The Rise and Fall of The Rock Legends AC/DC
Posted: Nov 16 2020
Fresh Beginnings of AC/DC
Formed in Sydney, Australia AC/DC are one of the formative and defining acts of '70s hard rock. For 47 years the band have toured, released albums and broken world records and are unrivalled in their work ethic and ability to draw in some of the biggest crowds in the world. In 2020, the band announced they were reuniting for another album and have begun to release music. Despite a number of line up changes, passing of members and time, the band still remains one of the most iconic and important bands in rock history.
With original lead singer Dave Evans
Early Band Lineup
Formed by Scottish born Australian migrants, brothers Malcolm and Angus Young the group's original 1973 line up consisted of bassist Larry Van Kriedt, vocalist Dave Evans and drummer Colin Burgess with Angus on lead guitar and Malcolm on backing guitar. Their first performance by the band was at a nightclub in Melbourne on New Years Eve. This was one of the first appearances of Angus’s iconic school-uniform outfit.
In the early days of the band, most of the members dressed in a form of glam or satin costume. The name AC/DC came about when Malcolm and Angus’s sister Margaret saw the initials on a sewing machine that mean ‘alternating current/direct current’. The brothers ran with it stating it reflected the electric nature of their performances and music. Pronounced letter by letter (ACDC), Australians tend to refer to them as Acca Dacca and the slash is often stylised as lightning bolt.
Band Begins Live Shows
By 1974 the band was known for their electric live shows and on the recommendation of Michael Chugg, Melbourne promoter Michael Browning booked them to play at the Hard Rock. Although he didn’t like their glam rock look, Browning thought the Young brothers had impressive guitar playing skills and when their manager quit and left them stuck in Adelaide with no money it was Browning who agreed to bail them out and book them for another show and later, become their new manager. They abandoned the glam look, moved to Melbourne and decided that Evans wasn’t the right fit to be lead singer.
The Addition of Bon Scott
The same year, Bon Scott, a much more experienced vocalist took centre stage for the band, previously working as their chauffeur until he decided to audition for the role. Similarly to the Youngs, he also migrated from Scotland to Australia as a child. Even though the bands career was well under way, they had only recorded one single, with Evans, “Can I Sit Next To You Girl/Rockin’ The Parlour'' which was re-recorded with Scott.
In 1974 they also recorded their first album, High Voltage which only took ten days to make and was based off instrumentals by the Young brothers. The band’s lineup was also stabilised, Scott on vocals, the Young brothers on guitar, Mark Evans on bass and Phil Rudd on drums. They released one of their most well known songs “It’s a Long Way to the Top'' the same year as well.
In 1975 they released their second album, T.N.T in New Zealand and Australia only. Up until 1977 they had regular TV appearances, particularly on Molly Meldrum’s Countdown, a popular Australian music TV show which also used their song “It’s a Long Way To The Top" as the theme song. The last time they were on the show was April 3 in 1977 and would be the last time they would make a TV appearance for over 20 years.
The First Signs of Success
In 1976 their manager sent some of their music to labels in London, one of whom was Phil Carson of Atlantic Records and the same year, they signed an international deal. Due to start a tour with Black Street Crawler, it was cancelled last minute when Black Street Crawler's guitarist Paul Kossood died. Instead the band would kick off the career in the UK touring smaller venues and building a following that way. Eventually, their label organised the “Lock Up Your Daughters” tour, sponsored by Sounds magazine.
By this point, Punk was taking over the music scene so to have a major music magazine behind a classic rock band was a big deal. Occasionally the band were grouped with Punk by the media in the UK which the band refuted and said punk was simply a passing fad. Their manager Michael Browning wrote that "it wasn't possible to even hold a conversation with AC/DC about punk without them getting totally pissed off.”
In 1976, AC/DC released a compilation album, with tracks taken from LPs, High Voltage and T.N.T, also called High Voltage, it was a big success and to date has sold three million copies worldwide. Their third studio album followed shortly after and was called, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. The band toured Sweden briefly and the rest of Europe extensively then returned to Australia in order to record their fourth album, Let There Be Rock.
