The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC: Riff Raff

Jesse Fink
Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

Powerage is regarded by aficionados, including Keith Richards and Gene Simmons, as the band's finest album. But its commercial failure had major repercussions behind the scenes.

Excerpted from The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC by Jesse Fink. Published by © St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.


“Riff Raff” (1978)

It’s Keith Richards’s, Eddie Van Halen’s and Gene Simmons’s favorite AC/DC album, a good indicator that the Youngs must have been doing something right with their guitar playing. But it was also a triumph for the band’s unheralded rhythm section. Says Georg Dolivo of Rhino Bucket: “Every drummer and bass player I know loves Powerage.”

Armed with their best ever collection of songs, the recording sessions for AC/DC’s fifth studio album were fueled by endless cups of tea, a steady supply of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and Drum tobacco, and a ton of ambition to properly crack America outside of the drudgery of touring and make inroads where it really mattered: record stores.

“In away it was AC/DC’s Sgt. Pepper’s,” says Mark Opitz, defining Powerage as a transitional moment for the group. “When we came to do Powerage, George, Harry and the band did serious rehearsals at Studio 2 in Alberts. George playing bass with the band just out in the studio, Harry and me in the control room. Doing rehearsals, basically writing rehearsals, where you have all sorts of riffs. Malcolm was certainly constructing. Angus was too. But you could see Malcolm taking a stronger hand then. They were maturing: songs like ‘What’s Next to the Moon,’ ‘Gimme a Bullet,’ ‘Riff Raff,’ ‘Sin City,’ ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation.’ It was different. We rehearsed at night, followed by midnight-to-dawn recording sessions. Eight o’clock in the evenings we’d start. We’d finish early in the mornings, to the point where Malcolm, Phil Rudd and I would hire a tinny at Rose Bay and motor out into Sydney Harbour with a six-pack of beer and a couple of joints and do a bit of fishing while people were catching a ferry to work.

“I’d spend the days testing the Marshall amps till I could find two really good-sounding ones that were the best to record with. They’re all sort of different, amps. In the studio, particularly during Powerage, it was like a family. It wasn’t a normal recording session. It was a project.”

AC/DC having styled themselves as an album band, Atlantic now wanted them to deliver hits, and they were happy to oblige: “Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was belatedly cut for that very purpose after the first edit of the album had received a lukewarm response from New York and it was suggested they record a radio-friendly track. But Powerage was also the album where Malcolm began asserting executive control.

“Malcolm no doubt was the leader of the band,” says Opitz. “George had had his day with The Easybeats. Not strongly, not overtly, but you could feel during Powerage Malcolm was starting to stake his ground a bit [in the brothers’ pecking order].”

Family intrigues put aside, Powerage was a high point creatively for the three Youngs, an album arguably superior to the commercially successful Mutt Lange circuitbreakers that followed, Highway to Hell and Back in Black. After Powerage, the boogie and groove largely disappeared. What was left was still great— Lange amplified so many of their strengths—but at the expense of leaching Vanda & Young’s deft touches. Out went the handclaps and the maracas and so much of the rawness. The change of singer had an effect too. Bon Scott’s cheekiness and fun was superseded by Brian Johnson’s heaviness and malevolence.

If you want an aural marker of how much the band altered its sound between 1978 and 1983, listen to “Landslide” off Flick of the Switch against Powerage’s “Riff Raff.” The songs are both foot-to-the-floor numbers, but don’t compare in quality. It’s hard to ignore the feeling that something was lost in the changeover, even if the Youngs’ good friend John Swan doesn’t agree.

“I never teach my granny how to suck eggs, you know,” he tells me. “Fuck that; I’m not getting involved in that one. To me, it’s still the same recipe. The basic content is so fucking strong, it still comes through for what it is.”

Ever the innovator, and mindful of the positive effect a modicum of aggression had had on the band with Let There Be Rock, George played on the cabin fever inside the studio by working everyone up to the point where sparks were flying.

“He’d be like, ‘Did you see The Don Lane Show last night? That bloody hypnotist!’ ” says Opitz of one George’s psychological techniques. Dissecting the performance of a guest on a TV variety show might seem unusual, but anything was fair game to George when it came to motivating musicians. “It wound everyone up into a state of angst. Got the adrenalin pumping.”

But there was also a degree of personal anger in the room that the band had already brought in, without George’s egging them on.

Anthony O’Grady had kept in touch with Bon Scott while they were touring overseas, Scott writing letters to him. According to O’Grady, by the time Powerage was ready to be cut in early 1978, AC/ DC weren’t as flavor-of-the-month as they used to be.

Let There Be Rock had fizzled in Australia. Cliff Williams had encountered visa problems. Local shows were canceled.

“They weren’t very popular then because they’d been out of the [public] eye; they hadn’t had any hits,” he says. “Molly Meldrum and Countdown had gone off them. Bon was not bitter. He was actually very angry about the Australian music industry, which had turned their back on them. AC/DC just weren’t on the agenda.”

All well and good, though, for Powerage. When the aggression was off the meter, the tape would roll.

Making use of the band’s first remotes, Angus would take his guitar everywhere. As is well known, he did the solo for “Riff Raff” in the control room.

