Tag Archive: Brian Johnson


Bang Your Head

There was a guy in college (I don’t remember his name ‘cause we weren’t friends) that I was in a conversation with once. It was at one of those freshman mixers at the beginning of the year. There was a group of us, and he posed a question to the group.

“What is the biggest, heaviest, most monster, melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll, EVER? Don’t answer; just think of it in your head. You got it?”

We said “yeah,” or nodded, or murmured assent.

“Wrong. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

I piped up in a testy voice. “Isn’t that an impossible question to answer, since music is inherently subjective?”

“No. It’s ‘Back In Black.’”

We all just rolled our eyes and wandered off. Not because “Back In Black” isn’t the most melt-your-face-off riff in all of rock and roll ever (a thing which is impossible to determine), but because none of us liked being told by a relative stranger that we were definitively wrong about something, and in such a brusque tone. And you know what I thought? “’Back In Black’ can go suck my balls. Jerk.”

Quite obviously, this was before my fandom of AC/DC started, which is logical considering this is freshman year of college and my musical world is very small, swirlingly absorbed by Smashing Pumpkins and Genesis. Still, that’s little excuse. While it’s impossible to put guitar riffs on a scale of “this one is so-much-point-so-much better than that one,” “Back In Black” really IS monstrous – head-banging, devil-horning, balls-to-the-wall monstrous.

Every rock fan on the planet, the tall and the small, knows that riff. Every rock guitarist knows how to play that riff. Why? ‘Cause it’s a really easy riff; seriously, it takes a few times through to get the basics down. The only tricky part is the descending note pattern at the end of the 2nd measure. And for whatever reason, it’s one of the riffs that young guitarist learn first.

“Back In Black” is AC/DC’s tribute to their fallen singer, Bon Scott, written by their new singer, Brian Johnson, a man who had never actually met Bon. Admittedly, Brian was just writing what sounded good, going off of what he had heard ad infinitum from his other AC/DC-ers. Angus told him that the lyric needed to not be sad or morbid, but instead to be a celebration. And when Brian wrote the line “I got nine lives, cat’s eyes / Abusing every one of them and running wild,” it fit so perfectly with the man Brian had never met. And now it’s taken on a life of its own, being covered by so many rock bands it’s uncountable.

Lyrically, “Back In Black” is a first-person narrative from a guy who truly believes he is invincible. He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking and the gorge right below his high wire, but he behaves as if he’s never going to die. Sound familiar? And while this all seems like it’s setting us up for a delicious blow of irony on paper, the music is just as disrespectful to the concept of danger as the song’s protagonist. It’s driving, joyful and full of larger-than-life energy. “Back In Black,” being the tribute song that it is, gives no indication of the tragic fall or hopeless ending that Bon’s life turned out to have. It leaves all of that to “Hells Bells,” the album’s opening song.

“Hells Bells” fulfills what buying a CD or vinyl copy of Back In Black means for the listener. You find it in the record store and it’s all black; the words on the cover are barely readable. From the album’s physicality alone, you get a small sense of doom and dread, not knowing what awaits you when you drop the needle or press play, but fearing that it will be dark and a little disturbing. “Hells Bells” doesn’t disappoint. It opens the album with the lonely and mournful sound of a single church bell, rung several times before an electric guitar plays an equally mournful minor key riff. The absolute weight of the music falls on you as the rest of the band joins in, and you know that this is a different AC/DC than you knew.

Then there’s “Hells Bells” subject matter and main character: Satan himself. In this song, he’s a roaring lion, a savage devourer, and a remorseless consumer of every soul he comes across. The Satan that AC/DC portrays, like that of Black Sabbath and the plethora of bands they inspired, is the simplest and most obvious form of evil. How can anyone look at this evil and want any part of it? How can anyone listen to a song like “Hells Bells” and not see incredibly clearly that, contrary to what Bon previously affirmed, Hell is a VERY BAD place to be?

AC/DC, I think, understands this. They know that there exists a schism between two eternal destinies and that it’s drawn upon moral lines. They realize that there IS good, there IS evil, and that human beings exist somewhere in between, tipping at different times towards one or the other. And I truly believe that AC/DC want to tip towards the good, on the whole. It may not show in much of their music, but it doesn’t have to in order to be true. AC/DC, at their scar tissue-covered heart, are searching for salvation.

