AC/DC Singer Brian Johnson On Joining A Grieving Band, ‘Back In Black’ And His Tears For Late Malcolm Young

On Christmas of 1960, during a midnight mass in Northern England, a young choir boy named Brian Johnson stepped in front of his church congregation. He sang a solo rendition of “Silent Night” by candlelight. And while there was no raucous applause or flashing lights, his mother, Esther, was crying with pride at the magic her son displayed. It was a reserved but formative moment for the would-be rock star.

In The Lives of Brian (a very British hat-tip to Monty Python), the new memoir from AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, out now, the 75-year-old metal pioneer outlines a wide range of stories from his life, spanning from childhood until the period when he first joins AC/DC. In the book, Johnson details his upbringing and relationship with his war-hardened father and delicate Italian mother, who settled down together in a dreary working-class town in Newcastle after the conclusion of the Second World War.

The stories, which outline Johnson’s entire upbrining through his hot-and-cold rise to fame in British bands Geordie and Geordie II, are peppered with anecdotes that touch upon all aspects of the human condition: family, war, depression, love, loss, pride and failure. These themes come in a variety of forms, from his parents’ turbulent marriage to his own emotional anguish when faced with potential total hearing loss.

The memoir also features a slew of incredible music memories. Johnson details sneaking in to see The Jimi Hendrix Experience, playing shows with Chuck Berry and the few chance encounters he had with AC/DC’s original vocalist, Bon Scott.

If Brian Johnson’s new memoir makes one thing clear, it’s that his life was prone to radical change in an instant. Take for example, when one of his earliest bands, Section 5, played its first gig to a small and underwhelmed crowd. Minutes later, he mysteriously found himself losing his virginity in a back alleyway. It wasn’t the only selling point, but surely encouraged the singer’s lifelong commitment to rock and roll.

Later, when he needed money to buy himself a PA system, he enlisted in the Territorial Army (similar to America’s National Guard) to raise funds. Through the experience, he secured his first trip on an airplane. The flight was short, as Johnson was swiftly required to leap out of it.

And when the British vocalist was asked to audition for AC/DC—the exploding Australian rock act fresh off the success of Highway to Hell—it was only a matter of days before he found himself in a total whirlwind. Johnson recorded one of the band’s biggest records ever, Back in Black, took stage to thousands and embarked on a decades-long career-defining musical endeavor as band’s new singer.

Below, Johnson discusses the complexities of his relationship with his father. He opens up about the emotional nuances of joining AC/DC quickly after the untimely death of Bon Scott—and the consequential whirlwind of recording Back in Black, one of the best-selling albums of all time. Johnson also candidly processes the moment he cried for his dear friend, guitarist Malcolm Young, who died in 2017 at the age of 64.

Let’s start by saying happy belated birthday! You turned 75 on October 5. How does it feel?

I’m 75 and still alive! I made it! F*** ’em all. That’s what I say. I was very scared cuz my dad died at 75. When my birthday was coming up again, I thought, “Good God almighty. That’s when me old man popped!” But I’m still here and I’m still eating the wrong things, drinking coffee and doing all that good s*** that the doctor says, “If you do that continuously, you know you’re gonna die!”

Did you do anything special for the milestone birthday?

I got great friends and we went to a wonderful Italian restaurant that we have down here in Sarasota. We sat in the wine room with a big table and were just good pals talking. We’ve been friends for so long. Nothing too big. I threatened anyone that brought a birthday cake would get it circus-like right back in the moosh! It was fantastic, lovely.

You recently had to endure Hurricane Ian down at your home in Florida. How was the experience for you?

Well it was as scary as s***, if you can imagine. I was in England and there we were playing in front of 100,000 people at Wembley with Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters—doing a benefit for Taylor Hawkins.

I got up on stage after four years—wondering if anybody even remembered who the f*** I was! And we jumped up there and I sang “Back in Black” and the roof went off! I was going, “Oh yeah, f*** me! I can still sing!” [laughs] Cause I was worried, with me ears and all that. So, then it was all finished and bye-bye. What a f***ing finish!

