- The Story of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock
- Omnibus Press, 256 pp.
A Shallow Tribute
Rock biographies, particularly of bands, are an odd subgenre.
With an individual singer or instrumentalist, the narrative may take any of the traditional “hero” arcs (rags to riches, unappreciated innovator’s ultimate triumph, temptation/fall and — usually — redemption, etc.), but the story of a hydra-headed rock band must adopt a more amorphous approach.
Perhaps the only other nonfiction the bio of a rock band might resemble would be the story of a military unit, or of a corporate management or research team. Instead of a single story arc, we get the players’ several, individual roots, their momentous first meetings, how they devised or stumbled upon the winning formula, how long it took, and the climb to success (with perhaps a little temptation, fall, and redemption thrown in).
What you get depends very heavily on who does the writing. Typical candidates for the job are fans, various insiders (such as roadies or publicists; less often the band members themselves, a technical partner – as in sound engineer Geoff Emerick’s recent book on recording the Beatles – and wives or companions), or rock journalists.
Typically, the quality of the foregoing list is roughly ascending. Journalists tend to write better, though they don’t necessarily tell all they know, any more than band members, because their subjects are usually still living, and they don’t want to damage their access. Thus, the most savage (e.g., Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon) and revealing or fanciful bios (such as No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Jim Morrison bio by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman) tend to be about deceased performers.
The main purpose of a rock bio is not so much to learn all its subject’s secrets, which you never will, anyway; it’s to renew your appreciation for whatever made you love his, her, or their music in the first place. That being the case, a gorgeous gem like The Beatles Anthology or last year’s U2 by U2, neither of which is a tell-all or critical analysis, but rather gives you the band’s individual, personal voices surrounded by a panoply of photographs and graphic art, is as good as it gets in this genre. (Actually, Bono and The Edge prove to be fairly acute about the nature and evolution of their work, but one would guess they’ve read a lot of other people’s comments on it.)
When you pick up the occasional tell-all that relays some dirt, the horrid fascination that keeps you reading does not ultimately make you feel better about the art (for want of a better word). For instance, Walk This Way: the Autobiography of Aerosmith mentions that Steven Tyler acquired legal guardianship of a 14-year-old girl from Portland, Oregon from her parents so she could live with him for three years, undergo an abortion, etc. I can’t say this made me like the band’s music any better. Ditto for the Shark Incident in Stephen Davis’s 1985 bio of Led Zeppelin, Hammer of the Gods.
Of course, anyone who likes a band enough to write a book about it is by definition a fan, even if his name is Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, or Peter Guralnick, but authors who are only fans tend to want to report—and even believe—only the best of their subjects.
Although she has apparently reported on rock for various Midwestern publications and authored a previous “ebook,” Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy: My Life and Times with AC/DC, Van Halen, Kiss…, Susan Masino falls solidly in the fan category. She had some access to the band during its rise: she met them in a small club in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1970s, before they were known in the U.S., and she was 21. She has seen them a number of times on stage and backstage since, and perhaps while working on this tome.
Aside from the members’ roots and childhoods before rock swept them up, however, the results consist of a rehash of tour dates and discography, snippets from reviews, and her own brand of perky, quirky gushing—thin gruel for anyone but the equally dedicated fan.
The general reader will discover a few surprising things he or she didn’t know. The Young brothers are not native Aussies but were born in Glasgow, Scotland shortly before their parents emigrated to the land Down Under. Lead guitarist Angus Young is a lifelong teetotaler, who has neither drunk alcohol nor dabbled in any other drugs stronger than cigarettes for his entire career.
On the other hand, original lead singer Bon Scott was not only a heroic drinker who suffered more than one drunken vehicle accident and eventually died of alcohol poisoning, but used to gargle red wine and honey to achieve that uniquely raspy vocal timbre heard on the band’s early recordings. Many also nonetheless describe him as a perfect gentleman on social occasions, who invariably washed the dishes when visiting a friend.
The album and song title “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” comes from the character of Dishonest John in the children’s cartoon series “Beanie and Cecil.” Masino reports that the phrase “dirty, mean, and mighty unclean” from “TNT” was lifted by Scott from a mosquito spray ad, but unhappily does not identify which.
In the mid 1990s, Marvel Comics planned a comic book that would depict Bon Scott playing cards in hell against Satan and Richard Nixon. Sadly, industry downsizing killed that project. “You Shook Me All Night Long” is said to be the most popular song in American strip clubs—though how anyone would know this is not explained—and at the other end of the spectrum, Celine Dion covered the song in the VH-1 special, “Divas Las Vegas” . . . in high heels!
Being a fan’s narrative, the book touches lightly—very lightly—on the unpleasant stuff: drug abuse, groupies, several deaths of fans at concerts, Scott’s escapades and demise, the psychiatric treatment drummer Phil Rudd required for panic attacks on tour. It even makes a joke of some of it.
There are errors of rock history and fact—the sort of things that could easily have been looked up, even on the Internet. It starts right away on page one, wherein we learn that Angus Young “once said that ‘Hail, Hail, Rock ‘N’ [sic] Roll’ by Bill Haley was one of the first songs that really did it for him.” There is no such song, unfortunately—not by Haley, anyway: Chuck Berry made the phrase famous in his 1957 hit “School Days” (a song AC/DC eventually covered), and it became the title of a Garland Jeffreys tune as well as the 1987 documentary about Berry by director Taylor Hackford.
