The big rock acts have become tribute bands to their younger selves. They pad the thinning ranks of their original members with substitutes for the growing ranks of their dead, like those medieval soldiers who propped up corpses on the ramparts in order to hold off the siege. They have been doing this for so long that some of the substitutes now pass for the real thing. Ron Wood joined The Rolling Stones in 1975, replacing Mick Taylor, who replaced Brian Jones. This is the musical equivalent of the philosopher’s conundrum known as the Raft of Theseus. If you replace all the plank-spankers, how can it still be the same vessel?
Brian Johnson joined AC/DC in 1980 after the death of the band’s original singer Bon Scott. Before we proceed to Johnson’s amiable rockography, The Lives of Brian, we should clarify the musical technicalities. AC/DC are not a heavy metal band. They are frequently hard rock, but essentially they are a rock ’n’ roll band. Like Motörhead, and like the early punk bands that shared their energy and glee, they are the last, late progeny of ’50s rock ’n’ roll. They are loud and bluesy, and have more in common with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates than with Metallica or Def Leppard. The boogie in their early albums carries echoes of the age before Elvis. Like Motörhead’s Philthy Phil Taylor or The Damned’s Rat Scabies, the drumming of AC/DC’s first drummer Phil “The Stud” Rudd swings with the ghost of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
Second, AC/DC are Australian. Formed in 1973, they came up the old way, which is the hard way, on the Australian pub circuit. The “pub” part might evoke cozy and ramshackle British country inns, but Australian pubs, according to those who have visited them and survived, are cavernous beer halls full of raging drunks. These bracing conditions made AC/DC what the Irish call a “show band,” playing other people’s hits, and entertaining the punters like a very loud vaudeville act. Hence their guitarist Angus Young dressing as a schoolboy, complete with satchel.
Third, Bon Scott was and always will be AC/DC’s singer. This is the Raft of Theseus part. Scott had been with the band for six years before he choked on his own vomit after an especially exuberant night out in South London. Brian Johnson replaced him in 1980, and freely admits that he is a singing caretaker, preserving Scott’s songs and the band that made them. Johnson’s 42 years on the job begin where The Lives of Brian ends. This is the story of what Johnson did before he became famous, and what he did to become famous. It is, as Bon Scott wrote, “a long way to the top if you want to rock ’n’ roll,” but the scenic route is much more interesting than the rock star’s cycle of arena shows and private jets.
Johnson was born in 1947 in Gateshead, just south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His father was a working-class ex-sergeant who had fought with the Desert Rats in North Africa, stormed the beaches at Anzio, and brought Johnson’s Italian mother, a “beautiful, well-to-do woman,” back to his native northeast and an unheated home with a view of the Vickers tank factory. He found work cleaning the insides of the furnaces at a foundry, where the only concession to health and safety was to wear “his everyday jacket with a handkerchief tied around his face.” Johnson’s mother, who was from an affluent and educated family in sunny Frascati, hated Gateshead.
“The factories and coal staithes. The back-to-back terraced houses of the steep slope of the Scotswood Road. The soot-faced men trudging home from work. Bombed houses, everywhere. The constant wind and rain.”
The rattle of hard c’s in these lines runs from the first sentence into the second like an enjambment in a poem (“factories and coal … back-to-back”). So do the assonated s’s that run from the second sentence to the third (“terraced houses of the steep slope of the Scotswood Road … soot-faced men”). The first use of a voiced plosive (“Bombed”) detonates in an effectively short sentence. After the wrecked manmade environment, we meet the worst of it, the fundamental challenge to physical endurance: bad weather. This is deceptively accomplished and economical writing. Imagine it the other way round. No novelist has written a lyric as good as “Back in Black.”
Like his father with the handkerchief, Johnson makes a single concession to his trade. He wears a flat cap. He came up through show bands, playing covers at the working-class clubs that once dotted the cities of northern England when it had a working class. His day job, which paid much better, was fitting vinyl roofs on cars. Shreds of metal and dollops of glue got caught in his hair at his day job. He had no time to wash up on his way to his dream job, and the glue melted under the stage lights, sending a sludge of sweat, metal, and industrial solvent into his eyes.
Rappers boast of making money by murder, pimping, and cheating, but rockers, especially the English old guard, are quietly proud of doing a hard night’s work for a good day’s pay. Ozzy Osbourne said that Black Sabbath is the sound of the Birmingham metal factories. The bell that tolls on AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” tolls not just for Bon Scott, but for the lost world of industrial Britain and the lost ethos of its working classes. Johnson started as a singer in the late ’60s in cover bands with names like The Gobi Desert Kanoe Klub and Fresh. He was already a married father, and juggling bands, cabaret gigs, and day jobs with training in the Parachute Regiment of the Territorial Army, when he formed Geordie.
