As it turns out, Young has indeed spent a fair amount of time these last few years “tucked away somewhere in a room and putting together ideas and songs.” Which is how we’ve wound up, rather unexpectedly but certainly quite happily, with Power Up, AC/DC’s 16th (or, if we’re counting in Australian, 17th) full-length effort.
As for what makes it unexpected? For starters, the band recorded it under a complete media blackout – traditional, social or otherwise.
Aside from a few rumors – kicked off by surreptitious photos that surfaced in 2018 of various band members, coffee cups in hand, trolling alleyways around Vancouver’s Warehouse Studio, where they’ve recorded their last few efforts – things have been radio silent in the AC/DC camp for several years.
More significantly, of course, there’s the fact that since the end of the Rock or Bust world tour there has been the looming question of just who, or even what, AC/DC is anymore.
The tour itself was, like every AC/DC jaunt for decades now, a massive success – and maybe their most massive yet. It kicked off with a headlining stint in front of a crowd of more than 100,000 at, of all places, Coachella, and then over the next year-and-a-half proceeded to sell out arenas and stadiums from Brisbane to Buffalo, racking up ticket sales of more than $200 million in the process. Internally, however, things weren’t running so smoothly.
AC/DC is not a band immune to trial and tragedy – the death of inimitable front man Bon Scott in 1980, and the band’s subsequent resurrection with Back in Black, is a permanent part of rock lore – but even by their standards the Rock or Bust era was exceedingly challenging.
It began with the pronouncement that the band’s co-founder, stalwart rhythm guitar player and, in many ways, musical and ideological rock (not to mention Angus’ older brother), Malcolm Young, was battling severe dementia and stepping away from the group.
Malcolm co-wrote the songs on Rock or Bust, but his parts on the recording, as well as his spot on the stage, were assumed by his and Angus’ nephew, Stevie Young.
Malcolm passed away in November 2017 at age 64; just three weeks earlier, he and Angus’ older brother, George, who had helped guide AC/DC to success, as well as co-produced several of their albums from their 1975 debut, High Voltage, to 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, died at age 70. Experiencing this sort of deep loss would be difficult enough on its own.
In AC/DC land, it was compounded by the fact that, just prior to the release of Rock or Bust, longtime drummer Phil Rudd, who had played with the band on and off since 1975, became mired in legal troubles and was replaced by a former drummer, Chris Slade.
Toward the end of the Rock or Bust tour, meanwhile, singer Brian Johnson was forced to exit the band as a result of hearing loss, with his slot assumed, in a move no one could have seen coming, by Axl Rose.
To put a final punctuation mark on events, by the time the tour wrapped in September 2016, bassist Cliff Williams announced his retirement from AC/DC after four decades with the band. Which meant that, just two years after the release of Rock or Bust, only two members – Angus and Stevie – remained from the lineup that had recorded the album.
So what did Angus do? What Angus always does – he wrote. And while he didn’t have his brother next to him physically during this time, he did still have his riffs.
According to Angus, the majority of the material on Power Up, as with Rock or Bust, was constructed from songs and ideas he and Malcolm had logged over the years.
“They were things that we knew were good, and so we put them aside and said, ‘We should get them down on record at some point,’ ” Angus says. “And I thought, well, maybe now’s the time to go through and pick out all those ideas.”
When it came to getting them down on tape, Angus called up a few friends. In fact, amazingly, Power Up finds the Rock or Bust-era lineup – Angus, Stevie, Phil Rudd, Cliff Williams and, in a welcome return, Brian Johnson – back together and ready, to borrow a Rock or Bust song title, to play ball.
The result is an album that is 100 percent pure and unrefined AC/DC (and with this band, is it ever not?). From the power-chord slam and Thunderstruck-like Angus single-note figure that kicks off the opening track, Realize, to the mid-tempo stomp of Wild Reputation and Rejection, the Shake a Leg-style boogie of Demon Fire and the deep-in-the-pocket grooves and big chorus hooks of first single Shot in the Dark, Power Up finds the venerable lads in very fine, if not absolutely top, form.
Elsewhere, the new album is littered with all of the original band’s beloved calling cards – Brian Johnson’s gravel-soaked shrieks and growls, Phil Rudd’s impossibly solid and swinging drum wallop and, of course, Angus’ monolithic riffs and explosive solos – while throwing in a subtle curveball or two here and there.
Witness, for example, the twangy guitar lick that punctuates the verses in Kick You When You’re Down or, more conspicuously, the honeyed Angus guitar line and ultra-melodic major-key chorus that highlights the (gasp!) almost ballad-like Through the Mists of Time…
But as far as Angus is concerned, at the end of the day it’s all just AC/DC. “I treat everything as a song and I hear it as a song,” he says. “I’m not on some sort of mission.” Angus laughs. “That might not be the right word. But I just look at everything on the musical side and then I say, ‘Does it attract me?’”
You mentioned that many of the songs on Power Up have their origins in riffs you and Malcolm came up with together. Do you have a stockpile that you can just tap into whenever you’re writing music?
