AC/DC goes down in music history as one of the most successful bands of all time. The group has spent decades releasing albums, selling out concerts, and making teenagers’ moms angry. The Australian rock band, formed by three Scottish-born brothers, has been described as hard rock, blues rock, and heavy metal, but AC/DC likes to call themselves a rock and roll band. They’ve had their many moments in the sun, so to speak – soaring high to superstardom. But, they’ve also faced the darkest days – having tragically lost a dear friend, a front runner of the band.
Despite the odds, AC/DC endured the lows that rock bands tend to experience and continued to create and play the music that came to define a genre. And they did it the only way they knew how to: loud. Fans might also be happy to hear that the band announced that a few members have very recently re-joined the band.
So, if you’re looking for an excuse to play their songs at full volume and discover the true story of the loudest band on earth, then in you’re in the right place.
The Young brothers, Malcolm, Angus, and George, were born in Glasgow, Scotland, between the years 1946 and 1955. They were around for the “The Big Freeze” of 1963, which was the worst winter on record in Scotland, with a whopping eight feet of snow. A TV commercial at the time offered assisted travel for families.
The sell: a different (warmer) life in Australia. And so, 15 members of the Young family moved to Australia in 1963. During their initial stay at a hostel, 17-year-old George met and became friends with another immigrant, Harry Vanda, from the Netherlands. The two friends would soon create a band of their own together. It was during those early days that George became the first one to learn to play the guitar.
George became a member of the Easybeats with Vanda, which happened to be one of the most successful bands of the 1960s in Australia. George’s younger brother Malcolm then followed in his footsteps by playing in his own band, a New South Wales band called the Velvet Underground (not to be confused with New York’s Velvet Underground).
Eventually, Malcolm and Angus (the youngest brother) decided to form a band together and came up with the name from a rather unlikely inspiration. They chose the name AC/DC after their sister Margaret saw the initials on a sewing machine. “AC/DC” is an abbreviation for “alternating current/direct current” electricity. How’s that for an electric rock band’s origin story?
The way the brothers saw it, the name symbolized their band’s raw energy and power-driven performances. We know them as “AC/DC,” pronounced one letter at a time, but in Australia, they’re known as “Acca Dacca.” In 1973, Malcolm and Angus officially formed AC/DC. With them, they had bassist Larry Van Kriedt, vocalist Dave Evans, and former drummer of the Masters Apprentices, Colin Burgess.
By the time they played their first show at Chequers nightclub on New Year’s Eve in 1973, Angus had already adopted his infamous school-uniform stage outfit. Where did the idea come from? Again, it was their sister Margaret’s idea. In fact, Angus tried other costumes, including Spider-Man, Zorro, a gorilla, and even a parody of Superman he called Super-Ang.
In the early days, most of the band dressed in some form of glam outfit. Sometimes, Evans was replaced by Dennis Laughlin, the band’s first manager and the original lead singer of Sherbet. Evans apparently didn’t get along with Laughlin, which contributed to the band’s bitterness toward Evans. By 1974, they had a strong live reputation.
Also, in 1974, promoter Michael Browning booked AC/DC to play at his club, the Hard Rock. The thing is, he wasn’t happy about their glam rock style and felt that Evans was the wrong lead singer for the band. He did, however, like the Young brothers’ guitar playing. Not long after, Browning got a call from the band – Laughlin quit as their manager, and they were stuck in Adelaide, Australia, with no cash.
Browning helped them out and booked them for another gig at his club. After that gig, Browning was hired as their new manager, in cooperation with their older brother George and his bandmate Harry Vanda. That was when AC/DC abandoned the glam rock image as well as their frontman Evans. The band then moved their base to Melbourne and frequently played at the Hard Rock.
In September of 1974, a singer and friend of George’s named Bon Scott replaced Evans. Scott was working as a chauffeur for the band until an audition led him to become the lead singer. Like the Young brothers, Scott was also born in Scotland and came to Australia when he was a kid.
