A Classic AC/DC Interview: Sylvie Simmons Talks To The Rock Gods
, April 14th, 2011 10:33
Thanks to the inimitable Sylvie Simmons and Rocks Back Pages for letting us have this classic 1982 Creem Magazine interview with AC/DC
THEY ALL LOOK like they'd benefit from a Jerry Lewis telethon. Seventeen thousand diseased and uncontrollable bodies.
Imaginary guitar soloists are standing on metal folding chairs, twitching. Imaginary guitar soloists who've had one too many Quaaludes have fallen off the chairs midway through a strenuous riff and are twitching on the floor. The floor's sticky. The air's sticky, a nice mix of Indianapolis pizza, beer and whiskey, most of it second hand. Headbangers never see their hair again when it sticks to the floor like flypaper. An exuberant bunch, half of them would be the spitting image of Angus Young if they rolled up their jeans and took off their shirts. Not such a bright idea on a night like tonight in Indianapolis, cold enough to freeze the balls off a wallaby. Then it wasn't such a bright idea to line up outside in Arctic weather to make sure of the best seats, but that's what 17,000 adolescents have done, with only a bottle or two to ward off frostbite. Inside there's so much 100% alcohol In the air you'd be scared to light match in case you put half of Indianapolis's young male population quickly out of their misery. But these madmen take the risk anyway, flicking their Bics the moment the bell starts toiling behind the black stage curtain.
The band goes on and all hell breaks loose. WHOAARGGH!! screams Brian Johnson, working-class rhino stomping the stage in his flat cap and beer belly, all charged and horned. "Whooaaargh" echoes Indianapolis in that HM concert way, as ‘Hells Bells’ starts over an hour of rock as subtle as the clap with a similar effect on the brain cells.
‘Sin City’, ‘Back In Black’, ‘Got The Jack’, ‘Highway To Hell’, ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, ‘Let There Be Rock’ – sod the record company, they're not going to plug the new LP even if it's already umpteen platinum, when the old stuff gets better rabble-rousing effect. It's your basic Best of AC/DC set, differing from last year's Best of AC/DC set only in the cannons stuck at the side of the stage to go off during the encore (new anthem ‘For Those About To Rock We Salute You’). As if they didn't have balls enough. It's nice to know in this ever-changing world that there's something you can rely upon to stay the same.
AC/DC is still the best hard rock band in the world, and if you're going to fight about it at least they're the hardest-working. Johnson pacing the stage, flexing his muscles, macho-posing and primal screaming (not quite Bon but good enough, indeed). Malcolm Young bashing the rhythm guitar with concentrated malice. A firm, thud-thud rhythm section. And Angus, head down, rocketing across the stage, falling to his knees, mounting the speakers, shaking sweat over the baptisees in the front row, lying on his back and kicking his little feet in the air like a brat who didn't get his breakfast of champions that morning, and taking his cordless guitar on walkies on a bouncer's back, right the way around the arena (not that Brian's any weakling, but with 17,000 kids things get crazy. In Detroit someone's fingernails got some nice skin samples of Angus's chest and the bouncer's getting treated for rabies.).
By the third encore the amps are screaming. Can't say I blame them. In a country where statistics show one American goes deaf every 15 minutes, AC/DC got through a year's worth in one night.
Backstage in one of the larger dressing rooms are bowls of M&Ms, Budweiser and Perrier. The rest is taken up with girls. Girls in spandex and push-up bras. Girls well under the drinking age let alone anything else. Girls asking each other how strong this 'Perrier' stuff is. Girls whose adolescent acne is highlighted even more by the fluorescent lights. Three such specimens are dressed in identical T-shirts. Sitting next to each other number one's reads "WE'VE," two's says "GOT," three's says "BALLS." Some of the road crew are checking out the truth of the statement. A couple of Buds and I'm down memory lane recalling how Bon Scott used to turn up for our early interviews with at least two such creatures wrapped around him with a smirk that makes Doug Fieger look like a bloodhound. Right now teetotaller Angus Young's wrapped around a cup of tea. Takes a while to come down, hardly surprising, so while the roadies are still making selections at the spandex supermarket, I'm hauled off to have a chat with Brian Johnson.
