The Youngs

The Brothers Who Built AC/DC: Riff Raff

by Jesse Fink

1 August 2014

Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press 

The Fallout from the Failure

In 2010 I saw Airbourne at the Metro Theatre in Sydney and lead singer and guitarist Joel O’Keeffe carried off the whole Angust-Young-getting-carried-off-into-the-audience routine with polished aplomb. He even split a can of Victoria Bitter beer on his head standing on top of a Marshall amp and sprayed it over the audience.

“Airbourne are trying to capture that spirit. But they probably overemphasize a point,” says Opitz, diplomatically.

After eight weeks of recording with mixing involved, Powerage was done and dusted.

Everyone involved in the production, which had been done mostly on feel, was pleased with the results, even after it had been sent back by Atlantic for the band to record “Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation.”

“You can hear Vanda & Young in ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation,’” says Opitz. “The hooks. The shakers coming in. Tambourine to get the groove. Which if you notice is just like [John Paul Young’s] ‘Love Is in the Air.’ They were very big on lots of Motown tricks. Clapping hands. Harry would clap behind George.”

Photo credit: Jon O'Rourke

Photo credit: © Jon O’Rourke

It was a brilliant concoction by Vanda & Young, a song in the spirit of “Good Times” and “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” and went to #24 in the United Kingdom. However, to this day not everyone is impressed by Powerage’s only single. In his biography, Mick Wall calls it “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff,” which is so ungenerous and untrue it’s a scandal of its own. Since when is head bopping a crime when it comes to rock ’n’ roll?

“AC/DC gets you moving,” says Opitz. “One thing George Young said to me was, ‘Always make sure they can dance to it.’ That wasn’t lost on the band. The dance would be a four on the floor. As long as you can stamp your foot, that’s all you needed. That was it. No complex twist. Just a straight, dead-ahead, four-on-the-floor rock ’n’ roll that connects physically with young guys in particular.”

The man whose opinion mattered most, Jerry Greenberg, thought the whole album overall was “a little too hard edge” for US radio.

“That was the problem,” he says, bluntly. “After Powerage I was the guy that convinced the band that they should come to America and work with another producer. That was pretty tough because the brothers’ brother was the producer of the band.”

Opitz’s take is different: “There was a big change in the songs, which didn’t go down with Atlantic well at all. They thought the producers were losing control, which they weren’t obviously. They were just giving them their head to find their own groove.”

But Doug Thaler, who visited Sydney during the recording, backs Greenberg: “When I went down to the studio in ’78 the albums didn’t sound quite as great as they might have. The music was great, the performances were great, but the sound was juuuusssst not quite what it needed to be.”

In any event, heads rolled. The fallout from the failure of Powerage was immense. AC/DC sacked their manager, Michael Browning, and Vanda & Young were replaced by Eddie Kramer, who was forced to make way for Mutt Lange.

Browning didn’t want to be drawn too much on the switch that would kill his relationship with AC/DC, insisting he’d already said enough about it in other books. As Clinton Walker wrote in 1994: “Thicker than water though blood may be, Malcolm and Angus were also extremely ambitious ... [they] assuaged their guilt at George’s sacking by blaming Michael Browning. From this point on, things would never be the same again. What was once a defensive insularity now degenerated into fully blown paranoia. It was an atmosphere of fear and loathing that would escalate for years to come, and only exacerbated Bon’s growing sense of dislocation.”

Yet Browning is happy to boast: “It was the choice of producer where it went pear shaped until I managed to rectify that and hire Mutt Lange.”

By 1983’s Flick of the Switch, however, Lange too was gone.

Continued Walker: “The production credit the album bore, to Malcolm and Angus themselves, was merely the tip of the iceberg of a purging the pair had effected throughout the entire band and its infrastructure. It’s a classic syndrome: the successful campaigner who fears his own troops. But Malcolm and Angus never trusted anyone anyway. They sacked practically everybody: Mutt Lange, who had artistically engineered their breakthrough; drummer Phil Rudd; Peter Mensch, who himself had usurped Michael Browning; even de-facto official photographer Robert Ellis was ousted.”

When I tried to speak to Ellis, who toured with AC/DC at their peak and produced some of the best images of the band, he struck a sour note: “Everyone closely associated with the Youngs knows their attitude and closed ways. Anything you and I say can be mere speculation. As is most of what is in the biographies and books so far. I read the Phil Sutcliffe, Murray Engleheart and Mick Wall books. I reckon all are only adding to the mystique. There is plenty of space for the real story, but only [the Youngs] can tell it, and they have no intention of ever doing such a thing. Email me what you want to know from me. I will consider it, and give you some reply.” So I did just as I was asked. But he responded with an outburst:

“I am not convinced this is a project I want to be any part of. Another fan perspective, and another outsider view of ‘what really went down’ is just not interesting.”

Ellis’s pomposity surprised me. I will never claim The Youngs to bean account of “what really went down.” As David Krebs said to me in Manhattan, managing a rock band or writing about a rock band is like Rashomon. There are so many versions of the truth. Ellis himself is not writing the definitive biography. Who is? And would the Youngs, if they cared to write their life stories, produce the “real” story? Would they acknowledge the hurt they have caused so many people? What, exactly, is definitive? Is it even possible to be definitive?

I think not. So the band’s chroniclers try to patch together what they can from what came before or whatever they can obtain themselves through their own investigations. Even if the result of those labors is an approximation of the truth, there are stories worth trying to tell and to get right—such as the shabby treatment of Michael Browning.

Most tellingly, before he died in 2005, Perry Cooper, one of the band’s closest allies, told Walker: “Michael [Browning] gave his all for that band. But they’re as tough as nails, these guys.”

