AC/DC: The epic inside story of Back In Black
How a washed-up rock star helped AC/DC overcome Bon Scott’s death and make their masterpiece
It was in March 1980 that Brian Johnson got the phone call that would change his life. A new decade had just begun, but Johnson had little cause for optimism. At 32 he was feeling washed up. Recently separated from his wife, Johnson was living at his parents’ house in Gateshead, running a small car-repair enterprise and struggling to get by. His days as a rock’n’roll star had long-since passed.
In the early 70s Johnson had lived the dream. As the singer with glam-rock band Geordie he was Newcastle’s answer to Noddy Holder, a working-class hero with a Jack The Lad charm and a voice like the foghorn on the Tyne ferry. Geordie had enjoyed a decent run: they were signed to EMI and had a Top 10 UK hit in 1973 with the foot-stomping anthem All Because Of You. But, unlike Holder and Slade, Geordie were never really cut out for the big league. The hits dried up, the band lost their record deal and, after some lean years playing working men’s clubs in the North East, they split up.
“When I left Geordie,” Johnson recalls, “I was completely broke. I had nothing. And I had two kids and a mortgage to pay. I was driving a VW Beetle that was 14 years old. I was fuckin’ skint.”
In the late 70s Johnson had scraped together just enough cash to start up his own business, fixing windshields and fitting vinyl roofs on fancy sports cars. It just about paid the bills, and was partly a labour of love: Johnson had been “nuts about cars” since he was a kid. He was also making a little money on the side – just beer money – with a new version of the old band, christened Geordie II. Only this time there were no delusions of grandeur.
“It was a cracking little band,” Johnson says, “but we were never gonna make it as a recording act.”
Brian Johnson was no fool. He knew there were few second chances in rock’n’roll, and so he treated Geordie II as merely “a bit of fun”. The band’s live show had a touch of cabaret about it – “We did a lot of comedy in there, cos the boys were very funny” – but they could rock too. And there was one song that was always guaranteed to get their audiences jumping – a song by an Australian rock band called AC/DC that was making a big noise in the late 70s.
“I didn’t know too much about AC/DC,” Johnson admits. “They were this cult band. But everybody was talking about them – I mean everybody. We used to play Whole Lotta Rosie. And we’d always save it for last, cos the place would go crazy!”
Brian loved singing that song. He still loved being up on a stage. But he wasn’t kidding himself. “I was old. Shit, I was 32; I’d passed my sell-by date.”
Then came the phone call that would change everything. A woman with a German accent told Brian that a band was auditioning for a new singer, that he had been recommended, and that auditions were being held in London. Brian asked for the name of the band. He wasn’t going to travel all the way to London without knowing who he was auditioning for. When she said she wasn’t permitted to tell him, he suggested she gave him the initials of the band’s name. There was a pause.
“Okay… it’s A, C and D, C.”
Until the morning of February 20, 1980 AC/DC had seemed unstoppable. In the seven years since the band were formed in Sydney, they had built a huge following throughout the world. Led by guitar-playing brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, and fronted by boozy, charismatic singer Bon Scott, they were widely acknowledged as the most electrifying rock’n’roll band on the planet.
At the turn of the 80s, AC/DC were on a roll. Their album Highway To Hell was certified gold in the US with sales of half-a-million copies, and in the first week of February the single Touch Too Much became their first UK Top 30 hit.
Then on February 20, after a night out with friends in Camden, north London, Bon Scott was found dead, later declared “death by misadventure” by coroners. He was just 33. Bon’s death devastated his bandmates. Angus reflected: “When you’re young you always feel immortal. But after Bon died I felt horribly grown up.”
It was at Bon’s funeral (on February 29, in Fremantle, the suburb of Perth where he had grown up) that the surviving members of AC/DC decided their future. Bon’s father Chick took Malcolm Young to one side to offer some words of encouragement and to give his blessing for the band to carry on without his son. It gave them the lift they needed. “Bon would have done the same,” Angus said. “We felt we had his blessing too.”
After the funeral, Angus, Malcolm, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd flew back to London, where they lived apart in small rented flats. For a couple of weeks they remained in mourning. “We were still real low,” Malcolm said. “We weren’t snapping out of it.” Then, at Malcolm’s insistence, he and Angus began writing again. “It was the two of us,” Malcolm recalled. “Pick up the guitars, just for therapy. Maybe that’s the way to get through this.” At the very least, they wanted to finish what they had started with Bon.
