AC/DC’s Brian Johnson: 'Electric’s where it is because politicians want to look green – it’s all nonsense'
Sitting at a quiet table in his local pub in west London, one large house white before him and seven enormous decades behind, Brian Johnson of AC/DC clears his throat. He takes a sip, steeples his palms, shut his eyes and lets out a strained, almost girlish falsetto.
‘Adeste fideles…’ he warbles, using the one quality with which Johnson has never been associated: delicacy. He relaxes again. ‘Midnight mass, special times…’
It is noon. We had a ‘cheeky pair of halves’ an hour ago and have spent the intervening time traipsing, not entirely in a straight line, through Johnson’s remarkable life. Somehow we’ve only just made it to his teenage years, when he was a Catholic choirboy. This, an impromptu recital of O Come All Ye Faithful in its original Latin, is presented as proof he didn’t sing in his scalding, bluesy way – or as he puts it, ‘with a fixed bayonet’ – as a 13-year-old.
In a way, he reckons, midnight mass at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Gateshead in 1960 was his first headline show. ‘Even I was shocked at how f—king holy I felt.
‘This was a big gig for me. And then there was the solo. It was late…’ It was midnight? ‘It was midnight! And when I started singing, all these women started crying, saying it was beautiful...’ He sighs.
The rock god we all forgot
Johnson is a riot – in the way that most riots are captivating but best enjoyed from afar, if only for your own personal safety. Low to the ground, prone to unintelligible grunts and unpredictable movements, he is like Taz from Looney Tunes made real.
At 75, he is also arguably the British septuagenarian rock god we all forget: not as flamboyant as Jagger, not as sexy as Rod, not as cancellable (well, actually, we’ll come to that) as Waters, but AC/DC has outsold them all, and most of the time with Johnson on vocals.
‘Giddy’ seems to be his resting state, and when we meet, in early September, Johnson can barely contain himself.
Three days earlier, he’d turned up on stage at a huge tribute concert at Wembley Stadium held to celebrate the life of Taylor Hawkins, the Foo Fighters drummer who died in March.
Partway through the six-hour show – which featured some 30 musicians, from Hawkins’ 16-year-old son to Paul McCartney – Johnson, a friend of Hawkins and Dave Grohl, scuttled on stage to perform the AC/DC classics Back in Black and Let There Be Rock with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, the surviving Foo Fighters and the Darkness’s Justin Hawkins.
‘It was fan-tastic,’ his speaking voice still thickly Geordie, though just as thickly gravel.
On partially losing his hearing
Six years ago, Johnson quit performing live with AC/DC when he punctured an eardrum, causing doctors to insist he stop and do something about it, or go deaf and never sing again.
The hearing issues – more a result of his motor-racing passion than half a century in rock’n’roll – turned out to be severe: he’s now entirely deaf in one ear and has just 25 per cent hearing in the other.
‘For a while, people would ask me if I was depressed. But depression is treatable. My hearing loss wasn’t. What I was feeling wasn’t depression. It was something closer to despair,’ he wrote about the experience.
In the years since, after plenty of medical treatment, he’s been working with an audio and hearing expert to develop specialist earpieces that allow him to sing in front of a full, thrashing live band again. They are now small enough to go unnoticed, and ready for full testing. Grohl’s invitation came at the perfect time.
‘I just thought, “I’ve got to do this. This is going to put a lot of demons to bed. Whether I can do this, is there a chance to be able to go on stage just a few more times before I f—k off to another place?”’
That legendary riff from Back in Black was all it took. ‘Oh boy. The first [chord] and I went’ – he makes the sound of a V8 revving and waves his arms as if summoning the spirits – ‘and the beast came out.’
Johnson is here today in his usual get-up: a tight black T-shirt, jeans, canvas trainers, curls covered by a grey cloth baker boy cap. For the last three decades he’s lived in Sarasota, Florida, but he and his wife, Brenda, also have a place in Henley-on-Thames and a pied-à-terre here in London on the river.
Johnson, who’s said to be worth around $100 million, doesn’t exactly travel incognito. A car obsessive, when in Henley he drives a 1964 Morris 1100, but here ‘I’ve got some big, f—k-off, Bentley Continental GT look-at-the-size-of-my-penis downstairs in the garage.’ In the US he’s got everything from a Ford GT40 to a 1954 MG TF.
‘Steady, son. You go too far, I sink, monsieur!’
But it’s the future, Brian. ‘It’s not the future. They’re dirty. They’re going to be dirty to get rid of, too. Electric’s where it is because politicians want to look green in front of people. It’s all nonsense. F—k ’em.’
