Activity: 1973 – present
Members: Angus Young, Cliff Williams, Brian Johnson, Stevie Young, Chris Slade
Origin: Sydney, Australia
AC/DC are an Australian hard rock band, formed in November 1973 by brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, who continued as members until Malcolm’s illness and departure in 2014. Commonly referred to as a hard rock or blues rock band, they are also considered pioneers of heavy metal and are sometimes classified as such, though they have always dubbed their music as simply “rock and roll”.
For three decades AC/DC has reigned as one of the best-loved and hardest-rocking bands in the world. Featuring guitarist Angus Young as their visual symbol and musical firebrand, they grew from humble origins in Australia to become an arena-filling phenomenon with worldwide popularity. They did so without gimmickry, except for Angus’s schoolboy uniform, which became mandatory stage attire. From the beginning they have been a straight-ahead, no-frills rock and roll band that aimed for the gut. “We’ve never pulled any punches,” vocalist Brian Johnson has said. “We just play music that’s fun and simple–the way our audience likes it.”
Angus Young was born into a family of musical siblings. His oldest brother, George Young, belonged to the Easybeats, an Aussie beat group whose “Friday on My Mind” was a hit in most countries following its release in 1966 and a hit in America by the spring of 1967. Another guitar-playing sibling, Malcolm Young, had the original idea for a no-nonsense rock band built around energetic Angus, who was the brood’s most talented musician. The Young brothers chose the name AC/DC, which implied electricity and a hint of danger. The nascent AC/DC played their first gig at a club in Sydney on New Year’s Eve 1973. The group’s lineup solidified in 1974 when vocalist Bon Scott, drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Mark Evans replaced early members Dave Evans, Rob Bailey and Peter Clack.
Hungry and tirelessly hard-working, AC/DC toured and recorded constantly in the 1970s. Their first five studio albums – High Voltage (1975), T.N.T. (1975), Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976), Let There Be Rock (1977) and Powerage (1978) – were produced by George Young and his Easybeats partner, Henry Vanda. The Vanda-Young tandem captured the band’s raw energy in the studio. At the same time, AC/DC’s songs had a straightforward appeal that made them more of a hard rock than a heavy metal band. The group signed a worldwide contract with Atlantic Records in 1976; as a result, the American reissues of AC/DC’s early work differ significantly from the Australian originals. Let There Be Rock (1977) was the first AC/DC album to be released simultaneously around the world. After its recording, tour-weary bassist Evans left, replaced by Cliff Williams. A live album, If You’ve Want Blood You’ve Got It, came at the end of 1978.
AC/DC’s studio mastery took a giant leap with Highway to Hell (1979), recorded over a six-month period in London instead of Australia. At George Young’s suggestion, they tried a new producer: John Robert “Mutt” Lange (who’d later work with Def Leppard and Shania Twain). Angus sported a pair of devil’s horns on the jacket, which contributed to disapproval of AC/DC in some fundamentalist quarters. The band headlined its first European tour as Highway to Hell hit the British Top Ten and reached Number 17 in America. These triumphs were followed by tragedy when singer Bon Scott died of asphyxiation following a drinking binge on February 19, 1980.
Though devastated, Malcolm and Angus quickly began working up new material as a form of therapy. “I just rang up Angus and said, ‘Do you wanna come back and rehearse?’” Malcolm Young told Rolling Stone. “This was about two days afterward.” After auditioning new vocalists, they settled on Brian Johnson, a native of Newcastle, England, whose gruff, aggressive vocals helped AC/DC successfully enter a dramatic new phase of its career. The group rebounded with Back in Black, whose title and all-black cover paid silent tribute to Scott. The music rocked with a determined authority that catapulted AC/DC into a class with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones. Because they were younger than those bands, AC/DC bonded with a youthful audience that kept them on top throughout the 1980s. Back in Black was an instant classic that ranks as the sixth best-selling rock album of all time, having sold 19 million copies in the U.S. and 41 million worldwide. The album gave AC/DC a series of anthems that have formed the backbone of their live show: “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Back in Black” and “Hells Bells”.
In 1990 came The Razor’s Edge, whose opening track, “Thunderstruck,” was one of AC/DC’s strongest in years. It was based on a real-life experience: a lightning bolt struck the small plane in which Angus Young was flying, which nearly crashed as a result. The album also contained an uncharacteristic hit single, “Moneytalks.” A live recording, prosaically entitled Live, appeared in 1992 and was made available as a double disc and an abridged single disc. While not as prolific in the studio or omnipresent on the road in the 1990s, AC/DC continued to deliver when they did tour and record: in 1995 with Ballbreaker and in 2000 with Stiff Upper Lip. In 1997, during the five years between studio albums, the box set Bonfire was released.
AC/DC had sold more than 200 million records worldwide, including 71.5 million albums in the United States alone, making them the tenth-best-selling band in the United States and one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time. Back in Black has sold an estimated 50 million units worldwide, making it the fifth-highest-selling album by any artist – and the third-highest-selling album by any band. The album has sold 22 million units in the US alone, where it is the sixth-highest-selling album of all time. AC/DC ranked fourth on VH1’s list of the “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” and were named the seventh “Greatest Heavy Metal Band of All Time” by MTV. In 2004, AC/DC ranked No. 72 on the Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. Producer Rick Rubin, who wrote an essay on the band for the Rolling Stone list, referred to AC/DC as “the greatest rock and roll band of all time.” In 2010, AC/DC were ranked number 23 in the VH1 list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.
Though their choruses were as infectious as anything on radio, AC/DC were fundamentally the antithesis of a Top Forty band. Thus, they’ve cracked the U.S. singles charts only three times: “You Shook Me All Night Long” (Number 35), “Back in Black” (Number 37) and “Moneytalks” (Number 23). Their albums, on the other hand, have been all gone gold or platinum. In the America, AC/DC’s best-sellers are Back in Black (19 million copies sold), Highway to Hell (6 million), Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (6 million), Who Made Who (5 million), Live (whose single and double-disc configurations have sold a combined 5 million), For Those About to Rock We Salute You (4 million), and The Razor’s Edge (4 million). AC/DC moved from Atlantic to Sony in late 2002, and 2003 began with a major reissue program and the promise of a new studio album.
Thirty years on, AC/DC continues to give the fans what they want. Through it all, they’ve never lost the common touch – the sense that the band and their audience were interchangeable, and that both were celebrating the joyful jolt of electricity provided by good, hard, uncompromising rock and roll.