Singer Brian Johnson has had to pull out of the rockers tour or risk losing his hearing. His departure is one loss too far
If theres one group that could survive extreme tribulations, it would be AC/DC. In the last couple of years, Malcolm Young, their leader and rhythm guitarist, was forced to depart, stricken by dementia, and they ploughed on. Phil Rudd, their drummer, was ditched, having become embroiled in a court case that saw him sentenced to home detention, and still they ploughed on. And that omits their greatest act of survival: the replacement of singer Bon Scott, seemingly the lascivious embodiment of AC/DC, with Brian Johnson after Scott died in 1980.
Scotts death, rather than killing the band, was followed by AC/DC attaining their greatest heights: the Back in Black album became the second biggest-selling album ever, behind Michael Jacksons Thriller, and gave the group a position never relinquished as one of rocknrolls biggest draws. Even the events of the last couple of years couldnt knock AC/DC off their stride: without Young, they recorded the perfectly serviceable Rock or Bust album; with Rudd displaced they went on tour and were as thrilling as ever.
Earlier this week, though, AC/DC announced that Johnson had been advised to stop touring, or risk total hearing loss. The group said 10 US dates would be rescheduled, likely with a guest vocalist, and that was it. Never the most forthcoming of groups Malcolms dementia was admitted only when news outlets began to report it they have made no further statement about their future.
AC/DCs Powerage was the first album I bought 27 December 1980, on cassette, from HMV Oxford Street in London, the version with Cold Hearted Man instead of RocknRoll Damnation and theyve been the only constant of my listening life. Powerage is still among my favourite albums, and Ive never begrudged them their decisions to continue, no matter the vicissitudes they face. After all, its their band, their lives.
This time, though, Im joining those who think AC/DC should call time. Theyd already long ceased to be a group who made records because they couldnt stop themselves a mere five albums since 1990 and who played live only on long worldwide jaunts off the back of those records. They had entered the realms of those groups for whom each album was a potential return to form, rather than a new landmark. Its not that they were making bad records, more that no one was turning to Black Ice or Ballbreaker instead of Back in Black or Highway to Hell. They were making records, and touring, to keep the business ticking over.
Theres nothing wrong with musicians making music to make money. For all the supposed romance of rocknroll, no one joins a rock band except on the DIY fringes in the hope of pursuing a life of poverty. In 1975, on his mission statement, RocknRoll Singer, Bon Scott outlined his reason for following that path: I hear it pays well! And AC/DC have continued making enormous amounts of money while making a lot of people very happy indeed check out the faces of the crowd in their Live at River Plate if you dont believe me (or if you havent seen me beaming on my way out of an AC/DC show).
But there comes a point where the trade-off between going home with large amounts of money and offering fans a show to delight seems skewed too far in one direction. And that point would seem to me to have arrived with the notion that a stand-in singer take Johnsons place for those 10 shows. If Johnson might ever be fit to return, postpone the shows until he can. If he is not, give the fans refunds. Dont give them a show that is not what they paid for. They paid for AC/DC for Brian Johnson and Angus Young. They didnt pay for Angus Young, bassist Cliff Williams, and three stand-ins, which is what they would be getting. To go ahead with those shows of karaoke AC/DC looks like putting the bank account before the fans. At the very least given the longstanding loyalty and support of fans AC/DC should at least clarify Johnsons situation: has he retired, or hasnt he?
If I believed AC/DC were likely to go into the studio the minute this tour was over, that more than anything they wanted to remain a working band, Id be delighted to hear of them recruiting a new singer. But given the gaps between albums these days, I cant see that being a possibility. If I believed they were simply desperate to keep on playing until the dying of the light, Id be happy for them. Yet they only play live for albums, so its hard to believe they live for the show. Instead, a new singer would just be a way to keep the show on the road, whatever that show might be.
Hard-rock bands are uniquely capable of sustaining themselves in the face of a high turnover of members: when I spoke to David Coverdale last year, he was surprised to learn that he had employed 39 different musicians to fill out the lineups of Whitesnake. Its a testimony to the strength of their brands that such acts are able to do this. However, those bands that have are often dependent on a single charismatic member, who embodies the band and the brand, or are those whose careers are not, perhaps, what they were. History is not replete with examples of stadium-filling member bands retaining their status once they have adopted conveyor-belt membership. The nearest comparison I can think of is Queen, and they are a jukebox act now Only their decision to hire Adam Lambert saw them regain their live-act status.
For AC/DC, its different. They are among the worlds most commercially successful bands, even now. To decide to give that up must be hard. If they do play at Londons Olympic Stadium in June with a new singer, I will probably go. Just to see. To revisit my memories of one of my all-time favourite bands.
But I hope they dont. I hope, this time, they decide that AC/DC is too precious a thing to diminish.