The Dead Fish Punch of Angus Young
It was a period of enormous angst, avarice, spite, bitterness and recrimination but with little point to any of it. Not to mention physical violence. The Youngs have never been shy of a barney, from George headbutting a Cairns good ol’ boy in the 1960s (which opens Murray Engleheart’s biography), Angus punching Mark Evans or Malcolm decking Phil Rudd. Angus and Malcolm fought over Malcolm’s alcohol problem that saw him leave the band temporarily in the late 1980s. The three brothers even had an all-in punch-up over the disastrous show at Reading in 1976.
When I ask Evans why he didn’t thump Angus back, there is a long pause.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” he says and starts laughing. He concedes, though, he was drunk, out of line and out of order. The fracas had been sparked by a comment he made to Fifa Riccobono. “I held nothing against Angus for doing that because I brought it on myself. Malcolm put himself in the middle of it, along with Michael Browning, who physically had hold of me. Angus was behind Malcolm. I remember seeing a line through him and thinking, ‘I can sneak one through you.’ What stopped me, right at that very moment? I know it was respect for Malcolm, unquestionably.”
So how does Angus punch? Evans flops one of his hands onto my shoulder like a dead fish.
“Nothing. Because the guy’s tiny. He can’t hurt you. There’s nothing going on.”
Steve Leber believes Malcolm, a hothead at the best of times, was jealous of the star Angus had become and that jealousy was taken out on the band’s management company. In the Wall biography Ian Jeffery says the two namesakes of Leber-Krebs never got close to either Malcolm or Angus and Leber admits to me that “they didn’t like David . . . the reality was that David had a falling out with the band and I came right into it really soon after Peter had left.”
Krebs puts his hand up.
“I didn’t have any real chemistry with Malcolm,” he says. “I was personally handling Aerosmith and Ted Nugent, who were both major bands at that time, and in retrospect I should have handed AC/DC over to Steve, who loved them, but I split my time and took them on and it was an error. They were recording [For Those About to Rock] in Paris and I would go over for a week a month, which was a mistake.”
Furthermore, when the Youngs decided to part ways with Leber-Krebs, he didn’t stand in their way and do whatever it took to keep them.
“I don’t think I tried hard enough. I didn’t have the personal relationship to swing it around. I never thought we had the leverage to hold on to them. That was my take on it. When I went over to Paris, it was semi-strained. A lot of internal politics had begun to play with the road manager [Jeffery] who wanted to become the manager and all this other stuff that went down.”
Jeffery, however, rejects that categorically.
“Absolute bollocks,” he says. “I had no intention of becoming manager.”
Krebs continues: “I was at a meeting with Peter Mensch and Ted Albert and I made a fatal error when I said to Ted Albert, ‘You know, Ted, do you think it would [really] be a good idea to give the group back half their publishing?’ That went over not well. So you never know what that may have set in motion. I didn’t quite realize all the relationships.”
Leber says, however, that in his own case the suggestion he didn’t have a relationship with the Youngs is not true. He became friends with Angus. He would go into Angus’s dressing room after shows and talk for hours while Angus painted.
“I was very close to Angus. Matter of fact I always believed that Malcolm was—they all were—jealous of the fact that Angus, without singing a note, was the lead in AC/DC. He is the lead. There is no AC/DC without Angus. Malcolm was certainly jealous of my relationship with Angus. When I say jealous, Angus used to want to stay at my house. And I don’t think Malcolm liked it.”
Jeffery tells me that Leber’s biggest mistake was “thinking because Angus had the shorts he was it all.” A similar comment was made by Jeffery to Wall, in which he charged Leber with thinking Angus was the “route into the band” and “didn’t have a clue that it was Malcolm that ran the show.”
“Exactly. Absolutely true,” concedes Leber. “Malcolm was the businessman. I said Malcolm was jealous of my relationship with Angus—maybe jealous is the wrong word, maybe he was angered by my relationship—but Malcolm called the shots. And then Angus would not stand up for me, even though Angus was the one who pursued the relationship with me.
“But I loved the whole band. I really did like Malcolm anyway, even though Malcolm didn’t think so. I did. Malcolm was the key to making decisions and basically he didn’t want to let me run the band because he thought I would favor, I guess, Angus. But that wasn’t true. I really cared about the band, period. I felt they were the best rock ’n’ roll band out there.”
He wasn’t the only one to misjudge the power of Malcolm. “Ian Jeffery’s right,” says Krebs. “When I met AC/DC I spent my time talking to Bon Scott. We didn’t realize that Malcolm was really the engine. He wasn’t a warm person. But that could be cultural.”
Leber is prepared to admit that not working on his friendship with Malcolm was his downfall: “I didn’t play it right.” So much so that he maintains if he’d done it differently and played the Young family’s “politics bullshit” properly by befriending Malcolm the same way he’d befriended Angus, “I’d still have the band.”
