Danger, high voltage!

By Sergio Ariza

Angus Young was born on March 31, 1955 in Glasgow, Scotland; the last of a family that already had seven brothers. At the age of eight his parents, and most of his siblings, moved to Australia. All the sons played an instrument, Stephen, 22 years older than Angus (and the father of Stevie Young, the man who would eventually replace Malcolm) played the accordion, Alex and John were the first to play guitar, something in which the three youngest brothers George, Malcolm and Angus would follow; the three who would end up triumphing in music.

George founded and became the main composer of the Easybeats, a kind of Australian Beatles that resulted in the Young's house being surrounded by hysterical screaming fans. Both Malcolm and Angus did not need much more encouragement to strap a guitar onto their shoulders. When Harry Vanda, George's partner in the Easybeats, gave a Gretsch to Malcolm, Malcolm gave his Höfner to Angus. But this would not be the guitar for which he would become known. He was a natural, he learned by watching his brother play, Malcolm liked the rhythm and Angus used to improvise over him, before even knowing the name of the chords. Almost from the beginning the distinction of roles became evident and would serve, over time, to build their sound. A sound based on two guitars, with Malcolm laying the foundations and Angus the icing on the cake. His sound is notorious and one hundred percent recognizable, each chord that Malcolm gives is known to be his and every note of Angus seems ready to follow the highway to hell.

At age 15 Angus made two decisions that would mark his future, he left school and bought the guitar of his dreams, a 1967 Gibson SG whose small neck fitted his tiny hands. There was no turning back. When in 1973 his brother George and Harry Vanda returned to Australia they created a group called Marcus Hook Roll Band and signed up their little brothers who played in different bands. It was the first time that Malcolm and Angus played together outside their home. Angus played with a band that did covers of Mountain, on his Marshall amplifier (which would be as faithful as the SG); you could read the message that best defined him, HIGH VOLTAGE.

When the two youngest brothers decided to form a band together in 1973, after their respective bands split up, they communicated it to their parents. Their father's response could not have been less prophetic: "We'll give you a week, it will not last." But his brother George did have faith in them, he was now a veteran of the business and was determined not to repeat the same mistakes of his career with the Easybeats. However it would be Angus’s sister Margaret who would give him his identity, telling him to use his old school uniform on stage. At first it was a pure game, Malcolm had told them to look for a stage costume, the era was full on Glam, but as the rest were swapping outlandish clothes for t-shirts and jeans, Angus was putting on a uniform. In a certain sense, it freed him on stage, the costume gave him a role to play and allowed him to go crazy on stage, as if he was another person. It was a calculated parody of what a rock star should be and Angus took it to its ultimate consequences. Over time he would reflect on it: "People do not idolize me, they idolize the guy in shorts."

Furthermore, it was also their sister Margaret who gave them the definitive name, AC / DC, a diminutive of the alternating current / direct current, the sticker that appeared on the sewing machine with which Angus’s uniforms were repaired after concerts. In those early days the band was composed of Malcolm and Angus on guitar, bassist Larry Van Kriedt, singer Dave Evans and drummer Colin Burgess. In their first concert cover songs abounded. The path were clear from the beginning: three cover versions of Chuck Berry, two of the Stones, plus some of Elvis, Little Richard plus Baby Please Don’t Go; Angus’s musical diet would not change one iota over the next four decades.

But the best thing was the energy that they were able to inject into these songs. Over a few concerts Angus had already become a big character and flashed across the stage imitating Berry's duck walk and jumping through the air. One of his most familiar moves came after he tripped and fell because of a cable; too nervous to accept this humiliation, Angus kept moving and kicked from the ground, rolling on himself; all this while still playing an amazing solo. From that day on that would be added to his arsenal of ‘scenic steps’. On his decision not to stop still for a moment on stage, he said that it was the fact that he could be a less easy target for the rowdies who filled the Australian bars and threw beers at the musicians.

With this line up they managed to ascend their first step to fame, when they opened as the support band at the Australian concerts of Lou Reed in 1974. But it was clear that the brothers were far above their singer, with whom they did not even get along. So after changing management, and with the approval of their older brother George, they decided to sign Bon Scott, another Scottish emigrant who was almost ten years older than Angus and who had a reputation as a tough guy.

