AC/DC — Drama Down Under

Angus Young, Cliff Williams weigh in on band member challenges, new album

By Gary Graff, Contributing Editor
December 10, 2014

Maybe you’ve heard; there’s a new AC/DC album, Rock or Bust, the Australian rockers’ first in six years. More likely you’ve heard about the drama surrounding it: co-founder Malcolm Young’s health issues, including dementia, that forced him into retirement; and drummer Phil Rudd’s legal turmoil in New Zealand, where he’s charged with threatening murder and drug possession.

Bassist Cliff Williams and lead guitarist Angus Young (Malcolm’s younger brother) dutifully address all that as they sit on a couch together in a suite at New York’s Peninsula hotel, but they’re also anxious to give Rock Or Bust its due — and why shouldn’t they?

Recorded in Vancouver and produced, like 2008’s Black Ice, by Brendan O’Brien, it’s an 11-track testament to all the reasons we love AC/DC — instantly memorable guitar riffs, stadium-shaking grooves and frontman Brian Johnson’s banshee wails about salvation through rock ‘n’ roll and the apparently robust health of his libido. With new guitarist Stevie Young (Angus and Malcolm’s nephew) on board, AC/DC will be hitting the highway (to hell?) for a world tour in 2015, and it’s clear that despite all the turmoil, the group is ready to, as the album’s first single says, “Play Ball”….

FGPO: Rock or Bust sounds like an AC/DC album — and that’s a compliment by any measure. You guys make it seem so easy…

Young: It’s just how we play. It just comes.

Williams: Y’know, we hadn’t played in awhile, so when we were in the studio and we started playing and Brendan was first around, he said, “Oh, that sounds like AC/DC,” and that’s it.

Young; Pretty much in the beginning, my older brother George (formerly of the Easybeats) produced a lot of what we’d done in the beginning, and he always said, “You’re just a guitar band. The guitars are so dominant in what you do.” He always saw that as a big plus factor, that the guitars were so strong.

FGPOHow does the bass fit into that mix, then?

Williams: I just try to drive it with the rest of the guys and play for the song, really. I just play the song, very simple.

Young: It’s just the groove. Everyone thinks, “Oh, it’s simple,” but it’s not. Even if it’s a straight-eight or something, keeping it solid and even, that’s not a simple thing to do. That was Mal’s thing, and Cliff’s the same, very solid. But there’s the clever things, too — a different note here or there. Even thought it’s straight, major guitar chords or something, underneath you get, like, a harmony note that just changes up the whole thing. His role is to make it come together and make it swing, and that’s a big part of the sound, too.

FGPO: A lot went on between albums, and the news about Malcolm was heartbreaking. What happened?

Young: The symptoms started appearing, actually, the album before, when were doing Black Ice. And then he got diagnosed at the time and they said he had shrinkage of the brain. Me and him had been writing songs for awhile for the Black Ice album and he himself said, “Y’know, if we were gonna record, then we better do it now,” and I said, “You sure you want to do that?” and he said, “Yeah, we’ll go forward.” So we did that, and it was the same with touring. He kept going as long as he could, but after we came off the road…besides the mental side with the dementia he had physical problems also. He had a lung operation, which was pretty critical, it was a cancer, but he got great treatment for that. And later on he also had a heart problem. It was like everything hit him at once. You were hoping he would get better, but unfortunately it got to a point where he himself said, “I won’t be able to do (the band) anymore.

FGPO: He’s still credited as a co-writer on Rock or Bust, though.

Angus: The two of us over the years had a lot of great ideas. Every album we’ve ever done has a bit of the past, a bit of the new; that’s always how we wrote songs. There are some riffs we’ve had even since we were kids that were just good and we’d never used and then the spring up again. So it was the same with this album, and a lot of these were ideas that (Malcolm) had; “Rock ‘n’ Roll Thunder” is one of them, “Rock or Bust,” “Baptism By Fire.” He kept going until he really couldn’t do it anymore.

FGPO: Did you ever consider ending the band once Malcolm decided he couldn’t go on?

Williams: Nah, because we had Stevie, who played with us in the 80s [ed. 1988, specifically, while Malcolm was being treated for alcoholism] in Mal’s place. He plays very similar to Malcolm and he’s very much like him. We knew it was a possibility, and it worked out.

Young: The band’s been that way since the beginning; it was always a do or die effort. Anything we ever did, you went for broke. Even when we were younger, playing in a bar or club or something, you always went on with that attitude, “We gotta make this. You gotta win those people.” We don’t give up…And Mal himself, when he knew it was time to stop, he said, “You do it. You keep doing it.” It was his baby in the beginning. It was his whole idea. He wants it to go on.

FGPO: Had he heard the album?

Angus: Yeah. I’ve got lots of nephews. One of them took it down there to play it to him. He was milling, laughing — but Mal always loved rock music. Loved making it. Loved doing it.

FGPO: And Stevie was an easy fit?

Young: He’s of the same age era as Malcolm and myself; there’s only a couple of years difference, so we all grew up together, and Stevie emulated that same rhythm style Mal played in. The two of them were in sync, so it wasn’t a lot for him to come in and do the job. He just plugged into what we were doing.

FGPO: Now, what about Phil?

Angus: Well, he got himself into a bit…a lot of hot water, as you know, but, yeah, we had issues with him. It was difficult for us to get him to record, to get him there. I don’t want to rain on him; he’s a very talented guy, and we go way, way back. But I think he’s let himself go for a bit. It was just making it harder. If we’re gonna do something, he’s got to be reliable.

Williams: It’s for (Rudd) to sort himself out. We can’t do it for him. We can only do so much accommodation. It’s in his hands.

Young: We’re committed to going on, going forward, that’s our main thing. I’ll say this; there’ll be a good drummer there.

Williams: That’s all we can say right now.

Young: Y’know, the guy’s got to be in condition to do this run. We don’t want to be in this position of canceling things, ’cause if you put together a lot of stuff you don’t want somebody saying, “Oh, yeah, maybe I’ll be there, maybe I won’t.” You can’t work with someone who’s like that.

FGPO: Rock or Bust is the first time you’ve worked on consecutive albums with the same producer since Mutt Lange, on Highway to Hell and Back in Black. What clicks so well with Brendan?

Williams: We get on very well. He’s a great musician himself and he likes the band and it’s great to work with him. He keeps everyone occupied and involved.

Young: He gets his hands dirty. If a microphone’s not there, he doesn’t really bother with the engineer. He’ll just do it himself.

Williams: Right, he gets right into it. It’s a good work environment.

Young: He knows his guitar, his drums, his bass. He rattles the piano keys, too. It’s good when you’re working with someone who’s very musically minded because you know that when they say, “Let’s try a C here” and you try it and it suits the song, it gives you a lot more faith and it’s good having that input. You’ve got a bond with them.

Williams: It rolled right along, too. It was great. Like I said, he kept it going. There was a really good vibe in there.

FGPO: Did the speed you worked at for Rock or Bust surprise you?

Williams: Not really. The one prior, with Brendan (Black Ice) was a little longer, but again, a pretty quick experience. And we’ve had the opposite, over the years. You can play a song into the ground, so we were going into this one thinking it was going to be a really good time, and it was.

FGPO: Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the first AC/DC album (High Voltage). Does it feel like 40 minutes? Four hundred years?

Williams: It kinda creeps up on you, kinda takes you by surprise. But, no, there’s nothing negative about it.

Young: Sometimes it seems like it all went so quick in some respects. I know when we first started off we were always touring, playing, then in the studio, then out playing. Cliff’ll tell you, those early years were…

Williams: A blur…

Young: It was just a blur, a lot of them. And we were criss-crossing the globe. We went everywhere. So yeah, sometimes it does feel like we’ve been doing it for a long time, but this is what we wanted and what we love doing, y’know?

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