They say that you play too loud
Well baby that's tough
- 'Rock and Roll Damnation'
The music of the Australian rock band AC/DC is, at its core, incredibly simple and to the uninitiated may well fall into the 'but it all sounds the same' category. Pounding drums, a solid, steady bassline with raucous vocals screamed over the top. So far, so 'standard-issue rock band'. What sets AC/DC apart from the majority of run-of-the-mill bands is the pairing of guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young. Sharing the writing credits for all of the band's songs, either alone or joined by vocalists Bon Scott or Brian Johnson1, the brothers create a unique guitar riff or hook for each of their songs. In performance, the two then play off each other, with Malcolm taking the main rhythm part and Angus doubling the rhythm, adding a second rhythmic layer, or weaving a guitar solo around it as the song requires. The integration of the two guitar parts is the key to AC/DC songs; the solos work with the rhythm parts, often seeming to grow organically from the rhythm, rather than being something added at a later date. In addition, the brothers are not afraid to include space in their guitar parts. While some rock and heavy metal bands favour a 'full-on' approach, with no let up in the noise, Angus and Malcolm know how to use rests to create riffs that drive everything forward, giving a sense of urgency, menace, drama or sheer abandonment, depending on the nature of the song.
The music of AC/DC is, like all rock music, designed to be played loudly. While the listener always has the option of turning the volume down, there is still the feeling that something loud is happening. The drums and bass clearly contribute to this, and the fact that the lyrics are always delivered at a scream obviously helps but, again, the guitars hold the key. The most common way to produce the distorted sounds that are central to rock guitar music is to use a piece of electronic wizardry known as a distortion pedal. Angus and Malcolm, on the other hand, favour the use of increased volume levels to create their distortion, an effect that they developed in the early days of the band under the guidance of producer (and elder brother) George.
The volume of AC/DC's music found a practical use in 1989, when the US Army needed to find a way to force wanted Panamanian dictator General Noriega out of hiding. Noriega had taken refuge in a sacred building, the Nunciatura, and the Army could not enter without risking an enormous diplomatic upset. They resorted instead to playing high-decibel rock music, including AC/DC, outside the building until the General finally surrendered.
Finally, no serious guitar-based band is complete without its own signature guitars, and AC/DC have two. Angus is the world's most famous player of the Gibson SG, in either red or black. The SG2 has a thin body and a long, thin neck, making it ideal for the small-framed Angus, particularly when he's running around, thrashing about on the floor, or being carried through the audience. Malcolm, on the other hand, generally uses a Gretsch Jet Firebird, from which he has stripped all unnecessary refinements such as tone controls and all but the bridge pickup. The heavy sound that Malcolm needs to underpin the antics of his younger brother is achieved with thick strings, a thick plectrum and suitably thick amplification settings. Gibson and Gretsch now produce specific models that bear the name, specifications and, in the case of the Angus Young SG, the cartoon likeness of the Young brothers.
What's It All About?
AC/DC sing about all the things that any self-respecting rock band should: namely sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And sex. And a little bit of devil worship. And sex.
Now, to be fair, it's possible that AC/DC songs aren't obsessed with sex at all. 'Big Balls' may actually be about gala dances, 'Honey Roll' may discuss the joys of a sandwich favoured by the Young brothers, 'Thunderstruck' may be a comment on inclement weather in the Melbourne area, 'Sink the Pink' may be a discourse on snooker and 'The Jack' may be all about a simple game of cards...
She gave me her mind, then she gave me her body
But she gave it to anybody
But I made her cry and I made her scream
And I took her high and I curdled her cream
- 'The Jack'
Or not. Given that the band members weren't long out of their teens when they formed the group, it is not surprising that the subject of sex is never far from their lyrics. All aspects are covered. Chat-up lines range from the quite sweet ('Can I Sit Next to You, Girl') to the less-than-subtle ('Let's Get It Up'), but are not always successful ('Shot Down in Flames'). The thrill of anticipation is covered in 'Can't Stand Still', the act itself is celebrated in (amongst others) 'Fire Your Guns', leading to the rosy afterglow of a job well done in 'You Shook Me All Night Long'. Fetishists are catered for in 'Honey Roll' and 'Cover You in Oil', and those who have to resort to the classic teenage assignation get a mention in 'Back Seat Confidential' and 'Girl's Got Rhythm'.
While the women in rock songs are often of the submissive type, AC/DC also present an array of formidable women, typified by the 'Ballbreaker'. Prostitutes also feature heavily, notably in 'Got You By the Balls' and 'Whole Lotta Rosie'.
And lest it be thought that the boys are incapable of anything more than a physical act, love does also put in appearance, particularly in earlier songs such as 'Love Song - Oh Jean' and 'Overdose'.
In the end, as with all adolescent bragging, most of it has to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Indeed, it seems that writing to Santa may be the only way for the boys to get what they want...
