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.
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
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.”
How That Whole Thing with Mutt Lange Got Started
Meanwhile, Klenfner had got his way with Kramer. But the sessions, first in Sydney and later in Miami, collapsed in acrimony between the producer and the band. Kramer didn’t understand their methods. They didn’t like him. The Kramer disaster is part of AC/DC legend. As Thaler describes it: “When that experiment blew up, the shit hit the fan.” Even with Kramer’s production pedigree, it wasn’t working.
Mark Opitz had been seconded to work with Kramer while in Sydney.
“Malcolm saw through Eddie pretty quickly,” he says. “Didn’t like the idea. He was like, ‘Fuck you,’ because he’s that kinda guy. Didn’t like being told what to do.”
It didn’t improve when they shifted to Florida.
“I got a phone call after a week or two [of the Kramer sessions] from Angus [in Miami], and he said they were going home,” says Greenberg. “They couldn’t work with Kramer any more. I said, ‘Sit tight. Give me a couple of days. Just sit there and enjoy the sun.’ I was ready to sign City Boy and the producer was Mutt Lange. The production was incredible. I called Clive Calder; I got him on the phone and I told him about AC/DC. I said, ‘Listen, they’re in Miami, can I get Mutt to come over and produce the band?’ He said, ‘I’ll put him on the next plane,’ and history was made.”
So how does Kalodner fit in?
“Kalodner wanted to sign City Boy. I heard City Boy and Kalodner was crazy about the production and said, ‘Mutt Lange: this guy’s a great producer; listen to the production,’ and at that point that’s when—I don’t care about whose suggestion it was—I made the decision to call the boys and talk them into Lange and make the deal with Clive. So you can word it any way you want.
“I think maybe [the Youngs] knew who [Lange] was, I don’t remember. But I’m sure that somehow Michael Browning was involved at that moment also. Lange came in as soon as Kramer packed up and left. You keep talking to a lot of people you’ll put it together.”
It’s worth trying to put together because Doug Thaler’s, Phil Carson’s and Jerry Greenberg’s version of events completely contradicts that of Michael Browning in the Murray Engleheart biography of AC/DC, which downplays Thaler’s involvement, saying only he “played a role in securing Lange’s services from Atlantic’s end” and that Browning was “sharing a house” with Calder and Lange and took a call from a distressed Malcolm Young in Miami. Virtually the same account appears in the Clinton Walker, Susan Masino and Mick Wall tomes, but in Masino’s book Browning is “visiting” Calder and Lange and in Wall’s book Browning is sharing with Calder and Browning’s business partner, Cedric Kushner.
Photo credit: Jon O’Rourke
Says Browning in Walker’s Highway to Hell: “I was at that stage based temporarily in New York. I’d met some people who’d invited me to stay with them, one of whom was Mutt Lange’s manager, Clive Calder. I got the phone call from Malcolm, and I got off the phone, and Mutt was there, in the apartment, and I said, ‘You’ve got to do this record.’ At the time, Mutt had really only done City Boy, The Boomtown Rats, but I happened to think he was incredibly talented. So within a couple of days they agreed to do the next record.”
Or as he puts it in Engleheart’s AC/DC, Maximum Rock & Roll: “I just turned round to Mutt, virtually as I had Malcolm on the phone, and said, ‘Mate, you’ve got to do this record.’ That was it.”
And again in Wall’s AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be: “I just didn’t stop. I just hammered them and by the end of the night I’d convinced Clive and Mutt to do it. I called Malcolm back and said, ‘It’s cool. I’ve got Mutt Lange’ … so that’s how the whole thing with Mutt Lange started.”
Wall writes, dramatically, “It was to be a game-changing decision for all involved.”
But from the testimonies of Thaler, Carson and Greenberg it would appear that isn’t exactly the case. And, crucially, Clive Calder’s former partner Ralph Simon seems to support them.
In a 2011 interview with celebrityaccess.com he told music writer Larry LeBlanc: “I remember [Clive and I] getting [Lange] AC/DC in 1979. We suggested to AC/DC that they needed to improve their backing vocals. Make it a little more commercial, but without losing their edge. It was a big fight to get them to do that on Highway to Hell but it proved to be correct.”
Yet Browning won’t have a bar of alternative versions: he maintains it was he and he alone who came up with the idea and that Thaler is wrong.
“No, that’s not correct,” he says. “He’s big-noting himself.”
He insists his mentioning of Lange to Malcolm Young was the first AC/DC had ever heard of City Boy’s producer.
Had you heard of Lange from inside Atlantic before you suggested his name to Malcolm?
“No, the idea didn’t get to Atlantic until I presented it to them.”
And you got the introduction to Lange through Calder?
“Through Clive, yeah.”
The most AC/DC themselves have said about the affair was contained in an interview with MOJO magazine in 1984. According to Malcolm, he was unhappy with Kramer and told Browning: “This guy’s got to go, otherwise you’re not going to have a band.” He went on: “[Browning] did a bit of wheeling-dealing and got a tape to a friend of his, Mutt Lange … we told Kramer, ‘We’re having tomorrow off, we need a break,’ and we went in and wrote nine songs in one day and whacked them off to Mutt. He got straight back and said he wanted to do it.”
Thaler holds to his story that Lange was raised with AC/DC and Atlantic well before any Malcolm SOS to Browning.
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “I never acted behind Michael’s back.
