Old-Fashioned Lust Songs

Time for all the hipsters to come clean. You're driving down the interstate, channel surfing the radio with one hand, balancing a beverage with the other, steering with your knees and searching for that one tune that will propel you to the next gas station. Nothing seems right. Then out of nowhere you come across "Highway to Hell," and you crank the sucker up. The adrenaline surge allows you to lean on the gas and quickly put another ten miles of distance between you and those gnarly problems you left behind. Right there in morning rush hour, your day is made.

Granted, the music of AC/DC is simplistic and decidedly juvenile in appeal, perched at the top of a musical sub-genre often dubbed cock rock. With the tact of a randy bunch of high school seniors thumbing through a copy of Penthouse, AC/DC spins prurient tales of getting it up, getting it on and -- as the first single from the group's latest CD, Ballbreaker, says -- keeping it "Hard as a Rock." Here's a band that, during its 20 years of avoiding the politically correct crowd, has recorded at least five songs with the word "ball" in their titles. Most strippers will tell you that AC/DC's grinding beat, ribald sexual innuendo and phallic imagery is the music of choice for their old bump and grind.

And yet this band of ornery Aussies and Brits waxes sexual in a way that's less blatantly crude than many. When AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson sings about "sinking the pink" or "giving the dog a bone," it's done in near comic style, like a hard-rock version of The Benny Hill Show. AC/DC: rock's poster boys for nudge, nudge, wink, wink titillation.

The group's centerpiece, lead guitarist Angus Young, is a sworn adolescent who's now just a few months shy of his 40th birthday. When asked to explain the appeal of AC/DC, his programmed answer has always included the music's effectiveness as an aphrodisiac. The other band members agree.

"At the end of the night, people want to get fucked," says rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, Angus' older brother. "And that's where AC/DC comes into it. I think that's what's kept us around for so long, because people want more fuckin'."

Musically, the group resides in a strange time warp, writing and recording the same recycled, blues-influenced metal chords -- but playing them in an ear-splitting way no other band can. Many fans identify with the antics of Angus, whose flailing about on guitar is upstaged only by his signature school boy's uniform and cap. The musical identity of the band, however, belongs to Malcolm. An inch or two taller than Angus (which makes him a touch over five feet), Malcolm is the stern looking brother, the unsung guitar genius who stands at the back of the stage -- always to the right of the drummer -- nailing down the rhythm with a relentless consistency.

For about a decade, AC/DC has been struggling to get back to the airtight riffs that led to the back-to-back success of 1979's Highway to Hell and 1980's Back in Black -- widely considered the band's musical zeniths -- and inspired a horde of imitators. That success did not come easily; Bon Scott, AC/DC's original singer, met with an unglamorous rock-star demise after Highway to Hell, choking on his vomit following a night of heavy boozing. But the band found the British-born Johnson and hardly missed a beat. A new stack of salacious songs were written for Back in Black with Johnson's lower register in mind, and the result was one of the biggest selling rock releases ever.

Post Back in Black, AC/DC began to drift from its core formula, with mixed results. The loss of drummer Phil Rudd (who's now back in the band) didn't help, as the group began to sound more and more like its clones. The release of 1988's Blow Up Your Video and a subsequent tour marked AC/DC's low point. The new material seemed tired, and Malcolm Young, who was battling an alcohol problem, didn't even make it on the road, replaced on rhythm guitar by his nephew Stevie Young.

By the end of the '80s, even with Malcolm back and sober, AC/DC desperately needed some fresh juice. It took the sharp production of Canadian producer Bruce Fairbairn and the hiring of ex-Manfred Mann drummer Chris Slade to get the band back on track with the release of The Razor's Edge in 1990. With the recent decision to bring back Rudd on drums for Ballbreaker, it feels as if the group has come full circle. The old meat-and-potatoes groove is back, and, as always, AC/DC borrows shamelessly from its vault of catchy riffs.

The time is ripe for an AC/DC renaissance -- and why not? Melissa Etheridge covers "You Shook Me (All Night Long)" regularly on tour, and alternative rockers Veruca Salt took an expression from that same song for the title of its debut, American Thighs. Soon we'll be hearing rumors that Bon Scott isn't dead after all, but living the recovering alcoholic's life in some cottage in the Scottish Highlands. It would be a hoot if that were so, but don't get your hopes up. Rest assured Bon's up in Heaven right now, taking a swig, sinking the pink and having a big laugh.

AC/DC performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, January 25, at The Summit. Tickets are $22.75 and $25.75. The Poor opens. For info, call 629-3700.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr