Does AC/DC matter?
In the trim but meaty 130 pages of "Why AC/DC Matters," longtime rock writer Anthony Bozza makes the case for the Australian band that's been blasting hard rock at high volume since the early 1970s. The book's cover -- black with silver-and-red foil text and a pair of devil horns -- is sure to hook the band's fans.
But can it convince the casual listener that the men behind "Highway to Hell," "Big Balls," "Back in Black," "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and "You Shook Me All Night Long" are, as Bozza claims, "the greatest living rock band"?
Bozza's strategy is to explain how the band itself developed its signature sound. The guitar playing of brothers Malcolm and Angus Young is key, synchronized with a kind of mysterious sibling timing. Their Scottish family -- with eight kids -- moved to Australia in the 1960s. Brother George became an Australian pop star in the Beatles-esque band the Easybeats and went on to produce AC/DC records.
The monster guitar brothers needed a vocalist, and they found their match in Bon Scott, who took the debauched-rock-idol lifestyle to the extreme and lived to sing about it. Until February 1980, when he died at age 33, passed out in the back seat of a car in London. (His official cause of death was recorded as "acute alcohol poisoning" and the enviable "death by misadventure.") Scott died on the eve of the band recording "Back in Black," and AC/DC's replacement, Brian Johnson, was miraculously able to do what Scott had done before. He continues that tradition today. Bozza points out some lyrical differences between the two and notes that Scott was a more out-of-control presence on stage -- but points out that AC/DC went for consistency over change when Johnson joined the band.
If there's one thing AC/DC has been, it's consistent, despite a handful of lineup changes. This seems to be, at least in part, why the band hasn't gotten much critical attention. If AC/DC did one thing and did it very, very, well, it wasn't the next thing that critics watch for. In fact, Bozza maintains that the band has been sorely overlooked, and spends a significant amount of energy arguing against the critical take on AC/DC.
But the critics aren't the point; popularity is. "Back in Black" is the fifth-bestselling album in U.S. history. According to this book -- which may or may not have been able to tally the recent resurgence of Michael Jackson -- since 1991, AC/DC has outsold Madonna, Michael Jackson the Rolling Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin and is second in sales only to the Beatles.
Bozza finds the answer to AC/DC's popularity in the band being true to themselves, which explains both their static sound and the fact that this book is mostly an inwardly focused band biography. But would anyone say that the Beatles or David Bowie or David Byrne or Joni Mitchell -- changeling musicians all -- were untrue to themselves? Truth in creativity doesn't necessarily mean sameness. That AC/DC is genuine doesn't seem to be the whole story.
If Bozza never questions what about 35-year-old rock songs make enthralled fans pump their fists, it's because he isn't dealing here with the cultural context. But in chronicling AC/DC's powerful stage show, which remains as manic as ever, Bozza quotes drummer Tommy Lee (Motley Crue, etc.), who seems to get at the heart of the band's appeal. "To me, AC/DC are exactly how a rock band should be -- how simple it all should be and how good you can do it if you give it your all. I just saw them this past year and they were still just so good live. The show was everything you'd want it to be: too loud and just ... insane. It reminded me of why I do what I do. That one show made me feel 17 again."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Brian Johnson, left and Angus Young, right, perform in Anaheim in 1996. Credit: Los Angeles Times