Let There Be Rock Album Cover, 1977
Befriending Black Sabbath and breaking into America
A year later, the group was back in Britain touring with Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne and Bon Scott immediately befriended one another but the rest of the two bands didn’t get along. In one incident, Geezer Butler pulled a knife on Malcolm Young, though it was a silly flick-knife comb.
Towards the end of 1977 Mark Evans was asked to leave the band which he states was related to a disagreement with Angus and Malcolm Young. Cliff Williams replaced him as a very experienced bass player. The one place the band was yet to crack was the US until Bill Bartlett at Jacksonville radio station WPDQ played them. Two years later the completed a US stadium circuit and played support for the likes of Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Kiss, Styx, UFO, and Blue Öyster Cult, and co-headlined with bands such as Cheap Trick.
In 1978 they released their fifth album, Let There Be Rock.
The Major Breakthrough
Perhaps one of the biggest moments in AC/DC’s career was when the collaborated with producer Mutt Lange on their sixth album, Highway to Hell. Released in 1979, Eddie Van Halen said it was favourite AC/DC album and it was the first LP to break the US top 100, reaching number 17. The sound for the band moved away from comical lyrics to serious rock themes and increased emphasis on backing vocals but still featured AC/DC's signature sound: loud, simple, pounding riffs and grooving backbeats.
The Death of Bon Scott
In 1980 they began their seventh album, Back in Black. On 19 February 1980, Scott passed out in the car on the way back to the apartment of an acquaintance called Alistair Kinnear after a night of drinking and alleged drug taking at The Music Machine in Camden, London. According to Kinnear, upon arrival at his home, he was unable to move Scott from the car into his home for the night, so he left him in the car overnight to sleep off the effects of the alcohol. Unable to wake Scott early on the evening of 20 February 1980, Kinnear rushed him to King's College Hospital in Camberwell, where Scott was pronounced dead on arrival. Pulmonary aspiration of vomit was cited as the cause of Scott's death, and the official cause was listed as "acute alcohol poisoning". Scott's family buried him in Fremantle, Western Australia, the area they emigrated to when he was a boy.
Rebuilding the Band Lineup
After Scott’s unexpected passing, the rest of the band considered quitting music but were urged by Scott’s family to continue as that is what he would have wanted. He was replaced by Brian Johnson who is still with the band today. Angus Young later recalled,
"I remember the first time I had ever heard Brian's name was from Bon. Bon had mentioned that he had been in England once touring with a band and he had mentioned that Brian had been in a band called Geordie and Bon had said 'Brian Johnson, he was a great rock and roll singer in the style of Little Richard.' And that was Bon's big idol, Little Richard. I think when he saw Brian at that time, to Bon it was 'Well he's a guy that knows what rock and roll is all about.' He mentioned that to us in Australia. I suppose when we decided to continue, Brian was the first name that Malcolm and myself came up with, so we said we should see if we can find him."
They offered him the job of lead singer, out of respect to Bon Scott they said they chose him because they didn’t want an imitation of Scott. That and his natural charisma and new energy he brought to the group really secured him as the bands new lead singer.
Now with the band line up secured AC/DC were able to complete the album, Back in Black. This became their best selling album with songs such as "Hells Bells", "You Shook Me All Night Long", "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" and the title track on it. The riff from Back in Black is arguably one the most well-known in rock history and is ranked 187 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The album reached No.1 in the UK and No.4 in the US, where it spent 131 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Not even a year later, they released their eight studio album, For Those About to Rock We Salute You. This album also did well reaching high in the UK charts.
Changes and Decline
In 1983, the band decided to change from producer Matt Lange for their ninth album. Flick of The Switch was an attempt at going back to their more simplistic sound but the album flopped completely. On top of the commercial flop of the album, Phil Rudd was facing issues with drugs and alcohol which resulted in a relationship breakdown with Malcolm Young. Halfway through recording Flick the Switch they had a physical altercation and Rudd was replaced with former Procol Harum drummer B.J. Wilson to help finish the album. None of his recordings were used as Rudd had already finished all the drum parts. In 1983 and after 700 auditions Rudd was replaced with Simon Wright. Their following album, Fly on The Wall, produced by the Young brothers also did terribly and was not liked by fans or critics.