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Zombies

AC/DC/ - Back In Black - 7/21/1980

AC/DC – Back In Black – 7/21/1980

I just saw a short film called Cargo; it was one of the finalists at Tropfest Australia 2013. It’s about a dad who is bit by a zombie (his wife) and is trying to get his baby daughter to safety before he turns. It’s only 6 and a half minutes long and features no dialogue, but it wrecked and ravaged me with its throbbing-heart emotionalism and simple yet gut-punching theme – love conquers all, even zombies.

The main appeal zombies have to me is the rapid change in states of a thing. When water turns to ice or steam, the elemental nature of the thing stays the same – two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen. But we understand and experience the altered-state water in totally new ways.

And with zombies, the very nature of the thing seems to change, though it’s still recognizable as what it used to be. In Cargo, the man’s wife is elementally different, something dangerous and terrifying, even though she is still his wife. And likewise, he knows that he will very soon become very dangerous to his baby daughter. But she will still be his daughter, and he must still protect her, even from himself.

Things drastically changed for AC/DC when Bon Scott suddenly died by aspirating his own vomit, even the nature of AC/DC itself. They never really got over the grief of losing Bon, but they translated it into music. They all decided they had to go on with the band, and that the last thing Bon would have wanted was for AC/DC to die with him. The surviving members even talked it over with Bon’s mother, and with her consent, they started seeking a new lead singer.

Brian Johnson was the first name the Young brothers came up with. He was a someone Bon had told them about while he was alive, and a performance that he had seen of Brian screaming his guts out on every song with his then-band Geordie. On one song, he held a high note, then dropped to the stage floor flailing and convulsing. The roadies had to take him out in a wheelchair. Bon thought, “Now there’s a guy who knows what rock and roll is all about.” Brian later told them it was because he came down with appendicitis that very night.

Bon Scott had only been dead a few weeks when Brian Johnson got a call from the Young brothers asking him to come to London to audition. The first song he sang was “Whole Lotta Rosie,” which is one of the songs I think of when I think, “What would be an impossible song to audition with because it’s so immortally Bon’s?” Brian, though, he smashed it out of the park. After the members of AC/DC finished picking their jaws up off the floor, they jammed some more and then hired Brian a few days later. They never even auditioned anyone else.

Brian Johnson is like a zombie version of Bon Scott. His voice is what Bon’s would sound like if he had come back from the dead, if Hell had spat him back out. Both have a gravely roughness and intensity, but the main difference is that while Bon’s voice gave you a sense of fun debauchery, Brian’s only indicates a downward spiral, hedonism ending where it usually does. And likewise, AC/DC’s music experienced a shift when Bon died, and became a zombie version of itself. It’s much more subtle, and the ironic celebration of sin and bad behavior is still there, but it’s a much more hopeless one. The band went from being carefree Libertines to uncaring Nihilists, and the beginning of it is on Back In Black.

In addition to taking the reins as AC/DC’s new lead vocalist, Brian also took over as main lyricist. His writing involves a level of double-entendres and euphemisms previously unseen in AC/DC’s songs. Bon told stories; he was like the guy in the bar who says “Let me tell you ‘bout this one chick I used to date. Smokin’ hot body. And in bed? Whoo! Every night was like a rodeo!” But Brian relied on the more literary devices of innuendo and implication.

And somehow, this made the dirty jokes that much dirtier. Those who get it don’t need anything else to be said. What Brian says is sometimes very subtle. “Let me cut your cake with my knife.” “She told me to come but I was already there.” “I’ll be guided in, We’ll be ridin’, giving what you got to me.” Do you know what he’s talking about? ‘Cause I do.

But without a doubt, the most suggestive, euphemism-laced and subtly filthy song on Back In Black is “Givin the Dog a Bone.” This song skirts the line between decency and just out-and-out pornographic detail. Nearly every line is a double-entendre, and the whole song stops just short of stating the thing it’s about outright. It shouldn’t take more than the first verse for you to figure it out.