A couple of new songs had been written just before Bon’s death. One was based on a stop-start riff that Malcolm had written during a soundcheck on the last tour. The other was recorded as a rough take with Bon on drums; Bon hadn’t finished any lyrics. But as soon as the new songs started coming together, in mid-March, Malcolm and Angus felt it was time to find a new singer.
It wasn’t going to be easy – for the band or for the singers who would be trying out. Bon was
a one-off, a huge personality and the epitome of rock’n’roll cool. To Malcolm, Bon was a talismanic figure. “He pulled us all together. He had that real stick-it-to-’em attitude. Bon was the single biggest influence on the band.”
How would AC/DC replace a man considered by many to be irreplaceable? To Angus, the answer was simple. “Bon was a unique character,” he told Sounds magazine in March 1980, as auditions for a new singer began, “and we wouldn’t like to have someone who was a Bon imitator. We’re looking for something that little bit different.”
Angus also acknowledged the problems facing potential candidates: “It’s difficult for any guy to walk in knowing that Bon’s just died, and probably thinking that we’re all going to be a bit funny about a new guy singing his songs. That’s added pressure.”
But, as Angus indicated, there was a change of mood in the AC/DC camp. With strong new material written, and with auditions under way, AC/DC were looking forward, not back. “We’ll certainly do our best to put out a great album,” Angus said. “And if someone walked in tomorrow and clicked, we’d go straight in and record it, cos we’ve basically got all the ideas and songs. It just needs that one missing ingredient.”
Brian Johnson didn’t know it at the time, but he was always the favourite for the job. “My name was on the list up front, but they just couldn’t find me,” he explains. “I’d fallen off the end of the world, nobody knew where I was.”
It was Bon who first told the other guys in AC/DC about Brian, having seen a Geordie gig in the North East of England. He later told Angus that the singer in Geordie had done the best Little Richard impersonation he’d ever seen – he was rolling around on the stage, screaming his head off. “It was rare that Bon ever raved about anything,” Angus said. What Bon didn’t know was that after that show, Brian was rushed to hospital with appendicitis. He’d been screaming because he was in agony.
Following Bon’s death, an AC/DC fan contacted the band’s management to recommend Brian. “It was a guy from Cleveland,” Brian recalls. “He sent a Geordie album to them with a letter saying: ‘You’ve gotta listen to this guy.’” And, as Brian later discovered, the producer of Highway To Hell, Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, was also aware of Brian. “Mutt had said to the guys: ‘Listen, there’s one guy you should really listen to.’ And I think it was Mal who said: ‘That’s twice his name’s come up.’”
AC/DC’s management were instructed to trace Brian. But when they made the call, he remained hesitant. He admits: “I’d been bitten once by the music industry, and I didn’t want it to happen again.” In the end, he only agreed to audition for AC/DC when another job in London, for a jingle, fell into his lap. “I wasn’t gonna do it,” he shrugs, “but a friend of mine, Andre, phoned us and said: ‘Brian, I have an advert I think would suit you fine. It’s £350.’ That was a big lump of money. It was a proper job, for Hoover. And I thought, hang on, I could probably go down and do the AC/DC thing on the same day. I just thought, I hope I get this ad thing. Because Andre did tell us: ‘There’s this big, black soul woman, it’s going to be you or her that gets it.’ I went: ‘Oh Christ!’”
The day Brian travelled to London, the omens were not good. Fearing that his clapped-out Beetle wouldn’t make the trip, he borrowed a friend’s car, a Toyota Crown. Just a few miles outside Newcastle he got a puncture. “I just went: ‘Oh, fuck!’ But the strength you had then…” He worked like a maniac to fix the flat tyre, then floored the Toyota down the M1, arriving just in time to meet Andre at the studio in North London. Brian sang the jingle – ‘The new high-powered mover from Hoover, it’s a little groover!’ – and the £350 was in the bag.