By the time Scott entered, the band had only recorded one single with Evans (Can I Sit Next to You, Girl / Rockin’ in the Parlour), which was re-written and re-recorded with Scott. With Scott now onboard, AC/DC recorded their first studio album in 1974 called High Voltage. It took them only ten days. During the mid-’70s (1974-1977), AC/DC became one of Australia’s most popular and successful acts, with regular appearances on Molly Meldrum’s Countdown.
And with power comes great… ego. The band was scheduled to play at the Sunbury music festival in 1975, but they didn’t end up performing. Why? Because they had a fight with the management of the festival’s headlining act, Deep Purple. Regardless – or because of – a little ego here and there, the band started earning international fame.
The late ‘70s for AC/DC was met with international fame. By 1976, they were in an international deal with Atlantic Records. They played smaller venues in London, building a local following until the label organized the “Lock Up Your Daughters” tour. At the time, the punk rock genre was growing and started dominating the pages of British music weeklies, like NME and Melody Maker.
AC/DC was sometimes identified with the punk rock movement, at least in the British press. But AC/DC hated punk rock, and despite the reputation, they managed to survive the punk confusion and attract a cult following in the UK during that time. It was also around this time that Angus grew famous for mooning the audience during their live performances.
AC/DC’s first album to gain worldwide distribution was released in 1976 with a compilation of tracks from the High Voltage and TNT albums. They toured extensively throughout Europe, and, in 1977, they started a whole new tour with Black Sabbath. Bon Scott and Ozzy Osbourne became fast friends, but the other members of the two bands were nowhere near what you would call friends.
One time, Geezer Butler pulled a knife on Malcolm Young. Malcolm wasn’t aware that it was a “silly” flick-knife comb. By the end of 1977, bassist Mark Evans was let go. According to Evans, disagreements between Angus and Malcolm were a contributing factor. He was then replaced by Cliff Williams, a bass player with experience who had played with a number of UK bands since the late ‘60s.
The first time AC/DC was heard on American radio was when Bill Bartlett with Jacksonville station (WPDQ/WAIV) played their songs in 1975, two years before their first US concert in July 1977 in Austin, Texas, where they opened for a Canadian group called Moxy. After that, they started opening for Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Kiss, Styx, UFO, and Blue Öyster Cult.
The band’s major breakthrough came when they collaborated with producer “Mutt” Lange on their sixth studio album, Highway to Hell, in 1979. (It happens to be Eddie Van Halen’s favorite AC/DC record.) It became their first LP to break into the US top 100, making it to No.17. AC/DC made it to the top ranks of hard rock acts.
Things were going swimmingly for AC/DC as they entered a new decade, ready to rock (pun obviously intended). But as they were working on their seventh album in 1980, Back in Black, you-know-what started to hit the fan. On February 19 of that year, Bon Scott passed out in his friend Alistair Kinnear’s car on the way back to Kinnear’s apartment.
They were returning from a night of drinking and alleged drug-taking at The Music Machine in London. According to Kinnear, he wasn’t able to transfer Scott from the car to his home. So, he just left him in the car to sleep it off. But by the next evening, Scott still hadn’t woken up. Kinnear then rushed him to the hospital. Scott was pronounced dead on arrival. He was 33 years old.
The cited cause of Scott’s death was pulmonary aspiration of vomit. His death was also officially listed as “acute alcohol poisoning.” He was buried in Fremantle, Western Australia, where his family had lived when he was a boy. The circumstances surrounding Scott’s death had, up until then, been relayed mainly by Kinnear.
But, in Jesse Fink’s 2017 book Bon: The Last Highway, the inconsistencies of Scott’s death and the activities before and on the day he died were addressed. According to Fink, Scott died of a heroin overdose. Furthermore, he establishes – for the first time – that there were more people than just Kinnear on their way back to his apartment. By 2018, in the book’s update, Fink revealed there were two to three people with Scott that night.
Following Scott’s untimely death, the band had a moment when they even considered quitting. Scott’s parents, however, insisted that he would have wanted his bandmates to carry on. And that’s exactly what they chose to do. First things first, they had to find a new lead singer. The guys they considered included Allan Fryer of Fat Lip and Gary Pickford-Hopkins, who were both hyped by the press as the most surefire replacements.