I get back home and heard about this tropical storm that has now turned into a hurricane, but we’re told, “Don’t worry too much.” The next morning I woke up and it said, “Run for the hills, you’re all going to die!” I’m going, “What the f*** just happened?” So there I was in my late mother-in-law’s condo on the sixth floor. The power went out and I found a candle. I was in the dark with this 150 mph wind whipping around just holding this candle thinking, “Nobody’s gonna believe this!” Thankfully I had a bottle of whiskey that I had put in my bag. [laughs] That helped get me through. But it was scary as hell.

You dedicated a good chunk of your book to integrating your relationship with your father and his experience in World War II. You described him as a very loving guy in his own way, but generally as a very cold person, a recurring theme.

He once told you that you’re “no Johnny Cash.” He even said he didn’t care about watching your band Geordie on Top of the Pops, which was a rite of passage for British rock bands. Isn’t it funny how after all those years, it’s always the comments from your parents that pierce the most?

Yeah. You know, I never understood. I said, “Dad, well, we went on Top of the Pops!” This was the biggest thing! “I don’t care! I’m not watching Top of the Pops. I never have done it. And I’m not starting because you are on it. Thank you very much. I’m off to the bar!” And off he’d go to join his mates. [laughs]

When you first told your parents that you were going to join AC/DC, your father looked at you blankly and told you he’d never heard of them. Do you look back on that and laugh?

Well, at the time AC/DC weren’t the band they are now. They were up and coming. They had certainly left a mark on TV and on record, but they were still just building.

When I said to him, you know, AC/DC, he said quite innocently, “I thought they nationalized them.” At the time in England, the gas companies, instead of being private, the socialist government would nationalize them. It belonged to the country. It wasn’t privately owned anymore. So to him, he thought it was short for some government company.

When you were wealthy enough to buy your parents a house, do you think your father finally understood the gravity of your talent and success?

I’d never seen fear in his eyes before. I said, “Mom, come on. Dad, I need you to come out this time. It’s really important. Put your best jacket on!”

We drove up the hill to where the people with money lived and away from the bottom where all the workers lived. We came to this beautiful little bungalow which was built on the side of a hill. It had a beautiful view of the Tyne Valley. Just gorgeous.

He said, “What are we doing here?” I said, “Mom, Dad, this is your new house.” And, the look of fear! Because he’d been in a council house all his life—or the projects as [Americans] call them. He wasn’t used to being in something that didn’t belong to a government agency. It was hard. It was a big leap.

I remember him saying, “That’s all very well, but who’s gonna take the trash away?” I said, “Well, the garbage men!” It really was frightening for him. But it was a wonderful day.

Despite all his grumpiness—much of which you later understood given his horrific stories of bloodshed in World War II—do you think he was ultimately proud of all that you achieved?

I think he was. In fact, I know he was. He just didn’t like to make me think that I should be cocky about it—which I never was—but for him, it was a strange environment. He’d still go to his working men’s club and he’d have to fear the guys saying, “What are you doing here now? I thought you’d be in a mansion with your son!” Because that’s what you read in the papers. And he said, “I belong here. I belong here. This is where I’ll be.” He went there until he got sick, until he had a stroke.

I didn’t write so much about the illnesses my mom and dad went through because it just made me cry a lot when I was writing. I had to stop. And I certainly thought, “How selfish of me, all the people in the world who’ve gone through the same thing!” So, some things you want to keep personal, which means, in your memory, you know? Well, that’s the way it was with me.

There is one truly surreal moment in your book, from back when you were playing in your old band Geordie. You describe The Who’s vocalist Roger Daltrey riding up to you shirtless on the back of a horse—no saddle. The scene read like it should have been the cover of a romance novel. Did you feel like you were hallucinating?

It was a Rock God! [laughs] It was as simple as that. Just like on a book: barefoot, pale blue jeans, no shirt, holding the horse by the mane and just galloping over the top of the hill. There’s sunshine and greenery!

He’d invited me for Sunday dinner with his wife because he thought I had “good pipes.” I couldn’t believe it. We’d just done Top of the Pops that week.

He said, “Where are you staying in London?” And I said, “Well, we’re staying in this flat in Hackney, which basically has four mattresses on the floor.” He said, “Me and the wife had to sleep like that when we first started, mate. Honestly, I can only say one thing to you: Don’t give up. Okay? You just can’t give up.”

