’t want to be on there too long – we don’t want it to be a long-winded affair. I’d like it to be short and powerful. But we always try to do our best, put in a few strong songs that are fan favourites. My own favourites? I’ve been involved with them since the beginning, so I love them all…
INTERVIEW: JOHN ROBINSON