Over 30 years later, he’s got some clarity on what he did wrong. “You know at the time you get so close to something you sometimes don’t see it? I didn’t realize that Malcolm would be so pissed.”
So pissed that quite possibly the most important relationship AC/DC ever had over their four-decade-long career with any of their management disintegrated.
Susan Masino, who makes considerable hay out of her friendship with the band in Let There Be Rock: The Story of AC/DC, in fact endlessly rabbits on about it, deals with AC/DC’s break with Leber-Krebs in six words: “The band stopped working with Leber-Krebs.” About as much as you would expect from a writer who admits, “I planned to give them a copy of my new book as soon as it was done. I wanted to make sure they didn’t have any problems with it.”
“Malcolm never said a word. He didn’t have to. He just fired me,” laughs Leber, but it’s a laugh rooted in some sadness. “Look, let’s face it: [Leber-Krebs] broke the band. We broke them wide open. I’m the one that got them to the number-one position in the United States. We broke Back in Black. We created the excitement for this band. We did a great job managing them. The issue, if there was any issue that was critical, was that we were outspoken. We managed bands. We didn’t let the bands manage us and we delivered.”
The Youngs’ notorious nose for a deal would claim another casualty.
“[The thing AC/DC didn’t] realize was that we were getting a decent commission but we paid for our expenses when the band wasn’t touring,” continues Leber. “So if the band didn’t tour for two years we still had the expense of running the operation and keeping the excitement going.
“We had huge expenses but the band bought into the idea that Ian could do it for three or five percent or whatever. It was ridiculous. I break the band, we do an incredible job, we get them to become a stadium band—stadiums—and we get terminated because they want to reduce our commission to nothing. Well and truly, no one took them beyond where we took them.”
So if Jeffery was getting five percent or less, how much was Leber-Krebs’s commission?
“A lot more. Let’s put it that way. I don’t think it should be in books. A lot more.”
I put a ballpark figure of 15 to 20 percent to him. Pretty standard management fees.
“Yeah, standard ballpark, between 15 and 20, but the bottom line is we were reduced to something more reasonable [to AC/DC], but we couldn’t work for five percent. I turned down many groups for that five percent bullshit. I said, ‘My time’s too valuable.’ ”
For his part, Jeffery says any suggestion he worked for “three or five percent,” as Leber alleges, is “absolute rubbish.” He too would get boned and the band would end up being managed by Alvin Handwerker, Leber’s accountant. It wasn’t so bad for Leber-Krebs, though, because according to Leber they’d done a savvy piece of housekeeping and retained a share of the AC/DC cata- log, including Back in Black, “which paid us handsomely and still does . . . not a bad thing.”
Is this a source of resentment for the band?
“Yep. They have resentment because we own the catalog. Yeah, yeah. Definitely resentment. All of our bands resent the fact we were smart managers and kept the positions in the catalog.”
So what’s his cut?
“Can’t say but it was a good situation. But life goes on. I was angry about them leaving me. We did a great job. I was pissed but hey, listen, those things happen. We didn’t get the proper recognition for breaking them when everybody else turned their back on them. I always felt that the band kind of, like, didn’t appreciate the job we did. It happens a lot. But there’s only one time in the history of a band when they really need you—and that’s in the beginning.”
So what hurt more? Losing AC/DC or Aerosmith?
“They both hurt. But there’s a difference. With Aerosmith, I ripped up their contract because they were heroin addicts and I didn’t want to kill them. And they kept on getting more and more money from me but [Steven Tyler and Joe Perry] couldn’t get off heroin, Steven especially. I didn’t want to see him die. And John Belushi had just died—before that they were friendly—and I realized that Steven was going downhill. I had sent him to many, many institutions. I wasn’t going to stay away from three kids and I wasn’t going to spend all my time with him. He needed someone who could—and would. So even though Aerosmith owed me five more albums and they had just signed a long-term contract with us I threw them out and ripped it up.”
Krebs backs this account.
“We really threw them out. They didn’t fire us. They had gone too far. I had spent over five years trying to cure them, ineptly.”
“Steven later hugged me and appreciated the fact that I’d saved his life,” reveals Leber. “Because of course, again, they don’t like to admit those things. So that one, Aerosmith, I canned them. AC/DC: they canned me—for no real reason—and that pissed me off. If they’d canned me because I was doing a bad job, I could accept that. But don’t fire the guy who broke you and did a great job over money.
“I’m not bitter about it at all. I laugh about it all the way to the bank because I kept the Aerosmith catalog and publishing. I kept the AC/DC catalog. After all these years, I still have it. More than 30 years later I still get money every year and it’s a lot of money. But at the same time I love the guys. I would have liked to have kept the relationship.”
For tens of millions of reasons.
Says Krebs, matter of factly: “Back in Black has outsold the highest selling Aerosmith album two to one.”
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Above: Press photo from ACDC.com