To this day, I’m sure he can’t even remember saying it. But to me it was something! And during the lean times when Geordie finished and I was trying to make a living, it started to wear a bit thin, I must admit. I was going, “God almighty, this is tougher than I thought!” When I had to go out and get a job putting in windshields on the freeways in the rain—and in the snow, that was the worst!

I tried to make a few bucks so I could pay the mortgage, feed the family and keep ’em warm. That’s where I started wearing the hat all the time so people wouldn’t recognize me cuz I was so embarrassed. I’d left my job being a draftsman. This was the year with our photographs in the magazines and the paper, “Big future for these boys!”

Of course, it just fizzled out and there I was left with no means of transport, no means of earning money. I had to pick up the paper and find a job, which I thought might keep me out of the public eye.

It’s ironic that you were really damn good at changing windshields! At least your commitment spoke volumes about your work ethic—which must’ve helped when you auditioned for AC/DC. The story goes that they asked you to hang for the night in London, but you explained that you needed to drive back to Newcastle and open up your automotive vinyl roofing shop the next morning, right? Maybe they thought, “That man has principles!”

That was strange. There were a few strange looks and head-scratching going on. “What the f***? What do you mean you’ve got to go back up?” Well, it was the truth. And we had a great band up in Newcastle, Geordie II. We were booked about five nights a week—the most popular band in Newcastle! I can say that with hand on heart. And people came everywhere to see us in the working men’s clubs! We just had a ball.

When you joined AC/DC shortly after, you said that Bon Scott’s parents had told Angus and Malcolm that they wanted them to keep the band going. You mentioned they suggested that it could be a good distraction to help them deal with their grief. That seems like an odd concept to me, that if you were to spend all your time trying to keep your band going, you’d be constantly reminded of the guy you were missing at the microphone.

It seems it could work for some people, if the act of creating music is enough to distract them from the chaos of it all. Did it make any sense to you psychologically? Or were you just along for the ride?

No, no, no, that makes perfect sense. You’re right on the money with everything. I realized I couldn’t be too jolly or jump up and down, these guys were still getting over the fact that they’d lost [Bon Scott]: the writer, the singer, the friend. And here this guy came in from the northeast of England who said he was gonna leave to go back to do his garage. That had to make them think.

I didn’t think they’d call back. And after two days, the tour manager phoned up. It was all very vague. Nobody said, “Hey, listen, we want you in this band!” There wasn’t anything like that. I thought they probably needed somebody a lot younger than me. At 32, I wasn’t a spring chicken and thought they’d probably get somebody from Australia they had some history with.

But, like you were saying before—a distraction—maybe? It just seemed so electrical when we started singing together. I think that was the first thing that happened. When we did know the first two songs together, I said, “Holy s***!” I’ve never had f***ing goosebumps before—not when I’m singing.

But they were very secretive boys, they kept to themselves and didn’t want to give anything away. But it just turned out brilliant at the end.

Suddenly, you were in the Bahamas with the band recording Back in Black—sleeping in a small room armed with a machete and a harpoon. The explanation was that there was an increase in violence related to drug-smuggling in the area. Were you in total awe, asking yourself, “How did I get here, in this exact situation!?”

[laughs] It’s true. This lovely big Bahamian woman. She gave me this machete, ’cause we were in just these little cells—not a hotel room. There were these little cells with a door, window and toilet. It had a wash basin, bed, a little desk and chair. That was it. No phone. No TV. Nothing.

That was the first night. Then the next day she said, “Here, you’re gonna need this, too, man.” I went, “Holy f***. That’s a speargun, isn’t it?”

I’ve got this f***ing speargun up against the wall with a machete at the side of the bed, trying to write lyrics for that day’s cassette that Malcolm [Young] would bring down. I tried to get the lyrics ready by the next morning for [producer] “Mutt” Lange in the studio. It was all strange s*** there! It was wonderfully blurred.

You really enjoyed working with Mutt, right?

He was just a fabulous guy to work with. And he was one of those that you had to be careful because he was so talented. He could probably do anything he wanted within the studio himself and show you how to do it. He certainly taught me how to just let go.

