AC/DC: Unbroken & Victorious

At the risk of sounding like some tabloid-press doomsayer, 2014 was pretty much an “annus horribilis” for AC/DC.
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At the risk of sounding like some tabloid-press doomsayer, 2014 was pretty much an “annus horribilis” for AC/DC. Legendary rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young—the band’s founder, creative backbone, and organizer—finally succumbed to dementia after years of subtle (and not so subtle) warning signs, and permanently retired from the group before it was scheduled to record its 15th studio album.

Then, on November 6, 2014, things turned reality-show crazy as drummer Phil Rudd was charged with attempting to procure a murder (later dropped for lack of evidence), threatening to kill, and possession of meth and cannabis. Rudd was set to stand trial in a Tauranga, New Zealand district court on April 21, 2015, and his legal woes have definitely fractured his tenure in the band. Although Rudd completed his drum tracks on AC/DC’s latest album, Rock or Bust [Columbia], his erratic behavior during the sessions (he reportedly showed up ten days late to the studio) likely made the other members uncomfortable about his future with the group—even before his troubles with the law.

But with two members down, AC/DC simply soldiered on, much like they did after the death of lead singer Bon Scott in 1980. Nephew Stevie Young was tapped to play guitar in the studio and onstage, and former AC/DC drummer Chris Slade was brought back into the fold to replace Rudd on the band’s world tour.

The rest of the band—guitarist Angus Young, vocalist Brian Johnson, and bassist Cliff Williams—would certainly have been forgiven if they had cashed in their chips last year. After all, since the band’s formation in 1973, they have sold hundreds of millions of records, penned a fair share of instantly recognizable hard-rock anthems, and inspired scores of rabid fans both young and old to tattoo the AC/DC logo on their bodies.

Yet, retirement probably seems like a very distant reality when you’re still feisty and relevant after more than 40 years in the rock biz. AC/DC has proven they are no nostalgia act nearing the end of their commercial tether. The band’s previous album, 2008’s Black Ice—which, like Rock or Bust, was produced by Brendan O’Brien—achieved double platinum status in the United States, hit number one in 29 countries, and was nominated for Grammy, Brit, and Juno awards.

When Rock or Bust was released on November 28, 2014, it went gold in America, and reached number one or the top five in more than 20 countries—all before the band started its concert tour. The debut video from the album, “Play Ball,” logged more than six million YouTube/Vevo views, the follow-up, “Rock or Bust,” was seen by more than seven million eyeballs, and the third, “Rock the Blues Away,” nabbed 160,000 views less than 24 hours after its release on March 10 (as I was writing this story). And who could forget the band blowing the doors off the 2015 Grammy Awards, as many of the hipsters and stars and business people in attendance proudly wore the devil horns passed out before the performance.

Now, these stats probably would be drooled over by a young pop act with a beautifully stylized “brand” and 20 hit songwriters to guide their recordings. The fact they belong to a very mature rock group that plays guitars really loud at a time when raging guitars don’t exactly flash brightly across the cultural radar is almost miraculous. Well, except that none of this is really a miracle. It’s a celebration of hard work, believing in the basic rightness of who you are, and never ever giving up.

Although Stevie wasn’t giving interviews at the time, I was able to talk with Angus and Cliff in a suite at New York’s posh Peninsula Hotel on a very brisk winter afternoon.

You’ve been making records for more than 40 years. How does the band manage to keep getting juiced up to deliver impassioned and ballsy tracks every time you pop in the studio?

Young: I guess it’s the fresh ideas. That’s the only thing that really ever changes in AC/DC—the new songs. Other than that, I don’t know. We just always seem to sound like us, and sounding like us happens to have an element of excitement, I guess. Cliff will tell you, the first time with worked with Brendan on Black Ice and we set up to play in the studio, he was like, “Well, these guys have not played for a while…”

Williams: He just pushed Record and said, “Okay, tape is running.”

Young: And he immediately turned to [engineer] Mike Fraser, and said, “Sh*t! It sounds like AC/DC. It’s AC/DC!”

