Ballsy Blokes Still Goin' For Broke
WITH THE CONSTANT flux of fashion in rock music, it's comforting to know some things never change. For instance: It was way back in 1976--before punk rock records, before MTV, before Mötley Crüe and Poison and Quiet Riot--that a young bunch of Aussie and Brit sleazebags called AC/DC recorded "Big Balls," their naughty ode to high society parties: "She's got big balls/He's got big balls/But we've got the biggest balls of them all!" went the immortal chorus.
And 20 years later--after punk rock went Top 40, after MTV abandoned the cheese-metal hair bands it helped establish, after Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Hootie--those same dirty scoundrels in AC/DC (with a lead singer to replace the one that drank himself to death in 1980) are still fearlessly forging new testicular double entendres: "Wreckin' ball, let it roll/Building steam, whippin' cream/You are a ballbreaker!" goes the title track to their latest (16th) album, Ballbreaker. Change with the times? Yeah, right. "I don' think the lads could do anythin' else," lead singer Brian Johnson says in his thick northern English working class brogue. With the hearty laugh of a guy whose band has sold over 80 million albums, he adds, "If it ain' broke don' fix it."
A world away from the angst-ridden losers of a more current rock scene, AC/DC are jolly blokes who wouldn't know an identity crisis if it zapped them like a power surge through their amp stacks. They know very well who they are and what they do best: Happy in their state of terminally arrested development, they make the simplest, meat-and-potato-iest hard rock in the world.
The secret, perhaps, to AC/DC's continued viability is their willingness to provide exactly the stuff loyal audiences want and expect. When fans buy Ballbreaker, the band's first studio album in five years, the last thing they want to hear is artistic growth. No, they're after the kind of heavy-duty power chords, metal-blues riffing, and high school locker-room humor that brothers Malcolm and Angus Young have crafted since 1974, when they formed AC/DC in Melbourne.
To recapture their gritty sound after so many years away, the band enlisted producer Rick Rubin, who recently stripped down and toughened up albums for Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "Rick brought a basic, ol'-fashioned, in-ya-face sound that the boys were afta," Johnson says. "He's more of a fan than a producer, ol' Rick, ya know."
AC/DC is happy to fulfill expectations on the road, as well. Die-hards who go see the band on their first American tour since 1991 will get roughly the same tried-and-true cock-rock spectacle the band has staged for over a decade: There's the giant wrecking ball that demolishes the backdrop before "Back In Black," the huge black bell that descends during "Hell's Bells," and the line of cannons that salute the crowd during "For Those About to Rock." Then, of course, there's Angus's devil horns, his classic stutter strut, and his trademark schoolboy outfit--the one he strips off before he moons the crowd. AC/DC have even reinstated Phil Rudd, their original drummer who left the band in the mid- '80s, in order to bring back, as Johnson says, "the ol' feel."
But even with a comeback album and tour, it's getting tougher to be AC/DC circa 1996. During their first few concerts, the 48-year-old Johnson found himself struggling to recapture the muscle-throated shriek--a singing coach's nightmare--he's belted out over the last 16 years. "I'm still tryin' ta get meself up ta match fitness," he admits. "When ya start doing one song afta the other, you say, 'Man, this is a tough fookin' gig. Nobody sings rock & roll like this anymore.'"
It's also getting harder to meet the demands a long tour puts on middle-aged guys. Today, all five band members (including bassist Cliff Williams) are married, and everyone but Angus is father to a couple of kids. While Johnson proudly confirms the absolute truth behind rumors of excess sex, drugs, and alcohol during the band's late-'70s/early-'80s heyday, he also makes it plain that the decadence has all but disappeared today. "We're too busy," he sighs. "The work schedule is tougher than it was when we were younger. When I was 30, the set was an hour and a half. I'm 48-fookin'-years-old and the set's two-fookin'-hours and 10-fookin'-minutes long! What the fook's goin' on 'ere?"
While perhaps mellowed with age, AC/DC remains youthfully unrepentant about continuing to write the kind of nasty lyrics that long ago branded them a woeful specimen of political incorrectness. New songs like "Cover You In Oil" and "The Honey Roll" fall into AC/DC's long tradition of shamelessly carnal "fook" rock that includes, among many others, the band's 1980 hit "You Shook Me All Night Long."
"Of course we're sexist, but life is sex," Johnson responds. "That's why we're here. Sexism, mixed with humor, is a wonderfully funny thing. We say things with a big tongue in the cheek. And it's not supposed to be just for men, it's for women as well. Women are horny buggers--there's a lot of 'em about who want to tie ya up and use your little body, ya know."
AC/DC apparently lives by the faith that if you stick by your guns long enough the world will eventually come back around to you. Perhaps the band's complete disinterest in adapting during the spandex metal '80s and flannel grunge '90s has enabled it to stage a comeback today that is in some way as much a reaction against current progressivism in music as the Contract With America is in politics.
In fact, AC/DC might be a perfect complement to Hootie and the Blowfish, a band whose know-nothing conservatism (or at least bland centrism) somehow captures the climate of the day. Like Hootie, AC/DC presumes to speak to the average Joe who doesn't want his music too deep or too challenging. But where Hootie speaks to Joe's ego--the part of him that wonders if it's all right to hold a girl's hand on the first date--AC/DC tweaks Joe's id, the part that wants to pour oil and honey all over her and have at it.
Johnson chuckles again when he ponders his band's enduring connection to their audience. "I think everybody realizes we're the same as them really," he says like some sort of proto-Blowfish. "Just 'cause of chance and luck we coulda been in the audience and they coulda been up on stage, ya know?"
Then, in an endearing bit of self-knowledge, Johnson qualifies, "But I don' know, all this is the world according to Brian. And, ya know, I'm not the cleverest man in the world." However, with 80 million albums sold, perhaps he shouldn't sell himself short.
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