The Youngs

The Brothers Who Built AC/DC: Back in Black

by Jesse Fink

8 August 2014


A Mutt That Never Tires

While Alberts might have been sloppy with their archiving, Lange left nothing to chance in The Bahamas. Back in Black was as much a career-defining album for him as it was for AC/DC. He had under his belt a bunch of City Boy, Boomtown Rats, Supercharge and Clover records, Graham Parker’s Heat Treatment and a ream of one-offs for a gaggle of nobodies. Foreigner and Def Leppard were still to come. The only album he produced between Highway to Hell and Back in Black was the self-titled debut of Broken Home, a side group of the British band Mr. Big, with Platt engineering.

It was during Back in Black that Platt saw the first clear signs of Lange’s tendency to strive for technical perfection at the expense of feel. Progressively, Lange was becoming more of a taskmaster and today Platt is happy he got to work with him on those early albums for Atlantic and not later in his career, when Lange’s requirements for an engineer didn’t necessarily fit into what the Englishman wanted to do.

But Platt insists he enjoyed working with Lange, learned more under him than he had under anyone else for a long time and owes him a debt of gratitude. They did five albums as a producer- engineer combo before Platt went off to become a producer in his own right. And he gives a valuable insight into what set Lange apart from George Young.

“I think I was fortunate to work with Mutt at that particular point in time because I think I would have found it difficult once he became a lot more of a perfectionist. Mutt is an extraordinary producer. He is absolutely totally unique. His consideration for the artist, his understanding of the construction of songs and melodies and so on is quite extraordinary.

“A lot of people will say you’re either going to get a take that feels good or a take that’s perfect and the two things don’t go together. You’re always going to have some mistakes in a take that feels good and a take that’s perfect is probably not going to feel that great. His response to that was, ‘Well, I don’t understand why.’ He thinks it should be: ‘Let’s just keep going till we get it.’

“My ethos has always been that most of the music I really like has got mistakes in it but it feels great and it doesn’t bother me too much. From Mutt’s point of view it bothers him but it probably doesn’t bother anybody else. So we would occasionally clash about whether a take was perfect enough for him and felt good enough for me. And most of the time I would try to persuade him by using my skill and expertise to repair things, to do edits. Certainly on Foreigner’s 4 that was the case; there was a lot of me editing one note or a bar into something just to make it a perfect take so that we could have the take that felt best.”

It’s a depiction that finds no argument with David Thoener and Terry Manning. Both men paint a picture of Lange as a workaholic, someone who can get by on a few hours’ sleep, gets to the studio first and is the last to leave, who doesn’t take drink or food breaks, who’s totally absorbed in the work.

“When a band hires Mutt, they are hiring a producer with a vision,” says Thoener. “It’s not easy to follow that vision to its finality. He has a reputation for making wonderful records; that takes time and patience. Any band should know that before making a commitment to Mutt.”

Says Manning: “He’s an amazing, deep thinker and a hard worker. One thing that you will hear on occasion from people who have worked with Mutt is that in some ways they can almost get tired of being pushed to perfection. But Mutt never gets tired.”

Angus and Malcolm, used to George’s expeditious approach in the studio, are on the record as having been very unhappy about that.

Yet Mark Opitz pays tribute to Lange for achieving something important.

“His job is to satisfy two things: the artist’s integrity and the commercial proposition,” he says. “And that’s a very hard thing to do; it’s a hard balance to get right.”

No one can accuse Lange of not fulfilling that brief on Back in Black, no matter how big a pain in the ass he would become. Especially when so many of its lyrics were reputedly contributed by him. Derek Shulman calls the albums Lange made for AC/DC “incredible.” Yet the enigmatic Zambian producer would ultimately pay the price for being far too good.

As it had for the Youngs many times before and would many times again in the future, it all came to a head over money.

At a minimum Mutt Lange was costing hundreds of thousands to turn up to the studio—millions when royalties were factored in.

But the money was more than worth it, according to Steve Leber of Leber-Krebs, AC/DC’s management company between 1979 and

“They could deliver on stage,” he says. “That was never a problem. AC/DC needed something else. It was always management and a producer. Once you have that team in place you never break it up. It’s like George Martin with The Beatles. Why break it up? AC/DC not only fired Mutt Lange, they later fired us after we broke them.”

Peter Mensch, the one-time tour accountant for Aerosmith who’d taken over from Michael Browning in 1979, was terminated after an August 1981 performance at the Monsters of Rock concert at Castle Donington, England, was ruined by a malfunctioning sound system. But it affected many bands that day; AC/DC’s experience wasn’t isolated.

