No bull from this band of brothers

The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Free David Free

By Jesse Fink Ebury Press, 312pp, $34.95

EV­ERY­ONE knows about the youngest of the Youngs, lit­tle An­gus, AC/DC’s pale and whip­pet-thin lead gui­tarist, still decked out in his school­boy threads at the age of 58, still sweat­ing and jit­ter­ing around the stage as if si­mul­ta­ne­ously af­flicted with malaria and at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der.

More dis­cern­ing stu­dents of the band will know, too, about the vi­tal im­por­tance of Mal­colm, An­gus’s de­cid­edly less flashy older brother, the stoic rhythm gui­tarist, the en­gine room, the rock, ‘‘ im­mov­able as a men­hir’’, as Jesse Fink puts it in his savvy new book about the Youngs.

Not stop­ping at An­gus and Mal­colm, Fink also weighs the con­tri­bu­tions of their ‘‘ reclu­sive’’ older brother Ge­orge, who isn’t even in the band but who has func­tioned since the start as its de facto sixth mem­ber: ‘‘ the coach’’, Fink calls him, ‘‘ the stand-in bass player, drum­mer, backup singer . . . busi­ness man­ager and sven­gali’’.

When the Young fam­ily mi­grated from Scot­land to Aus­tralia in 1963, Ge­orge was 16, Mal­colm 10, An­gus eight. A year later Ge­orge be­gan play­ing rhythm gui­tar with the Easy­beats, Aus­tralia’s first great rock band. With lead gui­tarist Harry Vanda, Ge­orge cowrote some of the group’s best songs: Fri­day on my Mind, Good Times. But the band dis­solved pre­ma­turely, hav­ing failed to make it in the US.

When his lit­tle brothers formed AC/DC in 1973, Ge­orge was de­ter­mined they would have ev­ery­thing that had eluded the Easy­beats: sta­bil­ity, longevity and mone­tary re­ward.

With the rogu­ish Bon Scott on lead vo­cals, AC/DC cut six al­bums be­tween 1975 and 1979. Ge­orge and Vanda co-pro­duced the first five. When the band’s Amer­i­can la­bel wanted a more ra­dio-friendly pro­ducer for record No 6, Vanda and Young made way for the Mi­das­fin­gered Robert ‘‘ Mutt’’ Lange.

The re­sult­ing al­bum was High­way to Hell (1979), which cracked the Amer­i­can top 20. The mas­ter plan was com­ing to­gether. Then, in Fe­bru­ary 1980, Bon Scott died. Ge­orge, still func­tion­ing as the band’s quasi-man­ager, helped au­di­tion re­place­ment lead singers. Ul­ti­mately the brothers re­cruited the af­fa­ble Geordie Brian John­son. Fink, along with just about ev­ery other AC/DC afi­cionado, be­lieves John­son ush­ered in an era of lyri­cal medi­ocrity. But con­sid­er­ing the band’s pri­or­i­ties — sell­ing records and fill­ing are­nas — John­son proved a sapi­ent choice.

The new line-up’s first LP was the mon­u­men­tal Back in Black (1980), which now stands as the sec­ond big­gest sell­ing al­bum ever: only Michael Jack­son’s Thriller has out­sold it. Thirty-three years later, John­son is still the band’s front­man.

The Youngs didn’t co-op­er­ate with Fink’s book. Not co-op­er­at­ing with peo­ple is, ev­i­dently, a forte of theirs. They are ‘‘ fiercely pri­vate’’, ‘‘ hard-nosed’’, ‘‘ frus­trat­ingly in­ac­ces­si­ble’’. A for­mer band­mate calls them ‘‘ mo­rose, grumpy, sullen and gen­er­ally not too much fun to be around’’.

Fink, who has a lot of time for the brothers’ mu­sic, has trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing any charms they may have when not play­ing their gui­tars: ‘‘ By most rea­son­able mea­sures unattrac­tive, short, ec­cen­tric and highly com­bustible ... the Youngs spent a lot of time in their early days fight­ing among them­selves and with oth­ers and telling any­one within earshot to f . . k off.’’

It seems a good thing the Youngs tend to let their axes do the talk­ing. As min­ters of in­sanely catchy gui­tar riffs, they are in rock’s pre­mier league, stand­ing com­par­i­son with Keith Richards or Jimmy Page. Fink is good on what de­fines AC/DC’s sound. The phrase ‘‘ no bull­shit’’ crops up; so does ‘‘ meat and pota­toes’’.

