That's still the way AC/DC wants to rock 'n' roll
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
Evolve or die? Darwin never met AC/DC.
Black Ice, the band's 15th studio album and first since 2000's Stiff Upper Lip, is barely distinguishable from the rip-snorting discs of its mid-'70s heyday. Guitarist Angus Young puts it simply: "We're always going to sound like AC/DC."
Hatched in 1973, the Australian outfit never wavered from a template of muscular riffs, monster beats and shrieked appreciation for sex, booze and rock 'n' roll. No ballads. No greatest-hits albums. No downloads. Resisting change has made has-beens of countless rockers, and yet AC/DC's popularity swells with each new generation. In fact, tweaking the formula can be risky.
That's why singer Brian Johnson won't hit the stage without "me old beanie," a wardrobe staple almost as familiar as Young's schoolboy uniform.
"I walked on stage without it once in 1995 in Belgium," Johnson says. "I got booed. I had to go back and put it on. They cheered."
Fans are cheering AC/DC's 15-track return, a beefy, howling and, yes, familiar hard-rock assault produced by Brendan O'Brien, who corralled Johnson, guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, B.C.
"Critics tend to lambaste bands who don't show some development," says Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune music critic and co-host of syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions. "The Ramones, Motorhead and AC/DC have shown that you can make the same album over and over again. It's not so much a lack of evolution as a signature sound. They invent it and claim ownership."
Black Ice, out today, "nails that classic sound with no gimmicks, no frills, no grand statements."
Growth and maturity are overrated, Johnson says. "We stick to the maxim 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' " he says. "It's not that we're afraid of anything. By sticking to what we do, that's being brave. The pressures we were under in the '80s and '90s to use wind machines and wear leather coats, those were hard times. People thought we were dinosaurs, that we lost the plot because we weren't sparkly and cutie-wootie enough."
From the outset, AC/DC had little use for advice from media or industry experts, and that tunnel vision saw them through every trend, from disco to grunge to rap-metal.
"When I started, the music was very polite, very bubblegum," Angus says. "What you heard on the radio was fluff. It never deterred me then. It's the same nowadays."
Staying the course never hurt the band's bottom line. Since SoundScan began tabulating sales in 1991, AC/DC has sold 26.4 million albums, eclipsed only by The Beatles. At 22 million copies, 1980's Back in Black is the fifth-best-selling album in U.S. history, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which reports AC/DC's total U.S. sales at 69 million copies. That's ahead of the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith.
Available exclusively at Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and acdc.com, Ice already has leaked online; an estimated 400,000 illegal downloads have been reported at BitTorrent alone. Still, brisk sales are expected. A U.S. tour launches Oct. 28 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and wraps up Jan. 31 in Nashville. Most dates are sold out.
The band has been rehearsing in Philadelphia, reviving vintage crowd-pleasers and working Black Ice songs into the set list.
"At 61, this could be my last shot," Johnson says, but he adds that the run-throughs "have been smooth as a gravy sandwich."
The years haven't enfeebled Angus, 53, who promises AC/DC's usual spectacle.
"I try to look after my health," he says. "I don't do a 6-mile jog. I might do a half-hour on a bike in the morning."
He'll again don the cap, shorts and tie ensemble he has sported for 35 years. "Do I really want to squeeze into it again? I can't really think about it," he says, joking that his bared legs "won't disappoint."
Johnson expresses amazement at the band's enduring appeal and credits much of its longevity to chemistry and an obsessive focus on music.
"People talk a lot about Angus and Malcolm, but that's not fair," he says. "There's more than two brothers. There are five. Malcolm, our spiritual leader, always told us to be a rock band first and a celebrity way, way after that. Stay below the radar, don't get involved in politics, stop covering yourself in glory on the stages of the world."
Angus credits rock's durability for keeping AC/DC afloat. "We're living proof it ain't dying. The Stones are still out there. Led Zeppelin was playing again. A hell of a lot of younger bands are coming along. And I'm sure plenty of bands are rehearsing in garages.
"As for us, we'll do it as long as we can do it well," he says. "I've got a song or two still left in me that I think can kick a few butts."