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If Brian Johnson sat down next to me anyplace and began talking about his life, I’d listen automatically for two reasons. First, when he speaks, his voice has a rich, melodic tone, that just swirls around the words with his Geordie accent, so you can’t help but listen intently. Two, he is authentic, not taking things for granted. A rock sound and legend, yes. That voice flies out of him like a Rock 'n Roll reckoning, a revival. Having worked his way out of a poor area in the neighborhood of Dunston, Gateshead, England, from choir boy to here, from many odd jobs to here. He doesn't seem to be affected by any of it. If anything, it's great to see someone still kicking it hard, and enjoying the ride after many years in music.
AC/DC has always hit us over the head with their classic rock sound. After Bon, Brian Johnson was the obvious choice. The spirit to help heal the wound of the deep loss of Bon. AC/DC as a band, the Angus guitar riffs, the arena sound, Brian's voice, was bound to get to all of us. Some things are destined.
At the start of AC/DC, the Australian band was vocalist Dave Evans, lead guitarist Angus Young, rhythm guitarist Malcom Young (his older brother), bassist Larry Van Kriedt, and drummer Colin Burgess. Next, replacing Dave Evans was Bon Scott, to record High Voltage, which also featured contributions from George Young and session drummer Tony Current. By 1975, the band had settled on a lineup of Angus and Malcolm Young, Bon Scott, bassist Mark Evans, and drummer Phil Rudd. When Bon passed from a drug overdose, Brian and the band met up and recorded "Back In Black," which catapulted the band into rock stardom. As mentioned in the Brian Johnson television series, A Life on the Road (where Brian interviews Rock legends) after recording the Back In Black album in the Bahamas, Brian flew back to his hometown. He got the album Back in Black in the mail, put it on the record player with his dad looking on, played the title song for a bit, whereby his father said to him, “Well you can’t be Johnny Cash," and they went out to get a pint. This proves that the public will answer! To date, that album has sold about 50 million copies and is still revered as one of the best Rock ‘n Roll albums in Rock history. In 2003, AC/DC was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2014, Brian was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music by Northumbria University for his contribution to the music industry.
In 2016, when Brian lost his hearing, (mostly from an auto racing accident) he was temporarily replaced on the Rock or Bust tour by Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose. Brian was treated with an innovative hearing device that used the bones of the chin for blue tooth- the clarity to hear again. Brian has since helped many musicians become acclimated to the device thru his experience. The in-ear monitor is from Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lens. He has helped improve it in cooperation with the National Health Foundation and 64 Audio.
In 2020 Power Up was AC/DC’s 17th album and marked the return of Brian Johnson, drummer Phil Rudd, and bassist Cliff Williams. Angus said it was a eulogy to his brother Malcom, who passed in 2017. The signature sound in 'Demon Fire’ nods to the classic “Whole Lotta Rosie,” and Witch’s Spell heeds to past riffs. “Code Red’ snarls of “Back In Black” steely rock. The album gives us what has always been felt with true rock music: soul and guts.
On September 3, 2022, Johnson took to the stage at the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert and performed “Back In Black” and “Let There Be Rock” with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and the Foo Fighters.
Brian’s memoirs entitled The Lives of Brian, was released in 2022. It was an honor to have the chance to ask him questions and hear about his life. Of course, his answers were a blast. I loved every Geordie word!
By Abbe Davis, February 2023
AD: Hello Brian! Long time fan of AC/DC and your Rock voice. This is an honor. Now for these questions: Before AC/DC what jobs did you do? I hear you were a vinyl roof fitter for cars, what else did you do while working and going after music?
BJ: Yeah, I did that! I was pretty good at it, too. I was also an engineer apprentice, did some time in the airborne infantry, did windscreen installations. Whatever paid a few bucks I was up for it.
AD: Gotta pay the bills while doing music. You’ve shared your love of your dad, and how tough he could be, what did your dad wish for you to do? Join the British service? Work at a coal mine? Those were his trades, right? Did he ever give you advice about "the career you should do?"
