AS ONE of the world’s most popular bands prepares to play in Glasgow, it is high time Scotland claimed AC/DC as its own, writes Martyn McLaughlin
The shrewdest appraisal of AC/DC’s music was made by Sergeant Major Alan Johnson, a Second World War veteran not known for his rock criticism. In the winter of 1984, he watched their Philadelphia concert build to a thundering climax, with the final notes of For Those About To Rock detonating in a coda of crunching guitar and blasts from a brace of full size Napoleonic cannons. As the feedback rang out, the retired stalwart of the Durham Light Infantry and father of the band’s lead singer, Brian Johnson, delivered his assessment.
“I was at Monte Cassino when the Americans flattened the place and I was at El Alamein when we knocked Rommel back with a big barrage of guns,” he said. “But I’ve never heard anything as loud as this in my life.”
Three decades on, AC/DC’s incendiary power is undiminished by age or familiarity. This weekend, I will descend on Hampden for my latest and possibly last observance of rock and roll’s most enduring and exhilarating exponents. One of 50,000 faithful, we will bob in unison to the taut, pulsing throb of a rhythm section leaner than a champion bantamweight. We will hoot as Angus McKinnon Young, a sexagenarian dressed up as Just William, takes pause from his whirling dervish act for an indecorous striptease routine, peeling layer after layer of a schoolboy uniform from his stripling frame. We will roar and punch the air until the cannons fire, then roar some more.
With props and pageantry aplenty, an AC/DC concert revels in every trope the pantheon of rock has to offer, nodding to the rituals of vaudeville as well as the bawdier traditions of the old Clydeside music halls. But beneath the theatrics lies an energy that leaves all who are exposed to it drained, drenched and delirious. They are indisputably the best band in the world and this weekend will mark their homecoming – or at least, it should.
The roots of AC/DC’s musicality – a primal art that has been distilled over the years with an evangelical zeal – may lie in the honeyed licks of Chicago bluesmen, but the band’s resilience is drawn from the same deep well of purpose and tenacity that sustained thousands of Scots émigrés before them.
It is well known that three of the band’s original members hail from this outcrop of northern Europe. Founders Angus and Malcolm Young spent the majority of their childhood in Cranhill, a post-war scheme in Glasgow’s north-east hinterlands, before they emigrated to Australia with their parents, William and Margaret; Bon Scott, the wonderfully scabrous vocalist who succumbed to his insatiable appetites aged just 33, remains a much cherished son of the Angus town of Kirriemuir.
Less familiar is the importance of AC/DC’s extended family in their rise to rock’s summit. George, the fifth of the seven Young sons, has been an éminence grise to his younger siblings for more than 40 years. When the Youngs arrived in Australia in 1963, their first home was the Villawood Migrant Hostel, a downtrodden former army barracks in the western suburbs of Sydney.
It is there that the teenage George befriended Harry Vanda, another young incomer with a shared love of music. A fruitful partnership was born and together, the Scot and the Dutchman would go on to produce no less than six AC/DC albums, among them seminal 1970s releases such as Let There Be Rock and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.
That 1963 flight also looms large in the band’s recent history, namely the sad news which emerged last year of Malcolm Young’s ailing health. The rhythm guitarist has endured a torrid time of late, braving both a lung cancer scare and a heart condition which left him fitted with a pacemaker. He also fulfilled a gruelling 168-date world tour in support of the Black Ice album despite being diagnosed with dementia. When the time came to record its follow up, last year’s Rock or Bust, the condition’s grip had tightened.
With a pillar of the band retired, AC/DC rebuilt from within, looking back to that journey which brought the Youngs from Glasgow to Oceania en masse. Also on board that flight was Stevie Young, the son of Steven, Angus’s and Malcolm’s eldest brother. He would later return to Scotland and pursue his own modest musical career, playing in Hawick bands such as The Stabbers, Savage, Prowler and Tantrum before enjoying a fleeting fame with Starfighters, part of the new wave of British heavy metal. When the call came from his Uncle Angus, Stevie was playing in Blue Murda, a blues band with a repertoire based around T Bone Walker and Big Mama Thornton covers. His last performance with that outfit was at the Yardbird jazz club in Birmingham last September; the first with his new band came in February at the 57th Grammy Awards, before a television audience of 25 million people.
The trite issue of birthplace may be insufficient evidence to support this country’s putative claim to AC/DC, but its members’ dependence on kinship transforms the case into a compelling one.
We are fortunate in Scotland to call upon a slew of musical talent forged by our nation and nourished by it, but too many of its exports are content to swaddle themselves in plaid and tug at the heartstrings of the diaspora, perpetuating an ideal of nationhood as perfunctory as it is profitable.
Only one act embodies the characteristics of our country in all its incongruous glory: belligerent yet good natured; stubborn yet playful; searing yet always sincere. AC/DC have never sought to exploit their Scottish roots but they are indelibly shaped by them, a clan of outsiders who turn to one another in times of hardship and come out the other side rocking.
When they take to Hampden’s stage on Sunday night and the grand old lady shudders to the first snarling chord from Angus Young’s Gibson SG, let us show them they are home. AC/DC, Scotland salutes you.