WITH his floppy grey “newsboy” cap, big wide grin and voice that can wake the dead, it’s safe to say that AC/DC singer Brian Johnson won’t go quietly.
Though he feared “it was all over” when severe hearing loss forced him off the band’s Rock Or Bust tour in 2016, the lovable Geordie is back . . . and then some.
He can be heard hollering his heart out on rabble-rousing new album Power Up, thanks to what he calls some “technical help”.
It is AC/DC’s first new music since the death of guitarist and songwriter Malcolm Young in 2017 and serves as a fitting tribute to their fallen bandmate.
As Power Up heads for No1 in today’s UK albums chart, the irrepressible Johnson is just the person you want to encounter via Zoom on a cold, wet autumn night in London.
It’s the middle of the day at his home in Florida, where the temperature is touching 30C, and on the screen in front of me, I’m glad to see he’s wearing his trademark attire of Peaky Blinders-style cap and black T-shirt.
From the get-go, Johnson is in cracking form as he explains his rollercoaster ride back into the AC/DC fold.
Though he has lived in the US for years and been in a band commonly described as Australian, Newcastle United superfan Johnson still sounds like a native of the North East of England.
He casts his mind back to March 2016, when he had to leave AC/DC’s world tour — his shoes filled by none other than Guns N’ Roses screecher Axl Rose.
“I thought it was all over, Simon mate,” he says, as if he’s my instant BF.
“It felt terrible having to face the reality of not doing what I love.
“That band is family. I’ve been with them for 40 years and there I was just sitting at home.
“But at the same time, I had to take stock and think to myself, ‘Well, Brian, you’re 68 years old, this isn’t terminal, some people have got things much worse than you, so take it on the chin’.”
'I HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY THAT CAN FIX YOU'
As he prepared “to get on with life” outside the hard-rock outfit he’d sang with since the glory days of Back In Black, something little short of a miracle happened.
“A wonderful fella from Colorado called Steve Ambrose contacted me,” he explains. “He’s a scientist and he said, ‘I have the technology that can fix you’.”
At first, Johnson was wary of such a bold claim and told him: “I don’t want any smoke and mirrors.” But soon he realised the boffin was deadly serious.
“So I invited him down to stay at the house with us. I couldn’t believe how well it (his hearing device) worked. We then had three long years of working together to miniaturise it. It looked like a car battery at first!”
Fast-forward to the beginning of this year, before Covid-19 prompted widespread lockdown, and AC/DC are in Holland to shoot a video for Power Up’s first single, the rifftastic Shot In The Dark.
Angus Young, lead guitarist, overgrown schoolboy and sole band leader since the departure of his stricken brother Malcolm in 2014, is standing on stage in his ever-comical uniform.
He says to Johnson: “Come on, Brian, let’s see if this works. Perhaps I should start quietly.”
The singer, now 73, picks up the story: “But I said to Angus, ‘No, no, I want full battlefield . . . straight up’. All I can tell you is that it worked so well that you could feel the relief in the room.
“Everything that had gone had come back. Mate, it was absolutely the best feeling you could ever have. I felt very lucky.”
Johnson now knows he can hear properly in a live and loud setting, opening up the prospect of touring again when pandemic restrictions ease.
But he had already taken a full part in the Power Up sessions at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studio during late 2018 and early last year.
His inclusion in the line-up wasn’t the only example of triumph over adversity.
Drummer Phil Rudd returned from his “crazy s**t” legal issues which led to his house arrest in New Zealand.
Bassist Cliff Williams also re-joined despite announcing his retirement in 2016 when the others were missing, saying AC/DC was “a changed animal”.
And though the absence of Malcolm Young loomed large over the band, at least his nephew Stevie Young, a fine rhythm guitarist and long-time associate, had taken his place.
Johnson says: “It’s as close to AC/DC without Malcolm as it’s possible to get and Stevie’s doing a sterling job.
“I could hardly believe that I was walking through the studio door with the boys.
“There was this electric feeling, as if Malcolm was still there. He was a very tough character and, boy oh boy, he didn’t let death stand in the way.
“We decided to dedicate the album to him because we had lost a friend and a leader and we wanted to put things right for him. We wanted a legacy that he would be proud of.
“And I think we did it. We really tried hard to be the best.”
When the sessions started, Johnson was like a kid in a sweetshop. “I get a little animated when I’m singing and there was s**t flying everywhere,” he says.
“I was all over the room and when the guys came up with pizzas or whatever, they’d go, ‘Has there been a hurricane in here?’
“And I would be sitting there sweating, saying, ‘No, we just finished a song’. It was such fun. The boys were exactly the same. I was watching them with their heads right down, completely into it.”
As for Johnson himself, he detects a certain bluesy quality to his voice that wasn’t present in his younger days.
