AC/DC’s story has been rehashed to the point where everything about it seems rote. Obvious, even. But the narrative is far more complex than how it’s usually presented.
The conventional history — original vocalist Bon Scott takes the band to the precipice of stardom and becomes a legend when he dies in 1980; singer Brian Johnson serves as a competent replacement but falls short of his predecessor; the group makes the same album over and over for decades — is guilty of the same type of oversimplification applied to AC/DC’s music. Such accounts fail to address career fluctuations, explain evolutionary developments or put the nuances of its sound into perspective.
Often pigeonholed as crude and crass, AC/DC claims a discipline, consistency and trajectory rare in popular-music history. AC/DC’s path, and the ways in which it navigated the route — including how it righted a freefall and became one of the world’s biggest concert draws — stands apart. Especially since the group never needed the excuse of a reunion to regenerate interest.
Not bad for a group formed in ‘73 by Malcolm Young and a then-teenage Angus Young, Scottish-born brothers who grew up in Australia, thousands of miles away from rock’s American and British epicenters. After toying with several lineups, a glam angle and one-off single with original vocalist Dave Evans, AC/DC invited Scott into the fold in ‘74. A sharper bite and two Aussie-only albums (“High Voltage” and “T.N.T.”) soon followed. Alas, the records’ rudimentary cover art — an illustration of a dog urinating on an electrical transformer and a staged photo of a boarded-up mine, respectively — saddled the band with a cartoonish image that stuck.
Scott’s blaring voice and menacing swagger, coupled with AC/DC’s raw power, should’ve been enough to temper any novelty-act criticisms. Yet it’s one thing to hear early AC/DC and another to see the band. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Plug Me In: The Bon Scott Era,” which offers the rare opportunity to watch the witty vocalist lead the gang of social misfits.
The first performance, “High Voltage” from October ‘75, provides a memorable introduction. Outfitted in a top coat, red bowtie, white dress pants and tuxedo vest with tails, Scott plays both dandy and deviant. Tattoos, pierced ears and a broken front tooth contrast with a wry smile and muscular physique. Scott is at once seductive and threatening, an animated complement to guitarist Angus Young’s hyperactive schoolboy get-up, complete with short pants and satchel. Often, the colorful vocalist hoisted his pint-sized colleague on his shoulders and waded through the audience.
If the sinewy Scott and duck-walking Angus’ visually symbolized AC/DC’s mischievousness, the band’s rhythm section — guitarist Malcolm Young, drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams (who joined in ‘77) — represented its obedience to the groove. Content to hang in the shadows, they shoveled coal into the steam engine that propelled the band’s fusion of boogie, blues, R&B, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. The band’s overdriven tube amplifiers melted the diverse styles into a sound designed to overwhelm.
Even as the stages got bigger, the footage reveals an obsessive dedication to control and moderation that distinguishes the quintet from its brethren.
Not for nothing did AC/DC get mislabeled as punk and heavy metal even though primitive rock ‘n’ roll poured from every note it played. To some, Angus’ berserk solos and antics — whether strip-teasing down to his briefs, spinning on venue floors, falling to his knees or banging his guitar against his pint-sized body — furthered the impression that AC/DC prioritized mayhem and routine above quality and substance. But even as the stages got bigger, the footage reveals an obsessive dedication to control and moderation that distinguishes the quintet from its brethren.
During a bawdy version of “The Jack” from August ‘79, the ace rhythm team maintains an unwavering pulse and never loses sight of the finish line. That signature minimalism, the method in which AC/DC bundles airplane-hangar-sized riffs, beats and hooks in compact packages and arranges them for maximum impact, demands extraordinary focus. Akin to writing an unforgettable three-minute song, it’s simple in concept but difficult to achieve.
The constants behind the execution — Malcolm’s steady right hand; Williams’ dependable downstroke; Rudd’s Swiss-watch precision and fill-free technique — became increasingly evident by the time AC/DC recorded “Highway to Hell” (1979) with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, and if anything were amplified after Scott’s “death by misadventure” in 1980. Though it nearly caused the band’s demise, the singer’s passing led to Brian Johnson’s arrival and the creation of “Back in Black,” the 25-times-platinum blockbuster AC/DC has been accused of recycling for 40-odd years. Like Scott, Johnson possessed a voice that projected above the group. He also boasted an expansive range and rough-hewn timbre. If he was not as wickedly flamboyant as Scott, Johnson projected a down-to-earth persona that suited the group’s carefree demeanor.