So what was it like working with Brendan again on Rock or Bust?

Young: I’ll tell you the great thing—he’s a fantastic musician himself. He knows his guitar, he knows his bass, he knows his drums—he knows various instruments. It’s always good when you have somebody that competent, and who also has an ear for what is commercial. So when he suggests something, you know it’s better for the album if you listen to him seriously. He’s not somebody who says, “There’s something not right there, but I don’t know what it is.” We’ve had that, too. It’s frustrating when a producer looks at you like, “I’m stumped.” But Brendan has the musical ability to know precisely what is right or wrong about a performance, and that helps us relax and just play. He has our backs.

How did the songwriting unfold for the new album? I notice that you and Malcolm are credited as the songwriters on all 11 tracks.

Young: Mal kept doing what he could until he couldn’t do it anymore, but I have all the material that he was working on. There were a lot of riffs, ideas, and bits of choruses. I’d fill things in to see if we had a song. Every album we’ve ever done has been that way. There was always a bit from the past, a bit from what we had that was brand new, and, sometimes, just an old idea that either Malcolm or myself had worked on but we never finished. The songwriting process didn’t really change, except for the fact that Mal wasn’t physically there. So when it came to writing and putting stuff together, I had Stevie there with me. You see, Malcolm was always a great organizer. He always kept track of the stuff we were writing together. He’d record it, date it, make notes. My records—if you can call them that—are always chaotic. So, this time, Stevie helped me organize a lot of what was there.

Did you, or the band, or Brendan “rate” the material at some point to determine which songs would go on the album?

Young: Basically, when we felt we had all the material that would work and we felt good about it, we scheduled studio time and gave it all to Brendan to let him be the judge. He’d say things like, “Oh yeah—that’s cooking,” or “That’s kind of iffy.” A lot of Brendan’s input and approach was, “Look, I’m going to be the AC/DC fan, and I’m going to focus that way.” So when we played him the material, he’d go, “Do I want to hear AC/DC play that?”

On that note, did you guys come up with anything that Brendan kind of went, “I don’t want to hear AC/DC do that”?

Young: Oh, yeah. We definitely got that. He might say something like, “Well, it’s a clever thing but it’s not what you are.” That happens a fair amount with us. We’ll play something, and maybe I have a classical tune or something in my head, and I get a riff going based on that idea, and I’ll think, “Um, yeah, this is something.” Sometimes, we’ll even spend a bit of time on the idea, but, in the end, it’s just not something people will hear as AC/DC. We try to be careful—even before we get to the studio. I used to do it with Malcolm, and now I do the same with Stevie: I play something and say, “Tell me if you don’t hear it as AC/DC?”

How do you come up with your vocal melodies?

Young: If I’ve got a hook-y [vocal] line, I just kind of talk it through. It’s a bit rough. But Mal would always get the best out of the idea—which was good for me, because I never really paid that much attention to stuff like that. But Malcolm always did. A lot of people go, “Is there any melody in AC/DC?” Well, there is. We rough it up. It’s not a neat and tidy melody, but it’s there.

How did Brendan approach the vocal tracks?

Young: Brendan has his own kind of approach to getting the best out of the vocals and melodies. He was insistent that the songs be in the best keys for Brian. We worked all of that out before we even started tracking. It’s no sense going for great tracks, and then having Brian say later on, “Oh sh*t, guys—this is too hard for me to sing.”

Williams: If the song is too high for Brian, then the song simply doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t matter how great the music tracks might sound if he can’t get a good vocal down. So we played things through to make sure Brian was comfortable. Brendan was quite watchful there, and we did end up changing a few keys.

Cliff, as an AC/DC song has to have such a strong groove, how do you develop your bass parts?

Williams: I just listen to the song, and I play with the other players. I don’t really know how to explain it any other way. There are no tricks. If it doesn’t feel right, I’ll know it. It comes from playing with the guys for a long time. You develop that sense of who you are in the band, and what you need to do. Basically, I just try to put the bass in the right spot.

Do you tend to listen to a particular part of the drum kit, or does it depend on the song?