Cer­tainly there is a kind of ge­nius in the way the Youngs ar­range rudi­men­tary in­gre­di­ents into in­stantly mem­o­rable pat­terns. Think of the open­ing bars of Back in Black. Any hacker of a gui­tarist can play those chords: an E, fol­lowed by a D, fol­lowed by an A. It took the Young brothers to com­bine them into a riff for the ages.

On that point, the mar­ket doesn’t lie. If it were at all easy to come up with a tune such as Back in Black, the brothers would be far less rich than they are. Let no­body deny they are mas­ters. But what are they mas­ters of? The riff­driven rock song is a pretty in­flex­i­ble genre. Riffs don’t get into your ner­vous sys­tem by be­ing sub­tle and un­repet­i­tive. If we think of AC/DC as the Youngs’ band, surely that’s be­cause their busy gui­tars have never left much space for the per­sonal or res­o­nant lyric.

In­stead, es­pe­cially from John­son, we have heard a lot of generic stuff about cars, firearms, ex­plo­sive ma­te­ri­als, elec­tri­cal events and fe­males who are var­i­ously pen­e­trated but never seem to say any­thing and, in­deed, are sel­dom at lib­erty to do so. This is mu­sic that can move you phys­i­cally, but rarely oth­er­wise.

No doubt this is why those of us who grew up with AC/DC also tended to grow out of them. The band didn’t change; it just got older. Meat and pota­toes can be re­com­bined in only so many ways. Fink con­cedes this, more or less, when he says the group hasn’t pro­duced an es­sen­tial al­bum since Back in Black, and not many es­sen­tial songs ei­ther. (He is surely cor­rect to sin­gle out Thun­der­struck as a rare post- Black peak.) But at a less hard-headed mo­ment he claims ‘‘ the mu­sic of the Youngs . . . de­serves to be spo­ken of in the same breath as any great paint­ing, book or ex­am­ple of ar­chi­tec­ture’’. ‘‘ Their very lack of bound­ary push­ing,’’ he ar­gues, ‘‘ is a form of bound­ary push­ing in it­self.’’

Not nearly as much as it isn’t, though. There are bands who will­ingly make records that risk cost­ing them fans and money. There are even bands who don’t care about those things in the first place. The Youngs, to their credit, have never pre­tended to be among their num­ber.

Keith Richards, af­ter Kurt Cobain shot him­self, of­fered the re­mark that Kurt would have ‘‘ made a lousy plumber’’. What he meant was rock is a trade. The rocker’s job is to get on with it, de­liver the goods, not feel things too much, crank the same tunes out night af­ter night in ex­change for money.

Like a lot of Richards’s ver­bal out­put, this made you wish he’d shut up and just play his gui­tar. Still, it was a good pre­cis of a phi­los­o­phy the Youngs would prob­a­bly en­dorse, if they talked about rock meta­physics — a Stones phi­los­o­phy, as op­posed to a Bea­tles one.

The Bea­tles re­ally did push bound­aries. They changed rest­lessly from al­bum to al­bum. That doesn’t mean they were bet­ter than the Stones. Each ap­proach has its mer­its. If the Stones never recorded any­thing as in­spired as A Day in the Life, they also never recorded any­thing as tal­ent­less as Rev­o­lu­tion 9.

More­over, they never flamed out. Nei­ther did AC/DC. The Young brothers have kept their band to­gether; and when it plays, peo­ple go away happy. Fink, quite prop­erly, can’t stand the kind of mu­sic critic who feels pleas­ing a crowd is a sus­pect achieve­ment, some­how an­ti­thet­i­cal to the spirit of rock.

In the end, Fink seems to be in two minds about AC/DC. That seems the right num­ber of minds for an adult to be in about them, es­pe­cially an adult who en­coun­tered their best al­bums dur­ing the sweet spot of his youth. In prepa­ra­tion for this re­view, I played my old copy of Back in Black. A week later, I still can’t get the clos­ing track out of my head: Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pol­lu­tion. Ad­mit­tedly, I no longer find that slo­gan as pro­foundly per­sua­sive as I did when I was 10. But the tune re­mains as in­sid­i­ous as ever. Like all great pop­u­lar art, it slips past the higher fac­ul­ties. It makes you for­get, for three min­utes or so, that there’s any­thing else you’d rather hear.

Brian John­son and gui­tarist An­gus Young play in a 1996 AC/DC con­cert

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