At 65, Aussie guitarist Angus Young is of legal retirement age. But after nearly five frenetic decades anchoring the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers AC/DC, he doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” The group’s latest adrenaline-charged album, “Power Up,” its 17th, released in November, is one of its strongest ever, and heralds a surprise renaissance. Three members rejoined the ranks after departing around 2015’s taxing “Rock or Bust” world tour. Drummer Phil Rudd came back after dealing with serious legal issues; bassist Cliff Williams came out of retirement; and banshee-throated vocalist Brian Johnson – who ceded 10 dates to replacement singer (and huge AC/DC fan) Axl Rose when doctors gave him an ultimatum to stop performing or risk going completely deaf – also returned. When Young’s rhythm guitarist brother Malcolm died in 2017 — after retiring from early-onset dementia before “Rock or Bust” was recorded three years earlier, with nephew Stevie Young taking his place — it momentarily looked like curtains again for this never-say-die outfit. But the wisdom of his late sibling reinvigorated him. “I always took my cues from Malcolm, because Malcolm got us through, especially in the Bon [Scott] era,” he says. “He said, ‘We’ll just continue doing what we do,’ which was writing songs, and that was always good therapy for us.”
People always talk about the AC/DC “wall of guitars” or “wall of sound.” But that’s a fallacy. There’s actually tons of dead air on your recordings, with the notes left out almost being as important as the ones you do play.
Yes. And with a lot of how we play — or what we call our art — we aim for the simplicity of a song. We try to keep it basic, and it’s mainly because, as a band, when we started — with anything we put on a record in a studio — we wanted to be able to perform it live, without some massive production going on. We wanted to be able to reproduce it live, so we would break it down to its simplest parts.
You create this skeletal power chord infrastructure, then the vocal melody line slithers in on top of it like a serpent. Do you write both at once?
Well, sometimes you get inspired and you get the two at once. You might have a good line in your head and you’ve got the music in your head, and it comes to you at one time. It’s like you’ve got some sort of inspiration, and that’s usually the best, because when you’ve got that, it’s very easy to work with those basics. And then other times, you might just have a good song idea, music-wise, and then you’ve got to work on, “OK, what am I going to sing on this?” And the rule of thumb that we always wait for is usually the first thing that comes into your head, the first thing you’re hearing. It’s like, “OK, let’s start from that.” Because usually in the end, even if you try to, thinking, “OK, I’m going to try to get a better melody and a better idea,” and you really work on it, usually you go, “Oh, I’ll go back to what I started with because that one was working.”
Many AC/DC albums are instantly apparent, like “Back in Black,” “Highway to Hell,” “Let There Be Rock.” But “Power Up” is a real grower — it really creeps on you with each listening.
Yeah. But even if you took “Back in Black,” a lot of people think that “Back in Black” was a success right away when it really wasn’t. We actually toured a lot when we brought out “Back in Black.” We had done a lot of touring, and it was really after that touring that the success of the album started to come through. And sometimes, it is that way — you make something and at first some people might go, “Yeah, I get it.” Or people who follow you go, “Yeah, that’s AC/DC. I get what they’re doing.” And then other times, it’s songs that just creep up on you. So we’ve been very lucky throughout our career, that with whatever we’ve done, we’ve been able to strike chords with people. We get a kind of connection with them.
Growing up in the Midwest, we didn’t understand, when punk rock came along, why you had to give up on the heavy metal you loved the day before. AC/DC was a constant, all the way through. How did you react when punk hit in ’77, ’78?
Well, we were very lucky in the respect that we had been in England in ’76, and it’s funny enough that when we first got there, there were some radio people in England playing some of our earlier stuff, and they kept referring to us as a punk band. And up until that point, they had no one that they’d really referred to as their own punk music, because it was only later that they had The Clash, The Sex Pistols and those kinds of acts. We did some early gigs in and around London, and some of those (future punk) people were showing up just to check us out. Or mainly, probably, Bon Scott — they were coming to check him out, because he had his own unique way of dressing, plus his tattoos and the way he carried himself, even down to the haircut and a little bit of the attitude, too. I think a lot of them thought, “Well, we can take that! We can borrow some of the attitude!” But for us, we never really plugged in to any trend or fashion, because we always felt that that could come and go so quick. And so for us, it was just a case of, we knew what we did, knew what we were best at, which was playing hard rock music. And that’s what we’ve stuck to for all of our career.