"OOOch." I promise you this is an accurate spelling for the odd variation on the English language that Northern Englander Brian communicates in. Kind of like a merry Scotsman. He's gripping his side. "I thought it was me fooking appendix about to blow up, but it's just a fooking stitch. Just played racquetball for the first time and I fooking ran into the wall, and we're all hitting each other with racquets because we didn't know what the fook we were doing. It killed us." He sinks in the chair and gropes for a medicinal bottle of beer. I know about these almost-Scotsmen, so I hid mine under the chair.
Racquetball. And there's 17,000 people out there tonight who reckon the only physical stuff our Brian gets up to is what's onstage or backstage in that room with the M&Ms in.
"Och no, you never fook them!" he looks disapproving. "You leave them alone. There's nasty diseases going around America, I'll tell you. You shake hands and that's it. That's for the crew. The reason they get there in the first place is because they've met the crew. They're the ones with the passes, not us!
"We have good clean fun – you know, a quick game of cards and all that," he chortles. "I'm saying nothing. Me, I'm married with two kids." One of the temptresses puts her head round the door and asks when he and Angus are popping back to say hi. Jeez, here I am locked in a dressing-room with a sex symbol.
"Who me? You're joking, a sex symbol? Och! Thing is though, these gigs in America, the boys were sitting around in the dressing-room last week and saying, 'do you know this is the first time we've actually had girls scream?' In Europe it's nearly all lads, but since we started this tour there's been a lot of girls. I don't know. I think it's because we're on the fooking radio so much. It can't be me good looks."
This is about the 12th date on the tour; this time last year they were playing to a quarter as many people. In this case, radio deserves its coke and satin jackets.
"Funny thing is though, playing songs like 'Sin City', it shows on their faces that they don't know what the fook it is. Because the only albums they've bought so far are Highway To Hell (the one that got them off the American club circuit and into the arenas for good), Back in Black and Dirty Deeds, though a few of them have got the new album. Still it's not fair to them to do too much off of it – I mean we hardly know them either. We're just getting used to the bastards. I'm trying to learn the fooking words," he chuckles.
"They're weird, these American kids," he says as an excuse to show off his wonderful impersonation of U.S. accents (via geordie): "I can value your output there maaan, I really know where you're coming from." He collapses in giggles and clutches his appendix.
"We've had some fucking great nights. The beginning of a tour's great, because even if you're rotten you don't give a shit, because you're just so happy to be back together again and playing. Now we've got to knuckle under a bit and start doing things right."
For a band that's had no fixed address since it poured out of its communal house in Melbourne, packed the whiskey and teabags and set off around the world, AC/DC didn't do too much touring last year. A huge gap yawned between making the album and paying the Castle Donnington HM festival in England, "the first time we'd played together in six months. We were shitting ourselves – fook, we haven't played this! We haven't played anything! But we had the biggest ball of our lives. Didn't give a shit." The album – usually they're a wham-it-in-and-stick-it-out band – was taking a long time to gel. Producer Mutt Lange, working with them in France "just for a change," had them try several studios at the end before inviting over a Mobile Studio from England to finish the job properly in a week.
"We're dead chuffed with it though," grins Brian. "After the first one – well I was dead lucky then. I was scared shit this time."
No wonder. You join a band and straight away it has the monster BIG IN AMERICA smash hit no one thought it'd get, with an album that was an odd combination of suppressed and outpoured emotion, coming as it did after Bon Scott's alcoholic death. The band Johnson was in before – Geordie – was really only a name band in the north of England.
"I couldn't believe it, that album. I thought, fucking hell, what have I done? Whatever I did I'm going to keep on doing it, I'm not going to bother changing for anyone. It did 12 million albums. And it's just gone back in the American charts with a bullet. I'm chuffed to bits!
"But you can never be complacent. You can't say, 'Hey the last one worked.' They're shipping thousands of copies, but it's still up to the kids whether they buy it or tell you to fooking piss off and try again, don't try to bullshit us. But I've done my best."
But what about the album in between, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap released in America five years after it'd been out in England? Strange thing to do – get an audience used to a new singer, then put out an LP with the old one on. If that wasn't enough, people comparing Bon and Brian, one magazine reviewed the album as if Johnson were the singer.
"There was a lot of magazines that gave us quite a bit of stick. It got to the band a lot, and to me. Snide little remarks. When they start knocking dead people I mean fook me it really pisses me off. They though they were being very clever, but they don't realize they're talking about people. It's a band all right, but there's people in the band and those people have feelings.
