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Column: AC/DC, the law and Phil Rudd’s alleged murder-for-hire plot

AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd in Tauranga District Court in New Zealand. Authorities have dropped the murder-for-hire charge against Rudd.
AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd in Tauranga District Court in New Zealand. Authorities have dropped the murder-for-hire charge against Rudd.
(TVNZ / AFP / Getty Images)

“Rock or Bust”? For longtime AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd, it’s the latter.

That question arose with the news that Rudd has been accused in New Zealand of “attempting to procure a murder,” as well as possession of methamphetamine and marijuana.

According to press reports, Rudd’s house in Tauranga was raided after a tip linked him to an alleged murder-for-hire plot. The band acknowledged the charges in a simple statement on its website, writing: “We’ve only become aware of Phil’s arrest as the news was breaking. We have no further comment. Phil’s absence will not affect the release of our new album ‘Rock or Bust’ and upcoming tour next year.”

Legal entanglements and violence have long been among AC/DC’s central thematic obsessions. Amid the Australia-based band’s countless allusions to sex, bad women and the rigors of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle are many trigger-happy protagonists living outside the law -- or attempting to unsnarl themselves from its constraints.

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As AC/DC’s long-running drummer, Rudd sat behind singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson as they bragged of slipping the noose, of being trapped with only one way out and of assassins on the edge of society ready to shoot, stab or otherwise eliminate. As lead guitarist Angus Young did his lawless guitar solos, it was Rudd who kept him on beat. And darkness was everywhere.

“I’m dirty, I’m mean, I’m mighty unclean,” sang the late vocalist Scott on “T.N.T.,” a song in which he brags of being “a wanted man, public enemy No. 1,” a soul so menacing that he warns us to “lock up your daughter, lock up your wife.” It doesn’t get much better from there.

“If you’ve got a lady and you want her gone but you ain’t got the guts,” sings Scott on one of the band’s biggest hits, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” he can help. Is she nagging? Bragging? “For a fee, I’m happy to be your backdoor man,” he offers before leading us into the memorable chorus.

Scott flashes a switchblade to open “Problem Child,” threatening that “with a flick of the knife / I can change your life.” “What’s Next to the Moon,” from the band’s 1978 album “Powerage,” is set on railroad tracks, where a vengeful man has tied his ex with a train barreling toward them. Over the course of the song, we bear witness to the woman getting struck and are privy to the scorned man’s confession: “I didn’t mean to hurt that woman of mine -- it was a heart attack.”

The volume of crimes in AC/DC’s music is impressive, though hardly a surprise for a band whose musical world was shaped by American bluesmen who often bragged of mayhem and revenge, of living on the lam. But AC/DC goes further, especially on “Burnin’ Alive,” which reads like a particularly grisly killing spree.

“Night Prowler” is a creepy song about an antagonist (reportedly based on serial killer Richard Ramirez) who will “make a mess of you, yes, I will,” and the classic “Hell’s Bells” stars Satan himself, who promises that he “won’t take no prisoners, won’t spare no lives.”

In AC/DC’s defense, the band has over the years stepped back from time to time. In the early song “Riff Raff,” Scott acknowledged, “I ain’t every shot nobody / I don’t even own a gun.” But who needs one? On “Black Ice,” Johnson threatens an enemy the old-school way: “I creep-crawl down the street and gouge your eyes out.”

Rudd will not enter a plea until a court date in late November. AC/DC, which will release “Rock or Bust” on Dec. 2, will embark on a world tour in 2015, though it is not known whether Rudd was asked to be involved on the tour.

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