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Sitting down with AC/DC

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Angus Young and Brian Johnson — hyperactive lead guitarist and gritty lead vocalist of AC/DC, the world’s premier in-your-face band — are only 10 minutes late for tea. As they make their way through one of Manhattan’s posher hotel lounges, all tinkling crystal and bogus old-world charm, the hostess leads them to the most unobtrusive spot she can find short of the sidewalk. ”It’ll be quieter here,” she says primly, and seats them under a speaker that’s blasting a Gabrieli canzone at Highway to Hell volume. ”Oh, I remember this place,” says the gravel-voiced Johnson, peering out from under his scruffy street cap and sounding like he spent the night at the bottom of a mine shaft. ”We came in here one time and this bar was lined with hookers. Hookers in fur coats. Fur coats and knickers! Mink dresses! And they wouldn’t let us in without a jacket ‘n’ tie!”

Such are the time-honored hypocrisies that have helped AC/DC sell 53 million albums worldwide in the last 15 years, mainly to white adolescent males most inclined to the band’s no-bull, life’s-a-bitch-but-there’s-always-rock-&-roll metaphysic. Still, while a perpetual supply of alienated youth has put AC/DC up in the mink-knickers tax bracket, the band hadn’t made a musical dent in the wider public consciousness since the dawn of the ’80s, when it emerged from Australia to provide relief to a world still reeling from the ’70s disco inferno. But now, totally unpredictably, they’re on top. Their new Razors Edge album went platinum in just four weeks, their ”Thunderstruck” video is all over TV, and, most surprising of all, these grizzled veterans of the arena circuit suddenly find themselves in the rock mainstream.

As Young slouches uncomfortably on the ultra-swanky banquette, a visitor manages to offend him, though one shouldn’t have to worry too much about social gaffes with a man who is in first place on at least one fundamentalist group’s list of the world’s most fiendish rock stars. The visitor suggests that AC/DC has profited from the current taste for big-haired, lewd-lipped, mascara-prone heavy metal bands, and Young reacts as though he has just been compared to Wayne Newton.

”We’re a rock & roll band, of the roughest category,” he says evenly. ”Metal bands spend more time on the look, the image, whereas with us the music comes first.”

That might be a little disingenuous considering that on stage Young affects a psycho-schoolboy persona, complete with velvet-shorted suit and tie. But in terms of glamour, he’s right: AC/DC is a denim band in a spandex world. There are no wheedling power ballads for AC/DC, no seductiveness. Their lyrics revolve around hormones and hell, their sound is the rawest and most elemental that five people can manage without explosives (though they use those, too), and they do it all very, very well.

”We respect our audience,” says Young with a shrug. ”We go on stage, show them we’re having a good time. They can sing along, release energy, go home, wake up the next day, take their album out, put it on, attack the neighbor with it. It’s good.”

Strange to say, not everyone thinks so. AC/DC has drawn more than its share of accusations over the years, for, among other things, allegedly encouraging at least two teen suicides and one serial killer — Richard Ramirez, convicted in 1989 as L.A.’s ”Night Stalker,” who was said to have found satanic inspiration in AC/DC’s work. Still, Young claims that being a fixture on parental watchdog hit lists has proved neither a bane nor a boon. ”We just try to ignore it,” he says, a policy that lasts a good 10 seconds until noted AC/DC-basher Tipper Gore’s name comes up.

”Does she want a date?” Young asks in mock bafflement. ”I’ll take her out for a night. I could show her a good time.” Then he adds that there seems to be an overlooked angle at work here. ”Some of those people who saw us when we were young, they’ve now got children,” he says. ”That’s two of ’em doin’ it, the father and the son!”

”It’s all part of our 50-year plan,” confides Johnson.

That conjures up truly offbeat images. Four generations at one AC/DC concert? Rows of grandpas pumping feeble fists in the air when the band’s huge inflatable Devil comes on? Dad and Junior in a quality-time sing-along to ”Let Me Put My Love Into You?”

”That’ll be a gig,” says Johnson, in his best menace-to-society rasp. ”That’ll be a great day in hell.”

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