(East West)

In a fat book somewhere, preferably called “GODDAMN ROCK,” there should be a patient eulogy for AC/DC, explaining how the band wowed us with an overkill of wattage and captivated our adolescent selves with a fiery juggling act of bawdy lore, forlorn sentiment, and songs about oh what a rocking band was AC/DC. But the sad truth is that there has never been any such book, and so AC/DC now registers as only a loud crackle in the long liturgy of amplified music.

During their creative prime, between 1975 and 1980, the Aussie hard rockers were too violent for Rolling Stone and too unlike Elvis Costello for Trouser Press, and Creem treated them like it did everything–as a cartoon. The five Australians in the band didn’t look like guys who would answer silly questions anyway. Malcolm Young, the acknowledged brains of the operation, was a wizard in a dirty white undershirt, his only tool an outsized guitar with all controls removed except the volume knob–a little low-concept for a world blessed with Malcolm McLaren.

The newest AC/DC box set, Bonfire, while not the radical reassessment the band deserves, fleshes out its raw years and reveals some of its more fascinating kinks. Very different from Boom Box, a sober 16-CD collection of studio albums issued in Australia in 1995, Bonfire is a hairy cocktail poured together from half-filled glasses. Included in the five-CD mix are: “Live From Atlantic Studios,” a 1977 radio broadcast; Let There Be Rock, the double-CD sound track to the 1977 concert film; and “Volts,” a circa-1978 rarities and rehearsal collection. Thrown in for good measure are the transformational Back in Black, a key chain, a sticker, a guitar pick, and some really strange liner notes. It’s a semifocused documentary of a band that straddled the chasm between dinosaur rock and punk.

If AC/DC didn’t invent hard rock, they sure defined it. Like their contemporaries in punk they played a modernized blues, inspired by Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent and ixnay on the hippy-dippy shit inserted by Led Zeppelin and their ilk. Angus Young, the tiny lead guitarist, jabbed his riffs in one breath ahead of a tight rhythm section, squirming and shaking with seemingly boundless energy. Singer Bon Scott, who died in 1980 and to whom Bonfire is dedicated, was a coarse diva, obsessed with carnality and famous for his drinking. These were brats, and they excelled at putting a universal spin on their misfit problems. But a recap reveals that AC/DC’s now overly familiar spectacle obscured their distinct culture: namely, a hard hybrid of classic pop songcraft, Scottish folk music, a severely outdated dictionary, and a carpetbag full of vaudevillian sex jokes.

To understand AC/DC anthems like “High Voltage” and “Dog Eat Dog,” you have to yank George Young and Harry Vanda out from under the bed. The older brother of Malcolm and Angus, George brought Scottish teen culture with him when the Youngs emigrated to Australia in 1963. He and his songwriting partner led the Easybeats, the big Australian pop act of the 1960s. They also produced every AC/DC album until Highway to Hell. But their contributions to AC/DC’s sound went way beyond the mixing board. The eldest Young would work out flawless arrangements for AC/DC’s material–on piano–then turn the tunes back to the ensemble to blaze through in its own grubby way. It’s as if Burt Bacharach were to remix the Germs. On Bonfire, the rehearsals of “Touch Too Much” and “Get It Hot” are not yet optimized by this process, as they both barrel forward with blinders on. “Ride On” and “Sin City,” though, are triumphs.

Australia served AC/DC the same way the American midwest tempered Black Flag–as musical proving ground, dose of reality, endurance test. At one point, the group claims, it played three shows a day: high schools in the afternoons, cocktail bars in the evening, and dance halls, some of them gay, at night. But though Aussie in their aggressive temperament, the Youngs and Bon Scott were all born in Scotland, and they wore their heritage like the youth of Rockford wear black T-shirts. As a kid, Scott had marched in a bagpipe platoon, and on “Volts” he successfully wrestles the instrument for “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll),” squeezing out a high lonesome drone that he often mimics with his singing. (Unfortunately, “Fling Thing,” a Highland folk instrumental rearranged by the Youngs for a 1974 B side, is not among Bonfire’s offerings.)

