AC/DC Live In Concert
(Words: Ian Bell, Photos: Rodney Magazinovic)
It occurs to me that the first time I saw AC/DC was about two months shy of forty years ago (I was negative 15 years old at the time). They were first on the bill at the 5KA Record Breakers concert at Memorial Drive. They played first and were followed by Ted Mulry Gang, Hush, John Paul Young and headliners Sherbet, to about 8,000 people. Four decades later Memorial Drive is dwarfed by it's next door neighbour, the imposing re-vamped Adelaide Oval and there are close to 40,000 people. It seems like every single one of them is in a black AC/DC t-shirt. Back in 1976 they were just part of the diverse and thriving world that was Oz Rock. Skyhooks, Little River Band, The Angels, Rose Tattoo were all immense talents that had varying degrees success of taking on the music world globally. They were all born of the healthiest time for Australian music we have ever seen. Live music was thriving, with venues, bars and concert halls pumping out live music six nights a week. Countdown was giving Australian acts national exposure previously undreamed of by local acts, making bands into overnight superstars, every week of the year, sending record sales through the roof. As a result Australian radio HAD to take notice and become more focused on locally produced records and for a time there things were pretty bloomin' magical.
So I have been on board the ACCA DACCA rock'n'roll train right from the go. I was cheering when they started making noise in the UK, then Europe, and the USA. I was devastated by the loss of Bon Scott in 1980. I was shocked and excited at the band's decision to keep going with a new lead singer. Everybody was amazed at the released of Back in Black which went on to be the biggest selling album by a band of all time (approximately 50 million copies, which is 5 million more that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon). Through the 80's and 90's they became the behemoth rock monster we see today. A new album every 5 years or so and a gargantuan concert tour smashing box office records as a legion of devoted followers wait for their chance to worship (and throw their cash at) at the alter of Angus and co. The last world tour (Black Ice 2008-2010) made about $448 MILLION DOLLARS. Across 168 shows, that's a smidge over 2.5 mill a show.
The secret to their popularity and longevity is that they understand their audience and they give them exactly what they want. They don't talk down to them. They are not doing anything too fancy pants. They are not trying to be clever. They are not likely going to decide to investigate their artistic side by putting out a rock opera, techno record or album full of dubstep breaks. It's straight ahead, meat and potatoes, no nonsense, riff-heavy, rock and frickin' roll. People the world over can understand it, respond to it, dig it, rock out to it. They have been responsible for making some of the most awesome music ever created and their fans are dedicated and fanatical. They are one of the most legendary bands of all time and quite rightly ranked among The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin etc as some of the most innovative, ground breaking and influential bands to ever have existed. Which is partly why tonight's show in Adelaide is a bit of a let down to be honest. But before we get to that, let's talk about The Hives!
Formed in Sweden in the early 1990's The Hives are quite simply one of the best live bands on the planet. Playing air-tight, frenetic, explosive garage rock, they dress sharp in matching suits and carry themselves like they are the biggest band in the world, no matter how big or small a stage they are playing on. The first time I saw them they walked on stage and their singer (Howlin' Pele Almqvist) grabbed the mic and declared "We are The Hives from Sweden, in 40 minutes we will be your new favourite band", and they were correct. I have seen them many times and they never disappoint. The previous night they played a blinding DJ set in the front bar of The Crown & Anchor, spinning everything from The Sonics and Bowie to Devo and Eddie Cochran. Opening for a juggernaut like AC/DC is a thankless task for the most part. You are playing to a disinterested audience, trying to find their seats (my apologies to Kingswood for missing their opening set) and get a few drinks in before the headliner. Nobody is there to see you, in fact you are just getting in the way of the main event. However with a combination of fierce performance, killer songs and some hilarious banter from Screaming Pele ("What do you think so far? That's just what we can do in just TWO songs") they won over some big chunk of the crowd. They opened with Come On, the best song-that-runs-for-slightly-over-one-minute-with-lyrics-that-consist-of-the-words-'Come On'-repeated-over-and-over, that you will ever hear. They tear through their brief time on stage with a 'best of' set, and every song is punctuated with scissor kicks, rock star poses and energy. Highlights were Die, All Right, Main Offender, Hate To Say I Told You So, Walk Idiot Walk and the brilliant Tick Tick Boom. Pele keeps asking the crowd if they "love The Hives yet"? It's hilarious. However the sound is not good. I spend the whole set trying to get in the zone through a muddy mix and dreadful bouncing echo which ricocheted of the grandstands. They did very well under the circumstances.
After a short break, it is time for the main event. Just before sundown the video screens kick into life and the stadium is full of the cheering of the faithful multitude. The impressive stage set features giant video screens and a wall of amps. Angus Young appears in a red school boy outfit, a variation on the outfit he has been wearing for decades. He is 60 years old. The rest of the band, Brian Johnson on vocals, Cliff Williams on bass, Chris Slade on drums and Stevie Young on guitar are all dressed in black. It makes them all a little hard to see against the black amps, so often much of the audience is watching the big screens. Opening with the title track from their latest album Rock or Bust it quickly becomes apparent that we will not be short of volume this evening. It is skull crushingly loud. Angus is immediately running all over the stage with his trademark version of the Chuck Berry duck walk. Johnson with his peaked cap is moving around a fair bit too, but the others remain in place for the whole night.
