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Next year, AC/DC will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first album the only way the band knows how: With a new album, Rock or Bust, and a forthcoming world tour that promises to be as big and loud as the box office-busting trek they went on a few years back in support of 2008’s Black Ice.
Rock or Bust may be a high-octane, party-hard collection of monster jams, but the men of AC/DC are no strangers to real world adversity—be it the death of original singer Bon Scott, the health issues that have forced guitarist Malcolm Young to step away from the band, or the recent legal woes of drummer Phil Rudd. But none of that will deter AC/DC—especially lead guitarist Angus Young, who has four decades of rock and roll under his belt because he has stuck to his guns (and his signature schoolboy outfit). He sat down with EW to talk about the new album, the recent upheavals, and why he always keeps an eye on the sky during “Hell’s Bells.”
Entertainment Weekly: AC/DC is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. At what point in your career was the band closest to ending?
Angus Young: In our whole career? Probably around the death of Bon. That was a big, because we didn’t know at the time if we could keep going. You’re dealing with somebody who was the front guy of your band. Besides it being a tragedy for his family and everything, it’s a kind of a tough thing to get through. At the time, the best therapy for us was that we just kept writing songs, which we were doing at the time. And that kind of got us through. Then after we felt we had a lot of good songs, it was a case of, ‘Do we get someone in?’ And we were fortunate we got a great singer in Brian Johnson.
The band has faced some adversity lately. Your drummer, Phil Rudd, was embroiled in a murder-for-hire scheme, though the biggest charges have already been dropped. What’s going on with him?
We’ve had our own issues ourselves with him. He was making it a bit difficult for us, going forward. Even when we went to do the album, it was pretty tough to get him there. So we have our own issues with him, regardless of the situation.
The new album, Rock or Bust, is the first without your brother, guitarist and co-founder Malcolm Young. How is his health?
His physical health at the moment is very good. It’s just the condition with the dementia. But he’s happy. He’s getting a lot of care, a lot of attention. His family’s there supporting him, which is the best. He’s getting the best care he can get. It’s a no-win disease.
Your nephew Stevie has filled in on rhythm guitar. How is he fitting in?
Stevie always played like Malcolm. He grew up on it, and that was who he emulated. He copied it. So he’s doing great.
What is the motivation behind the title Rock or Bust?
It probably sums us up as a band. We started with that attitude. It was a go-for-broke attitude. When we kicked off as a band—Malcolm who formed the band, it was his idea, his baby. At that time, especially in the ’70s, mainstream music had kind of gone soft. They had that hard ’60s time, into the late ’60s. I mean there were still some bands making rock: Zeppelin, the Who, the Stones. But they had grown big, so you were hardly seeing them. And radio had gone very mellow. So doing the rock music again, it was a kind of go-for-broke attitude. That was always how we approached it.
Do you remember what the first AC/DC show was like?
It was in a club. It was going into the New Year night, so the audience had pretty much wiped themselves out by about nine o’clock. We were very fortunate because word of mouth seemed to bring in more people anywhere we played. We were fortunate in that sense because a lot of bars were going, “Oh yeah, give us that band. They’re good for beer sales.”
Brendan O’Brien produced Rock or Bust. What does he bring to the process?
What he says is, “I’m the AC/DC fan. I got two big ears here.” He looks at it and goes, “Does an AC/DC fan want to hear that? Do I want to hear AC/DC doing a track like that?” So he was good at picking out, “That works, that doesn’t.” Which is good. He said he told his wife, “I say my piece about what I hear, and Angus says, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s almost like they give you enough rope to hang yourself.” We’ve been very lucky. The hardcore fans have hung with us because they go, “Hey, they don’t disappoint.” And we stick to that style. Over the years, the critics have said, “They never change.” Maybe the little guy’s got a new color of school uniform. I always thought, “Well, what were we going to change into?” A jazz band? A keyboard band?
A lot of people are probably relieved you never had a New Wave period.
We knew in the beginning this is what we do best. I mean, there was no point in trying to pretend we were anything other than a rock band. That’s how we always sound. The first time we worked with Brendan, we hadn’t played for a while, and he didn’t know what to expect. But we set up and started playing, and he just turned to the engineer and said, “S—, it sounds like AC/DC, doesn’t it?”
The first single “Play Ball” was used during the MLB playoffs. Who in the band is the baseball fan?
I always just liked the title. To me, it’s baseball’s version of saying, “Let’s rock and roll.”
Your songs get played a lot in sports arenas and stadiums.
It brings’em up a bit, doesn’t it? We’ve been lucky with that. You know you’ve struck a chord with the public. A lot of those songs we had were not Top 40 hits. So it’s remarkable that all those tracks still stay around, like “Back in Black,” “Thunderstruck,” and all that.
Your stage show has all those crazy props. Are they all just kept in a storage locker somewhere?
Yes. The canons, Rosie, the bell. It’s a real brass bell, that big bell. It carries a lot of weight. It can be quite scary sometimes because you’ve got it hanging over you. A couple of times I nearly had a new hat.
Forty years in, do you still feel like you’ve got any AC/DC left in you?
Well you do it as long as you feel good. If you feel good and you still want to do it, and you’ve got that drive. That’s the same with everyone. You’ve got to love what you do. You’ve got to like doing it, because it is a lot of your life. The playing is great. The traveling is tough. It’s a hard thing. That Star Trek “Beam me up!” thing—that’s not happened yet.