AC/DC: Dirty Deeds Re-Done
GW Highway to Hell was the first AC/DC record not produced by Vanda and Young. Why did you decide to work with someone new?
MALCOLM Basically, Atlantic, our record label in America, said, “We’re gonna drop you guys unless you get another producer.” We were selling a couple hundred thousand copies every time out, but they wanted bigger and better. ANGUS Also, George and Harry figured it was a good time for us to go out in the world and try something new. Because George always used to say, “You never know, somebody out there might have something different to offer you guys.” I suppose it was a bit like how birds do it—you get kicked out and have to learn to fly on your own.
GW Most people tend to think of the second phase of your career beginning with Brian Johnson coming in on vocals and recording Back in Black. But it seems more accurate to say that the turning point was really Highway to Hell, when you started working with Robert John “Mutt” Lange.
ANGUS I would agree. For the band, and especially myself and Malcolm, George had guided us since we were young. When we were kids he’d get a big kick out of taking us down to the recording studio and showing us what was going on. He knew it was such a big deal for us to go into a studio and see how everything worked, and to see people playing guitars. So it was strange to be going into a studio without him.
GW Was there trepidation about working with Mutt, who at that time wasn’t known for producing hard rock bands?
ANGUS Sure. We were very cagey about working with anyone new. At one point we thought, Is there someone out there, other than George and Harry, who can really do justice to our music? And in fact, some of the things we’d hear about what people were doing with records, we’d be like, “Geez, that’s too extravagant.” You’d hear about producers taking a band away for two years, putting ’em in some mansion. And that was something we didn’t want. So we were pretty nervous.
GW At one point your record label wanted to pair you with Eddie Kramer.
MALCOLM The label offered us Eddie, saying, “He engineered for Hendrix.” But he didn’t really fit in with us as a producer. We showed him the riffs for “Highway to Hell” and he didn’t quite get it. We thought, This guy’s out of touch with what we are.
ANGUS And at the same time, I suppose any ideas that Eddie had didn’t seem to inspire us. I don’t know why, but he kept talking about pianos. Maybe he thought that a piano was an interesting thing for a rock and roll band. But that was the wrong word to use around us. Too classical sounding! But as I said, there were some very extravagant things going on at that time.
GW Mutt is one person in particular who is known for making extravagant records.
ANGUS Before we started working together, Malcolm called him up and more or less said, “Well, what can you do for us?” And Mutt had the right answers. He went, “I don’t think you need to be in the studio for a long time.” We had already written most of the tracks for Highway to Hell, so Mutt said he’d just give it a bit of spit and polish and we’d be out in five or six weeks. And we wound up going ahead of even that. We went in and did all the backing tracks in about 13 days or something. In fact, I think that was probably the quickest album we did with him.
GW Did he change your approach at all?
MALCOLM We still laid the tracks down live, because that’s what we’re about. And because Mutt realized that we were a good band who could play their instruments he just let us go for it. The freedom was there. And we gave him freedom as well—we would try anything he asked of us. Mutt fit in really well with the band. It was a shame we never got back together with him after For Those About to Rock. Actually, we saw him recently at a gig in Paris and afterward he said, “You’re still the best fucking band I ever worked for!” So that’s a nice compliment. Maybe one day we’ll work together again.
GW After Highway to Hell your sound got considerably darker and heavier. Was that a result of Bon’s passing, or was the band naturally heading in that direction anyway?
ANGUS With Back in Black that’s just where it was going. Some stuff, like “Hells Bells,” was obviously written with Bon in mind, but then a lot of it was written when Bon was still around. I remember during the Highway to Hell tour Malcolm came in one day and played me a couple of ideas he had knocked down on cassette, and one of them was the main riff for “Back in Black.” And he said, “Look, it’s been bugging me, this track. What do you think?” He was going to wipe it out and reuse the tape, because cassettes were sort of a hard item for us to come by sometimes! I said, “Don’t trash it. If you don’t want it I’ll have it.”
GW Was the little single note lick his, too?
ANGUS Oh yeah. In fact, I was never able to do it exactly the way he had it on that tape. To my ears I still don’t play the thing right!
GW Probably one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the band is that there are demos of Bon singing Back in Black songs.
ANGUS He never sang. He was actually supposed to come in that same week he died. He had this pile of lyrics he’d been kicking about and he said, “Well, maybe I could come in and try out some ideas.” A week earlier, however, Bon did come down to the rehearsal room and play some drums. Malcolm and I were working on “Have a Drink on Me,” and Mal had been on the drum kit and wanted to play some guitar. So Bon walks in and Mal goes, “Just the man I wanted to see!” Since Bon had been a drummer we had him hop behind the kit and we demoed the track.
GW What gear were you using on Back in Black?