BJ: My dad was probably the hardest and toughest man I've ever known. He disciplined with his fist. I mean, you didn't disrespect him. He could also be kind, but he was very firm in the way he spoke to everyone, and he was a man true to his word. He was supportive of whatever I wanted to do or who I wanted to be, as long as I worked hard at it, gave it 100%. He didn't want any big deal or big memorial when he was dying. He just said, "Keep making your music."
AD: Sounds like he even gave it his all on his way out. I have to ask you. Is this story true that, when you first showed up to meet the band and audition for AC/DC, you waited downstairs playing pool for an hour until you walked upstairs to meet them? What was going on in your head then?
BJ: LOL! Yeah, it's true. I walked in and saw the pool table and started to play a bit. I was thinking about the shoes I had the opportunity to fill, and wasn't sure if I was cut out to fill those shoes. So, I started playing some 8 ball. LOL.
AD: LOL! And here you rightly are, I love it. Did you or any of the guys back then, realize when you were recording Back in Black in the Bahamas, not having a lot of money and sleeping in the odd cinder block rooms there, that Back in Black would become a huge hit? Did anyone imagine it would be huge?
BJ: We were looking to record some new tunes and hoped to sell enough records to pay us and the bills. But, once we finished the record, I did think that it was pretty good and felt it would get a nice response from the fans. I didn't know it would blow up like it did. I'm thankful it did. If it didn't, I'd probably be installing windscreens at the age of 75! LOL.
AD: Ha. Yeah, I'm glad it was a hit, too. What did you do to get more comfortable with the fame after that-have you ever gotten used to it?
BJ: I just go out there and really love performing. I'm just a lucky bloke who happened to get lucky, and love what I've been doing for a long time. As for the fame, I never really thought of it like that. I like to think I'm still "Brian the guy from England" who enjoys hanging out with friends and sharing some stories and laughs.
AD: I've never heard anyone say that. It's good to stay grounded. Now, I do wanna hear the fun stuff, heh, heh. Will you tell us a wild performance story from touring? “On stage and this really happened” type of thing?
BJ: Here's a fun band story. So, we're on stage doing our thing and I look back at our drummer, Phil Rudd, and he's got this huge piece of paper hanging on the side of his cymbals. And I'm thinking, "What's that hanging there, what is Phil looking at, is it our set list, what's he staring at?" Because you can clearly see he keeps looking over at it. So, he's got this thing just hanging there for a while and after about 2 weeks, I decided I'm gonna go back there and take a look, you know, to see what he's got there, because the curiosity got to me. So, I go back, look at this paper and it's a photo of these huge tits. LOL! Sorry my vulgarity. But, you asked. LOL. So, I look and it's just this photograph of these huge tits, the biggest pair of tits I've ever seen. So, I ask Phil, "Hey Phil, what's the deal with the photo of the tits?" He looks at me and says, "Inspiration!" Gotta love Phil!
AD: (I spit out my coffee) LMAO! This is the BEST! "If I keep rocking, I'll get plenty of those." LOL! Which idol of yours have you met face to face where it just stopped you in your tracks years ago, when you were in your younger days touring with AC/DC? What did you or they say?
BJ: Well, this was before joining AC/DC. I met one of my idols, Chuck Berry. I couldn't believe it, there's Chuck Berry right there, right in front of me. So, I'm gonna walk up to him and see if I can say hello and get his autograph. You know, because that's Chuck Berry! So, I go up to him, say hello, tell him I'm a huge fan of his, put out my hand and ask for his autograph, and let me tell you, the guy is the rudest, meanest, nastiest piece of shit I ever came across. LOL. Yeah, a talented guy, but as a person, the biggest piece of shit. Never got the autograph either. LOL.
AD: Aw man, that's too bad, for you. He missed the damn part about his fans making him? People gonna be who they are. I have always been a big fan of Sting's music and how he approaches the Arts. For the song he wrote that you sang on with him, “Sky Hooks and Tartan Paint.” I enjoyed hearing it because for me, it sounded like pirates on a small boat in a northern fishing town of England. When Sting first gave you that song. What images went through your mind?