He is no fan of politicians on either side of the Atlantic, but it turns out he hasn’t actually voted in his life. ‘People go, “Oh well it’s your fault, then.” I go, “No no, it’s your f—king fault for voting these cretins in. What would happen if both the candidates got zero votes? Revolution, that’s what would f—king happen. And we’d get the right people in.’
Well, that seems unlikely, given they’d always vote for themselves.
‘Yeah, there’s always one t—t...’ He growls. ‘Sorry, you’re starting to get The World According to Brian, and you don’t want that, you don’t need that.’
From council house roots to a £100 million fortune
We’re ostensibly here to discuss Johnson’s memoir, The Lives of Brian, a rollocking and unsurprisingly non-linear collection of tales from his early life, up to joining AC/DC. ‘I got myself three BS editors, to make sure things actually happened as they happened. But nobody’s going to read this and use it as a tool. It’s just another f—king book,’ he says, giving it the hard sell.
His father, Alan, was a military man, who served in the Durham Light Infantry in North Africa and then in Italy, where he met Esther, Johnson’s mother. Despite being 5ft 2in, Alan had a voice ‘so massive and commanding, he could make you simultaneously stand to attention and shit yourself from a thousand yards’. So that’s where Brian gets it from.
Back in Gateshead, they had little money, and for years Johnson and his three siblings were among 17 family members living in a two-bed semi. By the early ’50s, they’d received a council house of their own, where Johnson was under pressure to make something of himself. Which he did, winning an apprenticeship at CA Parsons & Co, a respected Tyneside engineering firm.
‘I know people will laugh now, but it meant everything to get that. You were what they called a “skilled man”, not a miner or builder. It was wonderful.’
But his head had already been turned by music. He sang in that church choir, relishing the reaction of the congregation, and had an adolescent epiphany when he stumbled across Little Richard singing ‘A-WOP BOP A-LOO BOP, A WOP BAM BOOM!’ during a BBC interlude after Farming Today.
‘On this day, the gods of rock’n’roll had decided that little Brian Johnson was going to get a bolt of lightning up his arse,’ Johnson writes.
While at CA Parsons, his reputation as a prodigious choral showstopper led to an invitation to join local bands, including the group that would become Geordie, a glam-rock outfit with ambitions to compete with the likes of Slade and Sweet. Alan bought him some equipment for £3.10/- to further the hobby, which Johnson would later add to by joining the Territorial Army’s parachute regiment. At the time £200 was offered to complete training, plus £8 for every time trainees jumped out of a plane. Johnson did seven.
With their shrapnel-voiced, lion-maned singer, Geordie found success, including a top 10 single. At one gig in 1973, they were supported by a group called Fang, fronted by the wild Bon Scott, who’d soon join a nascent Australian rock band called AC/DC.
Seven years later, Geordie’s success had run out, Johnson – by this point married to Carol and with two daughters – was working as a windscreen fitter, and AC/DC, helped by their album Highway to Hell, were one of the biggest acts in the world. Then Scott died of acute alcohol poisoning, aged just 33, and suddenly they needed a new singer.
The rest of the band, led by brothers Malcolm and Angus Young (the latter of whom did, and still does, always perform wearing a schoolboy uniform), knew Scott had rated Johnson, so arranged an audition in London. ‘I thought, there is no way I’m getting this gig. I wasn’t in the loop, I hadn’t done anything for five years, and these guys were red hot, there must be a line out the door for them,’ Johnson says.
And there was – Slade’s Noddy Holder was one, and he claims he turned it down. Johnson beat the rest.
As a new line-up, they got to work on Back in Black, a part new-era, part Scott tribute album that was written and recorded in haste in the Bahamas. Johnson, who wasn’t a lyricist, suddenly needed to step up and provide some words. I have read that the first song he ever penned was You Shook Me All Night Long – now one of the band’s biggest hits.
‘Yep, and it was just the love of automobiles and the ladies: “She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean / She was the best damn woman that I ever seen / She had the sightless eyes, telling me no lies / Knocking me out with those American thighs…”’
He pauses. ‘Which was funny, because I’d never seen an American thigh by then. But it sounded good.’
Hard-partying and the fast life
Back in Black went on to shift more than 50 million copies, becoming the second best-selling album of all time, after Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Thematically, it’s about hard-partying, the fast life, and women. AC/DC has a lot of songs about the latter.
‘Well, we’d lost Bon, we didn’t want to make it maudlin, so with the words, we kept them strong.’
Modern critics haven’t always seen those lyrics in the same way. In Vulture David Marchese wrote that ‘there’s a deep strain of misogyny in the band’s output that veers from feeling terribly dated to straight-up reprehensible’.