AC/DC also had a habit of speaking in the obsolete language of their forebears. Take the famously fat heroine of “Whole Lotta Rosie,” for instance, who weighs not 266 pounds, but 19 stone. The cut opens up the live section as it did the superior live record If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It. An awful lot of teenagers were enticed to sing like medieval shopkeepers by that anthem. Equally arcane was “The Jack,” a colloquial course in sexual hygiene that shuffled outback slang into a poker metaphor.

Though not especially good-looking, with their zits and crooked teeth, AC/DC became symbols of virility in the manner of line dancers from the Ziegfield Follies, performing vamping burlesque to the grind of “She’s Got Balls” and “The Jack.” The rhythm section would anchor AC/DC’s bottom with abrasive power chords and demented backing vocals, freeing Angus to run fast fingered up the fret board and half naked down the planks, and his leering striptease remains a concert fixture today. At the height of AC/DC’s touring days, the stage looked like a Bowery farce, complete with a giant bell and cannons belching smoke.

Like a lot of Anglos, Bon and the boys considered Paris an exotic and sensual locale. Let There Be Rock was recorded live in Paris, home of Moulin Rouge showgirls and Pigalle sex fantasies. Bon Scott’s impromptu lines aren’t as witty as legend would indicate (he calls out “Bon-jour” and “Eiffel Tower” to the French crowd), but he charms the citizenry like a vaudeville emcee. Clear as gin, W.C. Fields would have appreciated Bon Scott’s approach to dames and drink; Bette Midler could have borrowed his feather boa. Morosely, Bon mostly recalls the divine Miss M’s portrayal of a tragic rock figure in The Rose. He choked on his own vomit in a London winter, drunk in the backseat of a little car. Bon Scott’s final review was a coroner’s report, dated February 20, 1980, and titled “Death by Misadventure.”

By including Back in Black, the band’s first record with vocalist Brian Johnston, Bonfire acknowledges another of AC/DC’s most understated themes–its central death myth. Like the Sex Pistols, AC/DC had a snot-nosed kid, a concept performance film, and a martyr. AC/DC broke big in America less than a year after Bon made the sacrifice. To hammer it home, the anecdote-packed Bonfire booklet dwells fondly and excessively on Bon’s drinking, which seems on a par with congratulating Kurt Cobain for his dedication to narcotics.

The notes don’t mention the odd coincidence by which Bon’s old band Fraternity had supported Geordie, the group led by his replacement, Brian Johnson, on a 1973 European tour. Bon was supposedly very impressed by Brian Johnson’s singing–that must have been the whiskey listening.

To my ears, Johnson is best enjoyed as a two-note screecher in league with Quorthon of Bathory and Fenriz of Darkthrone. One year after Brian Johnson announced “If you’re into evil you’re a friend of mine” on Back in Black, Venom released Welcome to Hell, inventing the black metal subgenre. Without the bad mood borrowed from “Hells Bells,” Venom would have been another loud-fast-rules band like Motorhead. When Slayer slowed down to record South of Heaven, they rang the AC/DC hotline, too.

Scott loyalists cry that Brian Johnson killed AC/DC, but I see blood on the hands of the ghoulish Stephen King, who trapped AC/DC in his populist ghost universe in the mid-80s. References to AC/DC had been popping up in King’s books since Cujo, and to his successful seduction they surrendered their spirit. For the movie Maximum Overdrive, based on one of his short stories, AC/DC created the uncomfortably self-referential “Who Made Who.” The video depicted Angus leading a legion of imitators holding cardboard guitars, wearing schoolboy outfits, and banging their heads in joyless unison. AC/DC really had become a farce.

Bonfire is great for picking off the AC/DC scabs and exposing the sting that made the band appealing in the first place. With contemporary records like Blow Up Your Video, which deserves a bonfire of its own, the brothers Young have allowed the AC/DC emblem to be degraded into the T-shirt of choice for guys named Butt-head. Angus never changed his suit, and Johnson didn’t buy a new hat, and a lot of people forget there was ever any more to it than that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover/ uncredited photo.