BJ: Ah! That song. It definitely sounded like a pirate song! I saw the pirates all hanging out in a pub, lots of ladies there wearing these long billowy dresses. The drums, the violins. Classic pirate music. I was all in! And, you gotta know how I feel about pirate life. I've lived that life. A pint or 2, loud music, loud cars, lots of laughs.
AD: Yeah! You are a Rock 'n Roll pirate, that explains the growl and guts! In 2020 AC/DC released the album, Power Up. I really liked the songs,“Kick You When You’re Down,” and the song “Through The Mists of Time.” Which songs did you like the most, and does it bother you that people felt some tunes were similar to past albums?
BJ: Well, the thing with AC/DC is we've been together a long time. They've been together longer than I've been with them. But, with us, our fans always know what they're gonna get. We've always kept to our roots, haven't strayed. You know the sound you're gonna hear from Angus. You know the sound you're gonna get from our rhythm section. It's very hard, bluesy rock where you hear that bass drum, boom bada, boom bada, boom bada, boom bada. You know the sound you're gonna hear from Angus' guitar, and you know you're gonna hear my geriatric raspy voice. LOL! From the Power Up album, I really like singing 'Witch's Spell'. It has that classic AC/DC sound. "Realize"is a lot of fun to sing. "Shot in the Dark" is definitely classic AC/DC. Not a bad album for a bunch of 70- year- old blokes, huh?
AD: Well, your sound has always been yours, you've earned that right. It's a great album. You guys still rock hard. You know it's a good one when you can drive around listening to it around town for hours. So now, you’ve done a lot in your life: Rock n Roll singer, you have a family, you race cars, memoirs of your life, the series On The Road, so, what have you NOT done that you would still want to try to do?
BJ: There's really nothing I'd rather do than be on stage with the guys, spending time with the family, and being out at the track. I've been very fortunate in this lifetime. There's really nothing I haven't done that comes to me mind.
AD: That's always good to hear. Alright now. A tricky question: imagine there is a big Exodus and you can only drive ONE of your favorite cars out of there. Which one is it? How fast are you driving? What song is playing on your car radio?
BJ: My '31 Bugatti Coupe. The car is huge! I could fit almost everything I own in that car, including my family! Hell, we could live inside that thing. I'm driving carefully because there's gonna be an Exodus then there's gonna be a lot of crazy drivers out there and I don't wanna get a scratch on this thing. What song is playing? Well, I can tell you it won't be anything by Chuck Berry, piece of shit. LOL! I'd probably be listening to 'Get Back' by the Beatles. I just love that song. I love Ringo's drumming in it.
AD: LOL! Yeass! You are a force of spirit, matey. This is fun. Aw, Ringo's drumming on that is something out of a Western. Ah, so it's a mellow drive out of town. LOL. You've said you and Joe Walsh are buddies, what is the best joke that he or any musician has ever told you? Can you recall?
BJ: Hell, I don't know. There's been a ton. I can tell you about Jim Breuer, the comedian. He does this set about me singing the hokey pokey with the guys. You've gotta see this if you've never seen it. He's goofing on us, calling us 50 year old 3 foot tall guys who rock! It's a freak'n riot.
AD: LOL! I will go check it out. Sounds hilarious. Wow, this has been fun! Thank you so much, I really appreciate your music, your time, AC/DC. We hope to see you guys touring soon.
Abbe Davis, editor TRR/Musician
Abbe Davis is the editor of TRR. She is also a singer/songwriter. Her band in Asheville is recording Hard Rock singles for release this year. She has played in original music, Blues, and Jazz up the east coast, and performed alongside legendary Blues artist, Buddy Guy, at the Riverwalk Blues Festival. In 2022 she and her band (Sordid Fable) performed at the Parkland Memorial Concert in South Florida.