But when he got back in the car and headed across London for his appointment with AC/DC at Vanilla Studios in Pimlico, his confidence evaporated. “I was sitting in this little café just across from the studios and, God, it was miserable. I wanted to go home. I was too nervous to go over there. I just thought I hadn’t got a chance of getting the gig, because they don’t know me, really. I thought, gosh, they’ll be looking for somebody with the long hair, it’s not gonna work. Plus they’re a young band. I remember getting this pie and a cup of tea, and I couldn’t eat the pie cos the fuckin’ crust was too hard! I was starving. And I just went: ‘Oh, bollocks, better make a move.’ I got up and walked across the street. And that was it. That was me changed after that…
“I just remember the lads had been waiting there for quite a while for us, they’d been in that studio a long time, auditioning singers. They were just great. I’d never met such a bunch of non-prats! They were just regular guys. As soon as I walked in I just felt comfortable. Malcolm came over and said: ‘There you go, mate’ – and gave me a bottle of brown ale. He said: ‘You must be thirsty.’ I went: ‘You know what? I could just kill this right now!’ And I did – boy, did I!”
Once the formalities were out of the way, the band asked Brian what song he’d like to sing first. Brian suggested Nutbush City Limits, the early-70s rock/soul classic by Ike And Tina Turner. “It was brilliant!” he says. “After we did it I was smiling, and they said: ‘That was a breath of fresh air, mate!’ Everybody that had come in before me had gone: ‘Smoke On The Water?’ And the boys were like: ‘No, not again!’” Then came the real test, the clincher. They tried Whole Lotta Rosie. “I got tingles singing …Rosie,” Brian says. “I had a lucky day, you know?”
Phil Rudd would later state that after that first audition they were sure they’d got their man. But Brian returned to Newcastle none the wiser. Even when he was summoned back to London for a second time he was still uncertain. “They asked us down again and I said: ‘Guys, I cannae be doing this. I got a shop full of cars up here.’ And I did! But I went down in the end.” The second audition passed smoothly, but again the band remained tight-lipped. “I stayed at a hotel overnight with Keith Evans, one of their roadies,” Brian recalls. “Keith was going: ‘I think you’ve got it, mate.’ I said: ‘Nah, I think they’re just making their mind up.’”
It was a few days later that Brian received a call from Malcolm Young. “I’ll never forget it,” Brian smiles. “It was my father’s birthday and I’d been playing pool at The Crown pub. I went back home but there was nobody in the house, mum and pop had gone out somewhere. And the phone rang and it was Mal. He said: ‘We got an album to do, we gotta leave in a couple of weeks, so… if you’re set for it…’ I said: ‘Are you telling me I’ve got the job?’ And he went, ‘Oh yeah.’ I said: ‘I tell you what, mate, I’m gonna put the phone down. Could you ring again in 10 minutes just so I’m sure that it’s not somebody takin’ the piss?’ And he went: ‘Yeah, sure.’ And he phoned back, on the dot, and says: ‘So, are you comin’?’ He still wouldn’t say it! Mal’s not like that. ‘Well, are you comin’ or what?’ And I’m like: ‘Shit, yeah!’ I put the phone down – I didn’t want him to hear this – and I went: ‘Whoah! Fuck!’ I’d bought me pop a bottle of whisky for his birthday present and I just opened it up and took a big swig of it. I was so excited, but I didn’t know who to tell. There wasn’t anybody to tell!”
On April 1, 1980 – six weeks after Bon Scott’s death – AC/DC announced Brian Johnson as their new singer. Brian had been itching to tell his younger brother, but when he did his brother just laughed. He thought it was an April Fool’s joke.
“The worst thing was to tell the band I was in,” Brian admits. “After I got back from the first audition, we were doing a show one night and I told them I went down to London and I had a sing – that’s what I called it, ‘a sing’ – with AC/DC. They went: ‘Did you?’ I said: ‘Aye, they were in the studio and they’re auditioning down there and I went and had a sing.’ And they went: ‘Oh, right. Anyway, what are we doing first tonight?’ They never thought anything of it. So later, when I knew I’d got the job, we were playing just west of Newcastle in a working men’s club, and afterwards I said: ‘Guys, I’ve got some news. I hope you’re happy for us, but I’ve been offered this gig with AC/DC.’”