AC/DC Return to Radio
Finally in 1986, the band made a return to the radio with Who Made Who. The album Who Made Who was the soundtrack to Stephen King's film Maximum Overdrive and had older hits, such as "You Shook Me All Night Long", and new songs such as the title track and two new instrumentals, "D.T." and "Chase the Ace". In 1988 the band were inducted to the Australian Recording Industry Association's Hall of Fame and released their eleventh studio album, Blow Up Your Video. Blow Up Your Video sold more copies than the previous two studio releases combined, reaching No. 2 on the UK charts—AC/DC's highest position since "Back in Black" in 1980.
A world tour for this album begun un Perth in Feb of 1988 but in April Malcom Young announced he was having a break from touring due to it affecting his recovery from alcoholism. Another member of the Young family, Stevie Young, temporarily took Malcolm's place. In 1989, Wright left the group to work on the upcoming Dio album Lock Up the Wolves, and was replaced by session veteran Chris Slade. Johnson was unavailable for several months while finalising his divorce, so the Young brothers wrote all the songs for the next album, a practice they continued for all subsequent releases through Rock or Bust in 2014.
The Resurgence of AC/DC in the 90's
In 1990 the band released their twelfth album, "The Razor's Edge." It was mixed and engineered by Mike Fraser and produced by Bruce Fairbairn, who had previously worked with Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. The album was a major success for the band, and included the hits "Thunderstruck" and "Are You Ready", which reached No. 5 and No. 16 respectively on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart. The album went multi-platinum and reached the US top ten. In September 1991, 1.6 million people attended the Monsters of Rock festival in Moscow to enjoy the first open-air rock concert to be held in the former Soviet Union. The show, also featuring Pantera, The Black Crowes and Metallica, had one of the largest attendances ever for a musical event.
Shows across The Razor Edge’s tour were recorded and put onto a live album titled, "Live" and has been hailed as on the best live albums of all time. During The Razors Edge tour, three fans were killed at a concert at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah in January 1991. When the concert began fans rushed the stage crushing the three and injuring others. It took 20 minutes before venue security and the group understood the severity of the situation and halted the concert. AC/DC settled with the victims' families out of court. As a result of this incident, the Salt Palace eliminated festival seating from future events.
In 1994 Rudd was invited back to the band and their thirteenth album, "Ballbreaker" was made with new producer, Rick Rubin in LA. Singles from the album included "Hard as a Rock", "Hail Caesar" and "Cover You in Oil". The band released their fourteenth album, "Stiff Upper Lip", produced by brother George Young, in 2000. It was received slightly better by critics but still seemed to lack anything new. Running out new ideas the band signed a long term multi album deal with Sony Music in 2002. Under this deal they released remastered albums with booklets offering rare photographs, memorabilia and notes.
In 2003 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in the same year held a concert with the Rolling Stones in Toronto and played to a crowd of half a million people. This concert was to help the city overcome the negative effects of the 2003 epidemic. To this day that concert holds the record for the largest paid music event in North American history.
Black Ice Album Number Fifteen
In 2008 AC/DC announced their fifteenth album, "Black Ice" and their first album in eight years. It was produced by Brendan O'Brien and was mixed and engineered by Mike Fraser. The lead single from the album was Rock 'n' Roll Train, and alongside the single the band offered fans in London a chance to be in a video with them. The album debuted at number one in 29 countries and is now certified multi platinum in eight countries. In September the band debuted AC/DC Radio on Sirius Channel 19, a channel that only plays AC/DC music and interviews with the band members.
In 2009 the band were named Business Review Weekly’s top Australian earner in entertainment making earnings of $105 million. This displaced The Wiggles from the number one spot for the first time in four years. In 2010 the band released Iron Man 2, the soundtrack for the film of the same name. The same year, the band headlined the Download Festival and closed the Black Ice World Tour in Bilbao, Spain on 28 June 2010, after 20 months in which AC/DC went to 108 cities in over 28 countries, with an estimated audience of over five million people.
Changes in the Band and the Death of Malcolm Young
In 2014 there were rumours that AC/DC were to disband due to Malcolm Young being unwell. However, Brian Johnson commented that AC/DC were not completely disbanding, stating they were going back to recording, “We're going to pick up guitars, have a plonk and see if anybody has got any tunes or ideas. If anything happens we'll record it." In July 2014, AC/DC announced that they had finished recording their next album and that Malcolm's nephew, Stevie Young, replaced Malcolm in the studio. On 23 September 2014, Alberts Management confirmed that Malcolm had officially departed from the band. Malcolm's last show with the band was on 28 June 2010 in Bilbao, Spain he died on 18 November 2017 at the age of 64.