Just as Johnson’s ability to fill the vocalist role has been endlessly debated, so too has the notion that AC/DC never devised new ideas. The lazy charge dates back decades. In a bonus interview on the “Plug Me In: Brian Johnson Era” film, Angus had prepared a facetious reply as early as ‘84. “Alot of people say that we make the same album...11 times or so,” he says. “Really, they’re lying: It’s actually the 12th time.”
Beginning with blazing performances that shed a novel light on the singer’s early tenure, “Plug Me In” reveals a group that picks up from the same place it left off in ‘79. Part of the continuity owes to the merits of the then-new material. Another factor: The guidance of producer Lange, reprising the role he played on “Highway to Hell.” As seen in footage recorded February ‘81 in Tokyo, Japan, Johnson initially maintained a few of Scott’s extroverted, microphone-cord-swinging, shoulder-length-hair-thrashing traditions. By December of that year, Johnson’s look fell more in line with current association: Curly locks now tucked under a flat newsboy cap, black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, handkerchief. Having just released the “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” album, its final collaboration with Lange, AC/DC continued the sonic shift it began in ‘80. Likely playing to Johnson’s core strengths, the quintet moved in a harder, heavier, bluesier direction. Malcolm and Co. tightened up the dynamics and backgrounds, and the songs landed more direct punches.
AC/DC carried that momentum and sound into ‘83, when it oversaw album production for the first time. In contrast to its big-budget predecessor, the no-frills “Flick of the Switch” favored a natural, dry ambience. In period footage from the film, Johnson’s belting evokes the texture of extra-coarse sandpaper; uptempo tunes such as “Guns for Hire” threaten to break loose of their foundations. The stage, too, exudes austerity, down to the inconspicuous drum riser. Its bareness speaks to the group’s renewed emphasis on fundamentals.
Though it should’ve provided a fresh starting point, the transition signaled the advent of a prolonged slide. Guilty by association, Johnson has frequently been tagged for precipitating a decline that never happened on Scott’s watch. But the reasons behind AC/DC’s downturn run deeper. After recording “Flick of the Switch,” the band lost a vital cog: Rudd, whose dogged timekeeping and straight-line method kept AC/DC’s rock ‘n’ roll train on the tracks. His replacement, Simon Wright, hopped aboard for the tour. The group doesn’t give an inch onstage, yet the music longs for the swing connected to Rudd’s hands and feet. Wright also lacks his predecessor’s effortlessness. At times, he seems too busy, like an overtaxed runner trying to keep pace with the pack.
Rudd’s dismissal, a consequence of long-simmering tensions, exposed serious fissures. He and Malcolm reportedly came to physical blows in the studio. At the time, both had clouded headspaces. Malcolm increasingly imbibed alcohol; Rudd consumed drugs. The whirlwind demands of recording eight studio albums in as many years, death of Scott, enormous success of “Back in Black” and relentless touring took a toll: AC/DC reached burnout.
Tellingly, “Plug Me In: Brian Johnson Era” bypasses performances from ‘84 through ‘90. While wiped clean from this particular record, the period remains crucial to understanding how AC/DC plummeted before rebounding and returning a more popular live act than before. Angus and Malcolm Young again sat in the producer’s chair for “Fly on the Wall” (1985), prime evidence that the quality control that long distinguished the band had evaporated. The record’s chintzy artwork betrayed the stale arrangements and cringe-worthy double entendres within. It’s a miserable showing for Johnson, who, drowned out by a flood of reverb and delay, struggled to match the wordplay of prior efforts. Following the recording of “Blow Up Your Video” (1988), another half-hearted attempt to conform to ‘80s production trends and the last LP on which Johnson contributed lyrics, Malcolm sought treatment for alcoholism and tapped his cousin, Stevie Young, to replace him on the road. AC/DC hit bottom.
