By Patrick Prince
AC/DC’s vitality is off the charts when it comes to a band approaching their sixth decade. Power Up, AC/DC’s 17th studio album, is proof of that vitality. Front-and-center lead guitarist Angus Young fortifies the group though his undeniable spark and iconic stage image. He admits, however, that it was his brother Malcolm who had led AC/DC throughout the decades with a strong determination as well as solid guitar rhythm.
Malcolm Young left AC/DC in 2014 due to complications from dementia. Young’s nephew Stevie Young then took over as the band's rhythm guitarist, but Malcolm was still able to contribute his uncanny knack for catchy riffs to Power Up.
Malcolm Young passed away before the completion of Power Up. In a recent talk with Goldmine editor Patrick Prince, Angus Young says it was only natural that the newest album be dedicated to his late brother.
GOLDMINE: It’s a weird time to release an album. I’m not sure you can even tour to promote the album in Australia, but I know you can’t tour here in America. I don’t know what it would be like there.
ANGUS YOUNG: I don’t know about (other) bands, but I know they have pubs opening up so…
GM: Have you ever thought about doing a virtual event?
AY: You never know. We don’t know what’s coming down the line, do we? It’s either that or we have to get our audience in outer space.
GM: It’s a new era.
AY: Maybe our album will inspire some medical Einstein to come up with something new.
GM: Well, the boys are back — Brian (Johnson, vocals) Phil (Rudd, drums), Cliff (Williams, bass) — and it’s been about six years since the last album. Feels like a long time, but seems to be the norm between albums with AC/DC, because you tend to do a lot of touring and the like.
AY: Well, we were planning to get the album out earlier. We were gearing up to release it. We did the last things that were to be done like video stuff and rehearsals. We had been planning to do some shows, too, but that was before the pandemic came along. And that put a stop to that. Everything from that point on had to be put on hold. It was our record company who actually said, “Now would probably be the best time.” Shops were opening up throughout the world instead of closing down. And no one has any idea when this will go away.
GM: I like how you dedicated this album to your brother Malcolm. Were some of the riffs given to you by him or did you find them later on in recordings? He did write a lot of the riffs here, right?
AY: Yeah. A lot of those songs were with me and him. We always worked together through the years. And a lot of the material for this album — as far as ideas —came from that. We had so many ideas! Even when we did Black Ice (2008), we hardly had to write as we already had so many ideas in boxes with plenty of great AC/DC songs that we had backed off from. Plus, we had a break back then, too. I think the only thing we did was a show or two somewhere but we certainly hadn’t done a lot. So we had a lot of material. And it’s all from that era. There’s a lot of songs that when we were doing Black Ice and talking, I thought we should do some more songs but (Malcolm) felt “we’ll definitely get ’em out later.”
GM: He was a great rhythm guitarist, one of the best, a human metronome. It was just amazing to hear.
AY: I always used to say, if we were onstage, and my guitar goes down, you wouldn’t notice. But if his guitar went down, you’d notice! He stamped that backbeat, very driving, very confident. He was always that way as a player. Very strong. He was the most confident guy I ever saw with a guitar, probably because he’d been playing that well since he was very young. He was always ahead of the game. And he was always on top of whatever he did. Even in the early days, when we played clubs and (cover) bars, and people would get rowdy, and go on, “Play this song, play that song,” we’d play it, and he would just play, even if he never played it before. I’d be like two miles behind just watching him! I’d be like, “What’s the next chord?” And he’d always know it. And the way he played! He’d always be so confident, y’know?
GM: And the two of you together!
AY: When we were playing sometimes, people’s mouths would open. He could walk in and pick a tune off any of our albums and just go…straightaway. Me? I’d have to go, “Remind me how it went.”
GM: You two had to be the best pair of rock guitarists. Not just rock but with blues and boogie riffs that you both must have grown up on together. You could hear it in the riffs and the leads. It’s easy to call you guys hard rock but... that’s the beauty of your music, I think.
AY: Yeah. And it’s probably good when we were younger that we grew up in a party atmosphere because all my other brothers could play guitar and piano. So we made our own party making our own music. Lot of influences as there was always a lot of old rock and roll and early blues music on. One of the brothers would start playing something and then there’d be a whole crowd of our friends. Our house on a weekend was full of half-drunk people just jammin’ away on guitars. We’d be trying to sing along. Everything from Bob Dylan to the old “St. Louis Blues” and “Basin Street Blues.” I still know them now on guitar, can still bash them out.
GM: That sounds like where it started, and the beauty of combining loud guitar with it.
AY: Malcolm and I used to sit down every now and then and he’d play something. I remember one day I walked in and he was playing some Django Reinhardt — the jazz guy! I was like, “I don’t know how you’re doing that!” Another time he says, “I saw this guy on TV playing flamenco.” And he’d play it! And he did it so well.