I want a woman in red
At the bottom of my bed
- 'Mistress For Christmas'
'Drugs' being, for the most part, alcohol, and the occasional hint of nicotine. The only song that sounds superficially as though it's about drugs, 'Overdose', is in fact a love song3. The importance of alcohol in the AC/DC canon pales into insignificance alongside sex, perhaps because of the drink-related death of Bon Scott. Indeed, the downside to alcohol, including fights, injuries and run-ins with the local constabulary, is clearly spelled out in 'Danger'.
Whisky, gin and brandy
With a glass I'm pretty handy
I'm trying to walk a straight line
On sour mash and cheap wine
- 'Have a Drink on Me'
Still, alcohol does come into it, whether the band are offering a friendly drink ('Have a Drink on Me') or sitting in a bar as it approaches closing time, perhaps lamenting their failure to achieve any of the exploits listed in the previous section ('Whisky on the Rocks'). Alternatively, you could join them in a rant against the type of political correctness that comes down hard on anyone caught drinking, smoking, making jokes or indulging in 'sex above the knees' ('Damned').
Rock 'n' Roll
Hail hail to the good times
Cos rock has got the right of way
We ain't no legends, ain't no cause
We're just living for today
- 'For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)'
When not banging on about sex, AC/DC are, more often than not, to be found revelling in the joys (or otherwise) of rock 'n' roll itself. From their earliest days, songs about rock music have featured heavily in the band's catalogue, starting with the desire to be famous ('Rock 'n' Roll Singer') and the realisation that being in a rock band was not going to be a route to overnight success ('Show Business'; 'It's A Long Way To The Top [If You Wanna Rock and Roll]'). 'Let There Be Rock' provides a tribute to the early days of the genre, while 'Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution' replies to those who would question the merits of rock as a musical form. AC/DC's most famous rock 'n' roll-based song, however, is probably 'For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)', a tribute both to their fans and to the music the band grew up with. The song, with its cannon-firing finale, is a staple of their live show and is usually part of the encore4.
Hand-in-hand with rock music goes the rock 'n' roll lifestyle - partying, trashing hotel rooms and generally misbehaving. 'Problem Child' and 'Bad Boy Boogie' both play up to this image of the rock star as troublemaker although, in the case of the band's first main vocalist, Bon Scott, it wasn't far from the truth. Before joining the band he had been convicted of a number of minor offences and his application to join the Australian army was turned down because of his social maladjustment.
AC/DC songs also 'celebrate' some of the more unsavoury types of character who can find themselves caught up in the world of rock 'n' roll. Prostitutes have already been mentioned, but hitmen ('Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap'), convicts ('Jailbreak'; 'Goodbye and Good Riddance to Bad Luck'), outlaws ('Badlands') and even politicians ('Hail Caesar'; 'Night of the Long Knives') all get a mention. No doubt a healthy dose of 'Rock and Roll Damnation' awaits them all.
I'll give you black sensations up and down your spine
If you're into evil you're a friend of mine
See my white light flashing as I split the night
Cos if good's on the left, then I'm stickin' to the right
- 'Hell's Bells'
No rock band worth its salt should be seen espousing anything remotely like a 'good cause'5, and a professed tendency towards the 'dark side' is obligatory. AC/DC are no exception, and a fair few of their songs mention hell, Satan, the devil or sin. Indeed, it was the album Highway to Hell (1979) with which the band first hit big time. They continued the theme on their next album, albeit with a forced change of vocalist, with 'Hell's Bells', featuring the dramatic tolling of a large church bell in its introduction.
Sin is also quite popular with the band (cf the previous three categories...), with a dissection of the reasons for sin in 'Some Sin For Nuthin' and the story of a man looking forward to the gambling and girls that await in 'Sin City'. The band's favourite form of sin is, of course, not in doubt. In the song 'C.O.D.'6, when Brian Johnson sings 'The cream of a dream is the cause of the itch,' you know perfectly well what he's on about7.
The root of all evil, according to The Bible, is money. True to form, AC/DC expend a fair bit of energy in that direction, from bemoaning the lack of it ('Ain't No Fun [Waiting Round to be a Millionaire]'; 'Downpayment Blues') to discovering the problems of having too much ('Moneytalks'). And, of course, if someone else turns out to have more than you, you have to wonder 'What Do You Do For Money, Honey?'
The band's use of lyrics relating to Satan has, not surprisingly, brought them into conflict with religious and conservative groups, though not to the same extent as bands such as Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. This was brought to a head with the arrest of mass murderer Richard Ramirez, who claimed that the album Fly on the Wall inspired him to kill. This led to calls for AC/DC music to be banned or boycotted, which may, as is the way of these things, have rekindled interest in the band after one of their least successful albums.
I'm gonna blow up my video
Shut down my radio
Told the boss man where to go
Turned off my brain control
- 'That's the Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll'
AC/DC have been in existence for more than 30 years and are still selling records in their millions. In their lifetime they have been categorised as glam-rock, punk and heavy metal, but have outlived every passing fad by never deviating from what they know their fans want: good, hard rock with a sense of humour. And, as for the accusations that have been levelled at them over the years:
- Sexist? - Perhaps
- Juvenile? - Almost certainly
- Morally reprehensible? - Probably
- Tongue in cheek? - Always
And I hope that you don't misunderstand
Your boogie man
- 'Boogie Man'