After 30 years, AC/DC sticks to its hard-rocking formula
By Regis Behe
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008
Mark Scheer didn't care for what he was seeing Dec. 21, 1977. The band opening for Blue Oyster Cult that night at the Stanley Theater just seemed odd, especially the guy in the school-boy uniform.
"Stuff like that always turns me off," says Scheer, the lead singer of Five Star Dive. "It's one of the things I could never get past, and even today, it seems a little creepy to me."
Then the band started to play. And a little later, the guy in the tight-fitting jacket and shorts leaped off the stage and literally ended up on the floor next to Scheer's aisle seat.
Chalk one up for Angus Young and AC/DC, appearing Wednesday at Mellon Arena.
"It was entertaining," says Scheer, who adds, "It's just good, dumb fun."
More glowing praise has been issued, for sure. But Scheer has nailed the essence of the Australian band that, for three decades, has rigidly stood by its guns. Whether it's "Highway to Hell," "Back in Black" or AC/DC's new album, "Black Ice," there's an unwavering consistency to the music: the over-the-top banshee vocals of the late Bon Scott and his replacement, Brian Johnson; the steely lockstep of the rhythm section, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd; and, front and center, Angus Young, whose gravity-defying guitar is anchored by his brother, Malcolm Young, the rhythm guitarist.
"It's still the same lineup since 'Back in Black,'" says Sean McDowell, the longtime DJ at WDVE (102.5 FM). "They haven't changed much. ... You know what kind of product you're going to get. They haven't gone all soft and showy and Las Vegas-y like Rod Stewart did."
Consistency has made AC/DC one of the core bands on WDVE, and the group's popularity in Pittsburgh was in evidence when tickets for the upcoming concert sold out ... in a mere 18 minutes.
"Rod Stewart didn't do that, the Eagles didn't do that," McDowell says. "Genesis didn't do it. Only Bruce Springsteen and a handful of other artists can do that anymore."
Around the same time Scheer was being wowed by the ferocity of Angus Young's performance, Susan Masino was helping a promoter at a small club in Madison, Wisc. She'd read the promo material about the young Australian band that started brawls across Europe, and admits to being intimidated when she met AC/DC before a show at the Stone Hearth in 1977.
Far from being drunken louts, the quintet -- which at the time included the late Bon Scott -- was pleasant and well-mannered.
"They were amazingly sweet," says Masino, the author of "The Story of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock." "They were very funny. They picked on me and were teasing me a lot. We had a lot of fun."
Later that night, Masino saw AC/DC for the first of many times, the most recent being a show in early December in Chicago. A little more than 30 years down the line, not much has changed.
"I still say they play the same show today that they did 31 years ago," she says. "They just didn't have all the equipment they do now. They have the same songs, the energy, the musicianship. ... They're just an amazing band."
For years, however, AC/DC has been marginalized by the rock 'n' roll press. Masino points out that the band's first Rolling Stone magazine cover didn't come until this year, and the music often has been dismissed as simplistic and superficial.
"They don't get the respect they deserve because they make it look too easy, onstage and the way they write," Masino says. "Angus always jokes about how everyone thinks the albums are exactly the same. They like it that way, though; they stick with a certain formula that they stand behind."
That sound has influenced a couple of generations of musicians who admire the music but find it impossible to duplicate the AC/DC sound.
"I love the way the guitar tone comes around," says Gary D'Grave, vocalist and guitarist for the Pittsburgh-based band the CosmoSonics. "It sounds like somebody playing in your living room. I don't know how they do that."
Success, however, sometimes spawns too much imitation. Chip DiMonick, a Pittsburgh-based musician, thinks the band has become too influential.
"Too many bands have copped their style and, in my humble opinion, weakened the AC/DC signature," says DiMonick, who admits he respects the group but is not really a fan.
DiMonick also thinks AC/DC's success has hampered original music in the region.
"Pittsburgh beer drinkers have been so conditioned to expect the same worn-out renditions of 'Highway to Hell' and 'Back in Black' when they go to see local bands that they look stupefied when a local band actually plays a song that they wrote," DiMonick says. "If Pittsburgh needs a reason for why Rusted Root was the only band to make it somewhat big out of Pittsburgh in the past 15 years, blame AC/DC. If it weren't for them, Pittsburgh musicians may have actually used their talents to write songs that will become the anthems of the future rather than fermenting away in dive bars playing in AC/DC tribute bands."
If being too influential is AC/DC's greatest fault, however, the band is doing well. McDowell and D'Grave both point out that, in an age when so many musicians are branching into other endeavors, AC/DC remains committed to music.
"You won't see them on a reality TV show or in a Got Milk• ad," D'Grave says.
McDowell also thinks the band's straightforward approach -- and lack of arrogance -- sets it apart.