Side Projects and Police Raids
Among the first to start a side solo project was Phil Rudd. In 2014 he released a solo album, Head Job and confirmed there would be another AC/DC tour. He claimed the band were nowhere near retiring. AC/DC confirmed this saying the band’s sixteenth album., Rock or Bust, was on the way and they would be going on tour to promote it with Malcolm’s replacement, Stevie Young, his nephew.
On 6 November 2014, Rudd was charged with attempting to procure a murder, threatening to kill, possession of methamphetamine, and possession of cannabis, following a police raid on his home.The charge of attempting to procure a murder was withdrawn the following day, but the other charges remained. AC/DC released a statement clarifying that the tour promoting Rock or Bust would continue, but did not say whether or not Rudd was still a member of the band. However, shortly after Rudd was replaced with former drummer Chris Slade when Rudd pleaded guilty to drug charges and threatening to kill a former assistant. Shortly thereafter, the band's website removed Rudd as the band's drummer and replaced him with Slade.
On 9 July 2015, Rudd was denied a discharge without conviction and sentenced to eight months of home detention. During the Rock or Bust Tour in 2016 it was announced that the final ten dates were to be rescheduled as Brian Johnson was ordered by doctors to stop touring due to hearing loss. Johnson eventually made an official statement regarding his health problems and inability to tour. In the statement, he acknowledged his ongoing hearing difficulties but stated his intentions to continue recording and potentially resume touring if his health improves sufficiently. He also specifically thanked Angus Young and Cliff Williams for their support during his AC/DC tenure. His last show with AC/DC was on 28 February 2016; at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
On 16 April 2016, AC/DC released a statement announcing the addition of Guns N' Rose's frontman Axl Rose as the band's lead vocalist for the remainder of their 2016 tour dates. The statement read:
"AC/DC band members would like to thank Brian Johnson for his contributions and dedication to the band throughout the years. We wish him all the best with his hearing issues and future ventures. As much as we want this tour to end as it started, we understand, respect and support Brian's decision to stop touring and save his hearing. We are dedicated to fulfilling the remainder of our touring commitments to everyone that has supported us over the years, and are fortunate that Axl Rose has kindly offered his support to help us fulfill this commitment. AC/DC will resume their Rock or Bust World Tour with Axl Rose joining on vocals."
On 8 July 2016, Cliff Williams indicated he was leaving the band in an interview with Gulfshore Life, saying "It's been what I've known for the past 40 years, but after this tour I'm backing off of touring and recording. Losing Malcolm, the thing with Phil and now with Brian, it's a changed animal. I feel in my gut it's the right thing." At the end of the Rock or Bust world tour, he released a video statement confirming his departure. His final show with AC/DC was in Philadelphia on 20 September 2016. After completing the Rock or Bust tour in 2016, AC/DC went on hiatus. Over the next few years, speculation began that former members Johnson and Rudd were back and working with the band again.
Reunion and the Present
On 28 September 2020, AC/DC updated their social media accounts with a short video clip depicting an illumination of a neon light in the shape of the band's lightning bolt logo. This led to speculation that they were announcing a comeback. Then two days later, the band announced the return of Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams to the band, alongside Angus and Stevie Young reuniting the Rock or Bust recording line-up. On October 27 they released their first single A Shot in the Dark off their forthcoming album, Power Up, which Angus says is dedicated to his late brother Malcolm.
In Summary, AC/DC's extensive career they have won many awards, broken many chart numbers and seen crowds that bands could only dream of. Musically, they have kept the same simple, straight forward sound of loud, hard guitar driven rock and never strayed away from who they are as a band. However, it is not without critique that the music is indeed, simple and at times deliberately lowbrow but the band always argued it is always meant in jest and that the music, not the lyrics, is the most important part of the music. Regardless, their success is undeniable. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, a street named after them in Melbourne and Madrid, numerous awards and still, somehow after nearly 50 years, more ahead of them.