Scottish born brothers Angus and Malcolm Young emigrated to Australia with their family in 1963. Ten years later they formed the band AC/DC. The name was suggested by their sister Margaret, who also gave eighteen year old Angus the idea to wear his school uniform on stage. In 1974 they joined forces with a Scottish born rock n’ roll singer Ronald Belford Scott, who had been known since primary school as Bon Scott. Growing up, Scott was something of a problem child, forced to live under the care of the Child Welfare Department until he was 18. He tried to join the army and was rejected, being deemed “socially maladjusted.” His bad boy boogie image and penchant for writing simple yet sophisticated tongue in cheek lyrics was a perfect match for AC/DC, a band that played high voltage music and was destined for rock and roll damnation.
It’s not always obvious but the band wears their influences, mainly 1950s rock and roll, on their sleeves. Bon Scott’s musical idol was Little Richard. Lead guitarist Angus Young still takes his cue from Chuck Berry, copying him right down to the duck walk he does across stage while brother Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar is also heavily influenced by fifties rock and roll and blues rock guitar of the sixties and seventies. His riffs and open chord progressions are the heart of the AC/DC sound.
Often formulaic and repetitive, the typical AC/DC song is recognizable for its rocking signature riff, simple familiar chords, blues-scale solo and abrupt ending. Someone once said to Angus Young that it sounds like AC/DC had made the same album fifteen times. A little outraged he replied, “That’s not true. We’ve made the same album 16 times!”
AC/DC’s first album, 1975’s High Voltage, was recorded in Sydney over 10 days. It opens with a cover of the blues standard “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which the band played live on Australian TV with Bon dressed in drag as a blond haired schoolgirl. This memorable performance is available on the compilation DVD Family Jewels. Later the same year the band released T.N.T. which featured the title track and a cover of the Chuck Berry song “School Days.” Neither of the first albums was officially released outside of Australia. The following year Atlantic records mixed songs from both albums for an international release of High Voltage, which Rolling Stone magazine trashed as being an “all-time low” for rock music. The album eventually sold three million copies in the United States, proving in AC/DC’s case it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.
Their followup album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976) featured the title track and a rebellious song about breaking out of jail in a hail of gunfire. The songs “Jailbreak” and “Crabsody in Blue” from their next album Let There Be Rock (1977) were cut from the international versions of the albums by Atlantic over concerns about the lyrics. It may have seemed a bit dog eat dog but the record company didn’t object to “Whole Lotta Rosie,” an autobiographical song about Bon’s one night stand with a woman of immense girth. Let There Be Rock was the first album to feature the band’s distinctive logo designed by Gerard Huerta. Using as many double entendres as possible, the band released two more studio albums with Bon Scott: Powerage (1978) and Highway to Hell (1979) plus a live album If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (1978). Highway to Hell presented a leaner sounding album with the help of new producer John “Mutt” Lange and was their biggest success to date.
In retrospect, Highway to Hell may have been one of those ironic messages life sometimes give us because on February 19, 1980 Bon Scott died in London after a night of heavy drinking. The official cause of death was overdose from acute alcohol poisoning and death by misadventure. He was 33. The best tribute the band could pay was to carry on. They did so in style by hiring Brian Johnson, a singer that Bon had met and admired in England.
Within months of Scott’s death, the revamped band released Back in Black, which aside from the dark cover, was anything but black. The songs have more to say about living than dying. “Have a Drink on Me” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” carry on the party atmosphere that characterised the Bon Scott era. The lyrics of the album’s title track, penned by Brian Johnson, celebrate Bon without being morbid and the song has featured prominently in TV and movies, most recently the opening scene of Iron Man. The album sold over 49 million copies, making it the biggest selling album by any band, only being outsold by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Fans certainly weren’t going to kick the band in the teeth over the new singer. The songs were memorable and AC/DC were carrying on their legacy of rock n’ roll ain’t noise pollution.
Bon Scott had written a lyric that it ain’t no fun waiting around to be a millionaire. On the success of Back In Black, the band was definitely living in that tax bracket now. They continued to release a stream of similar sounding albums with For Those About To Rock We Salute You (1981), Flick Of The Switch (1983), Fly On The Wall (1985) and Who Made Who (1986) for the Stephen King directed movie Maximum Overdrive. The over reliance on formula seemed to cost the band some of their mojo during the 1980s. Fans were thunderstruck when the band loudly returned in 1990 with The Razors Edge, featuring songs like “Are You Ready” and “Moneytalks.” In 1991 they headlined the Monsters of Rock Festival in England for the third time. The concert was filmed in front of 70,000 fans for release on DVD.
In 1997 the band released Bonfire, a box-set that pays tribute to Bon Scott with a pair of live performances from the late 1970s. The band signed a long-term, multi-album deal with Sony in 2002 and, along with Rush and the Rolling Stones, played at a 2003 Toronto concert that still holds the record for the largest paid musical concert in North America.
AC/DC’s most recent album is 2014’s Rock or Bust. The band saw two original members leave that year. Drummer Phil Rudd was replaced and guitarist Malcolm Young left due to health reasons. In 2016 singer Brian Johnson was advised to stop touring or risk losing his hearing. In an unusual move Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose replaced him on the band’s remaining tour dates. On November 18, 2017, founding member Malcolm Young died at the age of 64.
Having such a recognizable sound makes playing AC/DC guitar very satisfying. Many of the band’s earlier songs rely on power chords, while some of the more famous songs like “Highway to Hell” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” are played with simple open chords. Angus Young’s soloing features a lot of blues scales and licks, played faster than the 1950s guitar heroes he’s trying to emulate. One trick for the rhythm guitar is to have the volume on the guitar turned down real low! Before you head out to spend a lot of money on instructional DVDs and books, check out some of Justin’s free video lessons on Angus Young (AC/DC) Style Licks.