AC/DC MEMBERS BRIAN JOHNSON, ANGUS YOUNG AND CLIFF WILLIAMS DISCUSS THE ROAD BACK TOGETHER, WITH CLIFF SAYING, “IT WAS LIKE THE OLD BAND BACK TOGETHER”
Andy Greene spoke with AC/DC members Brian Johnson (vocals), Angus Young (guitar) and Cliff Williams (bass) for a feature article for Rolling Stone. Portions of the column appear below.
PWR/UP the band’s upcoming album that reunites the four surviving members of the Back in Black incarnation. (guitarist Malcolm Young died in 2017, and his nephew Stevie Young has been playing in his place since 2014) “It’s been a long, long road,” says [guitarist] Angus [Young] on the phone from his home in Australia. “But it’s good that everyone came on board and we get to pump out a bit of new rock & roll for the world. At this time, with the pandemic, hopefully it gives people a few hours of toe-tapping enjoyment….”
…“This record is pretty much a dedication to Malcolm, my brother,” says Angus. “It’s a tribute for him like Back in Black was a tribute to Bon Scott.”
The road to PWR/UP was the most arduous one that AC/DC has walked since Back in Black, which was cut in the immediate aftermath of singer Bon Scott’s death 40 years ago. Brian Johnson was recruited shortly before Back in Black was cut and he remained at the front of the group for the next 36 years, but during the 2015–16 Rock or Bust tour, he started to encounter significant hearing issues.
“It was pretty serious,” he says by telephone from England. “I couldn’t hear the tone of the guitars at all. It was a horrible kind of deafness. I was literally getting by on muscle memory and mouth shapes. I was starting to really feel bad about the performances in front of the boys, in front of the audience. It was crippling. There’s nothing worse than standing there and not being sure.”
Most fans had no clue what was happening, but it was painful for his band to watch up close. “He’d pull his in-ears out and just shake his head,” says [bassist Cliff] Williams via phone from his home in North Carolina. “He couldn’t pitch. He was having a real hard time.”
The band attempted to limp through the remaining dates on the tour, but Johnson’s doctors eventually interceded. “The docs said, ‘Deaf is deaf, son,’” he says. “Cliff and Angus didn’t want to be responsible for me damaging my ears any further. … S–t happens. At least it wasn’t terminal…”
… A brief press release went out on March 7th, 2016, saying that the remaining U.S. dates on the Rock or Bust tour were postponed due to Johnson’s hearing issues. “Tomorrow’s show in Atlanta through Madison Square Garden in New York, NY in early April will be made up later in the year,” it read, “likely with a guest vocalist.”
Those last five words sent shockwaves through the AC/DC fan community. The band hadn’t done a single gig without Johnson since the moment he joined in 1980, and the prospect of bringing in a new singer was almost unthinkable. And then a month later, they dropped an even bigger bomb.
“AC/DC band members would like to thank Brian Johnson for his contributions and dedication to the band throughout the years,” read a press release. “We wish him all the best with his hearing issues and future ventures … Axl Rose has kindly offered his support to help us fulfill this commitment…”
…Three days later, [Brian] released his own statement. “I don’t believe the earlier press releases sufficiently set out what I wanted to say to our fans or the way in which I thought it should be presented,” he wrote, before breaking down his health situation in great detail. “I am hoping that in time my hearing will improve and allow me to return to live concert performances. While the outcome is uncertain, my attitude is optimistic. Only time will tell.”
The decision to carry on without Johnson seemed a little callous to some fans, but Young insists that he had nothing but terrible options…
…“I suppose we could have canceled,” Young continues. “But either way … when you look at all the options … it’s a tough decision all around.”
Johnson’s situation was…complicated…But he found a specialist willing to try an experimental treatment on him. The singer is hesitant to share many of the details, but an unnamed hearing expert came to his home once a month during a three-year period to try and figure out a solution.
“The first time he came down he brought this thing that looked like a car battery,” says Johnson. “I went, ‘What in the hell is that?’ He said, ‘We’re going to miniaturize it.’ It took two and a half years. He came down once a month. We’d sit there and it was boring as s–t with all these wires and computer screens and noises. But it was well worth it. The only thing I can tell you is that it uses the bone structure in the skull as a receiver. That’s as much as I can tell you.”
Miraculously, the secretive in-ear device allowed Johnson to sing again. “We’d get updated on how he was going with it and everything,” says Angus. “It was very good. I know how much a part of his life this is for Brian. It’s the same as the rest of us.”
Once Rudd and Johnson were back in the AC/DC fold, it didn’t take much to convince Williams to return as well. “It was like the old band back together,” says the bassist. “It was not like starting over again, but as close to the band that’s been together for 40-plus years as we can possibly make it. I didn’t want to miss that…”
…[PWR/UP] is the first AC/DC album recorded after the death of Malcolm Young, though his presence was felt strongly by everyone throughout the entire process of creating it. “Even when I sit at home and pick up my guitar and start playing, the first thing that enters my head is, ‘I think Mal will like this riff I’m playing,’” says Angus. “That’s how I judge lot of stuff.”
They hope to take PWR/UP on the road whenever the pandemic clears. For now, however, they’re just happy that AC/DC is once again a functioning band and that they have the chance to share some of Malcolm’s final songs with the world. “I remember visiting with him after he had an operation,” says Angus. “This is when he still had the capability to talk. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be there fighting for you.’ He always backed us…”
Read more at Rolling Stone.