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Backstage Pass: AC/DC and Four Tolls That Rocked the World

@actwithoutdoing July 31, 2020

“Man, listen. I am two things, okay? Two things. I’m a socialist, and I’m a rock ‘n’ roll believer.”

Slurred words that came forth out of the dark on a muddy field a stone’s throw from East Midlands airport sometime in the early 2010s. I don’t remember saying them, but the recipient of that micro-manifesto has recounted the story to me enough times that I feel as if I do.

I’ve put out more than my fair share of hobgoblin gibberish in my time. As someone who spent a significant portion of his twenties in an interminable stream of blurry nights playing electric guitar for a pitiful wage in the various dives around Camden–a mystical centre for London’s dive bars–the frequency of actually lucid or accurate stuff is pitiful. But that proclamation is something I stand by. A socialist and a rock ‘n’ roll believer. It feels good to say it, to think it. Something solid and simple upon which to build everything else. Obviously, no human being can really be reduced to just two concepts. We’re a filthy mass of rainbow contradictions and endless complexity.

But still. A socialist and a rock ‘n’ roll believer. It just feels good.

Sometimes, in my more introspective moments, I like to think how I became those things. The genesis of the former is easy to pinpoint. One need only glance at the state of the world briefly while growing up and boom: A socialist is born, baptized in the fire of a world turning to ashes of inequity.

The origins of the latter are less clear.

How did I become a rock ‘n’ roll believer? And not just a believer, but a full-on metalhead?

It’s a silly, trivial question that’s nevertheless occupied far too much of my time. I can’t help it. It brings me an inordinate amount of some kind of pleasure to dissect these things, especially as I get older (and it’s here I should admit that I’m all of 32 years of age, lest it sounds like I’m trying to make it appear as if I’m perched on the top of a hill in Shelbyville about to suggest a cool glass of turnip juice) and more and more psychologically involved with the ruined state of the world of the late Anthropocene.

I love love love rock and metal. For me, in terms of the most reliable sources of joy in this life it’s right up there with books, a barefoot morning walk through country grass, and a good Czech beer.

But how did I get there? What was the one moment that kicked it all off? And why does that somewhat self-indulgent examination release the tasty, tasty brain juices that it does?

Perhaps it’s just the bittersweet kick of nostalgia that always accompanies any such thought that looks back to our formative years. Just thinking the words, “How did I become a rock ‘n’ roll believer?” instantly conjures up images of hazy, golden afternoons and long dark nights filled with CDs and headphones and a sacred communion between a teenager and the holy texts passed down by a generation of (unfortunately mostly white male—one of the great sad indictments of the structural inequities of mid-to-late-twentieth century rock and metal) musicians.

Whatever the case, whenever I sit down and start listing off the possible moments that might’ve kicked off the passion that brings so much joy into my life, I get high. It’s a carousel of sensorial memory, rich in these singular moments that we realize only much later are limited in number but form the foundation of our lives. For me, I look at each one and think: “Is this the moment when I started to believe?”

Was it the first few seconds of Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” when those striking chords combined with haunting hits of percussion and bass instantly transport you to a windswept field full of foreboding, the perfect complement to Dylan’s lyrics?

Was it the point when Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore hits that euphoric, sky-scraping note at the end of the opening run of the “Child in Time” solo at 3:34—opening up your mind completely to possibilities you could’ve never previously imagined—before warping you face-first into hyperspace when the transition comes at 4 minutes in.

Or was it something as simple as the tolling of a colossal bell, its four deep, ominous rings in the darkness heralding the coming of something unknown and malevolent?

That last moment is the one I keep coming back to more and more as time goes on, and it’s the moment that hangs like a shadow over the Maureen Goldthorpe-directed documentary about the band responsible for that ominous bell. As it winds its way to that fateful point in their story, 2012’s Dirty Deeds: The Story of AC/DC remains in many ways similar to the band itself: It’s lean, mean, and it comes in and gets the job done without too much faffing about.

Telling the story of one of the biggest rock bands of all time in just over an hour might seem like it’s doing the band a disservice, but Dirty Deeds intentionally doesn’t go in for the deep dive. Lest that sounds like I’m being harsh on it I should set the record straight that that isn’t the case.

Through a collection of:

  • archival footage
  • gigs and interviews with key band members
  • and talking head interviews filmed specifically for the movie (including with Michael Browning, the manager who helped steer AC/DC from their very early days to the pivotal year of 1979)

Dirty Deeds paints a satisfying portrait of this famously un-fussy, stripped back musical juggernaut.