GM: You can hear those old boogie riffs on “Demon Fire” and “Code Red” off the new album. Those are my two favorite songs on the album because of those kind of riffs. It kind of reminds me of “Beating Around the Bush” from Highway to Hell, a deep cut I’ve always loved.
AY: Yeah, yeah, we were a good team to play around the house together. He did that boogie thing on a lot of tracks, especially “Riff Raff.”
AY: He just winged it. It had a bit of the old jazz thing to it in a way.
GM: It did.
AY: But he made it straight. Like Chuck Berry. And he could sing the blues… kind of. Pull it back a little and you could do a little shuffle with that riff. I mean, it’s just a rock and roll riff played straight up like almost a Glenn Miller (swing).
GM: Right. It gets your foot tapping as well as your head banging. I’ve heard when you found out Malcolm couldn’t play that well anymore, you thought of disbanding but glad you guys didn’t. Your nephew Stevie Young has really stepped up.
AY: He filled in for Malcolm on tour during Malcolm’s heavy alcohol problem. He wanted to get himself contented so he brought my nephew in because he had also been playing in bands. He called him in and told us, “Stevie can do the job, I know.” And Stevie had grown up in that style. He was always into the rhythm side, not the noodling side. Malcolm was his Bible. He would always listen to how Malcolm would form the chords. Malcolm left space between the chords. Sometimes it was what he didn’t play! It always came out so solid. Yet there was also a kind of subtlety to it. Very disciplined.
GM: Yes! I like those two words: disciplined and subtlety. You can hear it in the stop-and-start of the rhythm guitar. That’s not easy to keep up.
AY: Yeah, and Stevie can keep up in that way, to be on the ball, on the money. I couldn’t do it like that. I’d have to ask to be shown again... and again. And I’d still be going, “Now how does that go again? How’d he do that?” To mouth that note exactly on the money like Stevie does, he’d do the next bit and still get it. It’s very unique.
GM: And when you were letting loose on the leads, (Malcolm) wouldn’t get distracted. He’d just keep going.
AY: Right. He’d say about my playing that, “I don’t listen to Angus (when I’m playing), but when I hear a tape of him, I’m like, ‘He’s got it right!’”
GM: He’d sort of slip into the background and you were the showman.
AY: He liked it like that. He’d like being the engine, holding it all down. That’s what gave him his fire, that he could direct it rhythmically. He just liked being part of that rhythm section.
GM: The secret to any great band’s longevity is to continue on in the face of tragedy. You guys did it with Bon (Scott) and you were fortunate to find Brian, who just picked up where Bon left off.
AY: You can’t find two of the same like Bon. These people are rare characters. There were plenty who wanted to come and try, but the thing about Brian is that he’s a rare character…like Bon was. You’d see it the first time he walked in the rehearsal room. Even in the way he walked. How he acted. You saw it straightaway. There’s real character there. And then he started talking. He’s got an interesting voice. His accent. Then when he started singing, you really hear it. He kept all that cigarette smoking and whiskey in his voice.
GM:: Like all the great blues and rock singers, right? It’s funny because I was reading comments from a lot of the fans online and they love the fact that — speaking of Highway to Hell — you were playing with Axl (Rose, vocals) when he was filling in for Brian, and you would perform more of those older songs. What do you think about bands who redo albums? Would you ever redo one of your ’70s albums with Brian singing? Or is that just too out there?
AY: When we worked with Rick Rubin, he was trying to gear us in that direction. His favorite album is Highway to Hell. He kept saying to do that and we kept saying, “But we’ve already done Highway to Hell. We’re not going back.” That’s why you do something new, y’know?
GM: That seems to be the new thing now. Reimagining albums.
AY: Some songs, yeah, when you do something, it reminds you of that era. But for us, and as Malcolm always used to say to me, “No matter what we do, when we’re playing together, it comes out that way. It all comes out like AC/DC.” It’s just the style of how we play together.
GM: That’s true. And even though “Shot in the Dark” has been chosen as the standout song for this album, I couldn’t get the song “Rejection” out of my head. That says something right away. I listened to the album, I put it down, yet I found myself humming that song.
AY: And it’s Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner providing that song, ’cause that’s really what it is. The active villain, y’know? From that era. The Looney Tune.
GM: Ha! And I love this box set, blinking light included. Many bands are doing that now, giving the fans a little extra. You’re supposed to do something with vinyl, too, right?
AY: Yeah, I hear they’ve got different colors and all sorts of stuff. See, that’s not my department. I make what’s inside.
GM: Do you find it interesting, though, that vinyl‘s come back the way it has?
AY: I love vinyl. When we record, we still use tape. We do the old-style way. You have to buy all the tape upfront. I’m spoiled. When we’re in the studio, we can hear it the way it should be. Then when they start to digitize, from that point on, I’m lost. You wish everyone could hear it the way we hear it. Hopefully, in this pandemic, we can tell everyone to come hear how it should sound.