“It was hurtful,” Browning admitted to the same author, “and what made it more hurtful was that over the years, everyone, me included, with the Youngs and AC/DC, tends to get written out of history. It’s like you never existed.”

Phil Carson has only praise for Browning and the band’s original champions at Alberts: “Michael and I plotted every step of the way of the early development of the band. I still have the greatest respect for George Young and for Harry Vanda too. They were doing such a great job in the studio; I really left them to it and they delivered the goods. I also had a great relationship with Fifa Riccobono and Ted Albert. Ted was the guy I would call, along with Michael, to get Alberts to foot the bill for promotional events about which Atlantic were dubious. It was a truly terrific relationship and between us we made it work.”

Opitz was another band luminary to never work with the Youngs again.

“It’s really weird we haven’t put the same combination back together again, but that’s the way it goes.”

Or at least in the closed-off world of the Youngs.

Atlantic’s hiring of Mutt Lange changed everything for AC/DC. But how he came into their orbit and who can take credit for introducing him to the band is probably the most unchallenged story in AC/DC lore. Existing published accounts are either erroneous or don’t really scratch the surface of what happened, and it’s another story that needs to be retold from a different angle because it was a marriage of musicians that changed the course of so many lives, not to mention the history of rock. Without Lange and without the input of two other very important but unheralded players behind the scenes, AC/DC might not be kicking on today.

It all started with Doug Thaler. In 1976, two years before Powerage, he had got involved with an English band called City Boy, who happened to be produced by Lange and were managed by Lange’s managers, South Africans Ralph Simon and Clive Calder. City Boy had supported AC/DC on one of their first shows in the United States, a December 1977 gig at the Capitol Theater in Flint, Michigan, and right before AC/DC’s Live from the Atlantic Studios performance in New York. Thaler was involved in the arrangement.

“City Boy had a minor hit in the States in 1979 called ‘5-7-0-5’ but they hadn’t really sold any great numbers of records over three releases with [record label] Mercury,” he says. “They had this great track called ‘New York Times.’ It came out later in 1979 and just shit the bed—it did nothing.

“I became very close with Clive. And I had a client in the late ’70s, a Southern rock band called The Outlaws, and I contacted Clive and said, ‘Clive, do you think Mutt would be interested in producing The Outlaws?’ Of course The Outlaws, who were arena headliners at that time, weren’t interested in being produced. They were interested in snorting as much cocaine as they could get their hands on. So Mutt did an album with them [1978’s Playin’ to Win] and they didn’t really get their act together and write the songs that they should have.”

Enter the formidable frame of Michael Klenfner. A huge man who’d got his start doing security for late San Francisco AC/DC promoter Bill Graham, he was part of the stage crew at Woodstock, worked as music director and disc jockey at WNEW in New York and rose through the record business, first at Columbia and then Arista, to head Atlantic’s marketing and promotion department by1977, reporting to Jerry Greenberg.

Outside of AC/DC, Klenfner was an important figure in the careers of The Grateful Dead, Boz Scaggs and Bruce Springsteen, among others. He’s best known (even if no one can put a name to his face) for a memorable cameo appearance—written especially for him—right at the end of The Blues Brothers. He’s the fat guy with the thick mustache playing the president of Clarion Records (“the largest recording company on the eastern seaboard”) who bails up Jake and Elwood Blues backstage during their big concert at the Palace Hotel Ballroom and offers them a record contract while they’re trying to escape from the cops.

“You guys were hot,” he says, grabbing them by their shoulders and about to hand over a brown paper envelope stuffed with $10,000. “You were great. Insane. I’ve gotta record you!”

In 1978 Klenfner’s influence on AC/DC had already returned handsome dividends: a hit with “Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” in England, the Live from the Atlantic Studios promotion, and concert bookings on both coasts, where his personal connections came into play. Now he was right behind the push for South African Eddie Kramer to supplant Vanda & Young and flew to Sydney to break the news to the Australian pair that they were history.

Kramer was best known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, Kiss and Led Zeppelin.

“I didn’t dig Eddie Kramer’s work,” says Thaler. “I didn’t think there was anything special about what he did. And I got hold of Clive Calder and I said, ‘Clive, do you think Mutt would have interest in working with AC/DC?’ I just thought it would be a great choice. He was starting to hit his stride as a producer and I’d already given him a project, The Outlaws. I was curious to see if he would even be interested since [AC/DC] were much harder than anything he had done to that date.

“So I put forward the idea of Mutt working with the band, as I knew George and Harry were open to other ideas to help push them over the top. When Clive said that Mutt would be interested, I passed the suggestion on to Michael Browning. It really wasn’t my place to do much more than that. I may have suggested Mutt to someone at Atlantic as well; I just don’t clearly recall. As City Boy’s agent and AC/DC’s agent all I could really do with respect to producers was make suggestions and that’s what I did. I believe Clive was already in talks with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Greenberg about a deal between Atlantic and Mutt.”

This is confirmed by Greenberg, who says the first time he heard the name Mutt Lange was inside Atlantic.

“Yes,” he says. “It was one of the guys in my A&R department: John Kalodner. Kalodner wanted to sign City Boy.”

But Greenberg also says he maintained a direct line of communication with Browning.

“Oh, all the time. All the time.”

Did Browning ever mention Lange?

Um, he may have. I’m not sure. I will tell you that I was the guy that Browning had to come to quite often for what we called in those days ‘tour support’ to keep the band alive.”

Phil Carson recalls the chronology of events clearly.

“Jerry brought Mutt into the fold via an album that he had produced for an Atlantic group, City Boy. The album got some pretty good airplay, but never made the grade. Jerry and John Kalodner both thought that Mutt had something special to offer AC/DC.”

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