One day in 1965, Angus Young came home from school to see that his family’s house in Burwood, Sydney, was being mobbed by screaming schoolgirls. He jumped the back fence, but some of the girls followed him, knocking him over as they crashed through the back door. This was pop mania, 1960s style. And it is where the AC/DC story begins. As Malcolm Young, the band’s rhythm guitarist, later said: “That planted the seed for us.”
The girls were there because of the boys’ big brother, George, who played guitar in The Easybeats, Australia’s first big music export, who were all over the charts at the time.
This, mind you, was just a year after the Young family – Angus being the youngest of eight children, and also the fabled seventh son – had left bleak Glasgow, Scotland, for Australia; part of the great wave of post-war immigration that transformed the country.
Malcolm and Angus had another older brother, Alex, who stayed in the UK. He ended up in a band called Grapefruit – named by John Lennon, after a book by Yoko Ono. Grapefruit were one of the first bands signed to the Beatles’ Apple label. The band was launched in person by Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo and Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones.
In 1966, George played in England with The Easybeats. When they debuted ‘Friday on My Mind’ at the club of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, the audience included members of the Beatles and The Stones, with whom they would soon be touring. Not surprisingly, Malcolm and Angus grew up enchanted by the impossible glamour of their big brothers hobnobbing with rock royalty. But Grapefruit floundered and within a few years it was all over for The Easybeats, too. The little brothers wanted more.
Malcolm soon got it. In 1974, George co-wrote and produced ‘Evie’ for former Easybeats singer Stevie Wright. The 11-minute epic commandeered Australia’s ears, chart-topping for weeks. Such was its ubiquity that some people still can’t bear to hear it, 40 years later. What few know is that the memorable guitar riffs were played by Malcolm Young, recruited by George. So virtually everyone in Australia had heard
AC/DC’s rhythm guitarist long before the band even had an album out.
This background – a world where anything is possible and being mobbed by schoolgirls is normal – explains how Angus and Malcolm, two tiny guys not quite out of their teens, could boast that their band, then playing school halls, would be the biggest in the world. Within six years, with the release of Back in Black in 1980, they were.
But genes and family connections explain only so much – and AC/DC would not be who they are without their music. Music that is like no one else’s and is instantly recognisable. They are frequently labelled a metal band, but they are not metal. They never sang about goblins. And they swing. Metal doesn’t. The surf instrumentals they loved, and played, as teenagers, have a bit to do with the swing. But their power chords and metronomic beat are like metal. All on a bedrock of blues.
Women like AC/DC because they swing. The music is danceable. And some of the band’s songs are unabashedly happy; ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ is irresistible party music, which is pop’s province. The music milieu they emerged from was dominated by boogie, especially Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, who set the template of melodic songs played with crunching guitar riffs at high volume, as if it were metal. AC/DC listened and learned.
These are disparate music streams, rarely confluent, but the most popular music invariably draws inspiration from multiple sources. That’s what makes it appeal to everyone.
As heavy and bombastic as AC/DC can be, they are essentially light-hearted – it’s all about fun, parties and having a good time. Their cartoonishness – the inflatable Rosie doll, Angus’ schoolboy uniform, even the devil horns – speaks to this.
But alongside the fun is discipline. At their best, AC/DC make the tightest, most sinuous rock, in which all the elements lock each other into place. No fat. Even the lesser songs on Back in Black are masterpieces of construction, where every riff, every drum beat, every bass note, advances the song. Listen closely to AC/DC and you will note an absence: there are no drum fills. There are no unnecessary flourishes. And they never deviate from their own sound: crisp drums, thick rhythm guitar blending with the bass and Angus’ diamond-hard instrumental breaks.
Indeed, one of the enduring strengths of AC/DC has been their power to resist temptation. AC/DC has never fallen prey to a single fad. They were just about the only band to escape the 1980s unscathed, rejecting its synth sounds and bloated drums.
In the 35 years since its release, Back in Black has sold more than 50 million copies. Only Michael Jackson’s Thriller has sold more. In all likelihood, given the declining sales of music and worldwide online theft, not to mention streaming, Back in Black will forever hold its place. The only foreseeable change is it going past Thriller, for the appeal of the music has in no way diminished. An AC/DC concert has long been an all-ages event: those who bought the album on release are now taking their grandchildren to the gigs. And teenagers, who are great judges of music, like it as much as they ever did.
Which takes us back to big brother George. His time at the top as a musician was short-lived. While his younger brothers started out hoping to emulate him, they wanted more, and for longer. They got it. You only need to look at Malcolm’s bottom lip in old concert footage to see that determination. And George, who was in the studio with them producing their first six albums, was on hand to make sure they didn’t repeat his mistakes.
The sad part of this story is that Malcolm is no longer touring. He suffers from dementia and simply can’t remember the songs he wrote. But Angus remains. And after all these years, just like that day in 1965 when the girls overran him, he is still wearing his school uniform.
» Michael Epis is The Big Issue’s contributing editor.
This article first appeared in Ed#496 of The Big Issue.