You explained how you were pushed to sing higher than you ever had before during the Back in Black sessions. You didn’t hear final mixed versions of the songs until a pressed LP arrived at your home by mail. You called your buddy, Derek Rootham from Geordie II, because you didn’t even have a turntable to play it on. Were you shocked by his gut reaction?

I took it down to his record player. I put it on and it started “Hells Bells.” The first thing he said, “Well, the f***ing album cover is s***.” [laughs ] The singing started, and then he went, “Oh, no, no, no, no! You’re singing far too high! let’s f*** off for a pint!” [laughs] That was my introduction to Back in Black. And we went for a pint.

Were you thinking, “Oh, no, it sucks!” Or was he just busting your chops?

I never got that far to think, “Oh, it sucks!” I mean, he pulled the needle off! “Oh, no, we’re too high. Come on, let’s get a pint. Let’s talk about the new songs we’ll be doing with our band!” [laughs] What the f***?

And then Back in Black became the second highest selling album of all-time.

You cannot buy f***ing moments like that!

At the end of your book, you bring us to a health care facility in Australia. You were having surgery on your ears—and going through a really hard period emotionally. You explained that Malcolm Young was being treated nearby for dementia—and you were stunned to find out that he was being treated just feet away. When you asked to see him, it turned into a heartbreaking situation where the medical staff told you it wasn’t possible due to the visitation parameters set by his family. Was this something that was really hard for you to write about? You seemed to have kept it pretty short and sweet.

It was a tough thing to put in a book. I just told myself, “Shut up!” But then I thought to myself, “I stood by this man for 36 f***ing years!” Not two feet apart, you know?

Angus did stuff out front and I just found that I fed off Malcolm Young. He had this f***ing thing about him, that was just electric. He was a skinny little five foot fella. Boy, you should have seen him punch them f***ing strings! Every musician, every guitarist in the world would come and meet Malcolm and just say, “Well, how’d you get that sound?” He would just say, “ Just hit him hard!”

He was the sharpest. He never missed a trick. And he was instrumental in making Angus not have to worry about what was happening [on stage] because Malcolm was right there behind him, making sure everything was going to plan.

And there he was, you know? This guy that was always sharp—over this wall. I said, “Oh boy. I’d love to see him!” I didn’t know how far it had gone or whatever it was, but it was tricky. And when the guy said, “I’m sorry, I cannot do that.” Well, it’s hard to write down and tell people that you cried. You’re just going, “Oh s***, maybe I shouldn’t have said that!” You know, guys wanna be as macho as they can, but some things… it was an awkward time.

You’re human. Everybody cries, Brian.

It was just—I wasn’t sobbing, just the f***ing tears started rolling down me face, you know, in front of this f***ing stranger. And I couldn’t stop. And he said, “Oh sorry mate, I’ll be back in a minute.” And of course I couldn’t move to wipe my eyes cuz I was full of f***ing needles and tubes [laughs].

It was horrible, a horrible thing. Then of course, he passed away and a part of me passed away with him. We all agreed that the maestro was gone.

The interesting thing is that you went and recorded a new album, Power Up (2020), not long after Malcolm died. Not dissimilar to how after Bon died, the band immediately went into the studio for Back in Black. I guess the way AC/DC grieves is by writing new music…

That was fantastic. We said when we’re doing the interviews for that album that Malcolm was everywhere. He was f***ing everywhere. He was in the guitars, the drums, on the mix! Jesus, you could feel him!

And everybody played. And what came out was one of the best albums I think since Back in Black. It was just brilliant and fun to do. And God, now we’re still on the blocks trying to get to sing the songs live. One day!

In the intro to your book, you wrote that you hope one day you’ll be able buy Bon Scott and Malcolm Young a beer “on the other side.” Do you believe there is a heaven? Do you think you’ll see them again?

Nah, I wish. I wish it more than believe it. I think, I wish, you know, rather than believe. I think there’s a difference. But hey, you never f***ing know!

Brian Johnson’s new book, The Lives of Brian, is available now.

Follow me on Twitter at @DerekUTG.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/derekscancarelli/2022/10/26/acdc-singer-brian-johnson-on-joining-a-grieving-band-back-in-black-and-his-tears-for-late-malcolm-young/ AC/DC Singer Brian Johnson On Joining A Grieving Band, ‘Back In Black’ And His Tears For Late Malcolm Young

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