NEW YORK — After 20 years as lead shrieker with hard-rockers AC/DC, Brian Johnson is not easily impressed by a few rockin' guitar riffs.
But when Johnson heard what the band's guitarists, brothers Angus and Malcolm Young, had in store for Stiff Upper Lip, their just-released album, he was downright awed.
"I knew I was listening to something that in about four or five years ... would be looked upon as classic riffs," he said last month, puffing on a cigarette in a Manhattan hotel room (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
Johnson isn't alone in his assessment. The album's title track (RealAudio excerpt) — a heavy-grooving guitar rocker squarely in the tradition of such classic AC/DC hits as "You Shook Me All Night Long" — sits at #1 on the trade publication Radio and Records' rock chart.
"I would have to say that this ... probably is the strongest new music from AC/DC since the days of [1980's] Back in Black and [1979's] Highway to Hell," said Neal Mirsky, program director for Philadelphia active-rock station WYSP-FM, which has "Stiff Upper Lip" in heavy rotation.
Help From Big Brother
If there's a difference between Stiff Upper Lip and other recent AC/DC albums, such as 1995's heavy-metal-leaning Ballbreaker, it may have been due to the presence of producer George Young, Malcolm and Angus' older brother.
Young, formerly a member of the '60s pop group the Easybeats, set unswervingly high standards for the LP, according to one of his brothers.
"George doesn't let anything go when you are working with him. He doesn't come in and say, 'Hey, that's shit,' [but] he comes in and gives you an honest answer," lead guitarist Angus Young said. "He still gets you to think that there is more than one way to skin a cat. And that's how he's always been good like that" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
With George Young's help, the band returned to its roots in early rock 'n' roll and blues on such tracks as "Can't Stand Still" (RealAudio excerpt).
"Yeah, Little Richard, the rock 'n' roll thing. We love that. ... We don't sit down and try and hammer out something like this," Angus Young said. "You like to get the idea of a song and it just naturally comes that way, rather than sitting down and saying 'I'll rip off an old Little Richard tune' or something."
The band also resumes the AC/DC tradition of lyrical tributes to rock — such as "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" and "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" — with the new anthem "Can't Stop Rock and Roll" (RealAudio excerpt).
"We plagiarize ourselves," Young admitted cheerfully.
In a more innovative move, the first verse of the album's title track finds Johnson dropping his usual banshee squawk in favor of a deep, gravelly register that sounds more like his speaking voice.
"The idea [was] a calm before the storm. So when the whole bang came in, it's like a hurricane. And, also, George said it would be good too. ... He said, 'Try it.' Because it sounds cool; it's a bit like Humphrey Bogart," Young said.
Keeping Their Niche
One thing AC/DC wasn't worried about on Stiff Upper Lip was fitting in with a music scene seemingly dominated by teen pop and rock-rap.
"That's the good thing about us, ... you don't get stuck in any of that muck. We've always said we were making rock music anyhow, regardless of what the mainstream is into," Young said. "It's a bit like this, I suppose: There are all sorts of cute puppy dogs, but it doesn't stop people from going out and buying Dobermans."
The band, formed in 1973, established its reputation as a fierce rock outfit with its first album, 1976's High Voltage.
The band released five records with its first lead singer, Bon Scott, who died of alcoholism after the recording of Highway to Hell. Later came a posthumous compilation album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1981), and the EP 74 Jailbreak (1984). In 1997, the band paid tribute to Scott with Bonfire, a five-CD box set of his work with the group.
AC/DC's live act features one of the most memorable gimmicks in rock: Angus Young blasts out his blues-based solos while wearing a schoolboy suit.
The outfit — which Young eschewed in favor of a small pair of jeans during last month's interview — will presumably be on display when the band plays NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live" on March 18.
The band is scheduled to perform "Stiff Upper Lip" and "You Shook Me All Night Long," according to its label, Elektra.