New Book on AC/DC Explores Early Starts, Forgotten Heroes and Hit Songs
Australian author Jesse Fink on the past, present and future relevance of the
hard rock legends in his book, ‘The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC’
When you’re one of the world’s greatest rock bands, it’s probably necessary to have a no-bullshit attitude. That’s the case with Australian hard rock legends AC/DC, and the three brothers ”“ Malcolm, George and Angus Young ”“ who led the band through its 40-year career. In a new biography by Australian author Jesse Fink titled The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, fans get an insight into the band’s history through 11 hit songs such as “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ”˜n’ Roll)” and “Thunderstruck” and behind-the-scenes accounts of some of the band’s biggest moments both on and off stage.
Fink also explores the stories of those who have been forgotten and ignored ”“ from record label staff to mixing engineers to former band members ”“ by not just previous biographers of AC/DC’s success, but also the band. Says Fink over the phone from Sydney, “A real motivation ”“ and it became very clear quickly as I was putting this book together ”“ was encountering people who had done a lot for the band.” Those who’ve played key roles in the band’s career and feature in the book include drummer Tony Currenti [who now runs a pizza bar in southern Sydney] to deceased music executive Michael Klenfner, who had pushed AC/DC along the way until their 1979 album, Highway to Hell.
What was your favorite chapter to write?
I think, probably “Jailbreak.” I find the story of “Jailbreak” kinda interesting. It [the song] was a hit in Australia and it’s an important song in the AC/DC catalog. For some reason, the American record company Atlantic thought it was too outrageous for teenage consumption. They delayed releasing it in the States until 1984. I find that story really incredible. What had dissatisfied me with other books about AC/DC was that none of them got into it and tried to find why that was the case. Why did it take nearly 10 years for that song to come out in the US, and why, when it did release, sell millions of copies?
You mention in your book how the Easybeats were exploited by one of their first record labels. Every band almost always starts out with an exploitative record label, would you agree?
I don’t know, actually. One of the really interesting parts of this book is where I wanted to give credit to Atlantic Records for all the work they did for AC/DC. In the previous tellings of the AC/DC story, Atlantic Records doesn’t really get a good rap. They’re sort of regarded as not having understood what AC/DC was about. There were rumors about Atlantic dropping the band after they rejected Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. What I discovered after going to the States and meeting Jerry Greenberg, who ran Atlantic, and trying to meet other people who had worked at Atlantic between 1976 and the early Eighties, was that there were people in Atlantic who really wanted to work for them [AC/DC]. They pushed them over the top and rallied troops for the band when a lot of people didn’t care about the band. There was a guy called Michael Klenfner, who left Atlantic because he had a huge disagreement with Jerry Greenberg over the fact that they hired Mutt Lange to do Highway to Hell and Michael wanted another producer. It was a cruel ending to Michael’s career, but prior to that, he had actually done a lot for AC/DC. But if you read other books [about AC/DC], Michael gets a bad rap. I wanted to give him the recognition that he deserves. He can’t fight for himself now because he’s deceased [Klenfner died in 2009].
I know that the book is trying to explore the Young brothers and how they made AC/DC what it is today, but you also bring in all the people who worked behind-the-scenes, like Bill Bartlett who premiered AC/DC’s music on American radio.
A real motivation ”“ and it became very clear quickly as I was putting this book together ”“ was encountering people who had done a lot for the band. One of them was, as you mentioned, Bill Bartlett. And he’d been completely forgotten [laughs] by pretty much everyone. He lives in Costa Rica now and he doesn’t work in radio anymore. He was a massive part in getting AC/DC support in America, which gave them [the band] the platform to kick off.
When I talk about how magical the Young brothers are, what they do with their guitars ”“ they’re brilliant musicians and all credit to them. But you’re in a rock band and want to take over the world, you can’t do that only on the strength of your musical talent alone. You need people working for you and with you, behind the scenes. What I’m surprised by is the lack of recognition that AC/DC themselves have given these people. A lot of people I interviewed were very sad that they had been forgotten and hadn’t heard from the Young brothers in decades. They haven’t written to them or anything. [Engineer] Mark Opitz, who worked on Powerage  said he never heard from the band after that. This really surprised me. There’s a pattern there and it’s something that struck me when I was meeting all these people and they felt neglected, I guess. There was one guy I met called Ian Jeffery, who was the band’s tour manager for a brief amount of time. He was super close to the Young brothers at one point and then he got sacked. He hasn’t heard from them in 20 years and when I spoke to him, he said ”˜Those were the darkest days of my life,’ which is deeply sad.