Shoot To Thrill from Back in Black is next and gets a great reception and crashes right into Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be from their Let There Be Rock album. All around me people are stomping, clapping, spilling beer on each other, climbing on to each others shoulders. A friend sent me a txt saying "Is the whole place full of bogans?" Well no. Sure, there are bogans, but there are also Super Bogans, Mega Bogans, Ultra Bogans. Bogans taking the whole Bogan thing to new levels of boganiness. AC/DC fans are regular Aussie blokes for the most part (there are lots of women too) and you get the impression they are used to having a beer or two. From time to time I have to relocate when the guys around me are getting a little too rambunctious.
The other main reason for moving around the oval was to try and find a spot where the sound wasn't terrible. By Back in Black (four songs in) it was almost unbearable. The volume was really pushed to uncomfortable levels, causing some distortion. Johnson's vocals were getting buried in the mix and the sound was crashing and echoing around the arena. Another new song, Play Ball, was okay but people were hungry for more of the classic songs, and the run of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (40,000 people yelling DONE DIRT CHEAP was pretty frickin' terrific), Thunderstruck, High Voltage, Rock'n'Roll Train and Hells Bells was exactly what people wanted. The volume remained on eleven and while Young's virtuoso playing was incredible, Johnson's vocals were often not so. Especially on the Bon Scott-era material, Johnson was enthusiastic enough but often off key or mumbling the words, while they were getting overwhelmed by the cacophonous volume of the band. Given that The Stones played the same venue a year ago and their mix was crisp and clear, and at a healthy working volume, it is clear that a huge show in the football ground is possible. It can be done and done well.
It is very much the Angus Show in many respects. He is mostly the only one you can see when looking at the stage. He is the only original member of the band, his brother Malcolm sadly having to retire last year due to the onset of dementia. As the originator, main writer and driving force of the band, his absence is definitely felt tonight. He place has been taken by Angus Young's cousin Stevie Young, who has a family resemblance and does a solid job of the rhythm guitar but doesn't have the respect, admiration and love from the crowd as Malcolm always did. Chris Slade, who drummed with them from 1989 to 1990, including The Razor's Edge album, is back on the drum stool after the departure of embattled original member Phil Rudd due to some controversial escapades in recent times. Slade is a super solid skinsman, having played with everybody from David Gilmour and Asia to Gary Numan. He beats the living heck out of that kit and he just turned sixty nine years old. Amazing. Cliff Williams has been the band since 1977 and is the second longest serving member after Angus. His contribution to the AC/DC sound cannot be overstated. His rock solid bottom line bass playing is skilful and basic (he once said that he played "the same thing in every song, for the most part. In AC/DC's music, the song is more important than any individual's bit in it."). The band aims to keep it simple, and their audience is pretty easy to please.
Baptism by Fire (Rock or Bust) leads into You Shook Me All Night Long and the audience is singing along at the top of their lungs. It's a magnificent song. It is a magnificent riff. It's quite possibly the best song they do tonight. Sin City is one of the oldest songs played tonight (from their 1978 LP Powerage), followed by Shot Down in Flames from Highway to Hell ('79) and Have a Drink on Me (Back in Black) all long time live favourites. The response for the start of T.N.T. is immense. Pound for pound the guitar riff and thudding drumbeat of TNT could win just about any knock down riff battle you could name. Scott's vocal on the original is ferocious, sly and cheeky and the lyrics hilariously menacing. Tonight the audience is swept along with the memory of the original, but Johnson's vocal is under par.
He fares better on Whole Lotta Rosie (with a huge inflatable Rosie above the drums) and also on an extended Let There Be Rock. Apart from a few basic "Hello Adelaide"s, there is not much said tonight. No banter or song intros. Each song finishes and there is a moment's silence before the next one cranks up.
The two-song encore consists of Highway To Hell and For Those About to Rock. Everybody is exhausted by the climactic fireworks and rockin' crescendo. The sound levels have been torturous, the mix all over the place and Johnson almost unintelligible at times, and the band hard to see without the video screens.
But you soon realise to this audience it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter who is in the band (so long as Angus is still kicking). It doesn't matter what songs they do off the new album. It doesn't even matter if it is possibly the worst concert sound I have heard in ten years. It doesn't matter if some of their biggest hits are missing (Long Way To the Top, Who Made Who, Jailbreak, If You Want Blood, etc). What matters is they are here to testify at the altar of AC/DC. To pay homage to everything that this little band from Melbourne has done over four decades. To all the great songs and killer shows. To salute those about to rock. To sing and stomp and drink and have their hearing destroyed. To do dirty deeds for a price considered to be dirt cheap. To be reminded of their youth and one of the greatest bands that have ever lived.
Rock or Bust
Shoot to Thrill
Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be
Back In Black
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Baptism By Fire
You Shook Me All Night Long
Shot Down In Flames
Have a Drink On Me
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock
Highway to Hell
For Those About To Rock