Few major ‘70s rock groups negotiated the ‘80s without slumping or disbanding.
If AC/DC had been a metal band, as many critics claimed, the timing of its downfall would’ve been puzzling. Metal was exploding in creativity and popularity. But the quintet bled rock ‘n’ roll. And this was a period in which ersatz prevailed over the kind of authenticity AC/DC treasured. Few major ‘70s rock groups negotiated the ‘80s without slumping or disbanding: Kiss, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Foreigner, Rush, Queen, Heart, the Police, Pretenders, Heartbreakers and E Street Band included.
But the band wasn’t done yet. “Plug Me In: Brian Johnson Era” bridges the seven-year history gap and resumes with clips from AC/DC’s surreal ‘91 concert at the Monsters of Rock Festival before an estimated 1.2 million people in Russia. Documenting the final stop on a package tour that witnessed AC/DC headline huge venues (and add large props to its shows), it encapsulates a boom in multi-generational interest triggered by the release of the “The Razor’s Edge” LP in the fall of ‘90.
For the album, a freshly sober and refocused Malcolm Young worked up the strongest batch of AC/DC material in recent memory. The group exchanged Wright for session-pro drummer Chris Slade, who came closer to approximating Rudd’s firmness and weight. Seeking outside counsel, it turned to producer Bruce Fairbairn, who balanced the quintet’s hallmark grit with a contemporary sheen. Also on the table: A revisitation of the linear velocity and anthemic melodies AC/DC pursued in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, now trimmed of excess and formula.
AC/DC also finally had popular taste on its side. Mean, two-fisted hard rock was experiencing a renaissance; AC/DC found itself in the thick of it. Guns N’ Roses, which cited the band as a huge influence, started ushering rawness and attitude back into rock ‘n’ roll in merciless fashion in the fall of ‘87. Several other no-nonsense rock groups — the Black Crowes, Cult, Drivin N Cryin — were enjoying significant mainstream success. In addition, upstarts such as Rhino Bucket, Raging Slab and the Four Horsemen copped from the Australian legends’ template.
In lieu of its return to form, AC/DC started taking longer breaks between projects. It also pulled a trump card out of its deck: Phil Rudd. The drummer rejoined in time to create “Ballbreaker” (1995) with fabled producer and avowed purist Rick Rubin. Despite the group’s frustrations with Rubin’s meticulousness, the album endures as a benchmark.
An otherwise low-profile moment on “Plug Me In: Brian Johnson Era” conveys Rudd’s importance to AC/DC’s chemistry as explicitly as any song on “Ballbreaker.” Filmed during a rehearsal in the VH1 Studios in July ‘96, the group vamps akin to a veteran jazz combo killing time between sets. All initial communication comes via glances and listening. Rudd slaps a snare and finesses a high-hat; Malcolm fingers an outline of chords; Johnson scats. Angus and Williams then jump in on the action. They veer into “Gone Shootin’,” a forgotten gem from ‘76. The band has such a joyous time, it extends the jam. Sitting at the center of it all? The chain-smoking Rudd.
Further drawing on the drummer’s aptitude for space and restraint, “Stiff Upper Lip” (2000) remains the nearest AC/DC came to recording an all-blues record. Footage from the album’s extensive tour closes “Plug Me In: Brian Johnson Era” and illustrates the burgeoning international appetite for AC/DC. Susceptible to the ravages of age, Johnson’s pipes are raspier and scratchier. Nothing dire, however. Reliable as a cozy blanket in winter, the band sounds assured, crisp, durable, tenacious.
AC/DC didn’t stop in ‘03. Ambitious album-tour cycles for the double LP “Black Ice” (2008) and admirable “Rock or Bust” (2014) reaffirmed its massive global appeal. In the past decade, lineup changes, legal issues, health problems and Malcolm’s death threatened to pull the plug on the band’s lifeline. Then, like the lightning bolt in its logo, AC/DC returned from out of the blue in 2020 with “Power Up.”
As the in-mourning band proclaimed on “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” in ‘80, “Rock ‘n’ roll will survive.”