POWER PLAY
Guitar World|Holiday 2020
Regardless of what fate throws at ’em, you just can’t keep a great band down. In this worldwide exclusive interview, intrepid AC/DC icon Angus Young discusses life after Malcolm and the band’s positively charged new album, POWER UP
RICHARD BIENSTOCK
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Us, ANGUS YOUNG has been spending a lot of time at home lately. “It’s a bit different,” the 65-year-old AC/DC guitarist admits about life in the time of quarantining and social distancing. Although in some ways, he adds, not so much. “I guess I’m used to being tucked away somewhere in a room and just putting together ideas and songs,” he says with a laugh.

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 frontman 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.

''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”

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 Bustera 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 the first single “Shot in the Dark,” Power Up finds the venerable lads in very fine, if not absolutely top, form.

They were things that [Malcolm and I] knew were good, and so we put them aside and said, ‘We should get them down on record at some point.’ And I thought, well, maybe now’s the time to go through and pick out all those ideas”

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”…

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