Stephen McGinty: A rocker in a hard place

When legendary heavy metal band AC/DC hit the headlines this week, Stephen McGinty was cast back to a time of headbanging and hair-raising tunes. Here, he salutes those about to rock

Glasgow-born Malcolm Young, second left, lined up alongside brother Angus, second right, for most of AC/DCs long career. Below left, the fine art of headbanging. Picture: AP
Glasgow-born Malcolm Young, second left, lined up alongside brother Angus, second right, for most of AC/DCs long career. Below left, the fine art of headbanging. Picture: AP

AS A heavy metal fan, I was hindered by my hair. Friends were able to grow theirs long, way past their shoulders and, in the case of my mate Dave, right down to the small of his back. This made “headbanging”, that novel pursuit of the hard rocker, exceedingly easy, as the mildest tilt of their neck would send a ripple through their manes which instantly made it appear as if a thick hairy cloud had settled down onto their necks.

I was not so lucky. Regardless of how long I neglected the barber, my hair refused to stretch past the bottom of my neck, at which point, and in a move that seemed to defy the laws of physics, it would build back up into a strange Caucasian afro. The chief problem was that such a head of hair made headbanging exceedingly difficult and quite painful, as a great deal more force was required to shift my stubborn barnet. At concerts and in the privacy of my bedroom, I tended to resemble a nodding dog, if one were strapped to the handlebars of a pneumatic drill.

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We did of course know that headbanging was considered to be less than healthy, with one denim-clad wannabe doctor in our group insistent that each “bang” resulted in the loss of 2,000 braincells, but we all figured that the natural physical response to a song like Whole Lotta Rosie had to be worth a few hundred thousand cells.

Oh how I coveted my friends’ long locks. I remember watching a Timotei shampoo advert in which an attractive model washes her extravagant locks in a wooden barrel by an alpine shack, and as she swept her hair up, caught in lingering slow motion, I remember thinking how good a headbanger she’d be. Even at 13, I realised that this was an inappropriate thought, but such was the plight of an ardent AC/DC fan in the early 1980s.

This was a time before heavy metal and hard rock became cool, before Drew Barrymore sported an AC/DC t-shirt in Charlie’s Angels, and when music on television was strictly rationed. I remember the collective excitement within my group of friends when The Tube announced they were going to do a 90-minute Heavy Metal special and how we all hung out in Dave’s house with, every half hour, one of us delegated to man the video player in readiness to press record when AC/DC made their promised appearance. In the end, this consisted of a 29 second clip of Bon Scott dressed in a minister’s robe at a lectern singing in a video of Let There Be Rock. At first astounded as we never knew such a video existed, we quickly became disgusted when, after less than half a minute, the footage was cut off. Muriel Grey tried to make it up to us by introducing Judas Priest playing live in the studio, but even then we knew Rob Halford’s peaked leather cap, whips and chains look was mildly disturbing.

In that age, before YouTube and DVDs, the only live footage available in Britain was the Warner Brothers video, Let There Be Rock, featuring Bon Scott at AC/DC’s concert in Paris, and when we finally tracked down a copy in a music fair at the Mitchell Library the excitement was, appropriately enough, electric. It’s strange looking back, almost 30 years, to how excited I could get at the thought of seeing a band live, even on video. It was that childhood thrill of Christmas morning and waking up in the darkness to feel the weight of the stocking at your feet, but rolled up and squeezed into early adolescence.

My mother, as good Catholic mothers were wont to be, was mildly concerned at my musical transformation from expressing, as a ten-year-old, a deep admiration for Don McLean’s Vincent and American Pie (still great songs) to purchasing Let There Be Blood, aged 12. This was the time when, in America, Tipper Gore was beginning a crusade about rock lyrics and their supposed Satanic influence. I remember explaining to her in great detail that AC/DC stood for Alternating Current/Direct Current and not Anti-Christ/Devil’s Child, a presentation that required showing her the band’s debut album, High Voltage, and the electricity symbol in the middle. My successful lobbying campaign very nearly came undone when my mate Jerome returned from Canada with an AC/DC long-sleeved baseball T-shirt (very cool) which bore a picture of a gravestone on which were chiselled the words, yes, “Anti Christ/Devil’s Child”. On the two occasions he visited the house so attired, I had to perform a feat of subtle blocking and dextrous positioning so that he never actually turned his back when mum was handing out the soft drinks. A year or two later when I discovered Slayer and their classic albums Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood, I figured she just accepted that my soul was lost to Beelzebub.

In the summer of 1986, there was tremendous excitement among Clydebank’s metal fraternity when it was announced in Kerrang! magazine that AC/DC were looking for volunteers to appear in their new video for Who Made Who, taken from their soundtrack for the movie, Maximum Overdrive, directed by our other communal hero, the horror novelist Stephen King. We all entered. Nobody won. And so when the video was finally shown on Top of the Pops, we watched grudgingly those 200 fans dressed up in the schoolboy uniform of Angus Young and clutching cardboard guitars. I noted that they were all equipped with long-haired wigs. Handy, I thought, tugging at my less than lustrous locks.

AC/DC have never written a serious song in their career. They have no desire to satirise modern politics in a chorus or highlight inequality in the third world. Each and every song in their oeuvre, apart from the poignancy of Ride On, is largely about sex, but what songs they turned out. Put You Shook Me All Night Long on the jukebox in a divebar in Santa Monica, as I once did, and the entire pub and its patrons will sing along.

This week, the news broke that AC/DC may have been about to announce their retirement, and sketchy though the rumours were, it hurled me back to those three or four years when the band meant more to me than almost anything else. I remember dutifully purchasing each of their albums on cassette despite the fact that I had tape recorded copies, a fact my father thought incredible and financially unsound. Yet, within 24 hours of the rumour breaking, there was confirmation from Brian Johnson, the band’s gravel voiced lead singer, that they were not be splitting but would be heading into the studio to work on a new album. However, it would be recorded without Malcolm Young, the rhythm guitarist, and brother of Angus Young, who has stood in the background for the past 40 years. He is, reportedly, seriously ill, although his condition has not yet been revealed.

Journalism has its benefits, and back in 1994 I interviewed Angus Young over the phone. He was in a hotel room in Germany and spoke warmly about his earliest memories of playing football with his brother Malcolm in the back streets of Glasgow before the family emigrated to Australia. Gigs in Glasgow were a form of homecoming for the brothers, not that they were sentimental. I’ve seen AC/DC live in concert a number of times, but the best occasion was their most recent Scottish gig at Hampden Park in 2009, a golden summer evening when the streets of Glasgow’s south side thronged with fans in schoolcaps and devils’ horns.

In spite of this week’s mild scare, hope remains that Scots fans will see them once more, even if it is without Malcolm, of whom there can sadly be little more to say than: “For those about to rock – we salute you!”