There were others up for the role, including ex-Moxy member Buzz Shearman, Slade’s Noddy Holder, and ex-Back Street Crawler singer Terry Slesser. Eventually, they brought in ex-Geordie singer Brian Johnson. He auditioned for the band, and they were impressed, so they asked him to do a second rehearsal.
As it turns out, Angus had heard of Johnson before, from Scott. Angus recalled how Scott had mentioned that Johnson “was a great rock and roll singer in the style of Little Richard.” Little Richard was Scott’s idol. The way Angus put it to Bon, Johnson was a guy who knew what rock and roll was all about.
About a month after Scott’s death, Malcolm offered Johnson a place in the band. Johnson, for the record, was surprised. Out of respect for Scott, AC/DC wanted a vocalist who wouldn’t merely imitate him. They wanted someone with a distinctive voice, style, and love of classic soul and blues music. As of April 1, 1980, Brian Johnson was officially the new lead singer of AC/DC. And it was no April fool’s joke.
With Johnson on board, the band continued with the songwriting they had started with Scott for the album Back in Black. Back in Black was their biggest-selling album, and it was a hard-rock landmark with hits like Hells Bells, You Shook Me All Night Long, Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution. The album hit No.1 in the UK and No.4 in the US.
The song Back in Black itself has a riff that is one of the most recognizable in hard rock history. Despite the loss of their lead singer, their new one helped propel them into superstardom. The early ‘80s were great for AC/DC, but the mid-‘80s weren’t as friendly. They parted ways with Lange for their ninth studio album; they wanted to bring back the rawness and simplicity of their early albums.
Drummer Phil Rudd’s friendship with Malcolm started to deteriorate (drugs and alcohol didn’t help) and eventually escalated to a physical confrontation. Rudd was then fired in the middle of their Flick of the Switch sessions. Drummer B.J. Wilson was called in to help complete the recordings. But, in the end, his drumming wasn’t used as Rudd already completed the drum parts.
By 1983, Simon Wright came in as the new drummer. That’s after the band held more than 700 auditions in the US and UK for the part. Their ninth album, Flick of the Switch, was ultimately considered underdeveloped and unmemorable. One critic said the band basically “made the same album nine times.” And, just like that, in 1984 – in stark contrast to previous years, AC/DC was voted the eighth-biggest disappointment of the year, according to a Kerrang! Readers’ Poll.
In 1988, AC/DC was inducted into Australia’s Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame. By then, they had 11 studio albums. Their 11th, Blow up Your Video, reunited the band with their original producers, George Young and Harry Vanda. After feeling the newfound commercial success and touring in Australia and Europe, Malcolm announced that he was taking time off.
His main reason was he needed to focus on recovering from his alcoholism. His nephew, Stevie Young, temporarily took his place. Also, for several months in 1989, Johnson was unavailable while he was finalizing his divorce. That year, Wright left the band and was replaced by Chris Slade. The band had a little bump in the road, but they entered the new decade and hit the ground running.
The band’s 12th studio album, The Razors Edge, was produced by Bruce Fairbairn, who worked previously with Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. The 1990 album was a huge success, with tracks like Thunderstruck and Are You Ready. It went multi-platinum and hit the US top ten. In 1991, they made history when 1.6 million people attended the “Monsters of Rock” festival in Moscow, Russia.
The show, featuring Pantera, The Black Crowes, and Metallica, was the first open-air rock concert held in the former Soviet Union. The Razors Edge tour proved to be a real roller coaster ride. The lows hit when three fans were killed at a concert in Salt Lake City in January 1991.
As soon as the concert began, fans quickly rushed the stage, crushing the three who died and injuring many others. It took 20 minutes until venue security took control, and the group grasped the severity of the situation. That’s when they stopped the concert. It ended up leading to a lawsuit, and AC/DC settled with the victims’ families out of court.
As a result of this deadly incident, the Salt Palace, where the venue was held, eliminated festival seating from future events. With the tragedy of the concert behind them, AC/DC powered on.
In 1993, they recorded Big Gun for the soundtrack of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie Last Action Hero. The single reached No.1 on the US Mainstream Rock chart – their first on the chart.