Indeed AC/DC have long been such a totemic, megalithic presence in the annals of popular music that it’s sometimes hard to think of them as human creations at all.

It’s easy to think they simply are, and always have been and will be. That mammoth slabs of rock like “TNT” and “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black” would always have been written, and if AC/DC hadn’t done it, someone else surely would have.

But no-one else did.

AC/DC did.

Guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young—two kids from a Scottish working-class family who migrated to Australia in the mid-60s in search of a better life, carved those tunes out of the marble of the mountain.

Theirs was not destiny set in stone, but one hewn out of the featureless rock by sheer force of will.

Dirty Deeds: The Story of AC/DC does a great job of showing this, highlighting not just how hard Angus and Malcolm worked, but of the support they received from their strong, loyal family (their older brother George Young, who produced much of their earliest work being a key figure), and of the infamous tragedy that befell the band just as it was about to go stratospheric.

The death of vocalist Bon Scott after the 1979 release of the band’s iconic Highway to Hell album really is one of the most poetically tragic in a genre filled with such incidents. Here was the band—having worked tirelessly for the best part of a decade, touring endlessly and writing and recording like a pack of bloodhounds on a scent—now on the cusp of finally breaking America and receiving that worldwide stardom they had been flirting with for some time, when their singer and friend was suddenly found lifeless in a car in London. The story had always resonated with me as Bon’s last night was spent at a club in the very same Camden that I roam to this day. The place might have changed since then, but the echoes of the past sound to this day.

Bon Scott had been central to the band’s success. Malcolm and Angus had provided the foundations, and new (soon-to-be superstar) producer Robert “Mutt” Lange had brought with him a weapons-grade level of polish to Highway to Hell—but without Scott and his inimitable rock star charm, ocean-sized levels of charisma, and cheeky street poet lyricism, AC/DC would not have achieved their ascent into orbit. If the band had decided to pack it in and call it a day after his tragic death, no one could have blamed them.

They, of course, did the exact opposite.

They marched right back into that studio with new singer Brian Johnson and they recorded the second best-selling album of all time.

1980’s Back in Black was intended as a tribute of sorts to their departed friend, and its spirit of defiance, its testament to the raw power of rock as a means of ploughing through adversity with a neck made of steel through incessant headbanging, has gotten me through many a tough time too.

“Back in Black,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Shoot to Thrill”—the album, 40 years old now, is casually peppered with some of the best rock songs ever written.

And then there is “Hells Bells.” One of the greatest album-opening songs ever made, and a tune I keep coming back to over the years as a very strong contender for the spark that lit the fuse that dynamited my brain and made sure that for the rest of my life I would crave distorted guitar, thunderous drums, and ear-splitting vocals.

I still remember picking the album up for the first time. I was in my mid-teens, and had been a passive absorber of music at best up until then. I’d listen to whatever was on the radio, and whatever people around me were into, but I’d do it without much engagement.

I’d begun to feel the stirrings of something that would later become an all-consuming passion, but my flirtation with rock had been minimal at that point. Then one day I was idly browsing a record shop (remember those) when a matte black slab of a CD (remember those) caught my eye.

It seemed to have no graphic or logo or band name or anything on the front. It was just a jet black portal to another dimension. I was instantly hypnotized and drawn towards it. Picking it up I realized there was something there. Embossed in a raised font there were shapes in the black. I raised the package up and turned it until the light brought relief: “AC/DC.” “Back in Black.”

I must’ve zoned out into a fugue state there and then because the next thing I remember is being sat at home on my bed, headphones firmly on, with the “Back in Black” case in my lap, lyrics booklet in hand, and CD beginning to spin in my stereo.

“Gong!” went the bell in the darkness.

“Gong!”

“Gong!”

“Gong!”

And then the most seductive, malevolent riff I’d ever heard crept out of the shadows and opened the floodgates of my brain. A bass and drums soon joined in, locking into a beat that commanded my head to bang from then until eternity.

And then that voice. Like an apocalyptic banshee riding the gale winds that bring total ruination.

“I’m a rolling thunder, a pouring rain. I’m comin’ on like a hurricane. My lightning’s flashing across the sky. You’re only young but you’re gonna die.”

That was it. I knew even then, there was no going back from this.

Half my current lifetime later, I am unable to hear that gong toll without instantly feeling that which has become so rare now in later years: What it was like to really discover something, to grapple with an entity completely new and unknown, on the cusp of a yawning chasm that has suddenly opened up beneath your feet, the breeze blowing and tugging at you.

And the thrill of knowing you’ll jump.

 
 

Dirty Deeds: The Story of AC/DC

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