At a time when soft rock and the Laurel Canyon sound triumphed, the Young brothers were clear that theirs was pure high-voltage rock & roll that did not fit the ballads or mid-tempos. Their brother George, again, gave them a piece of advice that they would follow to the letter for the rest of their career, "Do not fuck with the formula" he told them "find a sound and stick with it". The sound would end up being defined with the appearance of Bon Scott. Despite his age and character differences with Angus, Scott would become his perfect complement on stage. The band had already recorded a single before the departure of Evans, Can I Sit Next To You, Girl but it was with Scott that they began their long journey to the top. In October of '74 they recorded with their new singer what would be their first album, High Voltage, which would be released in February of the following year. The record was recorded by the main trio, Angus, Malcolm and Scott, with the collaboration of George Young on bass and the use of studio drummers. Shortly after recording it, the band's best-known lineup would be established with the arrival of Mark Evans on bass and Phil Rudd on drums. They would be responsible for recording the song that would open the doors to success in Australia, It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll). The single would launch with the mythical cover in which Angus appears in his school uniform, holding his beloved SG and sticking out his tongue, which would also serve for the international edition of High Voltage.

But beyond the studio, the strength of the group was really in still playing live. Angus and Bon were a time bomb and the singer used to let climb Angus on his back to unload his furious solos from above. The myth about rock & roll is that all the stars are drugged up to the eyebrows, but for Angus Young there was no drug harder than rock & roll itself, few of those who have seen him on stage would think that ‘that beam of energy’ was able to do all of that without the need for drugs, but that's the way it was. The same could not be said about Bon...

For the Youngs, life revolved around AC / DC, girls, and parties - and everything else was secondary to their sacred mission, of becoming the rock band par excellence. In 1975 they gave more than 200 concerts and released their first two albums, High Voltage and TNT, which appeared in December and which showed the two sources of inspiration for the band, blues and rock & roll, exemplified in songs like The Jack and their version of Chuck Berry's School Days. One could say that Angus and Malcolm lived with the guitar in their hands; in the case of Angus it could be said that the SG was part of him, locked in his house discovering new riffs with the everlasting cigarette stuck to his lips.


Thanks to their appearances on the television program Countdown, the band had become the most popular rock group in Australia, so the next step was to triumph internationally. In 1976 they internationally released High Voltage, a compilation of their first two albums, and the band recorded their third full-length, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, which included classics like the title song, the fierce Rocker and the anthem Problem Child, with its incredible riff. On tour in England their incredible energy and fierceness led the press to locate them next to incipient punk, but Angus was clear that there was no other label for the music they made than rock & roll.

At the beginning of 1977 their fourth album appeared, Let There Be Rock, in which they would find their winning formula, their own hard sound that they would engrave in stone and to which they would be faithful during the rest of their career. Malcolm Young had taken a step back to focus on the rhythm and had left all the lights on his brother Angus, as you can see on the cover. The ‘young boy’ was going to find on this album the best showcase for his explosive solos and the band was going to deliver a wonderful album of powerful rock - dirty and sweaty -, a sound that could be the very definition of rock & roll.

1978 saw the appearance of two more classics in their catalogue, Powerage and the live If You Want Blood You've Got It, which opened more doors to the British market; but it would be their sixth album, Highway To Hell, which won them success in the promised land, the USA. The album sees the Young brothers reach the peak, delivering perfect riffs for the cavernous voice of an unstoppable Scott, like on that of their most famous song, the one that gave the album title, and Girls Got Rhythm. There was also room for the dangerous blues of Night Prowler, a song that would serve as an epiphany for the charismatic Scott. And it was at the moment of the band’s greatest success, at the top of which they spoke on It's a Long Way to the Top, Bon Scott died drowned in his own vomit after a night of drunkenness.

However, with the blessings of Scott's own father, the Young brothers decided to move forward. They signed up Brian Johnson as a replacement, and they put together some of their best collection of songs to date, the album title, You Shook Me All Night Long, Shoot To Thrill, Hells Bells and Rock and Roll Is not Noise Pollution. Back In Black became one of the most incredible records of all time and the zenith of AC / DC’s career. Their success was huge, the album became the second best seller of all time, and placed the band, finally, at the top.

The story does not end here but, simply put, the formula had already delivered its best results. There were still great songs and anthems like For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) and the immortal Thunderstruck, possibly the song in which Angus has played the fastest, but their best albums were already behind them. Of course, Angus would remain unstoppable in concert and the years have not stopped him being transformed into a superhero on stage, suffering that 'Hulk-like’ transformation, with the adrenaline running like jets through his veins. Any singer in the world, be they beasts like Bon Scott, Brian Johnson or Axl Rose, knows that if you share the stage with Angus, the spotlight and the eyes of everyone will be on him. And this is the reason why Angus exemplifies better than anyone the sense of danger that emanates from rock & roll. Each time he climbs onto a stage, a simple and clear warning message should appear: "Danger, high voltage".