”I have lots of ideas the two of us worked on pretty much through the years. Even when we were in studios and recording rooms there were always ideas that we would put down. It’s just something where, the two of us together, we always seemed to be playing back and forth and coming up with stuff. From the beginning that was always a part of us.”
Do you also write on your own? Or do you prefer having someone to bounce ideas off of?
”I’ve done it both ways. You get an idea and if you have a tape recorder you try to put it down. And if you haven’t got a tape recorder you do your best to try and remember it. But then when Malcolm and myself would get together it would be a case of rolling through the ideas and seeing what we believed was material for AC/DC.
”And the material you’re hearing is stuff that we did that was always for AC/DC. We would try to separate what we had. You know, we could have 100 things, and out of that hundred here are 20 good, strong AC/DC ideas. And we’d put them to the side.”
One hundred things? How many ideas do you think you have?
”If I had to estimate? [Laughs] That’d be hard. But all I can say is I’ve got boxes full of stuff the two of us have done over the days.”
For Power Up you guys worked with Brendan O’Brien, who also produced your last two records. What does he bring to your sound as opposed to other producers you’ve had, like Harry Vanda and your brother George, or “Mutt” Lange?
”Well, Brendan… I always say the role of your producer is pretty much that he’s your audience. He’s the man that’s sitting there hearing the whole picture, the outside ear that’s listening to everything. And he’ll tell you, 'I think this is AC/DC,' or, 'That bit there, I don’t know...'
”That’s the role he plays in order to get the best performance from you. And Brendan’s very talented. He knows his music. So if we get stuck somewhere, maybe if we say, 'Oh, do we do a break here?,' he’ll sit down and we can have it out together and he’ll help us come up with a good idea to try.”
On first listen, my early impression of Power Up is that it’s a bit darker in tone than Rock or Bust.
“A lot of it’s down to the songs and what you’re working on. But when we’re doing a song, I always think… I never go negative. I always go positive with song ideas. And with AC/DC, we never get too serious about what we’re doing. We don’t try to put in, you know, a real 'statement' that means something. It’s just, that’s the mood when you wrote the song and then you bring it to the track.“
If there’s any song on the record that sticks out as a slight departure from the standard AC/DC approach it’s Through the Mists of Time. It has more of a major-key sound, and you also weave an incredibly melodic guitar line through it.
Did that one feel a bit different to you?
”Um… no. [Laughs] As I said earlier, I treat it as a song and I hear it as a song. You know, my older brother George used to always tell me that chances are when you come up with an idea, you come up with an image. And he said, 'You might even come up with a singin’ line, and it might not fit the track at that time but it sets the mood in what you do.
”So jot that down. If there’s birds twittering in the background, just write, ‘birds twittering.’ Call it that, even just to get you started.' [Laughs] Obviously, you’re not going to write a song called “Birds Twittering,” but you just want to get something that’s going to fit in that melody line, if that makes sense.”
Did that happen with any of these new tracks? Was there one where you wrote down a phrase like “birds twittering” and it turned into a song?
”Well, I came up with a lot of titles. Malcolm would call them 'hook titles'. And I’ve always done that. The two of us from the beginning always did that. So especially with titles and things, I’ve written down a lot over the years and I would just go through some of the books and mark out ones I liked and then sometimes bring singin’ lines. Or sometimes I might see a title and go, 'That’s a great title.' And then I say, 'Ah, I’ve got some great riffs here that’ll work with that.'”
A good example of that might be something like Hells Bells, where the title is so evocative and the music really sounds like the name of the song.
”Yeah. And that’s what you aim for. Or something like Highway to Hell – you hear those opening chords and you go, 'Uh oh… what’s coming?'”
“We’re on our way…”
”It’s something a little ominous. [Laughs]”
As far as titles are concerned, I want to ask about the name Power Up. It’s not too often that an AC/DC record isn’t titled after one of the songs in the track list. Is there any special significance here?
“Well, the significant side of it was I just wanted something that meant something to the band, and especially to my brother. I always thought his whole thing with AC/DC was it had to be powerful as a band. So I wanted something that called up what we do and that sums up what AC/DC is.
“And also, being guitarists, whenever I would plug in the guitar I always felt I was plugged into the 'big electrical grid.' [Laughs] So Power Up just sounded very powerful. Simple. Direct. Or you could go the other way and say it’s very Frankenstein, you know? Almost like creating a monster.“
AC/DC has obviously experienced a lot of turmoil over the past few years. After you came off the Rock or Bust tour and it was just you and Stevie remaining from the lineup that recorded the album, was there ever a moment where you felt, “This could be it”?
“At that point you’re at the great unknown. We didn’t know what would happen. You’re in a bit of a case of limbo. But at the time you just go, 'I’m committed to getting through this, and then after that I’ll concentrate on what comes.'“
Could you ever envision a life without AC/DC?