Scott and the Young brothers George, Malcolm, and Angus were born to Scottish emigrants to Australia. They were born exiles. Johnson became one overnight in 1980, when he was plucked from clubland just before the factories and the clubs closed, and the world of his early life disappeared. A Geordie is someone from the Newcastle area. Calling your band “Geordie” is an almost comical statement of regional pride and rivalry: “If we pulled up outside the Sunderland Boilermakers’ Club driving a van with ‘Geordie’ written on the side, we’d be lucky to get out alive,” he writes. It is also a self-limiting rejoinder to fashionable, arty, middle-class London. The legendary Marquee Club in London liked Geordie enough to ask them back, but “it was a hell of a commute all the way from Newcastle.”
Johnson lost his marriage and his home, but kept slogging away, and kept fitting vinyl roof onto sporty coupes. Meanwhile, AC/DC slogged their way from Australian pubs to the Marquee Club, and then to theaters. “If You Want Blood…,” recorded at a Glasgow homecoming in 1978, is one of the best live albums ever made. “Highway to Hell,” released in 1979, united them with the producer Mutt Lange, and put them on the cusp of breaking America. Scott’s death from “acute alcohol poisoning and death by misadventure” looked like it would finish them. They lucked out when they found Johnson, and they almost lost him. When AC/DC called, he nearly refused.
“I’d have to cancel my vinyl jobs for that day. Meanwhile, Ken needed the Austin Maxi for the business—the week of the proposed audition was a particularly busy one—and my own car at the time was a wildly temperamental Jaguar XJ that had a mind of its own and could be very bad tempered.”
A session gig—recording a jingle for Hoover vacuum cleaners—comes in, so Johnson figures the trip to London is worthwhile. The Jag makes it to London, where Johnson, having “been up since dawn and driven 300 miles,” fortifies himself in a “real London, before-the-war kinda place” with “a cup of tea and a meat pie.” He then goes to the studio and leaves the band waiting in the rehearsal room while he plays pool with the road crew. The band come looking for “the Geordie,” and Johnson, after warming up with “Nutbush City Limits,” sings one of Bon Scott’s finest, “Whole Lotta Rosie,” about a one-night stand with a 19-stone woman.
The band ask him back. He borrows a Toyota Crown from a friend who runs “a rustproofing business around the corner from the vinyl shop” and is “convinced the Jag wouldn’t survive a second round-trip to London.” The Toyota blows a tire just outside Newcastle, and Johnson squats in the mud and rain to change it. “Not ideal when you’ve got a five-hour drive and a big job interview ahead.”
This time, they run through “Highway To Hell,” the title track of the album that has carried AC/DC to the edge of an American breakthrough. Only one hurdle remains. Malcolm Young asks Johnson to “see what you can do over the top” over a new riff. “It’s a tribute to Bon,” [Malcolm] says in the spirit of purest Spinal Tap. “About death, but not in a morbid way or anything. More of a celebration—with some rock ’n’ roll swagger. It’s called… ‘Back in Black.’”
Johnson finds himself roaring out the immortal couplet:
Back in black
I hit the sack
That was it for the day’s work: “no more words were coming out of me.” It took him a while to complete the quatrain:
Been too long
I’m glad to be back
There are several precedents for rhyming a quatrain. Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” uses the “unbounded” or “ballad” form, the ABAC or ABCB schema. The “double couplet” of Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” (AABB) might have been a suitable precedent for a tribute to Bon Scott, but Johnson eschews this, and also ABBA, the “envelope” or “enclosed” form used by Tennyson in “In Memoriam.” Instead, Johnson uses AABA on “Back In Black.”
AABA is the ruba’i form, a Persian pattern. It is used rarely in English; Edward Fitzgerald used it in his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Johnson did not choose the ruba’i form to evoke the tinkle of fountains. The AC/DC canon abounds in ardent lovers and plangent strummings, but not in shy maidens. He used it because it came out of Young’s riff, and out of Scott’s template. “They needed someone a bit different,” Johnson writes, “but not so different that they ended up throwing away everything that they’d already built.”
Here is one of Scott’s last lyrics, from “Girl’s Got Rhythm“:
She’s stealin’ the spotlight
Knocks me off my feet
She’s enough to start a landslide
Just a-walkin’ down the street
And here is one of Johnson’s first, from “You Shook Me All Night Long“:
She was a fast machine
She kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman that I’ve ever seen
Scott’s is a classic rock ’n’ roll quatrain. The ABAB pattern is straight out of the blues, and the “Just a-walkin’ down the street” is so classic it’s almost corny. Johnson’s verse is a three-line tercet. It would be another four-line ruba’i, if it broke “She was the best damn woman / That I’ve ever seen.” But it isn’t, because that would go against the riff, and that is the spirit of AC/DC.
It takes skill to write so simply and this well. It takes honesty and modesty to fill Bon Scott’s shoes, knowing that they can never be filled, and more than a little grit, too. The “Back In Black” album broke AC/DC in America and preserved Scott’s legacy and band. Their performances on their 1981 U.S. tour (“Put The Finger On You,” for instance) are up there with their best moments with Bon Scott. More impressively, it took old-fashioned decency to sit with Bon Scott’s mother, “drinking endless cups of tea” with Scott’s mother and brothers when the revived band toured Australia, only a year after his death. If the cap fits…
The Lives of Brian: A Memoir
by Brian Johnson
Dey Street Books, 384 pp., $29.99
Dominic Green is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His latest book is The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898.