"You know the first thing Angus and Malcolm said to me when I joined this band? They said, 'Do you mind if your feelings ever get hurt?' And I said, why? And they said, 'Because if you're going to join this band you're going to be expected to take fucking stick. Because we've been slagged off by every fucking reporter since we left Australia.'
"And I said, well I'm going to have to take stick anyway, taking this lad's place. But luckily these guys are so much like a fucking family that you never get the chance to feel alone, like you could just sit by yourself in your hotel room and feel like shit. The lads say to me 'Just fucking ignore them' when they say he sounds like a xerox of his predecessor.
"But even poor Angus has to take stick a lot of times. Like there was one critic who said, 'Angus Young may be able to play a fucking fantastic solo. But can he do it on an acoustic guitar?' We couldn't fooking believe it! A lot of people who come to the shows are critics who are going to see My Fair Lady or Santana or Genesis. What do they know?
"We're good in our field. We out and out just don't give a fook. We play what we play and that's it. And the good thing is, no one else can do it as good as this band. This band's the fooking best! The biggest bonus about being in this band is the fact that I can get into their gigs without paying for a fooking ticket, and I've got the best seat in the fooking house. Honest! I could just sit up there and watch them. And now and again I've forgotten I'm singing and I just stop and watch that band, because I think they're just fooking great. A great band and a great bunch of lads.
"I know what they were going through when Bon went; wondering about going on and all that; it's only natural. And they're people – you don't just walk away and forget that sort of thing. But they never made me feel left out." The only ones who did at first were the roadies, showing off to the new boy.
"It was a different fooking thing completely – the size, the equipment, flying everywhere instead of getting into the back of some van. A totally fooking different world. But I was only scared because I didn't know what to expect. I was more scared of the crew than I was of the lads, because the crew were reeling off names like Yes and Rick Wakeman, these fooking huge bands they'd worked for. But the lads made me feel dead comfortable."
Even by releasing Dirty Deeds?
"There was a point to that, because Atlantic never released it in America, and there were thousands of pirate tapes, shit-poor quality and expensive. So rather they get the money. They released it and the lads didn't expect anything, and it went straight into the charts. Amazing! I think I was more fooking chuffed about it than they were."
There's a sound at the door. The Australian equivalent of a Santa's Little Helper in an anorak comes in and steams up the mirror with his cup of tea. The two converse in strange tongues. I wonder how an Australian and a geordie ever get to communicate with any understanding. "Easy," says Angus. "They all come from fooking Scotland anyway," says Brian.
Talking amongst themselves about the new album, Brian and Angus come up with the CREEM AC/DC Listener's Companion To For Those About To Rock...
THE AC/DC LISTENER'S ETC...
‘Evil Walks’: "As the name says," Angus gives a profound look, "evil walks. It's everywhere. Actually it's just a catchy title with a catchy tune. We were playing it at the beginning and I said, 'those chords sound dead evil.' And that's usually how we do it – just sitting around and nattering and thinking and jamming away, and someone says something like 'evil walks' and that's it."
Talking of evil, there's a pamphlet doing the rounds in L.A. that Jesus freaks hand out at all the HM concerts. Right now the Aussies are top of the Satanic pops. Later, when we get back to the hotel, I overhear some roadies in the elevator talking about sorting out a couple of ardent bible-thumpers hanging outside the band's rooms, after a quick conversion job.
"They've been bothering us for years," sighs Angus. "Some crud just sent me a letter – addressed to Bon too – sending us these stupid things. Some people are sick. If they want to go God-bothering they should go God-bother the Pope. He needs it. We don't."
"All they want to do," Brian adds, "is make a little bit of attention for themselves. What was that one we had in Detroit just now? 'The Bible says the Word of the Devil is Evil and so is rock 'n' roll.' The fooking Bible says rock 'n' roll music is evil. I don't remember the Bible mentioning rock 'n' roll."
"There are a lot of people who genuinely believe in it and that's all right," says Angus. "It's up to them. But I don't really like people coming bothering me. I had one idiot trying to blast away in my earhole. He started with 'Do you believe in God?' and I said 'I've no interest in it so leave me alone.' Their main beef is songs like 'Highway to Hell.' But they're just titles. It's only a song."
‘C.O.D. (Care of the Devil)’: "Most people," says Angus, "think COD – cash on delivery. I was sitting around trying to come up with a better one and I came up with 'Care of the Devil.' We're not black magic Satanists or whatever you call it. I don't drink blood. I may wear black underwear now and again but that's it."
