Brian Johnson: AC/DC

The Lives of Brian, a variation of the Monty Python film, Life of Brian, are the memoirs of AC/DC lead vocalist Brian Johnson.

Truth be told, I’ve never been an AC/DC fan. Those screeching vocals were never my thing, yet, I admired their success. I started watching the television show that Johnson did, traveling around talking with rock stars, and began to like the guy. I felt bad for his hearing problems and I’ve evened mellowed on their music. Hell’s bells.

Oh blimey, another rock and roll autobiography! Yes, but this is a pretty good one.

‘“How can generations forget each other so quickly?’ In England, where we lived, it was a working-class place. Everybody was the same: You were born, you worked, you died. And so, ‘Just get on with it and stop being a sentimentalist wanting to talk about it.’ So there was this awful, empty void spanning two generations of people.’”

– Brian Johnson to Rolling Stone

Brian Johnson’s life changed one day when he saw Little Richard on a BBC program. “This screen came on, I’m telling you, I sat there. Me jaw dropped…I was absolutely smitten.”

Rolling Stone asked why his book only covers up to the “Back in Black” tour. “I didn’t want to get into the AC/DC story, because that’s not my book. That’s for somebody that was with the band from the very start, and that wasn’t me.”

So, if you are looking for the sex, drugs and rock and roll story of AC/DC, you won’t find it here, although he does address the hearing problem that at least temporarily sidelined him from the band a few years ago. The book is his story and it’s interesting enough on its own.

He left the band in 2016, it was either stop touring or likely lose the remainder of his hearing. He turned to his other passion, auto racing and it’s own high adrenaline rush. “I just didn’t fucking care any more. I’d always thought that the best way to go out would be at 180 mph, flat-out around a corner. You’d hit the wall and boom, it would be over, just like that.” That comment made many scratch their heads. “Don’t get me wrong,” Johnson wrote. “I didn’t want to die. … I just wouldn’t have minded all that much.”

When did he develop his love for singing? It was in the Sea Scouts, much like the Boy Scouts. “What I loved the most . . . was the singing. Because it wasn’t the boring, stodgy singing that we did at school or in church. It was boisterous, sitting-around-a-campfire, bellowing-it-out-at-the-top-of-your-lungs singing – the kind that makes your spine tingle and puts a huge grin on your face, no matter what kind of mood you’re in. Another reason I liked the singing so much was because I was starting to realize that I was good at it.”

“We knew we weren’t very good, of course. But with every Saturday that went by, we got closer to touching something that we couldn’t have dreamed of touching before, something otherwise completely unattainable in our industrial, working-class world – a sense of glamour and excitement and sex and adventure, I suppose. And when we finally made it through a song without stopping, it just felt absolutely magical.”

As a vocalist, he needed a means to be heard over the instruments. His first P.A. equipment served its purpose, until it didn’t. To earn money for a new P.A. system to continue his singing career, Johnson did what any young, wannabe rockstar would do – join the reserve paratroopers. After basic training, a fresh military haircut, and completing his required seven jumps, he was rewarded his wings and enough money to purchase his equipment. All he needed was a new band sing in front of.

Johnson with AC/DC in 1980.
With Joe Walsh on “Life on the Road”

Before AC/DC, Johnson played in several bands like Section 5 and Geordie, charting a couple of singles and appearing on Top of the Pops, a popular English music television show at the time.

Johnson would replace singer Bon Scott in AC/DC, following his sudden death in 1980. Johnson said their paths only crossed once, when both were struggling in earlier bands. “I couldn’t stop looking at the lead singer, because he was one of the wildest-looking cats that I’d ever seen. Coconut-bob hair. One tooth missing. Abe Lincoln beard. He looked like an elf. But, fuck me, the guy could sing…”

In the meantime, Geordie just sort of fizzled out, as Johnson recalls, and it was time to get a real job. He was 31, his marriage was breaking up and he had two daughters to support. He landed a job in the fashionable industry of installing replacement windshields it windscreens as they are called in England.

“I absolutely loved my job!..Needless to say, by the time my van pulled up, most people were over the moon to see me – and I got a great sense of pleasure watching a family of four in their little Austin Maxi toddle off after I’d got them back on the road again.”

During this time period he restarted his old band, Geordie, and they began having success beyond the previous band’s life. Johnson quit the windscreen business and started his own vinyl top installation for automobiles. He also received a series of audition requests from Rainbow, Manfred Mann and Uriah Heep, but none of those worked out.

Then came the call to audition for AC/DC. Johnson describes it as a bit surreal, from the strange call he first received from a German woman who mysteriously invited him to sing for an unnamed band. When he showed up for the audition, he assumed it would go to someone more well-known, so he was more concerned about the long drive home and the cars waiting for him to work on. He read in the news that someone else was selected for the gig, and still couldn’t accept it when AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young called to tell him the band had scheduled rehearsals prior to album recording sessions. Johnson made Young call him back, just to convey it was a serious offer and not a joke. Young was, and he told Johnson to start writing lyrics for “Back in Black,” the title song of the album the band would record.

In case you were wondering, Johnson’s trademark hat was borrowed from his brother, as a means of keeping the remnants of his vinyl car-tops out of his eyes during a nighttime gig. It became his signature look, as well as the t-shirts and sleeveless shirts, signifying his working man’s background.

I found The Lives of Brian to be an enjoyable read. The biggest surprise was in discovering what a humble, affable chap Brian Johnson is beneath the high-pitched growl. He’s a family guy and a stand-up dude in a business more known for characters, instead of character.

In case you are wondering, I like Highway to Hell and Back in Black more than I thought.

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