Brian Johnson and Angus Young on how AC/DC powered up again after tragedy

After a six-year recording break — during which frontman Brian Johnson struggled with serious hearing loss, drummer Phil Rudd dealt with serious legal issues, and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young died following a battle with early-onset dementia — AC/DC come roaring back this week with the aptly titled Power Up. The Brendan O’Brien-produced, classic-sounding record seems like a full-circle moment, in that its release almost exactly coincides with the 40th anniversary of another against-all-odds comeback in AC/DC’s career, Back in Black.

The Australian rock titans are of course are no strangers to overcoming adversity. The Back in Black album, AC/DC’s first to feature Johnson, was released only five months after the February 1980 death of the band’s iconic previous lead singer, Bon Scott, and it went on to become one of the most successful albums of all time, going 25-times platinum. Guitarist Angus Young tells Yahoo Entertainment that he sees the parallels between the two releases.

“In one way, yeah, you can say that, because you've got two tragedies going on,” muses Angus, who shares co-writing credit with his late older brother Malcolm on all 12 Power Up tracks. “The first one [Back in Black], that was really out of a tragedy. Brian really shone through. … But at the time we didn't even know, as we were going into the unknown then. But we knew we had a great album, we knew we had great songs, and we knew we had a unique character in Brian singing on there. We were confident as a band, and that was what mattered, and then you can only hope you strike a chord with the public. With this album [Power Up], it has similarities.

“But I rely on my brother, who was the founding member, Malcolm. It was his idea in the beginning, the style of music we play; he was guiding us all the way through from the beginning of this thing,” Angus continues. “My brother is not there [on Power Up], but he’s there in spirit, and his gift to the world on this album is what he always did best, which was doing the songs. … He had a unique way of coming up with guitar riffs, coming up with song ideas, great chorus ideas. He was just unique person. He’ll never be replaced.”

While Malcolm of course can never be replaced, Power Up does keep the AC/DC legacy in the family, as it features Malcolm’s nephew Stevie Young, who first stepped in to play rhythm guitar on 2014’s Rock or Bust after Malcolm retired due to health issues. For a while, though, it actually looked like Johnson had been replaced, after he was advised by doctors to stop touring or risk losing his hearing altogether; Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose then joined as AC/DC’s vocalist for the remainder of their 2016 dates, while the sidelined Johnson stated in a SiriusXM interview that he’d had a “pretty good run” — implying that he was retiring for good.

Brian Johnson and Angus Young performing in December 2015. (Photo: Martin Philbey/Redferns)
Brian Johnson and Angus Young performing in December 2015. (Photo: Martin Philbey/Redferns)

“Yes, it was a pretty good run. The very fact that I had to stop was a terrible thing. I can’t tell you how bad it felt not to do what you love to do,” admits Johnson. “But I just thought I was a very lucky man, because I'd had such a good time, and it wasn't anything terminal, you know. There was a lot of people in the world who are having a much harder time than me. I couldn't feel sorry for myself for long.”

It turned out that Johnson didn’t have to feel sorry for himself for long, nor did he need to permanently retire. Young stresses that the stint with Rose was always supposed to be temporary (“It was not a case of looking for something else”), and that he had always hoped that Johnson would eventually return to the lineup. And thanks for some cutting-edge, experimental new hearing technology, by 2018, that reunion became a reality, with the reinstated band beginning to work on Power Up in secret. Next, it was time to find out if playing live again with Johnson was a realistic possibility. And shooting AC/DC’s music video for lead Power Up single “Shot in the Dark” while in Holland provided the perfect testing opportunity.

“Technology comes along. It's a wonderful world. Now technology moves faster and faster. And this fabulous man had an idea he wanted to share with me. And we got together, worked for about two and a half years on this thing,” Johnson says of his new top-secret hearing device. “[The band] got together in Holland, and Angus very kindly said, ‘Let’s rehearse while were shooting the video.’ And we got together and Angus said, ‘Let's go!’ And I said, ‘Right, do full-field conditions, full lineup, and whack it out. ‘Cause if it doesn't work, I'm don’t want to waste anyone’s time.’ Well, it did work, and it was smashing; what had such a wonderful time doing it, what a crack. And I said, ‘OK, this is good!’”

“It was a case of Brian working [with the hearing technology] even before we got together for the album; he'd been working it out with these people and he was getting a lot of great results, and kept us updated,” explains Young. “Brian was really happy with the technology, and he'd tested it in different environments. … So, when we said we were going to get together in the new studio, I knew straight away that if he was saying that, he was ready.”

While Johnson isn’t able discuss the full details of the technology, which uses the bone structure in the skull as a receiver, due to an NDA, he does reveal that it could be revolutionary in the future for other people with hearing loss. “There's a lot of people out there that suffer this thing,” he says. “I can’t kind of talk too much about it because it is pretty secret, a non-disclosure thing. But it will be out, and it's fabulous. Soon it will be there. And I got it first!”

Now what Angus describes as “the unit, what the world has seen since 1980, what people recognize as the band” — minus Malcolm, of course – is finally back. Bassist Cliff Williams, who’d retired in 2016, was the first to get on board. “I'd asked Cliff at the end of the tour, ‘If I'm going to do anything, do you want me to give you a yell?’ And Cliff said, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course,” Angus recalls. Rudd had left the band in 2015 due to his criminal charges in New Zealand (drug possession and threatening to kill, for which he served eight months of home detention), but initially reconnected with his AC/DC bandmate at Malcolm’s 2017 funeral. “I was really glad he had come, and he looked really looked great. He was in great shape,” says Young, who notes that Rudd had started to undergo therapy for his issues. “So, I kept in contact with Phil, and it was good because he said, ‘I'll be there with bells on in the studio.’”

AC/DC circa 2020: Cliff Williams, Phil Rudd, Angus Young, Brian Johnson, Stevie Young. (Photo: Josh Cheuse)
AC/DC circa 2020: Cliff Williams, Phil Rudd, Angus Young, Brian Johnson, Stevie Young. (Photo: Josh Cheuse)

AC/DC’s wild, stranger-than-fiction, triumph-of-the-spirit saga seems readymade to become the next big rock biopic. Angus jokes that he’d need to be portrayed by a “very handsome” actor — “somebody like Brad Pitt, somebody with a spring in their step, and he’d have to have good-looking knees” — while Brian suggests “George Clooney, probably” to play himself. Johnson then adds more seriously, “If they ever did [a movie] about us, it would probably be a Netflix epic season. It took nearly 50 years of a band through the different adventures and its tragedies. It would take forever!”

As for what's the secret to AC/DC’s incredible resilience in the face of so many setbacks, Angus references a song title that actually would be the perfect biopic title as well. “It's just from the beginning, you know, we had a song called ‘Long Way to the Top, If You Want to Rock and Roll,’” he shrugs. “And that’s the story, basically.”

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Produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee.