Brian Johnson, AC/DC all set to shake the Coachella kids up
After 40 years of hard-rock superstardom, there aren’t many things AC/DC has yet to try.
Headlining the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, as the veteran Australian band will do when the annual blowout kicks off Friday in Indio, is one of them.
But if Brian Johnson was nervous about performing at a festival known for its adventurous talent and youthful crowd, the 67-year-old singer didn’t show it this week at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills — perhaps because he’d just received some reassuring words from Paul McCartney, who played Coachella in 2009.
“I ran into him downstairs this morning,” Johnson said Tuesday over tea with his band mates Angus Young and Cliff Williams. “He goes, ‘Brian, you get on that stage and I’m telling you, you see all these kids looking for the hip-hop acts. Then they see you, and they’re like, ‘Who’s he? Oh, yeah — me dad talks of him.’ ” Johnson laughed in his raspy growl. “But he said it’s great because you’re doing your thing, and eventually all the kids go, ‘He’s cool, this dude!’
“It kind of takes you right back to the start, when you had to win over an audience,” the singer added. “I’m excited.”
As it happens, the crowd won’t be the only X factor for AC/DC at Coachella, which after its run this weekend at the Empire Polo Club is set to repeat April 17-19. The band’s Friday night set — the opening date of a world tour scheduled through fall — will also feature two additions to the band in guitarist Stevie Young (Angus’ nephew) and drummer Chris Slade.
Or new-ish additions, let’s call them. Both men have played in AC/DC before, Young in the late ‘80s and Slade in the early ‘90s. But now both appear to have permanent gigs following a tumultuous 2014 in which founding guitarist Malcolm Young, Angus’ older brother, was forced to leave the group as a result of dementia and longtime drummer Phil Rudd lost his spot after he was arrested in New Zealand on charges of drug possession and threatening to kill. (An additional murder-for-hire charge was dropped due to insufficient evidence.)
The dramatic events — which came just as AC/DC was preparing to release its latest album, November’s typically solid “Rock or Bust” — rattled the band, said Angus Young, who called the experience a “roller coaster.”
Yet AC/DC has weathered turmoil before, most famously when its original lead singer, Bon Scott, died of alcohol poisoning in 1980. Months later, the group recruited Johnson and put out “Back in Black,” still its biggest album ever. Moving past these latest troubles was never in question, Johnson said.
“You pick yourself up, dust yourself down and just keep going,” said the frontman, instantly recognizable in his trademark black T-shirt and flat cap. “You live on, and you have a wonderful memory of them always with you, but you’re not going to stop doing what you do. Otherwise, you die inside, you know? And we would die — I would, if I didn’t do what I was doing. There’d be nothing.” He paused as though suddenly aware of how serious he sounded. Then he laughed.
“I’d just be another guy looking for a hobby.”
In person, AC/DC’s core members display the easy familiarity of men who’ve spent much of their adult lives together. When someone in the band’s retinue asked Johnson, who lives in Florida, whether his browned arms represented a “Florida tan or a California tan,” Young answered quickly, “It’s a tan from a bottle.”
But the music is no joke (even if titles like “Emission Control” are). In L.A. this week, they’ve been putting in six-hour daily practices, Williams said, ensuring that Slade and Stevie Young are locked into the group’s signature groove. Because AC/DC’s music is so uncluttered — often with just a guitar riff, bass line and thumping drum beat — it offers an uncertain player nowhere to hide.
“It’s not dental rock, where if there’s a hole, you fill it,” said Johnson. “Holes are important. That’s what causes it to swing.”
The band has also been working on making songs from the new album “stage-worthy,” said Young, a challenge given that they’re joining a set list that otherwise showcases stone-cold classics such as “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
For the Record, April 9, 7:42 a.m.: An earlier version of this story said that the song “It’s a Long Way to the Top” is on the rock band’s live set list. The song has not appeared on the band’s recently published set lists.
“Rock or Bust” fared well upon its release last year, topping Billboard’s rock chart with sales of 172,000 copies in its first week in stores. AC/DC also made a bundle in 2008 when the group licensed its music to the popular video game Rock Band. But Young said touring has always been the heart of AC/DC’s business. (It will hit Dodger Stadium on Sept. 28.)
“Even when we came to America with ‘Highway to Hell,’ which kind of opened the door for us here, our record company said, ‘I’d like to say we promoted it, but we didn’t,’ ” the guitarist recalled. “‘You sold it by playing live.’”
As McCartney was happy to tell Johnson, Coachella offers the opportunity to get in front of younger fans, particularly those who listen to music on digital streaming services such as Spotify, which AC/DC hasn’t allowed access to its catalog (it was among the last holdouts to release its music on iTunes in 2012). The festival is also, of course, a payday: Billboard estimates that this year’s headliners, who also include Jack White and Drake, will earn between $750,000 and $2 million each.
And for Coachella organizer Goldenvoice, AC/DC serves as a lure for older festival-goers willing to pay for pricey VIP amenities. Some critics have complained that the booking represents a turn away from the festival’s roots in alternative music. But Goldenvoice honcho Paul Tollett (who declined to comment for this article) recently told the Desert Sun that AC/DC’s reputation as a powerful live act made the band the “ultimate” get for a festival like Coachella.
Asked whether he’d take any comfort from the knowledge that Friday’s crowd would likely include some AC/DC die-hards along with the kids wondering who the old guys are, Young shrugged. He’s careful not to put more stock in praise than he does in the charge that his band makes music for cavemen.
“You can’t take any of it too seriously,” he said. “I remember my mother once told my father, ‘Oh, there’s a nice article in the paper about your sons.’ And my father said, ‘Yeah, I can eat that, can’t I?’” He laughed. “I guess that kind of summed up how my life was going to be.”
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