In 1994, Angus and Malcolm’s old buddy Rudd came back to join some of their jam sessions. He eventually replaced Slade. Slade’s departure was actually amicable, and it happened mostly because the band had a strong desire to work with Rudd again. The band praised Slade for his work, performance, and technical ability, but they felt that a certain groove was missing since Rudd’s departure back in 1983.
After rejoining, Rudd performed on four studio albums, including Ballbreaker, Stiff Upper Lip, Black Ice, and Rock or Bust. Later on, in 2002, AC/DC signed a multi-album deal with Sony Music. With each album release, there was an expanded booklet with rare photographs, memorabilia, and notes.
After continued album releases, tours, lineup changes, and career success, AC/DC rolled into 2014 with some bad news. Early reports started to surface about the band possibly disbanding due to Malcolm’s illness. After the Black Ice World Tour, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was treated during an early stage; the surgery was successful, and the cancer was removed.
But Malcolm also had an unspecified heart issue, and he had to use a pacemaker. In April 2014, he grew seriously ill and couldn’t keep performing. AC/DC released a statement that Malcolm would be “taking a break from the band due to ill health.” Brian Johnson stated that despite the rumors, the band was not retiring.
Johnson’s words were: “We are definitely getting together in May in Vancouver. We’re going to pick up guitars, have a plonk and see if anybody has got any tunes or ideas. If anything happens, we’ll record it.” In July, Malcolm was in the hospital, receiving treatment. Meanwhile, Stevie Young was in his place. By September 2014, Malcolm had officially retired, and people were notified that he wouldn’t be rejoining AC/DC.
Malcolm’s last show with the band was years earlier, on June 28, 2010, in Spain. He was later diagnosed with dementia and admitted to a nursing home. Angus said that his brother was experiencing lapses in memory and concentration even before the Black Ice project. Angus confirmed that his brother “still likes his music. We make sure he has his Chuck Berry, a little Buddy Holly.” Malcolm passed away on November 18, 2017, at the age of 64.
During the summer of 2014, Rudd released his first solo album titled Head Job. In November, he was charged with a number of very serious crimes: attempting to secure a murder, threatening to kill, and possession of methamphetamines. The police raided his home. While the charge procuring murder was withdrawn the following day, the others remained.
At the time, AC/DC was forced to release a statement, stating that the Rock or Bust tour would continue, but they didn’t say whether or not Rudd would be involved, or even if he was still a member of the band. According to Angus, despite their problems with Rudd earlier in the year, this new situation had taken the band by surprise.
Rudd was also missing video and photoshoots, putting the rest of the band in a tough spot as to keep him around or not. In 2015, Rudd pleaded guilty to drug charges as well as to threatening to kill a former assistant of his. Shortly after that statement, AC/DC’s website removed Rudd as the band’s official drummer and replaced him with Slade… again.
That July, Rudd was sentenced to eight months of home detention. But this episode with Rudd wasn’t the band’s only hurdle to deal with in the mid-2010s. Next up on the list was Brian Johnson’s hearing loss. By March 2016, they had to announce that the final ten dates of the Rock or Bust World Tour would be rescheduled. Johnson’s doctors ordered him to stop touring immediately.
Johnson’s hearing loss was getting worse, and he was at risk of complete deafness – any musician’s worst nightmare – if he were to keep touring. Johnson later mentioned on The Howard Stern Show that his hearing loss didn’t even come from performing for 36 years with AC/DC. Instead, it was the result of his love of auto racing and having forgotten to put earplugs in during one particular race that ruptured his left eardrum.
However, in March 2016, comedian Jim Breuer (a friend of Johnson’s) disclosed on his podcast that Johnson got a second opinion on his hearing loss. It turns out it wasn’t as bad as initially thought. Still, Johnson told Breuer that he was basically fired from AC/DC and that he didn’t hear from the band since they announced the tour being postponed.
Johnson’s last show with AC/DC was on February 28, 2016, in Kansas City. Fans of AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses alike were either happy or disappointed to hear that frontman Axl Rose was joining the band. In April 2016, Rose was officially introduced as the band’s lead vocalist for the rest of their 2016 tour dates.
