Brian Johnson is still amazed at the success of Back in Black, AC/DC’s landmark 1980 studio album which was his first record with the band following the untimely death of singer Bon Scott.
Johnson detailed his feelings on the album, as well as the recording process, in a new interview with Pierre Robert. Back in Black has moved over 50 million units worldwide, with 25 million of those units coming from the United States.
“Well, it’s sometimes a little frightening, you know,” said Johnson modestly. “I was just a working boy and got to go to the Bahamas [to record this album.] Malcolm and Angus [Young] said, ‘Hey, by the way, can you write lyrics?’ And I went, ‘What? Well, I’ll give it a shot.’ And the first night, they brought me a yellow legal pad, a pen and a little cassette player. They said, ‘This song is a very basic track,’ and it was ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’…Angus argues it was ‘Back In Black,’ but I remember it being ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.'”
Johnson continued, “I remember just sitting there and just going, ‘Well, you know, what do I got to lose? I got a week’s holiday in the Bahamas, at least!’ I wrote it down in about 20 minutes, honest…I took it to the [studio the] next [day], and what you hear [on the album] is basically that first day…And then ‘Back in Black’ came, and that was fascinating because I never knew that I could sustain notes like that. That was Mutt Lange, the producer, who said, ‘Sing it higher. I’ve heard you do it.’ And it was just like being set free from a straightjacket…It was a wonderful thing to discover at 32. I didn’t think I would ever get a job with a rock and roll band at the age of 32, but that was the age of Bon when he passed.”
When the band finished recording, Johnson returned to Northern England where he was living with his parents at the time.
“I just went, ‘Well, I think I’ve just made a record,’ because it wasn’t even mixed yet,” recalls Johnson. “It was another six weeks to two months before I actually got a copy of it. It came in the mail, and I didn’t have a record player in the house. I took it to a friend’s [place], the guitarist in Geordie, and he had a record player. We put on ‘Hells Bells,’ and it was a few bars in and he went, “No, that’s never going to fly. Come on, let’s have a pint. You’re singing way too high. That’s not you.’ I was just heart broke…but you know, it all worked out fantastically well. I still can’t get my head around the fact that it’s forty years since we did that and we’re still singing them [songs] on stage.”
The way that Back in Black was a tribute to Bon Scott, AC/DC’s latest album Power Up serves as a tribute to Malcolm Young, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 64 due to complications from dementia. When it came to any similarities during the recording of both tribute albums, Johnson said, “Not so much. With the first one, I knew of Bon and I respected Bon, and I loved him and I met him before a long time ago in ’74 or something…With the second one, of course, I used to stand next to Malcolm for 36 years [on stage] before he couldn’t play anymore. His very presence I missed.”
Johnson continued, “When we gathered in Vancouver, and we got in [the studio], immediately there was this presence in the room that we couldn’t explain. Everyone really wanted it to be the best thing ever to prove to Malcolm the love and admiration and respect for what he’d done. I don’t want to sound to soppy, but the thing was we couldn’t help it. Even Angus said, ‘There’s something here.’ We’re not spiritualists or anything like that. We’re realists, but it was really there.”
Johnson noted a particular moment during the recording of Power Up when he got emotional.
“I think it culminated for me when I stood in front of the microphone and I sang ‘[Through The] Mists of Time’ for the first time,” said Johnson. “The hairs on my arm were standing up. It was tears, you know. I wasn’t crying; there was just this water coming out of my eyes. It had nothing to do with me, because I could see Malcolm and all the fun times we had all those years ago. The happy times in the early ’80s and those tough times, when he got sick and back again, what we’d been through and what the band stood for.”
Johnson continued, “…When I heard [the first take of] the song, producer Brendan O’Brien said, ‘Hey, man, you nailed it. That’s it.’ And I said, ‘Nah, nah, nah. I’ve got to do it one more time.’ He said, ‘You can’t better it.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I just want to sing it again.'”
Johnson noted how Malcolm Young forced rock into the mainstream music world saying, “For all these kids who love rock and roll, the middle ground will always win on radio. The simple, easy tunes that are just so incongruous, just mix into the background. Rock and roll always had a lot of trouble playing it on mainstream radio. They just didn’t want anything to do with it, and Malcolm made them do that. You know, you can’t ignore chart positions. You can’t. It broke through all the boy bands and girl bands. As [Malcolm] called it, ‘It’s all t-ts and teeth, Brian’ [laughs.] That’s all he said it was.”