“Well, I’ve been doing this most of my life, since I was in my teens. So it’s very hard to think of something other than that when it comes to making music. I’ve always said if I do anything music-wise, I can only do it the AC/DC way. Even if I wasn’t in AC/DC, I think it would probably still sound like AC/DC. [Laughs]“
After Brian Johnson exited so abruptly I think a lot of fans questioned whether he would ever return to the band. How did he come back into the picture for Power Up?
He was getting a lot of help with his hearing. And he kept up with it and kept trying various things to see how he could improve. Then he wanted to do something to test it out, so I think he did a few prep runs to see how it would go.
“And the people who look after us, our management, they were all wanting to know, 'When are you going to do an album?' So it was a case of seeing who wanted to be on board. And everyone was happy and wished to participate. So it was good. And Brian felt, yeah, he would come in and try and see how he would do.“
Was it in Vancouver that the five members – you, Stevie, Brian, Phil and Cliff – first got back together and played?
“Yeah. And if you’re in a recording studio you’ve got a different environment to, say, if you’re playing live. You’ve got more control on the hearing side of things. You can isolate to very good listening levels.
What was the first thing you played together as a band?
“Well, if you’re in a studio you always try out some things even just to get your sounds together. So you play a little Back in Black or something.“
Following the end of the Rock or Bust tour there had been rumors that you were going to continue on with Axl in the singer slot. Was there any consideration about doing a record together?
“That never really came up. Axl was really very generous and he helped us out to get through our touring side at a difficult spot. He had contacted us and said he could help if it didn’t interfere with his own commitments of what he was doing.
“He wanted to come in and try songs that he himself liked, and he was suggesting songs I hadn’t played in a long time. I’m definitely grateful that he volunteered and that he helped us finish off our commitment. But he has his own life.“
On the guitar side of things, how did you and Stevie work together on this record?
“Stevie is a bit like… even when he was starting off with us he picked up on what Malcolm did rhythm-wise. I mean, Stevie can do solos and stuff like that too, but he went the route a bit like Malcolm. It’s the rhythm that he enjoyed doing best and that’s how he applied himself.
“And you know, Stevie had filled in for Malcolm in the past, in the Eighties [when Malcolm left the Blow Up Your Video tour in 1988 to battle alcohol dependency]. So for me it was, I’m looking at somebody I know is dependable and who can also do that role.
“And I mean, nothing could ever replace Malcolm, because Malcolm is the founder and he set the whole style. But Stevie certainly can do the role. He knows how it should be. So it’s just a case of the two of us sitting down and making sure we’re in sync.
What gear were you using this time out?
“Well, the guitar that I use and that I consistently use has always been the same guitar, the Gibson SG. And everyone always asks me what year it is. You know, I’ve heard somebody say, 'Oh, it’s a 1970s Gibson.' And then other people say, “No, it’s a bit earlier than that.”
“I don’t really know what year it is but all I know is it couldn’t have been past 1970, because that’s when I got it! [Laughs] So I used that a lot, and then I’ve got a few other guitars. One is a black SG, I think there’s a photo of it from Back in Black. And then I have another SG that’s maybe a ’68 or ’69, that I used on Highway to Hell.“
So there are three guitars on the record, and they’re all SGs.
“Yeah. But the main, most consistent one is the one I’ve always had. It’s got, like, lightning bolts on the fretboard that, I don’t know, it was getting repaired and some guy put them in. I said, 'What the hell is that?' And I didn’t have time to go, 'Can you put it back the way it was?' [Laughs] How about amps? Marshall. They’re 100 watts. But they’re all older, going back to the Seventies. And the cabinets have the older-style Celestions.“
How do you approach your solos? Do you work them out in advance or are you just going for it on the spot?
“Well, if you go to a song that’s dependent on following a lead line, you’d best get your lead lines sorted out. And it also depends on how prominent it is and how long you’re gonna go – 'Okay, am I going to do a long piece here or a rhythmic piece?' So it’s always track by track what you do.
“Like on Back in Black, the track Shoot to Thrill? If you listen to where you would say, “Here comes the guitar solo…,” it’s actually more rhythmic playing. It’s got a little bit of a guitar bite to it but it’s more of a rhythmic thing. And it’s only really at the later part of the song, after a little breakdown piece, that the guitar – what you would call lead lines and phrases – picks up more.
“So what I’m trying to say is, it’s really down to the song itself and how you hear it. Because one note can be a hell of a lot better than 50 notes, you know? You clearly have this guitar thing figured out. Even so, does Angus Young ever sit at home and just practice? Oh yeah! All the time.
What do you practice?
“Sometimes I just sit and doodle. I’ll maybe play a bit of blues or I’ll try and get my fingers moving and see if I can come up with any different phrases. Experiment a little bit. So yeah, I do practice. But I mean, I don’t sit there… even when I was younger, I didn’t sort of say, 'It’s two o’clock – I’d better practice now!'
“I played when I felt good about playing. I’d pick up the guitar and start playing and then, you know, you end up going, 'Oh geez, I’ve been sitting here now for hours!' [Laughs] You don’t know where the time goes.”
- AC/DC's new album, Power Up, is out now via Columbia.