Mensch didn’t respond to interview requests for this book and has never explained why he thought he was sacked by AC/DC. His only comments on the matter were to Mick Wall, when he said: “I was never told why I was fired. They called their lawyer, who called David Krebs, who called me.” And to Phil Sutcliffe: “I was stunned. Till then my shit didn’t smell.” Wall comes to the conclusion that Donington was to blame for the band dispensing with their manager: “Malcolm was in a vengeful mood. Somebody would have to pay; in this case, Peter Mensch.”

By most reliable accounts Mensch was a hard worker for AC/DC: an ambitious manager who was willing to move to London, hang out and be there for the band whenever he was required. He even identified Bon Scott’s body in the morgue.

“That was my first job,” he told The Sunday Times in October 2012 as part of a profile of his marriage to former British Tory MP Louise Bagshawe. “I get a phone call that Bon Scott has died and I have to come and identify the body. I say to the rest of AC/DC, ‘Couldn’t you guys go?’ And they go, ‘No, you should go, you’re the manager.’ ”

In April 2013, in a spontaneous question-and-answer session with Reddit, he gave an example of how the band tested his loyalty: “The dumbest request I’ve ever received was while managing AC/DC. I was in London. They were in Paris. Phil Rudd wanted hot water because his kettle was broken. He called at midnight to ask me to bring over hot water… wish I had told him I would charter a flight to bring him a kettle, and billed it back. Needless to say, I didn’t go.”

Mensch briefly stayed on with Leber-Krebs but eventually came to an arrangement where he left to form his own management company—Q Prime—with business partner Cliff Burnstein. Def Leppard, a former Leber-Krebs band, was their first signing—with Lange as producer. Over four albums, the union was lucrative: 1983’s Pyromania sold 10 million copies in the United States alone and 1987’s Hysteria sold 20 million worldwide.

Today Mensch is a multimillionaire and manages acts such as Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers. In February 2013, Billboard jointly named him and Burnstein #55 in its Power 100 list of the most powerful individuals in music. He’s come a long way from taking late-night hot-water orders from Phil Rudd.

“I credit Peter Mensch for raising AC/DC to the next level,” says Phil Carson, the man who signed them to Atlantic and who enjoyed a close relationship with the Youngs for many years until it fell away. “I absolutely consider firing both Mutt and Peter was a mistake. Mutt’s excellence as their producer was mirrored by Peter’s performance as their manager.”

Leber is still upset about the decision and confirms “money was a factor” and the band was “set up in a crazy kind of way” with George Young and Alberts, and George may have been a “factor” in the decision to can Lange.

“It was just crazy. We loved Mutt. We thought Mutt was great. Peter went on to hire Mutt to do Def Leppard and the rest is history. Mutt became a superstar producer. The two elements that broke AC/DC were not the lawyers and the accountants who’d later take over. It was the creative forces of Leber-Krebs and Mutt Lange and, most important of all, the guys delivering on stage. They’re a great group of guys. I loved every one of them. I was upset when I lost them. Look at all the groups we had: Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, AC/DC, Scorpions. No management company has that many great rock ’n’ roll groups all at once.

“I never lost faith in the band. That’s the bottom line. I thought they were the greatest band in the world and we were right. I felt they’d always be big but I just felt that they could have been bigger and stronger if they had [kept] Mutt Lange. He was part of that greatness. The band was better with Mutt Lange than without Mutt Lange.”

But though Mensch has never spoken about why he was fired by Angus and Malcolm Young, Leber’s old partner David Krebs has an idea.

“Peter had a girlfriend working for the merchandise company who I think came over to Australia to be on tour with him,” he says. “They objected. They fired him. We took the position that we didn’t understand why they were firing him. We had, like, six months left on our contract.

The man who replaced Mensch, AC/DC tour manager Ian Jeffery, says he has no recollection of any objection to Mensch’s girlfriend.

“No, not at all,” he says. “They thought Peter had stopped having their best interests at hand and was not around enough during recordings in Paris, though he and I made the trip there [from London] every Friday.”

Australia, where AC/ DC had played before Donington, hadn’t been the happiest leg of the Back in Black tour, Mensch’s choice of companion aside. Brawls broke out after two shows at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, where there were nearly as many people drunk on the park lawns outside the venue as there were inside. Police were injured, emergency rooms were overrun, trains and trees were trashed, noise complaints were lodged, 100 people were arrested, and there was talk the bowl would never host a rock concert again. The band copped a big spray in the Australian press, prompting Brian Johnson to hit back at the critics: “We were warned, we were warned. But even I thought it went over the top.”

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