The band’s statement: “AC/DC band members would like to thank Brian Johnson for his contributions and dedication to the band throughout the years. We wish him all the best with his hearing issues and future ventures. As much as we want this tour to end as it started, we understand, respect, and support Brian’s decision to stop touring and save his hearing.”
By 2016, bass player Cliff Williams decided to leave the band. “It’s been what I’ve known for the past 40 years, but after this tour, I’m backing off of touring and recording,” Williams stated in an interview. “Losing Malcolm, the thing with Phil and now with Brian, I’m a changed animal. I feel in my gut it’s the right thing.”
His last show with AC/DC was on September 20, 2016, in Philadelphia. The day after that concert, it was reported that Axl Rose would be joining the band full-time. Apparently, Angus was eager to make a new album with Rose as the lead vocalist. In April 2019, AC/DC’s longtime engineer Mike Fraser confirmed that they were working on new material in the studio.
“Well, yeah, I could say that we’ve been in the studio doing something. What’s come of that I can’t discuss yet,” Fraser said at the time. Rumors were going around that Johnson was joining the band again. In February 2020, Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider claimed that Johnson rejoined AC/DC and that the band was in the process of making a new album with him.
The new recordings were expected to include unreleased guitar tracks previously made and recorded by Malcolm before he died. The release was reportedly delayed due to the pandemic. Snider also claimed that this would likely be their final album. AC/DC have recently confirmed their return by announcing that Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd, and Cliff Williams have returned to the band. On September 30, 2020, the announcement was made. Fans can expect a brand new album coming up.
Fun fact: a fan by the name of Wade Sickler (from Montana) entered a charity auction on eBay in a bid for a guitar lesson with Angus Young. The price? $28,000. And he ended up jamming for hours with the band.
Here’s a look at the current members of AC/DC today…
Angus Young is known for his wild antics, with intense jumps and running back and forth on stage. He frequently pulls off his own version of Chuck Berry’s duck walk. His older brother George used to tell him that if he ever tripped over his guitar cable, he should just keep playing and make it look like it was part of the act.
Young also did a sort of striptease as his mid-show ritual, slowly taking off his schoolboy outfit. He would run across the stage, pretending to moon the audience by showing his underwear. He would then play the rest of the show topless.
Angus is married to a Dutch woman named Ellen. They live in Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands.
Slade has worked with Gary Numan, Tom Jones, and Olivia Newton-John. He was one of the original founding members of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. In the ‘80s, he played with Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers in the Firm. He also played with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. But 1989 was his biggest exposure when he joined AC/DC.
After his temporary departure from the band in the ‘90s, Slade spent a few in the UK’s countryside before getting a call from Geoff Downes of the British rock group Asia. Slade then played with them for six years, leaving in 2005. By the mid-2010s, Slade was back in AC/DC. But, as of 2020, his role is uncertain due to a possible return of Rudd as a drummer.
Stevie Young is the son of Stephen Crawford Young Sr., the oldest brother of Angus, Malcolm, George, and Alex. After having immigrated to Australia with his family in 1963, he returned to Scotland in 1970. His connection to AC/DC goes back to the ‘60s when he, Angus, and Malcolm went to the same school in Sydney, Australia, and played guitar together.
In the late ‘70s, Stevie and his brother Fraser would sometimes travel with AC/DC on tour. Both brothers were photographed with Angus and Malcolm backstage during the 1979 Highway to Hell Tour. When Stevie replaced Malcolm in 1988, many fans didn’t even notice because the two looked a lot alike at the time.
Guns N’ Roses was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, but Axl Rose didn’t attend the ceremony. Rose, who had been on bad terms with several of his bandmates for a long time, wrote that the induction ceremony “doesn’t appear to be somewhere I’m actually wanted or respected.”
Four years later, in 2016, AC/DC announced that Rose would be joining them and performing as their lead singer. Only time will tell if Rose will be “respected” more in AC/DC than he was with his former band. But, if you ask me, it doesn’t look like there is too much time left for these hard-hitting heavy rockers who are all either in or approaching their golden years.