Sadly misspelled “Leslie” Gore, pop chanteuse of the early 1960s, is reported to have covered “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” A Stevie Wonder single is identified as “Very Superstitious” (the hit single’s opening words; its actual title is “Superstition”).
There is plenty of just bad writing. Not long after getting kicked out of school at the age of 14 years, 9 months, Angus Young was briefly employed as a typesetter at a soft porn magazine named Ribald, a development Masino deems “quite ironic, considering much of AC/DC’s future lyrical content.” The author evidently means to point out that the guitarist’s early job has something in common with the songs dripping with sexual double entendre that later would make him famous, which makes that early job not so much ironic as appropriate.
Future lead singer Bon Scott’s run-in with the law (at the age of 16, long before he would join the band), involved a guilty plea to charges of stealing 12 gallons of gasoline, giving a false name and address to police, escaping legal custody, and having unlawful carnal knowledge. Masino comments: “. . . how many 16-year-olds haven’t had unlawful carnal knowledge? I’ll bet you can think of a few. I know I can” (italics in the original). I gather she means to suggest that very few 16-year-old males are sexually inexperienced, but asking the reader if he or she can think of any who are not, and adding that she can, is a bass-ackwards way to do it.
Masino’s penchant for speaking directly to the reader in her own voice results in jokey and adulatory asides that do not wear well: “God, I miss the Seventies!”; “Bon’s use of double entrendres were at times genius”; “Put up a plaque, for God’s sake!” “Watching AC/DC while strapped down horizontally on a Thorazine drip would still be a treat for me!”
Late in their career, the band received the peculiar honor of having two fossils named after them (a “strange joint-legged animal” which I have to suspect are among the 60,000 species of trilobites); Masino chimes in: “I think it’s more than appropriate that AC/DC should be linked to a prehistoric chunk of rock, er fossil, well you know what I mean.”
Very early on, the band honored a request for “Zorba the Greek” at a wedding job, and Masino says, “Boy, wouldn’t you just love to have a bootleg of that?” No, I don’t believe I would.
The book features more than 50 black-and-white photos, but they’re mostly pretty pedestrian. One needs only so many shots of Angus Young showboating with his guitar and replacement lead singer Brian Johnson strutting or striking a pose. A peek at a competing bio, Maximum Rock & Roll by Murray Engleheart and Arnaud Durreaux, also published in 2006, reveals not only a better selection of shots, but quite a few in color as well.
Some things really should have been cleaned up by Masino’s publisher, Omnibus Press. There are unnecessary apostrophes (“the Young’s enjoyed a reunion,” “On one of their night’s off”), and the sort of typos that computer spell-check wouldn’t catch (e.g., “Delighting fire Marshalls around the world”—note: a “marshal” is an administrative officer, a “Marshall” is an amplifier). During a brief discussion of the heights of various band members on page 134, numerals replace what should be hash marks, so that 5′ 3″ comes out looking like 5930.
The book is beautifully consistent about spelling the phrase “rock ’n’ roll” as if it had single quotation marks: “rock ‘n’ roll”—even in chapter titles. This is a symptom of overdependence on word processing programs, which have never mastered the fairly informal usage of an apostrophe at the beginning of a word (for example, in ’cause for because), and therefore automatically convert single hash marks at the start of words into apostrophes.
Very occasionally, in quotations from other rock journalists about the band, one gets a glimpse of what the book might have been in the right hands. Masino quotes a review of the “Fly on the Wall” album by Jim Farber in Creem: “As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the album sounds like a horde of rabid dogs racing through a hall of razor blades, only catchier. In other words, another utter masterpiece.” (A great critical phrase can stick in the mind forever; I don’t believe I will ever forget the line by a Rolling Stone critic who wrote, many many years ago: “The Moody Blues are a great rock band smothered in conceptual goo.”)
I don’t mean to be hard on Ms. Masino, who is a sweet, well-intentioned, likable sort, or her publisher. They’re doing what they’re supposed to in a subgenre that has to do comparatively little to please their intended, ready-made market. As of this writing, there are three reader reviews on Amazon, and they’re all five-star raves. However, snooty folks like me also like rock ’n’ roll and to read about its creators now and then, and I doubt a book like this will wear well over time with even the most rabid and uncritical AC/DC fan.
Like native American sons ZZ Top, AC/DC may not be the first outfit most people think of as the cream of the crop among rock bands, but their unpretentious, good dirty fun has had undoubtedly broad appeal. At last count, their 70 million units placed them fifth in all-time record sales (after The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The Eagles). Back in Black alone has achieved RIAA Double Diamond status, for 20 million units by itself.
On his own 2002 tour, from a stage in Tampa, Billy Joel was enough of a fan to berate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for failing to induct AC/DC, and when that institution bowed to the inevitable the following year, Steven Tyler introduced the honorees:
AC/DC became the litmus test of what rock does. Does it make you clench your fist when you sing along? Does it scare your parents to hell and piss off the neighbors? Does it make you dance so close to the fire that you burn your feet—and still don’t give a rat’s ass? Does it make you want to stand up and scream for something that you’re not even sure of yet? Does it make you want to boil your sneakers and make soup outta your girlfriend’s panties? If it doesn’t, then it ain’t AC/DC!
I’d like to think Tyler wrote that himself.