Williams: I tend to play with the kick, but I listen to the snare and hi-hat, as well.

Young: You know, what Cliff adds is drive, and you either have that, or you don’t. It’s the same with drummers. Sometimes, what’s missing is that little bit of excitement. But Cliff really knows how to give the groove a lift—whether he’s on the back of the beat, or the front.

Cliff, did Brendan throw any new ideas into your pocket for the album?

Williams: Not a lot, but he gave me a fair bit of direction on “Rock & Roll Thunder.”

Young: That’s a song that we pretty much put together in the studio.

Williams: I had some ideas for the bass line, and Brendan kind of plucked them out himself and edited things. Then, he’d play something to me and say, “Try this and see if it works.” He wanted a certain movement to the bass on that track.

Young: He wanted space. He liked the space, and playing in-between the beats. He didn’t want a straight pumping bass line. When he heard my demo of the song, he said, “I dig this and I dig this and I dig this.” And the stuff he didn’t dig kind of went away or was changed. When we got to the bass track, he seemed to know exactly what bits he wanted to hear.

Were there any adjustments necessary during the sessions, now that Stevie Young has taken Malcolm’s place in the band?

Young: Stevie grew up listening to his playing, so he’s kind of like a younger version of Malcolm. Mal was distinct with his rhythm playing, and Stevie is the same—he plays that hard, solid rhythm. For me, I didn’t have to adapt. I concentrated on what I was doing, because I knew what I was hearing, and those parts were covered. Well, unless I looked around. Then, I went, “Oh, that’s not Mal.”

Williams: Actually, Stevie is also very similar to Malcolm in personality, and that spilled into his playing. So that side of it was no different. He’s solid as Malcolm, and he was a very good fit.

As a band, how do you evaluate your studio performances to know if a track is really working?

Young: You put the track down, and the proof is in the pudding when you go into the control room and listen. You can’t really hear the whole balance when you’re out there recording on headphones. Sometimes, I get in the control room and I go, “Oh, I can finally hear the drums in a proper mix.” Part of the problem is that I’ve never come across the perfect headphones, or even the perfect headphone mix. It’s like, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m hearing in here, but it ain’t what I want it to be.” I remember going back to Back In Black, we used to drive Mutt Lange a little crazy. We’d say, “Hey Mutt, what’s going on in these cans?” And he’d storm in and go, “Let me have a listen. Sh*t! Well, just do the best you can.” [Laughs.]

Williams: You take that direction from your producer a lot—although none of us would accept anything that didn’t pass muster.

Young: But even when we left the studio—even after the mixing session—the record wasn’t done. When we had the final mixes, Brendan said, “Don’t listen to them now. Listen to it fresh after a week or so, and if you hear anything you’re not happy with, note it down, and we can always redo it. Nothing is written in stone until we’re all happy and we’re all in a good spot.”

Williams: He said that to everyone.

So did you end up giving Brendan a 17-page treatise on all the things you wanted to fix?

Young: No, no, no. It was just things like having Cliff go out and do a bit of a backing vocal that we thought would improve a track, and then that would spark something in my head, and I’d say to Brendan, “I’ve got another idea that might also be good for that track.” And he would go, “Let me hear what you’ve got. We’ll try it and see if it works.”

Are there any gear surprises on Rock or Bust?

Williams: No. I used my same stuff—the Ampeg SVT-4 Pro, an Avalon direct box, and my old Music Man bass. It’s always pretty simple for me, and there’s a lot of warmth in those things. I don’t know if I ended up with mostly amp, or mostly direct, or a blend of both on the tracks. You’d have to ask [Rock or Bust recording engineer] Mike Fraser, as that’s his side of it. He gets a good sound.

Young: I brought my fingers.

Awesome tone in those digits, then...

Young: Pretty much [laughs]. Actually, I used the same old Marshalls. A few spares. Maybe we tried some other amps. I can’t remember. I played my Gibson SGs, because they’re the animals I know best.

So, still no effects?