I felt it was my responsibility to counsel and advise him as best as I could for the sake of AC/DC. We never acted in opposition to each other. While I maintain that I got the ball rolling with putting AC/DC together with Mutt, I simply was playing a role on the team. We were all working together for one common purpose—to get this band’s career over the top as we all felt it should be.
“There was a South African promoter that lived in New York that I was very close with at the time, Cedric Kushner. Cedric lived in a luxury apartment building on West 58th between 5th and 6th Avenues. Clive Calder lived in England but had begun making more frequent trips to New York by 1978. Cedric was in talks with Michael Browning about joining with him to co-manage the band. And Clive used to stay at Cedric’s apartment. Clive and Cedric were born in South Africa and bonded over that fact. And I’d go over there and we’d sorta hang out.
“Michael got an apartment about a block away from Cedric, on West 58th between 6th and 7th. Michael and his wife, Julie, had stayed with me at my apartment for a couple of weeks in ’78.” So I ask Kushner, the man whose apartment Browning was allegedly holed up in, to give his version of events.
Cedric Kushner was briefly co-manager of AC/DC with Michael Browning and made his name promoting acts such as The Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones. Today he is a boxing promoter and still lives in New York City. He has not spoken about his time with AC/DC before now.
Kushner, a lampooned figure in previous books about the band, almost as much as Michael Klenfner, told me he had been “happy to turn” his good friend Clive Calder on to AC/DC and was “very disappointed that they ended up leaving me.” Without his input, he says, Calder would not have met Michael Browning.
“Michael was staying at my place, we all became friends; this was also at a time when the band had a hard-on for Michael,” he says. “They wanted to bail out of the relationship. That relationship had gone its course. Peter Mensch was romancing them. I don’t think Michael put the band in touch with Mutt Lange. I think the fact that Clive Calder and Ralph Simon were friends of mine—they were representing Mutt—made a very good situation. That gave them more of an opportunity to spend some time with Michael. That helped bond that relationship.”
So does he believe Mutt Lange-to-AC/DC was an idea that suddenly came to Browning?
“No. That he woke up and said, ‘Gee, I’d love to get a good producer?’ No, no.”
But he concedes it is “quite possible” Browning picked up the phone to Malcolm Young in his apartment and suggested Lange, which is corroborated by Malcolm’s own statement on the matter.
Thaler agrees: “Absolutely possible and probable—I simply wasn’t privy to that call between Michael and Malcolm. The story of the phone call at least seems consistent with what I had been trying to engineer for several months.”
Does Kushner believe the Calder-Lange connection with AC/DC predated that conversation?
“I believe so.”
Kushner also says he never once suggested to Calder that Lange produce AC/DC, even though he was involved in a business relationship with Browning. The Australian, sensing that Mensch was circling, had entered into a partnership with Kushner, but instead of solidifying his hold on the band it had blown up in his face.
“I wasn’t thinking that far ahead because I didn’t think that Browning was going to last that long,” says Kushner. “Everyone likes to take credit and I don’t claim to take credit.”
Had he contemplated taking over the band from a weakened Browning?
“I wasn’t thinking that way. I was thinking more along the lines that it would just be an overall strengthening of my presence in the music business. My objective was just to raise my profile.”
Kushner, like Greenberg and Carson, fully backs the Thaler story and even says AC/DC’s humble American booking agent personally introduced him to Calder. And through Calder, he met Lange and Simon. One night, he went out to dinner with Calder and Simon in London.
By the end of dinner I felt like I’d known these guys for a long time.”
They got on so well Kushner offered them the free use of a room in his two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, the same apartment where Browning says he took the phone call from Malcolm.
“Michael stayed at my place on a few occasions,” says Kushner. “Clive was a good friend of mine that I introduced to Michael. And they ended up doing a deal for the publishing. Mutt was managed by Clive, so when we all sat down obviously Mutt had a very good reputation. It wasn’t too hard to sell him. Atlantic were very much in favor of Mutt doing the album. Obviously Clive was. Mutt was excited about it. It was a good situation.”
Was Lange actually living with you at any point?
The Browning-Kushner management of AC/DC lasted all of six months and today Browning says it was “a mistake … I needed the money.”
There is no love lost between the two men.
Says Browning of Kushner: “He was just an absolute total mistake all round.”
Kushner, for his part, recalls going to Roundhouse Studios in London, where AC/DC recorded Highway to Hell with Lange, and picking up a “bad vibe.” Thaler remembers it being literally frosty, which wouldn’t have helped the mood: “I went to a rehearsal hall where AC/DC was writing and practicing. It was cold. The place wasn’t heated and they had a kerosene construction space heater on to keep warm.”
“It became obvious to me that Browning was in serious trouble,” says Kushner. “Sometimes you know you’re in trouble. You don’t need someone to tell you.”
But Browning puts down the Youngs’ coldness in London to their antipathy toward Kushner: “The group didn’t want to know about him. I appointed a co-manager they hadn’t approved of and subsequently didn’t like. In management there are ups and downs. It was certainly a tough period, just having changed producers … I wasn’t their most popular person at the time. But it was the Kushner thing that basically took it over the top. It was a mistake.” “They were a very tough crowd, AC/DC, tough guys to manage,” concedes Kushner. “Rough and ready. They were guys that did what they wanted to do. They wanted to call the shots.”
But they were about to meet their match.