GM: Again, longevity is a key word for this band. Do you feel like age has ever slowed you down? It’s probably harder to roll around on the stage like you used to with the schoolboy tantrum.
AY: As you get older, you fall down. (laughs)
GM: As long as it’s with the guitar, right? You could still play.
AY: That’s always been the thing. You fall over and you make it look like it’s part of the act. (laughs)
GM: Glad you always kept up with the image of the schoolboy stage uniform. It’s a symbol of the band. Every band needs that.
AY: Some people look great in civilian gear. Like when I was younger and saw Jimi Hendrix, and went, “Wow!” It’s the image; that’s the first thing when you’re younger. How cool he looked! How cool he played. And I thought, “I want to be that cool.” So I put the school suit on. That’s my thing. Why do people come to see us play? It’s the school suit. It works!
GM: I have to admit if I went to a show and you didn’t wear it, I’d be disappointed.
AY: Yeah, it’s like going to see a Spider-Man movie and going, “Wait a minute! Where’s his suit?” You pay money to see Superman or anybody, and you want to see the guy in the suit. Or Batman. He’s the ultimate. And they’ve had different Batmans, but you just wanna see the guy in the suit.
GM: They might say, “Where’s Angus, who’s this guy playing guitar?”
AY: They’d think we were Pink Floyd! Where’s the spaceship?
GM: I know it’s an American institution but being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had to be a great feeling, right?
AY: It was kind of strange at first. I found out from my neighbor.
AY: Yeah. And I said, “Well, that’s strange ’cause I’ve not heard anything yet.” And I thought nothing of it. Then our manager called and said, “Oh yeah, they put you in.” And I again thought nothing of it. I knew they had this thing in Cleveland but didn’t think much of it at the time. And then they said, “Oh, will you come and play,” and I thought, “We have to play?” They said yeah and even said we had to wear a jacket and all of this kind of stuff and I’m like, “I’ve only got one suit.” The school suit. Then we go perform and it was so strange. Malcolm said it was like performing in a restaurant.
GM: Like one of those supper clubs?
AY: It’s like we were the warm-up act.
GM: So what would you say would be the highlight of such a long career? This is the 17th studio album, right? 1973 was the official begin date.
AY: Yeah. I think, probably, for us, y’know, when I think of it, just being together for such a long time, and that we’ve come so far. It hasn’t been an easy road. And the song “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n Roll)” says it all. It’s not like we’re an overnight sensation. It’s more like a long, long road.
GM: Right, but the ’70s were pretty good. You had your share of success. A lot of fans worship the music of the ’70s. That is it for them. They love it so much.
AY: That was before MTV, which came later. You did all the hard work on the road. You made an album, then went out on the road to promote that album and you sold records. It was like a give-and-take. If they liked you, they bought your record. If you stunk, you didn’t go on their turntable.
GM: I always wondered what you guys thought when you first came to America. It was a different America in the 1970s.
AY: When we arrived in L.A., after Hawaii, these people thought we were a freak show. Then we had to go to Texas for our first gig. We get on an airplane and it was stopping everywhere. Then Bon got lost. He got off in Phoenix or somewhere and went to a bar. Then he missed the flight to get back. And he didn’t even know where to go! We got to Texas without him, and the record company people called up and said, “We’ve got someone who says he’s your singer…and he’s stoned.” He’d managed to call somebody who got through to somebody else and they put him on the right flight and he finally got to Texas, where we played our first show in America. But what I found was it was just like anywhere else. At that time, the record company people kept saying how the music of the day is so soft with a lot of middle-of-the-road stuff. Rock music was not such a big item. But when you’re playing live in an arena after being told that, you’d go, “Now, wait a minute, the people in the streets aren’t into what was on the Top 40.” That’s what I found. It was two worlds: the mainstream thinking this is how their world was, but the real world was here (in this arena). And I always took great pride in the fact that we were in the real world and they were in the twilight zone in some ways.
GM: And it was like that with fans. And because of that, fans felt like you’re in a sort of club, right? In school, when I wore an AC/DC shirt, and someone saw me in it, they were automatically my friend. But anyway, at least you know that Brian has a cell phone nowadays if he ever gets lost.
AY: Well, that’s the modern day. I haven’t got one. I’m not going to get one.
GM: Oh? Really? Ha! You’re lucky.
AY: I don’t use them. I like when it’s just people on the telephone with numbers. That was my era. When I get a (phone) and it’s got a thousand things, there’s too much going on.
GM: It’s like rock and roll: Keep it simple.
AY: Yeah, I just see the beep. I hit the thing and y’know.
GM: Well, listen, your American fans can’t wait ’til you come to the U.S. after this pandemic is over.
AY: Hopefully, it all goes away quick and we can get out there.