These have been trying months – and years – for AC/DC.
Their rhythm guitarist and co-founder Malcolm Young had to leave the band due to dementia, and drummer Phil Rudd was involved in a bizarre episode in which he was accused of hiring a contract killer, though the charges were dropped a day later. Their first concert for six years, then, sees them depleted, and missing, in Young, the key architect of their swaggering, punchy, ruthlessly economical style. They’ve now got Chris Slade, who played with the band in the late 80s, on drums, and Malcolm and Angus Young’s nephew Stevie on rhythm guitar.
Thus denuded, are AC/DC still a primal force, or does this mark the start of the cabaret years? They’ve chosen an unlikely place to debut their new lineup (if you don’t count opening the Grammys in Febuary): the music festival Coachella, more associated with boozy celebrities in fringed leather than with hard rock. Yet in another way it’s entirely logical. AC/DC are still a huge commercial force, not least in America, and a gig this high profile is the ideal way to announce that they’re back in business.
If they can pull it off, that is. But AC/DC do, in bravura style. After the coruscating opener Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, singer Brian Johnson announces: “I hope you guys like rock’n’roll, because it’s all we do.” The crowd, made up of all ages and races, roars, knowing that no one does rock’n’roll like AC/DC – music composed of just its essential elements, stripped of anything that doesn’t pack a wallop. Performed in front of a wall of Marshall stacks, songs like Thunderstruck, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and TNT have an almost elemental force.
Of course, if AC/DC were as minimal in presentation as they are musically, they wouldn’t be one tenth as popular, and Coachella shows that they still have a determination to entertain. The focal point is guitarist Angus Young, now 60 but still wearing a school uniform, doing Chuck Berry’s duck walk and flapping his mouth as he cranks out the solo to, say, You Shook Me All Night Long. It’s a hell of a performance, even before he is lifted on a hydraulic platform spewing tickertape into the audience.
Then there are the accoutrements which are now part of AC/DC lore – the giant bell for Hell’s Bells, the gigantic inflatable woman who provides the visuals for Whole Lotta Rosie, and the cannons that bolster For Those About to Rock. They’re funny, but they don’t look tacky or shabby, given a 21st century makeover. It all underlines the band’s unshakeable sense of continuity – after all, this is a band that survived the death of its singer – but also their willingness to refine and perfect what they do. It’s a formula stronger than any of AC/DC’s individual members, and one the audience’s riotous response shows is still among the most potent in rock music.
This article was written by Alex Needham, for theguardian.com on Saturday 11th April 2015 14.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010