"There's no politicization of the band," McDowell says, noting the advocacy of causes by musicians ranging from U2 to Ted Nugent. "That sort of thing just polarizes audiences. ... You'll never get that at an AC/DC concert.
"There are no politics involved. They're just there for the music."
In this corner, a band that has made no bones about traveling a "Highway to Hell."
In the opposite corner, a major retail chain that has, in the past, refused to sell music that didn't fit its corporate image.
But when AC/DC was looking for a distributor for its new CD, "Black Ice," it chose Wal-Mart, which has refused to carry albums by Korn, Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow and John Mellencamp, among others.
Susan Masino, a writer from Wisconsin who is the author of "The Story of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock," talked to a friend who asked the band's guitarist, Malcolm Young, about the deal.
"It's simple -- Malcolm said Wal-Mart pre-ordered 2.5 million copies, and it cut down all the distribution costs," Masino says. "That's why (Malcolm) is the brains. ... When I heard that, I had to laugh, because it is a good business decision."
Some, however, see the Wal-Mart deal as a further diminution of the rebellious spirit of rock music.
"To me, there's nothing that says 'this doesn't rock' more than aligning with a Fortune 500 big-box store," says Pittsburgh-based musician Chip DiMonick.
"It kind of turns me off when a band does this," says Mark Scheer, the lead singer for the Pittsburgh-based group Five Star Dive, noting the Rolling Stones' exclusive deal with Best Buy to sell the four-DVD set "The Biggest Bang." "To see a band do that kind of cheapens it."
But others are more charitable about a beloved band partnering with a corporate chain.
"It's just the wave of the future," says vocalist and guitarist Gary D'Grave of the CosmoSonics, a Pittsburgh-based band. "It's just the way you have to promote music right now. It is a bit of a sellout. But, on the other hand, they've never put their music for sale on iTunes."
"Wal-Mart is the nation's biggest retailer," says Sean McDowell, the veteran disc jockey on WDVE-FM. "Where the hell else are they going to go• All the mom-and-pop record stores are gone. And Wal-Mart makes it affordable for everybody."
Copies of "Black Ice" are available at www.walmart.com for $11.88.
-- Rege Behis
Here's proof that the members of AC/DC remain as relevant a force in rock today as they were 20 or 30 years ago:
1. Second only to the Beatles in catalog sales. Since 2003, they've sold 23 million albums and DVDs worldwide. And they did that in spite of No. 2 ...
2. iWhat• Like the Beatles (and very few others), they still refuse to sell their music on iTunes. It's not the idea that they're an album kind of band vs. a singles band that's so cool, or that they should be cranked on a stereo instead of funneled through an iPod. It's just the audacity of it. Most acts would be shooting themselves in the foot if they did this.
3. No. 1 for two weeks. Available only via Wal-Mart and Walmart.com, "Black Ice" took the top spot in Billboard its first week and remained there for one more, beating "High School Musical 3" and new releases by Toby Keith, Pink and Rascal Flatts.
4. No power ballads. They've never wussed out to attract teenage girls and/or get on the radio. Never. Motley Crue and Guns N' Roses can't say that. Aerosmith definitely can't. Even Led Zeppelin pushed the mush with "All My Love." The mellowest AC/DC ever got was "Ride On" -- a song that bikers, not chicks, came to love.
5. "War Machine." The best song on the new CD, it starts with a slow, lumbering, tank-attack beat and quickly builds to atom-bomb intensity, with Angus shredding his guitar.
6. Brian Johnson's tenure is now four times longer than Bon Scott's. The Scott-era AC/DC was meaner, wilder and better, but the late frontman (who died in 1980 after a drinking binge) has become a footnote to a majority of fans. No other band so successfully replaced a singer. Never mind that Johnson's wheels-peeling voice wore out its treads years ago.
7. Mutt Lange, Rick Rubin and, now, Brendan O'Brien. Three of rock's biggest record producers, they've all left their imprints on other acts. But not AC/DC. That's a testament to the band's raw power.
8. "Whole Lotta Rosie" and "The Jack." Admit it. The double entendres and squirm-inducing details still make you laugh 30 years on.
9. No one ever parts with 'Back in Black.' True story: For years, I looked for AC/DC's seminal 1980 album in every used-CD bin I came across. Because it's one of the best-selling discs of all time (I also own a very worn-out cassette), it should be easy to find as a hand-me-down, especially since every classic-rock station in the country plays one of its songs hourly. Nope. I finally broke down and paid full price a couple of years ago.
10. Still the "second-most-powerful surge that can flow through your body." That's how Steven Tyler described the visceral feeling from Angus and Malcolm Young's guitar work at their 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
-- Chris Riemenschneider/(Minneapolis) Star TribuneAdditional Information:
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Admission: Sold out
Where: Mellon Arena , Uptown
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