How did you track down these people? Who were the most difficult to track down and interview for this book?
It was difficult to find these people. Jerry Greenberg was a massive help. He opened a lot of doors. Sometimes I felt like I had taken on something far too deep and far too difficult and that no one was going to help me here. Once I connected with Jerry though, he was very keen to talk about his time with AC/DC. He put me in touch with a lot of people at Atlantic and they were really happy to talk and introduce me to other people. What happens is the domino effect that takes place. All these contacts just fall into place. It was simple journalism, really.
There was a guy in the book, called Tony Currenti, who was the drummer on High Voltage  who has been mentioned in previous AC/DC books, but no one, in 40 years, had actually bothered to ring him up and talk to him. I found him, strangely enough, through Facebook and I got in touch with him. He was running a pizza bar in the south of Sydney, which is extraordinary. This guy played on a record which sold millions of copies but he’s making supreme pizzas now. He just does not look like the person you would imagine played with the Young brothers.
You’ve also looked at the good times the band has had over 20 years, through their hit songs. Where would you put AC/DC at their peak?
For me, I think that Powerage was their peak. I would put [1977 album] Let There Be Rock closely behind that, and then Back in Black and Highway to Hell. I say in the beginning of the book that with those four albums, starting with Let There Be Rock and ending with Back in Black, they kinda just changed the face of rock music. Thirty years on, there isn’t a rock fan who doesn’t listen to it every week or so. They [those albums] are very enduring; they get played every day on radio stations all around the world. They never get stale. They’re amazing rock records. You can say, yes, Back in Black sold so many millions of copies and there are some incredible songs on there ”“ “Back in Black,” “You Shook Me All Night Long” and stuff, absolutely classic songs. But after that, with Brian [Johnson, who joined the band in 1980], there’s only one song that really reached out to me, and that’s “Thunderstruck.” Probably a couple of more tracks like “Nervous Shakedown,” but I don’t think he’s got the voice in him now. I find the concerts difficult to listen to.
You do kind of reprimand the band toward the end of your book, about their inactivity and not writing any new music. Do you think we’ll ever hear any more new music from AC/DC? Have they reached a point of being happy with their back catalog?
I was surprised when Black Ice  came out and credit to them, they came out with another cracker of a single [“Rock ”˜n Roll Train”], that has a great AC/DC vibe that everybody loves. I think “War Machine” was another great track off that album. But that was 2008. It’s now 2013 and there’s no sign of them doing any kind of recording.
Everyone’s just wishing that was so, and there’s all sorts of rumors. I’m not going to comment on those.
I do think it would be remiss of AC/DC not to say something in 2014 to the fans about what their plans are, because it’s the 40th anniversary celebration. Everyone out there, on the Internet especially, is on Facebook and things, saying, ”˜When are we going to hear about the 40th anniversary tour?’ The first question I usually get asked by fans who talk to me is, ”˜What have you heard? When are they going to tour? I want to see AC/DC before I die.’ I hope there’s one last tour in them.
There’s a part in your book where you mention what the Young brothers have said about being an Australian band, especially since they were all technically Scottish. What’s the most Australian thing about AC/DC?
Oh, [laughs], I think it’s that choppy guitar riff that you hear from Malcolm Young on “It’s A Long Way To the Top.” I think that’s a very Australian sound. It was something George Young created and Malcolm developed it. Whenever I hear the opening to “It’s A Long Way To the Top,” wherever I am in the world, I think of Australia. It’s a powerful musical imprint. It’s not just the music, it’s also the sentiment of it ”“ Australians are very outward looking, we like the lyrics to that song. They’re inspiring. The message behind that song is you can achieve anything if you work hard enough, and it’s a great song to live by.
How long was your book in the works?
All together, I wrote it in 10 months. It was fairly intense process. Pretty much 20 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 months. I was not only writing, but also doing a lot of research, a lot of reading around and a lot of rejections from people who didn’t want to talk. Constant social networking, as well. Writing is a fulltime job and you gotta add everything else on top of that. It’s a massive undertaking, doing something like this. What I found is that in this connected world, where you have Twitter and LinkedIn and Google, it’s very easy. Once you get one person involved, it’s very easy to get connected to other people. In the old days, when you wrote biographies, before the Internet, that would’ve been even harder. It’s hard enough as it is now, but with Facebook and LinkedIn and stuff, you can just send an email to a stranger and you never know your luck.
The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC is available now throughÂ Random House in Australia and St Martin’s Press in the USA from AugustÂ 2014.
Go to the next page to read an excerpt fromÂ The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DCÂ by Jesse Fink.