AC/DC: The Big Chill
The critics said AC/DC would have another hit when hell freezes over. Tell Satan to put on an overcoat - Angus Young and the boys from Down Under are back with Black Ice, their cool new return to the raunch and roll that made them famous.
“It’s two different worlds,” says Angus Young, exhaling a stream of cigarette smoke into the air-conditioned comfort of a plush conference room at Sony Music’s New York headquarters. AC/DC’s lead guitarist is discussing the decades-old and probably unbridgeable gap between mass market pop and dirty, lowdown rock and roll.
“The mainstream media tend to lump everything together,” he moans. “To them, there’s no difference between Madonna, the Rolling Stones or whatever. If AC/DC were being interviewed on America in the Morning [sic] they’d probably ask, ‘Do you have a dance choreographer to work out those steps for you?’
“The trouble is, I don’t think they look at the reality of the world. The reality is that not everybody’s got nice white teeth or the full-scale beauty treatment. Not all women have silicone implants. In the real world, people just get on with their lives. And that’s where AC/DC come in. We’re in that culture; we make music for that culture; we hit them at the bottom end. We come up that way.”
AC/DC’s new album, Black Ice, hits hard and, most definitely, below the belt. The lead single, “Rock ’n’ Roll Train,” pounds along like a libidinous locomotive, running on pure raunch and hot to jump the rails. Angus and his elder brother, Malcolm, wrap their guitars around the tune’s primal beat like sibling snakes twining around Adam and Eve’s apple tree. Singer Brian Johnson wails with hellhound intensity, as if the song’s titular conveyance were running over his foot. Everything falls into place exactly as it should on an AC/DC song. Every power chord, snare crack, yelp and lead line hits with maximum intensity. Not a note is wasted.
“Rock ’n’ Roll Train” is just one of several powerhouse tracks on Black Ice. “War Machine” bristles with tribal bellicosity and a low-voiced chant that recalls the AC/DC anthem “Thunderstruck.” “Skies on Fire” is hooky as hell, propelled in the chorus by a bass melody that comes on like a sugar rush, while “Anything Goes” cooks to a riff built around a droning D string and “Rock and Roll Dream” recalls the glory days of album-rock grandeur.
Recent AC/DC albums have tended to cluster a dozen or so mediocre tracks around one strong single, but Black Ice reverses that trend. It is the best AC/DC album in years, worthy to stand alongside classics like Back in Black and Highway to Hell. Not bad for a bunch of guys in their fifties. “If you know what you do well and stick to that, I think you can appeal to the different generations,” Angus says. “You can strike a chord with them. I’ve got the brain of a teenager anyway.”
AC/DC’s record label certainly seems to be betting the farm on Black Ice. Advance security on the album was Code Orange tight, verging on paranoia. No advance discs were issued to journalists; the only way to hear the record was to report to Sony’s corporate HQ on Madison Avenue, an imposing edifice done up in black marble like some warlord’s dark castle. Rock scribes dutifully submitted to several layers of security screening and were finally ushered into a listening room under the continuous surveillance of a Sony employee, lest someone palm the disc and digitize an illicit copy. Advance reports in the music press have suggested that the record industry’s fate depends on the performance of this year’s new releases by Beyoncé, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and…yes…AC/DC.
But even this is nothing new to Angus. He has regularly witnessed some variation on this phenomenon ever since AC/DC first hit the United States in the late Seventies, roaring out of Australia behind momentous early albums like Let There Be Rock, Powerage and Highway to Hell. “We’d be playing some big arena with two other bands like ourselves, barely known at the time,” he recalls. “And down the road, in a very small theater, would be the guy who had the number-one hit record. I thought, There’s something wrong here.”
What’s wrong, as he sees it, is that the mainstream media think only about creating hits rather than building an artist’s fan base. Thus the musical landscape is dotted with one-hit wonders whose careers never went further than one or two well-known songs. “When we were younger and first starting out in Australia,” he notes, “we found that we sold more records by word of mouth because we were playing the bars, clubs and small places and building a following. And as we got bigger we still relied a lot on word of mouth. The albums came out and we outsold the pop artists three to one. That’s why I say it’s two different worlds.”
In other words, AC/DC are now being hailed as saviors of the music business because they’ve always ignored music business trends. That’s what’s so endearing about them. Empires may fall and stock markets crash, but you know Angus Young is going to come out in that schoolboy suit and rock the bejesus out of his Gibson SG, just as he’s been doing since AC/DC first got going in ’73. And you know Brian Johnson is gonna stalk the stage in a flat cap like some boozed-up workingman who’s climbed up onto the roof of his local pub. The songs are going to be tight and ballsy, crammed with smutty double entendres and nasty guitar licks. There’s something profoundly reassuring about all that.