No bull from this band of brothers
The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC
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