Young: No. The only thing is Brendan might mess around with the EQ on the board while I’m playing something. I’ve tried different things over the years—going direct into the board, or putting a speaker in the toilet, and such—but no pedalboards or anything like that. I’ve always thought that if you work at it a bit, you can make your own little wah-wah sound or whatever. I’ll fiddle and faddle around. If somebody says, “Try to get a gun sound on your guitar,” I’ll figure out a way of playing it. I think if you can buy it, it’s too common.

Solving the Mystery of Angus Young’s Classic Back In Black Tone

Clockwise from left: Angus and Ken Schaffer in 1977

IT’S NOT REALLY A “GUITARIST’S version” of the detective game Clue, but it could be. In our game, we have a truly obsessed tone freak, an impassioned inventor, AC/DC’s Angus and Malcolm Young, this very magazine, and a lost guitar sound. Let’s set up the crime scene…

THE INVENTOR
In 1975, Ken Schaffer released his Schaffer- Vega Diversity System—a wireless device for guitar that was adopted by major concert acts—including, as we will soon learn more about, AC/DC. Schaffer’s analog circuitry included an ingenious paired compressor/expander (called “companding”) that boosted the system’s dynamic range to more than 100dB, as well as adding some sonic voodoo to the processed guitar sound. Stricter FCC regulations for wireless systems and Schaffer’s own restless spirit caused the end of the SVDS in 1982, after approximately 1,000 units were produced

THE ROCK STAR
When AC/DC played the Palladium in New York City in 1977, Schaffer showed up to demonstrate his device to Angus Young.

“I never got to demo it that day because I was doing some interviews,” says Young. “So Malcolm said, ‘I’ll try this thing out for you,’ and he used it during our soundcheck. He walked outside and all around the building, and he said the signal was stronger than using a cable. Malcolm never liked gadgets, but he told me, ‘You’re going to love this, because there’s a little bit of a boost. This thing is cool.’”

When AC/DC recorded Highway to Hell with producer Mutt Lange in 1979, he had only seen the band perform live before the sessions, and he wondered if there was something different about the guitar sound.

“Mutt asked, ‘Are you using anything special when you play live?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got that Schaffer.’ So he told me to plug it in. There was always a bit of what Malcolm used to call ‘that furnace going’ noise from it—a ‘shhhhhh’ when you weren’t actually playing—but Mutt loved it and said he’d kill the noise later. He said, ‘Man, we’ve got to use that!’”

THE TONE FREAK

(left to right) Fil Olivieri, Angus, and Schaffer at Warehouse Studio in 2014

Over in Rome, Italy, Filippo Olivieri was running a successful classic-rock tone blog (solodallas. com) and fanatically continuing his 30-year pursuit to nail the guitar sounds on AC/DC’s Back In Black album. He purchased every piece of gear Angus was known to use, but all attempts to precisely cop the guitarist’s clear, punchy, and articulate tone with silky sustain were just not good enough.

THE CLUE
Finally, Olivieri came across an old Guitar Player—the February 1984 issue to be exact—that included the article, “Angus Young: Seriously.” In the interview, Young is asked specifically if he used any effects during the recording of Back In Black, and he name checks the Schaffer wireless as the only signal processor, stating, “Malcolm and I use the boost to push the front end of our amps.” Olivieri’s mind is blown. Now, he simply had to find out how to get his hands on that wireless.

SUCCESS !
Happily, after being contacted by Olivieri—and hearing of his decades-long dedication to recreating the Back In Black guitar sound—Schaffer was moved to send him the last two SVDS units in his possession. It was a moment of sublime truth for Olivieri as he plugged his Gibson SG into the SVDS and out to a Marshall, and it was “Instant Angus.”

“Finally getting the units was a dream come true for me,” says Olivieri, “as that sound had been haunting me almost all of my life. Once the Schaffer-Vega was connected, there—for the first time in 30 years—were those pure tones. Schaffer’s system was the secret ingredient in creating those sounds.”

The search was over. Well, kind of…

the pedal version of the Schaffer Replica.