“An unbelievable riff,” says Opitz. “I sat there with Angus for an hour and a half learning it off him. You can trawl the world of AC/DC aficionados and see which album comes up best, and it’s funny how Powerage has stood the test of time.”

Later, the band took the aggression-first approach George perfected on Powerage into their live shows.

“I’d hear stories from Malcolm and Phil about the way they’d sit around on their American tours, backstage supporting REO Speedwagon, and use the same tactic we used in the studio,” says Opitz. “They’d start ripping, talking about what a shit band REO Speedwagon is: ‘Let’s go and blow them off the fucking stage. Fuck 'em. They’re cunts with their fucking wussy, fucking long-haired, pop fucking music. They wouldn’t know fucking rock ’n’ roll.’ All that sort of shit. They’d psych each other up in the dressing room, hit the stage and fucking go bang.”

Meanwhile Cliff Williams, now free to record with the band, was a bundle of nervous excitement. This “definitely helped with the rhythm tracks,” according to Opitz. Williams did what he was told and knew his place. He’d learned a few things from the fate of Mark Evans and has largely kept his counsel ever since.

Tony Platt says he heard some of Williams’s songs recorded with Laurie Wisefield from Wishbone Ash when he visited the AC/DC bass player’s house and home studio in Florida and they were “fantastic songs; really, really great songs,” but “it would have been a difficult thing for [Williams] to do anything outside AC/DC without it rocking the boat.”

In well over 30 years playing with the band but being a non-writing member, Williams, like Phil Rudd and Brian Johnson, has done very little outside it. Typically over such a stretch of time lower profile members of major acts do solo records. Bill Wyman, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts did so while being part of The Rolling Stones. That freedom doesn’t seem to extend to AC/DC’s non-writing personnel much beyond benefit gigs and the odd guest appearance, though Rudd released his first album in August 2014. Before this surprise announcement, I asked Phil Carson if Angus and Malcolm ever placed restrictions or had control over what the band’s other three members did outside AC/DC.

“As far as I am aware, the Youngs do not exert any particular controls on this except to set the AC/DC tone. They have never involved themselves in an outside recording project and everybody seems to follow that line.”

Asked how his own relationship is with them now, Carson plays a straight bat but, controversially, hints at discord within the band over the treatment of Johnson.

“That depends who you ask. In later years, I became particularly friendly with Brian and tried to help him with a musical he had written about Helen of Troy. I still believe there are some superb songs in there, along with a first-class script written by [Porridge creators] Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. We took that one quite a long way, even making a deal with AEG [Anschutz Entertainment Group] at one point, but we never got as far as Broadway.

“While all this was going on, certain things came up regarding Brian’s treatment by the band’s accountant and the Youngs. I will leave that one alone other than to quote George Orwell: ‘All men are created equal, but some are more equal than others.’ ”

The band’s accountant?

“I am not naming any names.”

For the opening 45 seconds of “Riff Raff” AC/DC manages the singular feat of sounding like a massing Orc army. When Phil Rudd hits the hi-hat—one, two, three—it’s the cue for Malcolm’s rhythm guitar to come swinging in, Angus’s opening riff falling away like a separating rocket, and there’s a massive release of tension. Outside of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” it’s probably the most cinematic introduction to a rock ’n’ roll song ever put to tape.

The man who recorded it considers it his favorite AC/DC track.

“Oh, 100 percent,” says Opitz. “It just has every element of AC/DC right in it. Every bit. The rock element. The lyrical element. The cheekiness element. The complexity.”

And also the tone. Guitar sound is really where AC/DC set themselves apart from other bands. How do they get it?

“Two ways. I had that ability to go and find the right amplifiers. I sat there for a couple of weeks during the Powerage sessions with a notebook checking out every fucking speaker in every speaker box with every amp until I found what I felt was the best combination of amplifier and speaker. And then when they were in the studio I was keen to set the Marshall amps—every Marshall amp has a sweet spot in terms of volume—and to have those amps at the proper volumes, not turned down.”

What about the chunkiness?

“Malcolm has got his Gretsch Firebird with supersonic pickups; he’s got it on full volume as normal, so he’s able to hit the strings really lightly but get a big sound so it doesn’t over compress, because he’s hitting the strings lighter and the pickups aren’t overloading. And the Gretsch pickups are known for being louder. It just so happens that AC/DC’s combination of a Gibson guitar with Gibson pickups and the Gretsch guitar with Gretsch pickups is the perfect combination. The other one’s got what the other one hasn’t. It’s typical to that guitar sound.

“The drums and bass you keep pretty dry and turn up the guitars and Bon can sing in an up register to cut through it. It’s a combination of all that, the microphones they use, Malcolm’s right-hand guitar and Angus’s right hand. That’s the major factor.” But when they took the song on the road, AC/DC was able to summon the same energy, even ratchet it up. In video of their performance at the Glasgow Apollo in April 1978, the same concert that was used for the If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) live album, Scott conducts Angus like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia directing the magic broomsticks. There is a beauty in the arrangement of the stationary Malcolm and Williams at the back of the stage and in the way they only surge forward with Scott in threes (Angus is off in his own world). There’s no prancing about. Just straight up and back. On top of their musical tightness AC/DC also have consummate stagecraft. So many other bands have tried to echo this AC/DC aesthetic in their own performance but too often deliver outright mimicry.

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