ANGUS Still 100-watt Super Leads. The old-style ones, without those preamp things. I remember at the time that was the new thing Marshall was trying to push. They were trying to get people interested in ’em, but I wasn’t really interested.
MALCOLM In addition to the Super Leads I think Angus went to a smaller 50-watt Marshall for his solos. Just for some extra warmth. I was still using my Marshall bass head, and I believe Cliff had a little SVT amp.
GW Some of the solos on that album are so memorable, particularly on “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the title track. Were they worked out beforehand?
ANGUS Some were totally off the top, and there were some that I took a bit longer with. With Mutt, he’d just listen and tell you when he thought something was great. Sometimes I’d be there for a whole day doing one guitar solo, and then he’d go, “Remember what you were playing at the beginning?” [laughs] And I’d have to go all the way back to the start. GW Malcolm, have you done any solos over the years?
MALCOLM A few, but to be honest I really don’t know why! On the Australian version of High Voltage there was a song called “Soul Stripper” where me and Angus traded off on some licks, and there’s also another tune on there, “You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me,” where I did a bit of soloing [both are available in America on ’74 Jailbreak—Ed.]. But when we got onstage it was just obvious that I should sit in the back and keep time, because Angus, as soon as he put on that school uniform, he started going all over the place. It evolved very naturally. And I loved it because I always enjoyed the rhythm side, just keeping it tight and getting the groove going. When that’s on the money there’s no better feeling.
GW Since its release, Back in Black has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. Why do you think that album in particular connected with so many people?
ANGUS It’s probably all of the elements combined. At the time I suppose there was a lot of curiosity. The fans were buying it because they were eager to see how it would be different from what they knew. And then the songs themselves were special. When we were in the studio we were thinking it could be our last record, so that was a big push. When you lose somebody like Bon, who’s a very upfront guy, he was the identity of the band for a lot of people. We didn’t know if we could get past that. We knew we had good songs, but even so, you can have great songs and at the end of the day people can still go, “Yeah, whatever.”
GW And over the years those songs have appealed to a much wider audience than just your typical rock fans. Have you, for instance, had a chance to hear Celine Dion’s version of “You Shook Me All Night Long”?
MALCOLM Somebody sent me a video of that. I was impressed—not necessarily with the vocals, but with the fact that she was able to do Angus’ duckwalk with the fucking shoes she had on! I thought, Fucking hell, she’s got some balls to do that!
GW For 1983’s Flick of the Switch and ’85’s Fly on the Wall the two of you decided to handle production chores on your own. Why? ANGUS We were probably looking to go back in a way. We had worked with Mutt for three records in a row and we felt that we knew what we wanted and how to get it. So we decided to have a go ourselves.
MALCOLM We said, “Forget all this big production shit, let’s just go back to the bare bones.” And that was what Flick of the Switch was—a really raw, basic record. It was a slap in the face to everything that was going at that time. We decided to knock out 10 tracks and put it out there. Even the album cover was very stripped down. And for the “Flick of the Switch” video, we set up in a big hangar and told the crew, “We’ll be playing—you film. Walk around the band, do whatever the fuck you want. We just want it done today.” Neither of those albums were big sellers, but we were just trying to become a simple little band again, because it was getting pretty complicated carrying cannons and bells everywhere! So that was a bit of an interesting period.
GW You came back strong in 1990 with The Razors Edge, which was probably your biggest record since Back in Black.
MALCOLM When Angus came up with “Thunderstruck” I thought, Fuck, we’ve got a great track here. And that set the standard for that album. Also, during the tour before that [for the Blow Up Your Video record], my drinking had gotten really out of hand. So I decided to take a little breather from the band, and that gave me a bit more time there to mess around with ideas. I started using some keyboards, just sampling the guitar into it for the sake of trying something different. It was interesting, but after that album I decided I was done with keyboards. Couldn’t be bothered anymore with that shit!
GW You worked with Bruce Fairbairn on that record and have since worked with Rick Rubin, another well-respected producer. In the end, though, you always return to your brother George.
MALCOLM When we worked with Rick, there was something not quite right there. He’s not a real rock and roller, that’s for sure. All he worried about was the snare drum. We would never go back to him. We thought he was a phony, to be honest! But George and Harry are real rock and rollers. They don’t care if an album doesn’t sell. They just want to record good music.
ANGUS I think every now and then you need that vitamin boost, you know? And George is great because he has a lot of experience. And also, he knows what’s out there, even by today’s standards. He grasps new things instantly. He always manages to pull something new out of you, and I love that about him.
GW Will he be producing this next record?
ANGUS I don’t know. We had to really twist his arm to do Stiff Upper Lip. Because the poor guy has spent most of his life in studios. But he said, “For anyone else, no, but for you two guys, yes.”
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