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Exclusive Excerpt: When Ahmet Ertegun Saw AC/DC at CBGB

How the Australian band almost lost favor with Atlantic Records and won it right back

Rolling Stone India
Rolling Stone India Nov 29, 2014
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AC/DC in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music India

AC/DC in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music India

The excerpt from the book The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, written by Australian author and journalist Jesse Fink, tells the story of “Jailbreak.” The track from their album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap was a dealbreaker of sorts for the band and Atlantic Records, which was founded by the legendary recording industry genius Ahmet Ertegun. Originally released in Australia late last year, the book is now available for Indian readers, published by HarperCollins India. Listen to Rock or Bust, AC/DC’s new album in its entirety below. The exclusive stream has been made available via Sony Music India.

Part 2 – Jailbreak

Yet for some arcane reason, ‘Jailbreak’ fell between the cracks in AC/DC’s coming assault on America. In fact, it disappeared into such a chasm of corporate ineptitude it wasn’t released in the United States until 1984 on the ’74 Jailbreak EP because the original album on which it appeared, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, was shelved by Atlantic and left to gather dust. Even when Dirty Deeds finally hit American record stores in 1981, outrageously straight after the multiplatinum Back In Black, ‘Jailbreak’ was mysteriously left off.

‘American record companies. Go figure,’ says Evans.

Jim Delehant asserts somebody inside Atlantic Records, possibly Jerry Greenberg’s successor Doug Morris, now chairman and chief executive of Sony Music, felt it was ‘too horrific for teenage consumption’. Phil Carson, who was in charge of Atlantic’s operations outside America, says he can only ‘recall some discussion about that but I had turned my back on the project’.

Yet not before it very nearly claimed Carson’s career. As a sign of how important he was to AC/DC between 1980 and 1981, he’s the only man at Atlantic personally thanked by name on the sleeves of Back In Black and For Those About To Rock. (The latter album’s cryptic mention of ‘Springfield’ refers to Carson’s time playing bass with Dusty Springfield.)

‘By the time AC/DC decided to fire Mutt Lange [after For Those About To Rock], Jerry Greenberg had left Atlantic and A&R decisions were being handled principally by Doug Morris and his cohorts in New York,’ he says. ‘I had become a little disenchanted with the way things were developing with the band. I told Doug that releasing Dirty Deeds [after such a hiatus] was a massive error. I told him it would disrupt what we were starting to create with Brian Johnson. AC/DC’s audience had accepted more or less the unthinkable notion that Bon Scott could be replaced. What Doug did was to confuse our audience and destroy a large part of AC/DC’s fan base.

‘He brought an abrupt halt to the building process we had set in motion to elevate Brian. The band had to deal with yet another comparison between Bon Scott’s AC/DC and Brian Johnson’s AC/DC. At the time, Doug’s argument was purely financial. Back In Black had already sold over five million copies. Because of those numbers, Doug told me that Dirty Deeds would sell at least two million. I told him he was right about that, but that it would also create a new sales plateau for AC/DC.’

Carson was proved correct. Certified platinum six times, Dirty Deeds (the one scandalously without ‘Jailbreak’ on it) remains AC/DC’s biggest selling album in the United States post Back In Black and their third-biggest selling overall behind Back In Black (22 times) and Highway To Hell (seven times). For Those About To Rock has been certified platinum just four times. Even The Razors Edge (five) and Who Made Who (five) have outsold it.

‘Doug’s motivation was purely greed driven. His comment was that we would all get bigger bonuses because we had made our numbers and that I should stop thinking like an artist. To this day, I am proud of the stand that I took on behalf of the band. Releasing Dirty Deeds was one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive. God knows how many albums For Those About To Rock would have sold had Doug waited for that to come out first. He really changed the band’s history with that stupid decision. I blame the lack of success of Flick Of The Switch and Fly On The Wall, to a large degree, on the inane decision of releasing Dirty Deeds right after Back In Black.’

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Not only would Flick Of The Switch and Fly On The Wall gobble like turkeys (achieving only single platinum apiece) but they would also ensure an infuriated AC/DC left Atlantic. It’s not hard to imagine that it would have been particularly galling for the Youngs to hear that Dirty Deeds, the record considered so substandard in 1976, was enthusiastically promoted by Atlantic with beach balls.

‘I remember doing a promotion with WBCN in Boston,’ says Judy Libow. ‘We’d decided to do a summer promotion and we took the song “Big Balls” and we had these huge beach balls made up and the station would give them away. They’d be all over the beaches. We had a great time with the band and the music.’

Why did Morris fail to appreciate what AC/DC were about?

‘Doug appreciated AC/DC in his own way,’ says Derek Shulman, who at sister label Atco, in one of the most magnificent intra-corporate grifts in music history, managed to nab AC/DC from Morris in a trade for The Who’s Pete Townshend. ‘The problem, from what I felt, was the band’s slight disdain for anyone on the “record business” side. They related to musicians but not particularly well to the people who worked for them in the “biz”. Doug certainly knew they were unique and fantastic sellers; however, I believe their less-than-showbiz personalities never allowed the “biz” into their insular world.’