She’s taking down easy, Goin’ down to her knees

Goin’ down to the devil, down-down to ninety degrees

Oh, she’s blowing me crazy ‘til my ammunition is dry

Oh, she’s using her head again

Oh, she’s using her head again

I’m just giving the dog a bone

I’ll give you a hint – it starts with an F and ends with an –ellatio.

While I’m not crazy about its choice in topic, “Givin the Dog a Bone” is an absolutely ingenious song in the way it talks about it. This type of verbage makes the wordsmith in me simply tingle with delight. “Givin the Dog a Bone,” the better part of the Back In Black album, and indeed AC/DC’s post-Bon output on the whole, joins a long tradition in rock and roll that goes all the way back to Robert Johnson when he sang “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg!” Even Shakespeare did it with the line in Hamlet about “country matters.” It can be summed up, I think, with a rather current phrase: I see what ‘cha did there… Wink, wink.

Next: A tribute to a fallen friend.

AC/DC - Highway to Hell - 8/3/1979

AC/DC – Highway to Hell – 8/3/1979

I’m not one to buy into clichés. I usually see them as representing a collection of extremes, rarely having much to do with reality. Rock and roll is an institution that’s simply begging to be made into one huge cliché, and people have been obliging it since its inception. Anywhere in its history you look, you’ll see rock stars trying to live up to this monster idea of what a rock star apparently should be, often to the detriment of the music they’re creating. So it’s rare that an instance occurs where a band makes great music while simultaneously indulging in all the clichéd rock excesses: booze, money, drugs, hot women, trashing hotel rooms and other generally bad behavior.

AC/DC is one of those instances… almost.

I say “almost” because when I look at their songwriting with my critical, slightly-music-theory educated eye, it’s… meh. An AC/DC song follows a pattern pretty closely – there isn’t a lot of variation in key, tempo or chord structure, and that’s true of their entire career. It’s definitely not stunning work, and that may be the reason their ‘80s and ‘90s output wasn’t especially popular (with the exception of The Razors Edge). It wasn’t until they entered their 4th decade that they saw a big rise in their popularity, and that was mostly because of nostalgia.

Let me be clear, though. That mediocre level of songwriting is completely forgivable (and can even be celebrated) for two reasons. First, there is almost no hard rock band that sticks so closely to the traditions of blues music. Led Zeppelin did a better job at updating the blues, but that’s basically it. Even the mighty Rolling Stones took a pop approach to the blues, thus diminishing its bluesyness. As far as making it bigger, louder, and more bombastic, AC/DC is the way to go.

Second is this: they really know how to work it. Anybody can write a mediocre song – that would be the very definition of “mediocre.” But what not anybody can do is play that song with the gusto, heart, attitude and visceral gutsiness that AC/DC does.

And everything that I’ve just mentioned – from the clichés to the excess to the guts – is exemplified in their 1979 album Highway to Hell. They had been driving without seatbelts for their entire career up to this point, flagrantly and joyously disregarding any sense of safety or caution. Highway to Hell saw them flooring the gas pedal and taking their hands off the wheel. This was true for the Young brothers and the rest, but particularly true of lead singer Bon Scott.

Bon Scott

Bon Scott

No one could sing like Bon. By that I don’t mean he could sing particularly well, or even that his voice was any better than someone else’s; the opposite is true in a lot of cases. But this much remains: Bon Scott’s voice was unlike any other, and no one has been or will be able to duplicate it. Whenever anybody tries, it just sounds lame. The one and only exception is Brian Johnson, AC/DC’s lead singer after Bon’s tragic and unexpected death. And even there, Brian wasn’t imitating Bon, but just happened to have a voice that was eerily similar.

Highway to Hell is the apex of their first wave stardom, and also the deepest depth of their lack of control. The title song is tragically prophetic of the end that befell Bon Scott shortly after the album’s release. The music in “Highway to Hell,” like all other AC/DC songs up to this point, is dirty, wild, and full of abandon. As a guitarist, you can’t play this song without a sneer twisting your facial features. The lyrics display AC/DC’s glorious, play-with-fire naivety. It started with Let There Be Rock’s “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be.” They seem to be rushing headlong into danger, meanwhile screaming “Yeah! Bring on the danger!”

Next: you won’t feel the steel ’til it’s hanging out your back!