Brian’s first press interview as AC/DC singer was with Sounds. He spoke candidly about his hopes and fears. “I still don’t know quite where I am,” he confessed. “All I know is there’s a stack of work to do and the rest of the band have still got to find out about me. I’m still scared shitless, really!”
Brian wasn’t the only one feeling the pressure. As he explains: “The band weren’t in the best financial state at the time, cos the album before, Highway To Hell, had cost so much money.”
In London, the new-look AC/DC worked quickly to finish writing the new album. “When I went in, the guys had some titles for songs but no lyrics,” Brian says. “A couple of titles came from the lyrics I wrote later on. But it’s hard to remember, because it was a blur. They didn’t even know what my lyrics were gonna be like. Literally, they said: ‘Can you write some lyrics for us?’ I said: ‘I’ll give it a shot!’”
In late April, with nine tracks completed, the band and producer Mutt Lange flew to the island of Nassau in the Bahamas to record the new album at Compass Point studios. As engineer Tony Platt explained, living and working on a remote island helped to “bring everyone together”.
The first song recorded set the tone for the album. The funky riff that Malcolm had been playing around with on the Highway To Hell tour had been fashioned into a crunching anthem titled Back In Black. The lyrics were a statement of invincibility and a salute to Bon. Back In Black, said Malcolm, was AC/DC remembering “the good times” they’d had with Bon. It was a theme they picked up on again with Have A Drink On Me, the song they’d cut as a demo with Bon on drums. The lyrics (‘Whisky, gin and brandy/With a glass I’m pretty handy’) were a drunken toast from Brian to his predecessor. And Brian also proved that, like Bon, he had a way with a double-entendre: on You Shook Me All Night Long he joked: ‘She told me to come but I was already there.’ He says now: “I thought I’d gone too far with that, I must admit, but nobody seemed to mind. There’s a lot of lovely ways you can do things.”
There were times, however, when Brian struggled with lyrics, notably on Hells Bells, the mighty epic that ended up as the first track on the album. The riff – dubbed “ominous” by Malcolm and “mystical” by Angus – called for a heavy opening statement, but Brian just couldn’t find the words until he experienced something akin to divine inspiration.
“I was just sitting on my bed one night,” Brian recalls, “and these bedrooms were just breeze-block cells with a bed and a table with a light on it and a toilet. That was it. I was sitting there wondering how good it had been. Cos we were doing it so quick, Mutt would never let me listen to what I’d done because we had to get the guys in straight away. There was no luxury of sitting around thinking, nothing like that. Then Mutt came in and said: ‘Are you all right?’ He was a wonderful man; he knew the pressure I was feeling. I thought: ‘Phew!’ I’d already written three songs and it was day after day. I’m going: ‘I’m fucking running out of ideas here…’
“Mutt says: ‘Tonight we’re gonna do Hells Bells, Brian.’ I’m thinking: Hmm… Hells Bells, right. I’d just done Back In Black, so I thought: ‘Can it get any moodier?’ And then, right at that moment, there was a tropical thunderstorm the likes of which I’d never seen before. Mutt said: ‘Listen… thunder!’ And I said: ‘That’s rolling thunder, that’s what they call it in England.’ He says: ‘Rolling thunder – write that down.’ And this is true – it went ‘boom!’ The fucking rain came down in torrents, you couldn’t hear yourself. And I just went: ‘Pourin’ rain!’ And the wind whipped up – ‘I’m comin’ on like a hurricane!’ I was gone. The song was ready that night. I hadn’t even heard the track cos they were busy doing it. It was whacked down in the greatest haste.”
At the end of their fifth week the band had nine tracks were in the can. They needed one more to finish the album. Malcolm and Angus wrote it in 15 minutes.
“I thought it was just gonna be a boozy chuck-away,” Brian admits. “Mal came up with the title, saying: ‘’Ere, Jonno, we’ll call it Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.’ I thought: ‘Eh?’ There’s a great one to fucking rhyme with!
“I’ll never forget the start of it. I went into the recording booth, the intro starts and I hear: ‘Brian, it’s Mutt. Could you say something over that? Just talk.’ I was smoking a tab at the time and you can hear it. I was going: ‘Yeah, all you middle men.’ I just did this southern preacher thing. Honestly, it was one take. I never ever thought that it was gonna be on the record.”
