Commenting on her public persona, Dolly Parton is reputed to have said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” The analogue for AC/DC might be something like: It takes a lot of brains to sound this dumb.
The Australian rockers, built around the core of brothers Angus and Malcolm Young, have spent 40-odd years bashing out anthems that have filled arenas worldwide and provided the soundtrack to countless adolescent escapades, including my own in the ’70s and ’80s. Their music may not be the most sophisticated in the world – a straight-ahead form of chunky, clunky, hard-rock boogie – but its very directness and simplicity has ensured its enduring popularity.
That doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen because the people playing it are stupid. Lucky, maybe, and with plenty of help along the way, sure. But there’s also a good deal of savvy involved, even if it’s masked by silly lyrics and countless C-G-A chord repetitions.
There’s a great story about AC/DC waiting to be written, and Jesse Fink’s The Youngs manages to tell some of it. But he stumbles over the main obstacle that has stymied every other would-be biographer out there; namely, the extreme insularity of the bothers themselves. Angus and Malcolm, along with older brother George (who served as mentor and producer for several of their early recordings) form a triumvirate bonded by blood, wary of outsiders and unwilling to open up. Their long road to rock ‘n’ roll nirvana lies littered with the residue of the many goodhearted souls who have tried their best to help the band find its way, and who were cast aside when their usefulness ended.
Or so we’re told. Fink has no more access to the Youngs than anyone else – which is to say, none – so his account relies on second- or third-hand reportage, much of it coming from those discarded figures. There’s also a fair amount of conjecture, along with a good deal of hagiography and pointless filler. The result is an odd amalgam of a book; part memoir, part puff piece, part tell-all, part… I’m not sure what exactly. (Why do we have to know that “Hells Bells” was played by US forces bombing Fallujah? I have no idea, but Fink makes sure to tell us all about it. Twice.)
Listen, I loved AC/DC as much as the next lunkheaded longhaired headbanger: theirs was the first concert I attended, in 1981 in Cleveland, touring in support of For Those About to Rock. (I had a philosophy exam the next morning, which didn’t go so well.)
In recent years, they’ve become ubiquitous, their anthems played on movie soundtracks and at football games. I work with 20-somethings wearing the band’s T-shirts, and when I ask, they can’t name a single song. (Is that a thing these days? The sorority girl in the MC5 shirt? Weird, but whatever.) So I get it: it’s time for a long-overdue appreciation, a reassessment of the band and its career, an insightful look at what makes the band tick and renders its music so massively popular.
Sadly, this ain’t it. There’s a boatload of trivia in these pages, facts and opinions (often contradictory, which as Fink points out is inevitable, given the closed nature of the band’s core members), and plenty of gossip. There’s a roughly chronological structure, although it isn’t watertight. There should be plenty here to keep fans engaged, but eventually all the musings about who played drums on what track and whether this producer was introduced to the band by that agent or not – it all starts to feel hollow.
What readers really want to know is: what’s Malcolm’s take on this? What did Angus think? We never find out, of course.
Besides this, there are plenty of annoying quirks. Fink fawns over the band to an embarrassing degree, with such comments as “It’s [the band’s] very lack of boundary pushing that is a form of boundary pushing in itself.” That’s some Yoda shit right there, dude. He also claims that “AC/DC never, ever sounds stale” – a contention I would happily disagree with – but, just a few pages later, criticizes the band for having only four “truly essential” albums: “The last great album was recorded in 1980.” Such inconsistencies are common enough to cause the reader to wonder, what exactly is Fink trying to say?
There are also eye-wateringly broad statements with absolutely nothing to back them up: “Music is important in the American South because the reality of daily life can be pretty humdrum compared to the big cities on the East and West Coasts.” It’s hard to know what to argue with first. That music is unimportant on the East Coast? That life is never dull in Los Angeles? That the American South is filled with bored people who fill their empty days with music? That Americans in Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle find other diversions more interesting, like bocce and cribbage? (Elsewhere, by the way, we are told that “Boston is AC/DC territory”, which would seem to at least weaken, if not entirely undermine this facile assertion.)
One of the biggest absences here, apart from the titular Youngs themselves, is Bon Scott, the band’s vocalist until his death in 1980. We are told that Scott was charismatic and likeable, and this certainly comes through in his vocals, which are cheeky, wry and at times anguished; but we are given very little information about the man himself. I kept waiting for the chapter that would bring in Scott and tie him in to the story of the band; instead, I got a lengthy discussion about which radio DJ played AC/DC first in the United States. I don’t really care much.
But even this absence is nothing compared to the thinness of the chapters as the chronology progresses. As mentioned above, the “Hells Bells” chapter offers a few anecdotes about the song being used in war. Fink displays not even a glimmer of recognition of the irony involved in US forces using illegal weapons like white phosphorus (banned by the UN chemical weapons convention) to bomb a city, while broadcasting at high volume a song that claims to be taking the listener to Hell.
Ultimately, The Youngs has enough interviews and arguments within its pages that it will most likely provide some diversion for fans. It falls short of being the definitive AC/DC book, but then, that was inevitable from the start. That book has yet to be written, and will probably require the cooperation of the Youngs themselves to make it happen.
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Above: Press photo from ACDC.com