One of rock ‘n’ roll’s basic tenets is that being in a band is like being in a gang; it’s all for one and one for all. One of life’s tenets is that blood is thicker than water. Combine those two beliefs and you have the core of Jesse Fink’s excellent new book The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, a fresh take on AC/DC filtered through the Scottish clan’s lens.
Those relationships, particularly that of former Easybeat George, and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus, build the AC/DC band — soon-to-become “brand” — brick by brick. They keep and streamline what works, and discard ideas that do not fit their vision, and personnel that betray the family’s code of silence. George (along with Harry Vanda) led The Easybeats, easily Australia’s greatest band, but excepting “Friday On My Mind,” the group was never able to break America. Their career was alternately undermined from both inside the band, and outsiders, including the press, radio and their record company. George Young never forgot those lessons, and schooled his guitar-playing brothers well. His and Vanda’s superior songwriting and production skills would be critical towards developing and nurturing the band until rhythm guitarist and riff-meister Malcolm could assume control and assert himself as the power behind the throne.
To their credit, the band’s decision-making process is guided by their vision of “what’s best for the band,” and, if cutthroat at times, it’s consistent. Even lead singer and lyricist Bon Scott’s place in the band comes under scrutiny when he is suspected of hard drug use. He would be safe — for now — but it would not be long before Scott would pay the ultimate price. The band, ever pragmatic, would replace him and reach even greater heights.
It’s that consistency and stubbornness to their craft, their sound and vision that is the strength of both the Youngs and AC/DC. Critics were often late to the party with bands like AC/DC, hailing them as “stupid” and suggesting “someone ought to pull the plug on them” (Robert Hilburn)” or dismissing them as having “nothing to say musically” (Rolling Stone’s Billy Altman). Of course, as the band became one of the biggest in the world, the critics would later revise their opinions, offering bouquets of backhanded praise.
Likewise, managers, record men and radio people — seemingly ANYONE who worked with the band and was interviewed for this book — are willing to take a fair measure of credit for the band’s success. It only reinforces to me just who is actually responsible for the band’s success; that would be the Youngs and the band itself.
Fink is also not afraid to call out other biographers of the band on inconsistencies and half-truths, perhaps promulgated by the Young’s themselves, and offer up tantalizing alternatives. Back In Black, the album that launched the band into the stratosphere, has long been rumored to have Bon Scott’s fingerprints on some of the lyrics (including the title song), rather than replacement Brian Johnson’s, who received songwriting credit on the album. Fink provides some compelling analysis, comparing Scott’s often tongue-in-cheek style to Johnson’s clumsy sexual metaphors and pointing out his lack of input on subsequent albums. The author, as do I, also favors the Scott-era’s penultimate album Powerage as the band’s definitive musical statement, rather than the more successful Highway to Hell or Black in Black, which gracefully closed the curtain on one version of the band while launching a new one. Powerage however, is a fresh, foot-tapping distillation of the blues and blues boogie; just listen to “Gone Shootin’,” by far my favorite song in the band’s catalog, and an overlooked classic.
I’ll leave the last word, however, to David Krebs, one-time manager of AC/DC and a powerhouse in the industry. He compared managing a band (and presumably the subsequent books about bands) to Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s "Rashomon,” in which "four separate witnesses to a rape and murder give accounts that contradict each other. No matter what, there will always be people who saw the same event in a completely different way." And while I’m pretty sure that this is the first book to mention AC/DC and Akira Kurosawa in the same breath, that rings pretty true to me. Ultimately, Jesse Fink has delivered a fascinating, highly-readable, sometimes critical account of the Young brothers and AC/DC that all fans of the band should read.
If you want blood….you got it.
Follow me on Twitter @stevejreviews