The band usually dismisses that kind of thing as tiring and square (‘I thought rock’n’roll was supposed to be juvenile. You sing what you know. What am I going to write about, Rembrandt?’ Angus once said), which I considered an understandable defence until a staff member comes over to take Johnson’s order in the pub.
‘I was wondering if I could get a glass of white wine and a bottle of sparkling water?’ he asks. Then he mimes a two-handed grope. ‘And just a quick feel?’ He giggles.
We sit awkwardly. ‘What are we going to do with you?’ the waitress sighs.
‘I don’t know, my darling, you’ll only feel safe once the topsoil goes on...’
A moment later he asks if I’ve met his assistant. I have. He exhales. ‘I wish I was 40 years younger…’
So, it’s possible those critics have a point.
With Johnson in place, AC/DC had a remarkably stable 25 years, a time in which they sold hundreds of millions of records, toured extensively, and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They also barely wavered, musically or in personnel.
‘I don’t think we ever fell out over anything. The boys always kept themselves to themselves, whatever they did.’
Surely there was excess, though?
‘There wasn’t. Of course everybody had a ball. I had a sniff of the old cocaine, but I figured early, “This isn’t good.” So I jumped that ship decades ago. And you see things… happening to people you respect and love.
‘You tell them to stop but you know they aren’t going to listen to you. You see that look of rebellion in their eyes until you see that look of terrible resignation, when they’ve realised they’re not strong enough to stop. I’ve never needed that.’
Marriage, trendy diets and TikTok
As with the book, Johnson doesn’t particularly enjoy going into great detail about AC/DC when he’s alone, claiming it’s ‘not my place’, as if he’s still serving his probation period after 42 years. ‘I’m just a cog. When we do interviews with [the others], we’ll talk as a band, but other than that I find it quite uncomfortable. It’s their story, they were there from the beginning. I can’t wait to read the book of AC/DC, and it won’t be me writing it.’
I wonder if he’s heard of the term ‘imposter syndrome’, the modern name for a common psychological occurrence in which somebody doubts their skills, to the extent of fearing being exposed as a fraud.
‘I’ve never heard that, but yeah, “If it hadn’t been for these circumstances, gosh darnit, would I be here...?” But you can do that to the nth degree, I just have to enjoy it.’
At this point a striking and tanned woman shuffles up to the table. Johnson instantly smothers her face in kisses. It is, thankfully, his wife, ‘Brenda the Lender!’
Johnson’s first marriage ended in 1990, after almost 25 years (his daughters and their families still live in Newcastle, and see him often). He and Brenda have been together for even longer now.
‘She’s a good ’un. F—king 72 next year. I wake up, and this lassie smiles every morning, no matter what’s happening. It takes a lot to keep me from being bored. That’s why I race cars.’
Brenda’s got him on a keto diet. He can only eat between 4pm and 8pm. ‘I was worried about going on stage. I thought, “Where did this belly come from?” I ate all the pies, that’s where. After about three days [of the diet], and working out and cycling, it worked. It’s boring, but it works.’
Trendy diets and Lycra aside, he is otherwise not entirely au fait with the modern world. He pulls out his mobile phone, a Nokia from about 897 BC. Not about to join TikTok, then?
‘I don’t know what f—king TikTok is.’
But some of his contemporaries are more active online – Jagger and Rod included. ‘They love it, but I’m not that lonely. I’ve got friends I can speak to on the phone.’
The future of AC/DC isn’t known. Malcolm died from the effects of dementia in 2017, while Johnson was on hiatus from live performing. In 2020 they made a comeback with a 17th studio album, Power Up, but Covid meant they never reunited to play live, and still haven’t since 2016.
All this, along with the hearing loss, has made the man who has sung the line
‘Forget the hearse ’cause I’ll never die’ thousands of times all over the planet suddenly feel quite mortal.
‘There’s one great thing about death: you just don’t know. I guess I’m just too busy. I’m sure it’ll catch up with me, but not today,’ he mutters. ‘I hope it’s clean. I don’t want to become a vegetable.’
The band will play again, he reckons – ‘it’ll come good, it always does’ – and he’ll keep on singing, so long as the instrument holds up. Physically, it feels fine.
‘Most singers sing from the diaphragm. I sing from the neck, that’s why it’s so different. It’s like a trumpet. It’s not because I’m good, it’s because I’m different,’ he says.
All those years ago at midnight mass in Gateshead, Johnson learned what he could do with that voice. And look where it’s taken him.
He takes a big drink. ‘Ah, it’s been a f—king good life. But you know, we’ll see what happens. F—k it.’