With a Flick of the Switch, AC/DC Stays Current and Powers into a 10th-Anniversary Tour
Angus and Malcolm Young have always been a bit dodgy about the name of the band that inspires such rivers of adulation. AC/DC, after all, suggests the sort of sexual ambiguity that most macho-rockers would rather avoid than advertise. One story has the lads lifting the name from the handle of their sister's Hoover back in Sydney, Australia, but Malcolm says simply: "You could remember it; that's why we chose it. We were still young and naive."
Perhaps, but not for long. One of their band's early gigs almost a decade ago was at a Melbourne club called the Hard Rock Cafe. "Upfront, bisexual women would come in and hold up vibrators," remembers Malcolm. "They had T-shirts on with holes cut out in front, and their boobs were poking through. It was great."
Later that year the Youngs were joined by vocalist Bon Scott, a Scottish émigré to Australia and former ship's painter who had once been jailed for assault. Scott's penchant for hard living and raunchy lyrics quickly established AC/DC's reputation as something quite different from a band of bi's. With a repertoire of songs like Big Balls, Love at First Feel and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, the group became progenitors of decidedly unfeminist head-thumping heavy metal.
Despite a slew of personnel changes over the years, the formula has worked well. In a rapacious business where not only the good die young, AC/DC is celebrating its 10th birthday. During its first decade, the band rolled up 25 million sales for its first nine albums and now, hoping to hype its 10th (Flick of the Switch), has returned to the road for a 10th-anniversary tour.
A wall-size stack of amps dominates the stage at the Spectrum. Happily for the band's eager fans, there will be no time wasted fine-tuning treble, bass and balance. AC/DC doesn't believe in sound checks. The only knob worth turning—the volume control—already is turned up full. Simon Wright, the band's new 20-year-old drummer, pounds into the first of 17 songs, joined by rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, 31, and bass player Cliff Williams, 34. Vocalist Brian Johnson, 36, sports his customary brightly colored Andy cap this night, but it is guitarist Angus Young, 28, who provides the real color. Dressed in old school tie, cap and knickers, the 5'3" musician looks like Tweedledum on acid as he struts, duck-walks and drops his drawers to the crowd's delight.
The evening's subtle effects include a two-ton bell that is lowered from the rafters during one song, plus a finale featuring 16 pairs of explosions from a brace of full-size cannons. Johnson's father, a retired British sergeant major watching the band play for the first time, is impressed. "I was at Monte Cassino when the Americans flattened the place, and I was at El Alamein when we knocked Rommel back with a big barrage of guns," says the elder Johnson. "But I've never heard anything as loud as this in my life."
The band's music has all the finesse of a speeding freight, but it is one kept on a well-plotted track. "Acts that have long-term appeal go for the male audience," asserts producer George Young, Angus and Malcolm's older brother, who has helped mastermind the band's climb to stardom. "Guys can be turned off by a group that makes a play for the female fans. They see pretty boys as posers, so you can't be too pretty in an Australian group."
For Angus and Malcolm, the act may not be pretty, but the results have been sweet. Born to a working-class family in Glasgow, Scotland, the pair immigrated to Australia in 1963 with their parents and six siblings. Before launching AC/DC, Malcolm worked in a Sydney brassiere factory, Angus as a sweeper and typesetter.
With Scott as vocalist, the brothers and their band mates cranked out seven albums during their first six years. Then in 1980, after a night of carousing, Scott choked to death on his own vomit in the back seat of a car in London. "They gave him a very bad obituary, especially the English press," says Angus. "They just carved him up."
The band responded by issuing a memorial album titled Back in Black, and by refusing to grant interviews for three years. The album became AC/DC's best-seller ever with eight million copies sold and, due partly to the publicity from Scott's death, transformed the group into headliners.
The moral: Bad pays. These days, AC/DC travels with an entourage of 30 and bunks in luxury suites at four-star hotels. Offstage they adjourn to equally sybaritic but separate homes around the globe: in London, Sydney, Holland, Colorado, Hawaii and elsewhere. All but drummer Wright are married, Malcolm with one daughter and Brian with two. The latter, who ran a vinyl car-roofing firm in Newcastle, England, before joining the band in 1980, now has time to indulge his passion for bikes (Harley-Davidsons are his favorite) and books (The Last Lion, a bio of Winston Churchill, is his latest). Angus, the group's wild man onstage, is actually a teetotaler away from the spotlight who uses his private time to paint landscapes.
When the Spectrum concert, which will gross $175,375, is over, a minifleet of stretch Cadillacs whisks the melodious money machines back to their hotel. The crowd, now slouching toward the exits, includes one bare-chested young music lover with blood coursing down his front. The source is a battered nose, sustained during the evening's revels. As he stumbles toward the door, he lifts his right fist, pumps a salute and shouts happily: "Rock 'n' roll!"