Mark Gable got a sense of that insular world in his professional and personal encounters with the three brothers.

‘My dealings were more with George on a professional basis, though I did meet Angus once and was lucky enough to have beers with Malcolm on a few occasions. Malcolm is very shy, not a loudmouth and not even the slightest bit arrogant. He’s very switched on about music and in particular the business side of things. When I met Angus we chatted for a while but he didn’t get my sense of humour. One thing I learned about the Youngs is that they do take themselves very seriously. Along with the huge talent comes a certain fragility. They are very careful about people they don’t know. There is a sense that we are on the inside and you are not. That was always my impression when dealing with both Albert Productions and the Youngs.

Shulman, however, managed to see a side of the brothers most never see.

‘I haven’t seen them in a while now. The last time I saw them on the road was a couple of years ago. I really love and relate to the guys. They are great people who live life by their own rules without any interference or manipulation from the outside. Just sitting in the dressing room with Angus nursing his cup of tea and cigarette and discussing issues not business related is completely refreshing.’

There’s some irony in the fact that Dirty Deeds, the album that in 1981 practically destroyed AC/DC’s relationship with Atlantic, was the same album that Atlantic very nearly used as an excuse to cut their ties with AC/DC five years earlier. But it wasn’t going to end any other way. The Youngs’ Glasgow mentality – If you put it on me or mine, I’ll get you back – made sure of that.

After failing to convince the suits at Atlantic in New York that Dirty Deeds was a sellable proposition, AC/DC was in a state of shellshock. The adventure that had started in 1976 with the US version of High Voltage looked to be over as soon as it had begun.

 

‘It just pissed us off,’ says Mark Evans. ‘The band never took criticism well. Especially coming from the record company, the guys who were supposed to be in the same tent, saying, “No, mate, it’s not good enough.” The band was pissed off.’

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So the well-reported story goes, Jerry Greenberg wanted to drop the band but Phil Carson managed to persuade Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (misspelled as ‘Neshui’ in the Wall biography) to keep them at the label on the condition their advance was reduced on future albums.

Carson reiterates the account for this book: ‘There certainly was discussion about dropping the band at Atlantic in New York. The A&R department thought the group was going nowhere and that they were very derivative. That’s why Dirty Deeds was never released in sequence. However, they did have the sense to consult me before actually dropping the group and, by that time, I was making very serious inroads with the group in Europe, and we were certainly recouping the $25,000 that we had to pay for each album.’

 

The wash-up?

‘Nesuhi Ertegun was able to tell the Atlantic team that the international people were right behind AC/DC.’

Yet Greenberg remembers differently. He rejects suggestions that he didn’t like the band or that he didn’t care about the band. He rejects the story, put forward by Michael Browning in the Murray Engleheart book, that Carson went over the top of him to petition the Erteguns for mercy. ‘I don’t know anything about that,’ he says. ‘There was some conversation about [dropping the band]. But it wasn’t my decision. There was someone in the A&R department, who I basically trusted, who said that we should drop them. I never, ever was thinking about dropping the band. The band was touring Europe at that time; they hadn’t played a date in America. Phil Carson was the day-to-day person [for AC/DC at Atlantic]. What I remember basically is Atlantic – and that was everybody, not just necessarily me – was not that excited about that record.

‘The feeling from the people at Atlantic was, “I don’t know if we should put this record out.” I cannot deny that. Atlantic did not want to put the record out, there’s no question. That’s a fact. But as far as ever wanting to drop the group, I don’t believe we ever wanted to drop the group.’

So what was the true involvement of the Erteguns, the top executives at Atlantic, in the fate of AC/DC? The younger, Ahmet, told Billboard he’d seen the Australian band for the first time at punk club CBGB in New York City in 1977 but wasn’t sold even then: ‘I’m not sure I would have signed them when I first heard them . . . they were pushing the envelope . . . and very ratty-looking.’

‘Ahmet wasn’t really around much during those days,’ says Greenberg. ‘He was travelling a lot. The first tour I remember AC/DC came over and we had them at the Whisky A Go-Go [in Los Angeles]; we had them playing all those little clubs, and Ahmet wasn’t very much involved [at that point].’

But when they took off, says Larry Yasgar, Atlantic’s head of singles, ‘Ahmet jumped right in.’

 

Judy Libow, who went on to become vice-president of promotion & product development at Atlantic, backs the Carson version: ‘There was a point in time when there was talk of dropping the band. ‘I remember going down to a WEA convention in Florida. WEA was the big distribution arm for all the labels – Warner Bros, Elektra, Atlantic. This one year [1977] Atlantic decided to have AC/DC play down there for everybody: all the labels, all the staff, all the WEA people. And most people hadn’t yet seen them play. It was a small venue. I’ll never forget they came out into this club that was packed with all these industry people and they did their thing. Angus was on Bon’s shoulders, up and down the stage, he’s mooning everybody. It was just an incredible thing to see.

 

Read the first part of this chapter here.

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