With recording completed, Malcolm Young travelled to New York with Mutt Lange and Tony Platt to mix the album while the rest of the band headed back to London. “I never heard the finished album ’til two months later,” Brian says. “But when I did I was knocked out. I couldn’t believe it was that good… A wonderful album, full of surprises.”
Most surprising of all was the first sound on the album, added at the eleventh hour: the portentous tolling bell for Hells Bells. The idea had come to Malcolm when he’d nipped out for a piss during mixing at New York’s Electric Lady studios. Tony Platt dashed across the Atlantic to record a bell at a church in Loughborough. But the bell tower was home to dozens of pigeons that flew noisily from their roost each time the bell was struck, thus ruining Platt’s recording. Thinking on his feet, Platt commissioned a custom-made bell from a specialist foundry in Leicestershire and recorded that.
But the end result was worth the trouble. The slow tolling of the bell – spookily, it strikes 13 times – added to the dramatic effect. In addition, the album’s all-black cover design fitted the mood of a band that was emerging from the darkest times. In some quarters at AC/DC’s record label, Atlantic Records, there was resistance to the black cover, but the band wouldn’t yield. The cover was a memorial to Bon. And that was that.
Back In Black was released on July 21, 1980, five months and one day after Bon Scott had died. Within two weeks it topped the UK chart. And in the US, after a slow start, the album was certified platinum in October, when it began an incredible 13-month residency in the Billboard Top 10.
Back In Black not only resurrected AC/DC, it took them to a new level, elevating the band to superstar status and transforming Brian Johnson from has-been to hero.
For Brian, the greatest tribute came when AC/DC returned to Australia at the end of the Back In Black tour in February 1981. After their gig in Sydney, Bon Scott’s mother, Isa, told him: “Our Bon would have been proud of you, son.” And when he got home to Newcastle there was another moment to savour. After years of driving old bangers, he finally got himself a flashy motor.
“I treated myself to a Chevy Blazer,” he laughs. “It was an SUV – four-wheel drive. It was black-and-white – I was in Newcastle, after all. I’ll never forget, my next door neighbour, he always used to smirk at what I did; he got a new Cortina every four years. And my Chevy was gorgeous! I remember him going: ‘That’s a big, daft, stupid bloody thing, isn’t it?’ I went: ‘You jealous, mate?’ I was dead pleased. It was a big, daft, stupid thing, but I didn’t care. I knew I’d made it.”
Thirty years on, Back In Black is the biggest-selling rock album of all time, with worldwide sales now at a staggering 49 million. Its success is all the more amazing given the circumstances in which it was made. But as Malcolm Young said: “We meant it. It’s real. It’s coming from within and was made from what we’d all gone through. That emotion on that record… that will be around forever.”
“It’s funny,” Brian says. “My daughter phoned me and said: ‘Dad, I just wanted to say I’m so proud of you.’ I said: ‘What?’ She said: ‘All these years you’ve just been my dad’ – she’s never been an AC/DC fan, she’s just a regular good girl and all that. But she said: ‘I just didn’t realise how brilliant this album is!’ She said her new favourite songs are Shoot To Thrill and Let Me Put My Love Into You. I said: ‘I’m pleased you finally got it! How old are ya?’ She says: ‘I’m 36 now, dad!’ I said: ‘You’re older than I was when I did it!’”
Back In Black was the album that saved AC/DC’s career. Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash even went so far as to say it “saved rock’n’roll”. Not only is it the greatest comeback album of all time, it’s also arguably the greatest rock album ever made.
“The whole point of that album was to celebrate Bon’s life,” Brian says. “The boys had lost a great friend and a great singer – a pal. They’d gone through all their shit together. He wasn’t just a singer in the band, Bon, he was their best pal.”
During the making of Back In Black there were times when Brian felt Bon’s spirit with him. “I feel soft saying it,” he admits, “but I was worried. Like, who am I to try to follow in the footsteps of this great poet? Cos Bon really was a kind of poet. And something happened to me – a good thing.”
What Brian Johnson and AC/DC achieved with Back In Black was little short of miraculous. But as this most unassuming of rock stars concludes: “I don’t think I could have done it unless it was those particular four boys. If it had been four other gentlemen I don’t think it could’ve happened. This is a special band. They do something to you.”
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 141.