"Those fooking God-botherers," Brian's getting steamed, "mention the Devil more than we do. They're just trying to scare people. At least ours is all in good fun. When I'm singing it and the lads are playing, you know that it's just rock 'n' roll, a way to put it across. You've got to go right over the fucking top. Like everything – big gear, big lights, big fooking sound. That's how it is. No need to tread carefully. I mean, the big idea with us isn't Satanic messages. It's trying to get one line to rhyme with the fooking next! Actually If you listen to this song it's quite clever, all these COD's – cry of the dog, call on the doctor. Care of the Devil is just one of them.
‘For Those About To Rock’: "We had this chorus riff and we thought," says Angus, "well this sounds rather deadly. And we were trying to find a good title. And there's this book from years ago about the Roman gladiators called For Those About To Die We Salute You. So we thought, 'for those about to rock.' I mean, it sounds a bit better than 'for those about to die'."
But with some of tonight's crowd, the latter would have been more appropriate. "They're just enjoying themselves," non-drug-user Angus refuses to get drawn into an anti-pill speech. "Actually the song's got a lot of meaning to it. It's a very inspiring song. It makes you feel a bit powerful and I think that's what rock 'n' roll's all about."
‘Let's Get It Up’: Brian: "Feelth, pure feelth! We're a filthy band."
Angus: "You can take it one of two ways. Let's get it up, meaning musically up, or..." the girls in the back room? "You wouldn't catch me in there! None of us actually. We're not," says equally married Angus, "that way Inclined."
So it's not your basic macho HM song then?
"No. People get it wrong. I mean we've been called that word 'macho' – that's not even in my fucking dictionary, what does it mean? – and all that stuff. We're not 'macho.' We don't even think like that. It was just a line that sprang to mind. And it sounded better than ‘Let's Get It Down’."
‘Snowballed’: "Meaning," muses Angus, "you've been conned, fooled again. And we figured we'd been tricked enough in our time, so we came out with that. It could be the woman you're paying alimony to, anything." Oh yeah...? "I mean anything."
‘Put The Finger On You’: "That's basically a gangster line like they do in the movies." Angus does a silly Bogart impersonation. They like movies. Didn't want to appear in any, though. They were offered a part in a Dracula rock movie after Queen said no fangs, but decided, "we'll leave the acting to the fucking Mick Jaggers of this world." Back to the song. "We're not putting the finger on anyone in particular. It's always been the other fucking way around."
‘Inject The Venom’: "That's a power thing like 'For Those About To Rock.' It just means, have it hot." Brian: "There's one line that says, if you inject the venom it will be your last attack. Which is like a snake – once it bites you it's got nothing left."
"Do it once," says Angus. "Do it hard and good or you're finished. It's a real rock 'n' roll line."
‘Night Of The Long Knives’: "It's like a horror movie. Another power thing. It just sounded nice."
‘Breaking The Rules’: "It's like when somebody says 'you can't do that,' at school or whatever. They were always saying that to me at school," says Angus "You do it anyhow."
Brian: "But at the same time it says don't start any fooking revolutions, don't be a big fooking hero, just break the rules in your own way. Don't just do what the man says and go 'aye, okay.' Do it the way you wanted to."
Angus: "Which is what we did. That's it."
Styx are trying to save America with their show. Don't you want to save Australia?
"No. What did Australia ever do for me?"
Brian: "One of the things that annoys me is these bands in fooking England who play Concerts for Jobs, Concerts Against Nazism, Concerts for Racism. Those people want fooking blowing up. They're starting more fooking trouble than anyone, and they think they're being so noble, doing it for free."
Angus: "There's always somebody that will hop on a cause. Come next week they're out with the fucking Iranis bombing whatever – anything trying to get themselves a little bit of PR."
"The thing is," back to Brian, "this fooking band is as honest as the day it fooking started. And that's coming from me, and I've only been in the band a year. At least they're fooking honest."
"I honestly don't think," says Angus, "I could walk on that stage and do what I do or any of the lads do if we couldn't do it honest. If it all went bad, we would feel it more than anyone. I couldn't go out there and rip people off in any form. I don't believe in it. It's not fucking fair.
"If you're not going to be honest to yourself as well as everyone else, then you might as well give the fuck up."
© Sylvie Simmons, 1982
The new AC/DC DVD, 'Live At River Plate', will be released on May 9. A look at the band's 2009 show in Argentina after a 13 year absence, you can pre-order the 19-song film by clicking here.