FUN FOR ALL
Olivieri didn’t stop with the realization of his guitar-tone dream. He went further, asking Schaffer for permission to recreate the SVDS circuitry for today’s players in a non-wireless format that could be used by guitarists like any conventional preamp, processor, or boost pedal. Utilizing a team of engineers in Rome and Vienna, Olivieri produced The Schaffer Replica in two versions: The Schaffer Replica Tower looks like the original vertical Schaffer- Vega 63EX ($999 direct; a Gold Tag edition of 100 units signed by Ken Schaffer was released in May 2014, and is completely sold out), and The Schaffer Replica Pedal ($349 direct) is just what it says it is—a compact guitar pedal designed for popping onto your pedalboard, or tossing on the floor with your other stompboxes.

“It’s Angus in a box,” says Olivieri.

The Schaffer Replica Unit #1 was delivered to Angus Young by Olivieri and Schaffer while AC/DC was recording Rock or Bust, and it’s all over the album’s tracks. Olivieri likes to say, “Angus got his sound back.” For those wondering if Olivieri’s “fairy tale come true” is possible, Guitar Player now has a Replica pedal, and we will do a comprehensive review in the June 2015 issue.

Reader Questions for AC/DC

Before I set off to New York to interview Angus Young and Cliff Williams about Rock or Bust, I posted a request on Facebook for reader questions to put to the AC/DC crew. Here are their answers to the three questions that popped up the most in your comments.

What is your oldest surviving AC/DC SG?

Young: It’s the one I’ve always played—before the band even started. It was the first brand-name guitar I had gotten for myself, as well. Before that, it was hand-me-downs—a beatup acoustic, and a Hofner Clubman from Malcolm, who gave it to me after another one of our brothers gave it to him. I don’t know the SG’s year. Some people have said 1969, and some people have said it’s from the 1970s.

Does what Mutt Lange did on Highway to Hell and Back In Black continue to influence what you do in the studio?

Young: There’s always a bit of that. I remember Mal saying to me that Mutt was really great about spreading out the vocals across the stereo field on choruses. He said, “It was a clever thing.” And we still try to do that today.

After all these years, do you still have any favorite songs to perform live?

Williams: It’s “Thunderstruck” for me. It has this really powerful build, and it’s just a great song.

Young: One of my favorite tracks to play is “Back In Black,” because it’s a cool riff, and people get it immediately. You hear one or two notes, and—boom—you know it’s “Back In Black.” That’s probably the song Brian hates the most, though, because he has to hit his high notes.

Brendan O’Brien on Producing Rock or Bust

SUPER PRODUCER BRENDA N O’BRIEN is so talented that it’s almost unfair to the rest of us mortals. In addition to being a brilliant recording fanatic who can operate pretty much every piece of gear in the studio, he’s a multi-instrumentalist who often plays as well or better than the musicians he is producing. (He’d never say so himself, of course, but enough of the players he has worked with will admit it for him.) His commercial acumen has been dead on, as he has produced 14 number-one albums to date.

All of this creative firepower certainly worked for AC/DC in 2008, when O’Brien helmed their tremendously successful Black Ice album with engineer Mike Fraser. Small wonder that the duo was back for Rock or Bust when the band began recording at Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, Canada, from May to July 2014. Wouldn’t you bet on these guys again?

Here, O’Brien gives us a view into his production process during the Rock or Bust sessions.

What was the basic production concept for the album?

Every record is different and every artist is different. I try not to have a plan until I’m in the studio with the band, and I can see where it’s all going, and what needs to be done. Then, I can come up with a plan—not before.

With AC/DC, I’m a big fan, and I like certain records of theirs a lot, so I wanted to make sure that if I listened to it, would I enjoy it? Would it satisfy everything that someone who loved AC/DC would like? I do know that if you kind of hit those marks, you are going to satisfy a lot of people, and that’s a big part of making a record. So if I was happy with it from that perspective, I felt we were doing the right thing. It’s their record, of course, but it wasn’t very difficult to push them in that direction. They know what they sound like, and they know what’s good.

