Adults dressing up as schoolgirls is, if not in great taste, at least culturally acceptable in the fields of pornography, Manga and School Disco. Dressing up as a schoolboy is basically restricted to Janette ‘Jimmy’ Krankie and AC/DC guitarist Angus Young. After all, it takes a lot of work to make the look rebellious enough to not get you laughed off stage.
Janette did it by being a swinger, Young does it by co-fronting one of the most libidinous, sweat-soaked rock bands in history. In fact, the 59-year-old’s stagewear is so iconic it may surprise you that it was actually suggested by the band’s first manager, a pseudo-Svengali with novelty leanings, who might have been better off handling Flight Of The Conchords.
“I don’t know what his thing was – he was trying to play image-maker, so he was always concocting these weird and wonderful things he wanted us to try,” says Young. “And, being young at the time, you’d try it, and then you’d think, ‘Well I ain’t doing that again.’ He had me in a gorilla costume one night. After I played this whole show in it I looked like a zombie – I’m a skinny guy, and I was pouring out buckets of sweat.”
Young and AC/DC are in town to promote new album Rock Or Bust, possibly the most obscene Antipodean comeback since Shane Warne stopped sledging English batsmen. Meeting in an incongruously stately London hotel, singer Brian Johnson – even at age 67 – is giddily friendly, like a labrador who hasn’t seen you in a long time, and is endearingly innocent even when he’s swearing twenty-f*cking-one to the dozen. Guitarist Young is more reserved, but both of them are so un-rock-starry that, combined, they’re like a cure for Bono.
There’s an irony to the fact that Young has spent the best part of 40 years in a school uniform, since he didn’t spend a lot of time in one when it was actually age-appropriate. School was an enforced detention best avoided.
“The only prize I got was from the deputy head at the time,” says Young. “And it was for the No1 truant. If I could avoid school, I would. That was the highlight of my day, evading the classes I didn’t like. In fact that’s what he said, ‘I can tell what classes you don’t like’, because those were the ones I didn’t attend.”
But it’s a fitting costume. Rock is famous as man’s best chance to make a living from arrested development – and AC/DC are an integral part of the generation who made abdication of responsibility cool. Their song titles are bike shed grafitti-level puns (see Big Balls), which are not so much double entendres as downright nontendres. Their music gives the impression that they’re basically like Father Jack with a muscle car fetish – anarchic and unpredictable and, as the lyrics to any of their songs make abundantly plain, preoccupied with drink and girls.
“There’s a few car songs as well,” says Young of their lyrical concerns. “But if you think back to, say, Elvis in his early days – same things. Cars, girls, bad boys. Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, all these songs. Jerry Lee Lewis, Great Balls Of Fire – he was using the word ‘balls’ before we did! It’s just what we are. I guess it’s what you pick out from the past – you grow up and it becomes part of you. When I saw the Stones when I was young, Mick Jagger came on like a rooster. I loved it – it was the attitude he had. But the songs were about the same things. There’s nothing we have done lyrics-wise that other people haven’t touched. I think with us, people think we made it properly raunchier.”
“But that’s just time going on,” adds Johnson. “It, technically, should have got better.”
These days, the band are mainstream enough to have YouTube-hit songs covered with two symphony orchestra cellists, but over the years AC/DC have been lumped in with any volume-loving scene going. And they never really fit in with any of them.
“We never bought the uniform,” says Johnson, although he might want to take a look at Young’s outfit the next time they’re on stage. Still, they’ve appealed to punks, metal fans and everyone else for the same reason – because their music speaks to humanity’s residual lizard brain, the same bit that finds joy in watching things blow up. Thunderstruck is a particularly apposite song for them, given that they sound like someone playing El Niño through a Marshall stack. Their influences have been similarly apocalyptic.
“Even when I saw the Sex Pistols, the first guy that came to my mind was Steve Marriott with the Small Faces,” remembers Young. “He was this little guy with this big cockney voice, and when they played in Sydney the first line he said when he walked out on stage was, ‘Whether you like it or f*cking not, we’re here.’”
“He didn't need safety f*cking pins,” chuckles Johnson. “He was really properly f*cking angry.”
“It wasn’t for effect,” Young says. “They were opening for The Who, of all bands, and The Who had the reputation at the time for demolishing the stage, and Steve Marriott did it before they even came on. There was nothing left when they left that stage.”
“lt was like what Jerry Lee Lewis said to Chuck Berry,” says Johnson. “‘Follow that!’”
Controversy is now engineered, managed and contained like a lab-grown Doomsday virus. Unlike weaponised chicken flu, on the other hand, it’s easily survivable. Indeed, tactical controversy is drip-fed into careers at useful points as a revitalising force for the flagging nice guy. And even the most celebrated modern courter of polarised public opinion takes their cues from AC/DC.
Pop provocateur Miley Cyrus (or at least someone in her team) appears to have found inspiration for her Wrecking Ball video from AC/DC’s Ballbreaker tour, which saw Brian riding a giant wrecking ball on stage, which destroyed the set. Perhaps fortunately for all concerned, Johnson’s johnson remained sequestered beneath his clothes. Cyrus’s stitch-free homage doesn’t faze Young.
“With the younger ones,” he says, “especially the female end of the pop world, they’re coming on raunchier, and they’re wearing less than they ever did. The world has gone forward. But what we’ve done has always been that way, a bit raunchier – but by today’s standards, people probably think it’s a bit tame.”
That said, AC/DC are no strangers to invented controversy, with Young putting much of their dangerous reputation down to press malfeasance.
“A lot of [journalists] then were asking stuff that was looking for controversy,” he says. “Half the time, it was the interviewers themselves who wanted it to be that way to fit the image. There was stuff invented, like we were using all this slang and referred to everyone as Sheilas. The first Sheila I ever saw was over here on TV: it was Sheila Hancock.”
The band are currently embroiled in rather less manufactured controversy via drummer Phil Rudd. Rudd is facing charges including allegedly threatening to kill and possession of cannabis and methamphetamine – charges the drummer denies. Rudd’s status within the band is still undecided, and Young and Johnson aren’t saying any more than that.
And so the most revelatory nugget concerns another famous piece of rock clothing – Johnson’s famous flat cap. Rock legend has it that he donned his perma-headgear as a tribute to miners he saw waiting for the bus beneath his boyhood bedroom window. It turns out rock legend must have got the story from a guy in the pub.
“The truth is, it started because I was on stage one night, jumping around, and the sweat was going in my eyes,” Johnson explains. “My brother Morris was there, and he had one of them sporty caps on. At half-time my eyes were stinging from the salt, and he said, ‘Here put that on – it’ll stop the sweat going in your eyes.’
“So I stuck it on, and it worked, so he said, ‘Keep it, I look a tw*t in it.’ We were playing a working men’s club and I noticed – because people were still wearing caps in those days – that people were going, ‘Wahey! Man of the people,’ and all this bullsh*t. So it just kinda stuck. I lost it after a month, and I had to part with my hard-earned cash and buy one.”
Accident and design. It seems to be the AC/DC way.
Rock Or Bust is out now. AC/DC play Wembley Stadium on July 4 2015. For more info visit acdc.com
(Images: James Minchin III/Getty)