“You have to live life to sing the blues,” he says. “And I’ve had some things happen to me in the last few years. Maybe the pain, the happiness, whatever it is, comes through.
“My big thrill was that every time I got one of these tracks, I was thinking, ‘I’m the first person in the world to sing this song’.”
I ask him to assess the current state of his bandmates and his answers reveal deep affection for them.
“Angus is as happy as anything. He had these songs, which he wrote with Malcolm, for so long. They used to work non-stop together and this was unfinished business.
LOCH NESS MONSTER
“Phil went through a terrible, turbulent time. I remember seeing him and thinking, ‘That’s not the fella I love’. Phil is just the sweetest, nicest man and he’s fabulous now. He’s become a grandad again and he’s just thrilled to bits.
“Cliff is always Cliff, fit and well. He’s up in the mountains of Carolina, shooting animals or whatever they shoot up there.
“And Stevie’s a wonderfully extrovert character. He’s done such a great job standing where Malcolm once stood. I thought it was an impossible task but he’s done brilliantly.”
Despite their woes, it seems humour is never far from the surface of AC/DC.
“It’s always been the same,” says Johnson. “A lot of bands don’t laugh. I’ve been around them and it ain’t a nice place to be.
“You’ve got to remember you’re travelling with these people all the time, sometimes for a year and a half.
“You have to get on and make each other laugh.”
He recalls the hilarious time when he and Malcolm went in search of the Loch Ness Monster during a road trip with their wives through Scotland.
“So we got to a hotel there and had dinner. By the time we finished, we were well soused. Then Mal said, ‘Hang on, I’m going upstairs to get some fireworks’.
“I said, ‘Fireworks?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve figured I’ll get Nessie’s attention if I send a few flares up.’
“We were well out of our trees and he was sticking fireworks in the mud, trying to let them off. We got all wet and it was bitter-cold and of course the whole thing was a damp squib.
“So we just said, ‘Oh, b*ks!’ and headed back to the hotel.
“We were like two schoolboys, covered in mud and bits of grass, but we tried to keep it very serious and said (to the hotel staff), ‘Right, is the bar still open?’ ”
In 2020, with Covid-19 changing all our lives, you might forgive Johnson if he suffered a sense-of-humour bypass. “It’s like waiting at the longest red light in the world, awful,” he says.
“We had rehearsed for three weeks and it was all going swimmingly. Everybody was smiling and laughing. We’d started to talk about doing shows — small clubs to get started and then build it up.
“Then this virus, which at the time seemed like somebody else’s, stopped everything.
“It was shuddering, horrible news and it made us realise that we’re all equal.
“I’m sure you’re pissed off as well. There’s just this dark pall. You try to be jolly but it’s always there, a bit like the electric bill.”
At least, I suggest, Power Up should serve as a welcome pick-me-up for AC/DC fans the world over.
“Absolutely, I’m with you 100 per cent,” says Johnson. “We want to lift this gloom. We hope this is the album to do it because it’s just so carefree and non-political, nothing to do with anything except having a good time.”
Of all the tracks, Johnson says Through The Mists Of Time is “the one that affects me most. I just saw Malcolm more than ever when I was doing that. It’s brilliantly written by Angus about the happy, carefree days when I joined the band, the days before Aids, with all the lovely girls we met backstage”.
Johnson was recruited in 1980 after original singer Bon Scott died following a night out in London and was pitched straight into making AC/DC’s seminal album Back In Black in the Bahamas.
“I was a little bit anxious,” he remembers. “I’d never been to a tropical island and I arrived with one pair of shoes, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underpants, three T-shirts and a denim bomber and that was it.
“Things got sweaty real quick there but it was exciting doing Back In Black, even if most of it’s just a blur now.
“Mutt Lange (producer) was brilliant, as was Malcolm, who was so generous with his time.”
Before my time talking to Johnson is up, I can’t resist asking about another outfit close to his heart, Newcastle United.
“Mediocrity seems to be the norm,” he sighs. “I don’t mean to get personal with any players — and Steve Bruce is trying his hardest with absolutely no help whatsoever. But the fans are sick of it all. I hope fresh owners come in and turn it around.
“One of my old friends from years ago was (Newcastle legend) Jackie Milburn — the nicest man on the planet, who always brought boxes of chocolates for the kids.
“He used to walk to the ground with his boots round his neck and if they lost a game at St James’s, he would stay there until 7.30 at night because of the shame.
“There’s the pride — and where’s the pride gone? It doesn’t exist any more.”
With that, I tell Johnson how much I enjoyed our chat and he replies: “When I get back to London, I’ve got to have a pint with you.”
I might just hold him to that. I could listen to the Geordie voice of AC/DC for hours.
AC/DC POWER UP
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