A Long Way to the Top? These Boys Know the Way

Bob Gendron

7 Min Read

The spectacle of a scrawny middle-aged man performing a prolonged striptease in front of tens of thousands of onlookers doesn’t exactly seem like a wise idea — let alone a sight anyone would pay to see. Particularly when the subject in question happens to be a diminutive, balding and blindingly pale schoolboy impersonator dressed in knickers.

Yet for Angus Young, the stunt has been a way of life for decades. The fan-favorite tradition culminates with the pint-sized AC/DC guitarist facing the crowd, back-side first, bending over and pulling down his shorts to reveal a thematic pair of boxers. Depicted in the concerts chronicled in “Live at Donington” (1992) and “Live at River Plate” (2011), the gimmick coincides with the winking humor coursing through many of the band’s songs. It also mirrors the Alfred E. Neuman-like facial expressions often worn by Young and vocalist Brian Johnson.

Bawdy, bloozy and inclined to turn every phrase into a double entendre, AC/DC reigns as hard-rock’s group of sniggering kids who sit in the back of the classroom and egg each other on without regard for disciplinary consequence. Young and company aren’t interested in mean-spirited menace. If they were still teenagers, they’d gravitate toward the sort of harmless pranks and rebellious disruptions — concealing an issue of “Playboy” in a textbook, pouring a flask of whiskey into the punch at homecoming, cracking jokes at their own expense, mooning parents at a booster event — universal to every school in the 1970s (and beyond). In that same era, the Australian quintet rose to prominence before its firebrand singer, Bon Scott, cast the group’s future in doubt in early 1980 when he died “by misadventure.”

Ironically, that tragedy led to the band becoming blue-collar superstars, with the English-born Johnson stepping in to helm “Back in Black” (1980), a bajillion-selling juggernaut whose songs anchor every AC/DC concert of the past 40-odd years. The album also remains — if not the creative blueprint every subsequent AC/DC record consults — the standard to which all the group’s moves are measured. As such, AC/DC has long been guilty in many circles of making the same music over and over again, telling the same jokes and failing to evolve, the greatest sin any “serious” rock artist can commit.

“In fact, with ‘The Razor’s Edge,’ AC/DC sets a new record for the longest career without a single new idea,” wrote Rolling Stone in a sharp-tongued November 1990 review of the band’s then-new album, the sound and attitude of which returned the collective to respectability (and mainstream success). It’s also the recording AC/DC supported on its stop at the Monsters of Rock festival on August 17, 1991 in Donington Park, held months before the explosion of so-called “alternative” rock.

AC/DC plays with a shiv-carrying mischievousness and back-alley-brawling snarl connected to Scott’s enduring legacy.

At the time, AC/DC had finally emerged from an extended period of irrelevance that saw the quintet careening toward state-fair status, its self-exiled purgatory owing to a stretch of substandard works short on inspiration and long on formula. Though the unwitty sleaze that helped sink a majority of the band’s 1980s output — see “Fire Your Guns” and its thinly veiled fellatio directives, or “Heatseeker,” and the song’s counsel to “keep that serpent clean” — occasionally surfaces, AC/DC plays with a shiv-carrying mischievousness and back-alley-brawling snarl connected to Scott’s enduring legacy.

Tucking his body, bobbing his head and duck-walking while unleashing flurries of livewire notes, Young transforms into a human version of an underwater missile. His voice pockmarked with grime, Johnson holds court as the muscle-bound day drinker in a newsboy cap one encounters at a dank neighborhood pub. The singer screeches about dirty deeds, dirty women, dirty deals and dirty thoughts. All the while, Angus’ older brother, guitarist Malcolm Young, and dependable bassist Cliff Williams vibrate in place as they scoop and toss rhythms into an engine that steams, stomps and storms.

The racket and energy render moot several giant inflatable props and a massive bell that descends from above. Session pro Chris Slade, whose initial tenure with the band spanned 1989-1994 and who always seemed like a hired hand, stands out as the outlier. He favors a faster, busier style than the group’s original drummer, Phil Rudd and, as a result, causes the music to occasionally collapse on itself and lose crispness. His presence may also help explain why Angus Young devotes extra time to drawn-out solos that threaten to derail the momentum.

With Rudd back in the fold, and a then-recent double album (“Black Ice”) from which to draw highlights, the iteration of AC/DC that appeared in December 2009 at Argentina’s River Plate Stadium shoots to thrill and hits every mark. To date, the film contains the last authorized live footage of Malcolm Young. Forced to retire due to health issues in 2014, he passed away from the effects of dementia three years later.

A majority of the set parallels that from 18 years prior in the U.K. Ditto the inflatable Rosie, swinging Hell’s Bell and booming cannons. Angus Young reprises his strip tease (albeit with less hair atop his head) and Chuck Berry-inspired strolls; Johnson coughs up words and passes off as more garage mechanic than multimillionaire rock icon; Malcolm Young and Williams assume their static positions, flanking the lambchop-cheeked and cigarette-chomping Rudd. For all the similarities to the ‘91 show, there are marked improvements in control, focus, reliability, fluidity and steadiness.

“We don’t speak very good Spanish but we speak rock ‘n’ roll pretty good!” declares Johnson shortly after a locomotive crashes through the backdrop during the opening heat of “Rock N Roll Train.” He and the boys wear the claim, romping through tunes new (“Big Jack”) and ageless (“T.N.T.”) with the fervency of youthful upstarts shaking the walls of a suburban flat’s basement — and the skill, precision and authority that only come with years of dedication to single vision. This is AC/DC perfecting a deceptively simple approach: Blaring tough, direct, driving, outwardly fundamental songs steeped in big chords, bigger choruses and megawatt riffs, singing seemingly basic lines about fun, vice and perdition, and making it all appear stupidly easy.

But as Scott once belted in the group’s bagpipe-fueled “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll),” it’s harder than it looks. The popular misapprehensions surrounding AC/DC’s consistency and uniformity also extend to its lyrics. Overtly sexual, and loosely informed by the blues tradition of using code to address carnal subject matter, they transcend their chauvinistic impression, particularly in the concert setting.

Due to its frequent incorporation of the audience — and especially, closeups of female fans’ reactions — the smartly shot “Live at River Plate” serves as a reminder of how ribald AC/DC anthems, ostensibly male fantasies, shift power to women and subvert masculine dominance. In much the same way as Angus Young’s striptease routine sends up the centuries-old convention of men receiving a boys-will-be-boys pass to leer, many of the band’s saucier songs flip the script.

“The Jack” might involve a promiscuous schemer, but she maintains all the leverage. The Rosie of “Whole Lotta Rosie” is the one in charge. “Shot Down in Flames” cuts down a rogue’s hopes of hooking up before the chorus even starts. On “You Shook Me All Night Long’’ and “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be,’’ women hold the upper hand, and in the lusty “Shoot to Thrill,” possess a liberating tool country pioneer Loretta Lynn first sang about back in the year AC/DC released its debut LP: the pill.

Let there be rock, indeed.

AC/DC “Live at Donington” Setlist

  1. Thunderstruck

  2. Shoot to Thrill

  3. Back in Black

  4. Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be

  5. Heatseeker

  6. Fire Your Guns 

  7. Jailbreak

  8. The Jack

  9. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

  10. Moneytalks

  11. Hells Bells

  12. High Voltage

  13. Whole Lotta Rosie

  14. You Shook Me All Night Long

  15. T.N.T.

  16. Let There Be Rock

  17. Highway to Hell

  18. For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)

Bob Gendron has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.

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