Angus would bring in demos, and he was very open to changing the arrangements to make them better. He expected me to do that. I think they’ve always worked that way with producers. If they weren’t open to suggestions, then that would have made the job harder, and we’d be locked in to a certain thing. But they’re very smart about that stuff. With them, it was, “Here are our songs, here are our ideas—do your thing.”

Given that they’re such a great concert act, did the band track live in the studio?

With most of the bands I work with, we track everything live, because otherwise I can’t tell what we have. I have to be able to hear the whole thing through the studio monitors, and say, “That’s everything doing its job properly.” Now, we may keep one or two things, or we may keep a lot of it. I also edit between takes and things like that. But I want all the parts worked out and in the arrangement while the band is tracking. In this case, playing live is what AC/DC does best. It’s what they are, and they’re used to recording that way, so why try to break the mold? I don’t even know how you’d record AC/DC by doing it piece by piece, and overdub by overdub.

Both Angus and Cliff said that, as you can play so many instruments, you’d sometimes show them a part you wanted them to try.

Generally, I would say, “Hey, let me see the guitar real quick, and let me show you this thing I have in mind. And then, you make it your own.” Musicians usually like it very much if you can be direct with them. If you have to describe something without being able to either play it or be specific about it, it can become frustrating for everyone. I think I communicate best with musicians and singers on a musical level. That’s where my strength is. People generally appreciate it when I play things for them, rather than get weird about it.

You worked with Malcolm on Black Ice, and his nephew Stevie on this album. Were there any challenges to having such a critical personnel shift in the guitar playing?

For the most part, Stevie had a good instinct of what to do, and, in general, he kind of plays like Malcolm. I think there were times when he had to find his stride. It just took a minute or so to get him confident in it and feeling good about it. Once he got to that spot, he kind of cruised along. He definitely assumed the role. There’s already a template there for what’s supposed to happen sonically and rhythmically. For me, after hearing their other records, I was aware there’s a very distinctive left speaker/right speaker thing going on with the guitars. We had to make sure we had that, and if it wasn’t working, we had to go back and make it work. Sometimes, that took a little more time than others.

How did you feel about The Schaffer Replica making the scene?

I showed up one day and it was there. It seemed like a pretty nice little boost, and we used it from time to time—especially on solos. It sounded good and Angus liked it, and the combination of that was a good thing.

One of the other things Angus mentioned was that you really worked diligently to ensure the songs were in the most comfortable keys for Brian to sing.

It’s funny, man. When I started making records, I didn’t know about tempo and key. Years ago, I read an interview with [legendary Atlantic Records producer] Arif Mardin, where he talked about how he makes a record. He said, “Well, first we get the right tempo and the right key for the singer.” And I went, “Ah sh*t—really? God, that makes sense!” Until then, if an artist was struggling with something, I’d assume he or she just couldn’t sing. But maybe it was in the wrong key for them. Eureka! So then I knew [laughs].

Typically, guitar players write a song in a particular key because it’s easy to play in that key, or the riff comes up that way. You know, it’s G or A. But, sometimes, it should be in G# or F#, or down a whole-step to help the singer. AC/DC were very open to all of that, and a fair amount of the songs we did in different keys than the demos—mainly because we looked for Brian’s sweet spot, and went from there. Believe me, it’s no fun for anybody if you try to force a singer to work in a key they can’t manage.

Both Angus and Cliff also mentioned that even when the so-called final mixes were completed, you left it open for them to change anything they didn’t like.

We left Vancouver with a pretty well-developed, finished, and great record, but after we were done, Angus wanted to change a few things. We probably worked on three or four of the songs again—changing arrangements to make them better, and recording a few more parts.

I like to give artists an opportunity to revisit things, because I tend to work very quickly. Now, there’s a difference between working quickly and being rushed. Working quickly creates momentum and gets everybody focused. You work a lot of long hours, and you haul ass. But what happens is, you go through this whirlwind, and then you’re done. And the artist might say, “Gosh. Wow. That was fast. Did we get everything?” So being able to take a breath, sit with the record for a while, and assess what you like and don’t like is kind of critical. I learned early on that if the artist is not happy with their record, no one is served by that.

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