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AC/DC’s Brian Johnson on the Highway Out of Hell: ‘I Thought I Was Done’

Brian Johnson has become used to extremes. In the past few months, the caterwauling AC/DC lead singer has both made a triumphant comeback after deafness forced him off the road in 2016 and huddled in his mother-in-law’s Florida attic with a candle while Hurricane Ian decimated nearby coastal towns. Then he turned 75.

Decades before he found his trademark newsboy cap and sandpapery, demon hellshriek, Johnson was just a humble lad in Newcastle, England. He recently wrote (by hand, no ghostwriter) a lighthearted chronicle of the first half of his life, which he has published as The Lives of Brian.

He had to wear a home-knit swimsuit the first time he went to the beach. He got married and became a dad at an early age. As he struggled to make it as a singer, he worked as a draughtsman for an engineering firm and replaced windshields in a garage. In his twenties, he played in several bands, including glam rockers Geordie who appeared on Top of the Pops a few times before ultimately flopping.

When Geordie’s label stopped paying his mortgage, Johnson challenged his landlord in court when he faced eviction and won. He was 32 and performing at “working man’s clubs” in a band unceremoniously called Geordie II along England’s northeast when AC/DC asked him to replace their late singer Bon Scott in 1980. He ultimately wrote and recorded Back in Black, the second-bestselling album of all time, with the band.

But as he reflects now on his highway out of hell, there’s a youthful excitement you can still hear in his voice. “I have all these memories — some wonderful, some sad — and I’ll always live me life on a tightrope,” Johnson tells Rolling Stone over the phone in his thick “Geordie” accent native to Newcastle. “I never ever like being comfortable. It scares the shit out of me.”

Why did you want to write a memoir?
Me father had met me mother [who was Italian] while fighting in Italy, and when they came back, there was no houses for them to live in. So my family lived at me grandmother and grandfather’s house. My grandfather didn’t like Italian people; we’d just been fighting them in the Second World War. So he didn’t speak to us. He’d sit in the corner with a pipe.

It never bothered us until I was about 19 and me dad said, “Come on, your grandfather’s passed away. You got to come to the funeral.” And I said, “Oh, Dad. He never spoke to us. What was Granddad like? What kind of man was he?” And me father said, “I don’t know.” I thought, “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.

That’s why I started the book, “To my dear great, great, great, great grandchildren, I don’t know who you are or where you are. I just hope the words in this book will help you get to know me a little better.” It’s a shame because I’d love to know what my great, great grandfather was like.

When you wanted to sing rock & roll, your dad put money down on your first PA. Why do you think he supported your dream?
I said, “Dad, these boys have asked us to be the singer in the band.” And he went, “Singer? You? There’s only one singer and that’s Johnny Cash. And you’re no Johnny Cash, son.” I went, “Well, I was head choirboy.” So he said, “Come on, then. Let’s see.”

He was a hard man. You could not have a conversation with my dad. He was an old sergeant. He said things and expected them to be done. And he took me to Miller’s Music, and the only thing I could afford was a 10-watt Watkins amplifier. It was a teeny, little thing. It all came to, I think, 23 pounds, 10 shillings, and six pence. And me dad put three pounds deposit down, which was an absolute fortune; he was only getting 10 pounds a week wage. And I had to pay back 10 shillings a week. And I’ll never forget him saying, “If you miss one payment, it’s goin’ back.” So it was as simple as that.

Would you say you had a good childhood?
It was wholesome. I would hate to be a kid growing up today. Girls were girls, boys were boys, and we were separated in school in the desks. It was just so uncomplicated. You had a paper [route]; I worked on the milk wagon delivering milk. There wasn’t much TV, So we were always out playing soccer, “football,” and fighting in the streets, but not with razors and knives; just a “rough and tumble” as we called it then. You’d try to pinch somebody’s flag, so it was pretty good. I went to the Boy Scouts; that was always great because it got you out of the filth of this city. It was just a simple life.

What does it mean to you to be a Geordie, from Newcastle?
It’s very important. And it’s one of those things that stays with you forever. The accent; listen to me. I’ve been [in the U.S.] 30-odd years. And the only thing that’s changed is I say “gas” instead of “petrol.”

I was talking to [the singer-songwriter] Sam Fender the other day and he’s a Geordie boy and he said, “How do you handle it with all the people that don’t understand you when you’re talking to them?” I said, “Just stay natural.” Unfortunately, some chaps have tried to soften the accent. Like Sting. he’s softened his accent. But Mark Knopfler, not so much. It’s still a joy listening to Mark talk. And I think people up in the north appreciate that.

The name Geordie, which was corny as anything, wasn’t our choice; it was management’s. It was bloody awful. We did a song called “Geordie Stomp,” which wasn’t that good. But we thought in 1973 it would set the fire going — but it didn’t succeed.

Brian Johnson in his Geordie days at a Copenhagen concert in 1973.

Jorgen Angel/Redferns/Getty Images

You wrote in your book that the first time you heard rock & roll was seeing Little Richard on the BBC.
It was completely by accident. We didn’t have a record player. I was just watching the BBC, which was the only station. There was a program called Watch With Mother, and when that was finished, there was usually an interlude for five minutes. It was usually a potter making a pot or some fish swimming up. And this plummy voice says, “And today, for something completely different, we have a young man from United States of America with his new single, ‘Tutti Frutti.’” This screen came on, I’m telling you, I sat there. Me jaw dropped. Here was this handsome Black man with a skinny tie, a shiny jacket; his hair was immaculate. He had this lovely grin.

And what happened next? It just went “Wopbopaloomopalopbombom, tutti frutti …” I was just going, “What?” I was absolutely smitten. When it ended, I was going, “No, no, no. Do some more.” And I couldn’t even afford to buy a record. A few days later, I heard it coming out of somebody’s house and I still can’t believe what I did. I knocked on the window. And this girl said, “What do you want?” I said, “Could you play it again?” She went, “Oh, cheeky bugger.” And she said, “Go on and stand there,” so I stayed behind the window, and she opened the window a little crack and put it on again. And she came to the front step and started teaching me the hand jive. It was a magic moment for me.

You also had periods loving folk music like Bob Dylan and Scott McKenzie. How did you arrive at playing hard rock?
I was about 15 and I had a girlfriend that worked in a record store in Newcastle. She came over and just said, “Go to that corner and pick that album up.” I said, “Where do you want it?” She said, “Stick it up your sweater.” It was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It was fascinating. I said, “This guy’s absolutely great. It’s just fantastic.” And she said, “Come in next week, and I’ll give you another one that nobody’s buying.” And so she had me stick another under me sweater [laughs]. I walked out with the biggest nipples in Newcastle because of the square record. It was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And there you have the answer: [sings] “Look over yonders wall and hand me down my walking cane.” [Sings guitar line].

With my band at the time [Section Five], I found out that it was the rock songs that really got me up and going. The other boys wanted to do songs from the Searchers, some Beatles — which were all great and all that — but basically it was the rock & roll ones, like the Kinks, “All Day and All of the Night,” that I liked. I thought it was the greatest rock & roll thing out there when it first came out. The Rolling Stones’ first album was our bible. We learned everything. [Sings] “Oh, Carol. Don’t let ’em steal your heart away.” We tried to copy everything. I even saved up to get a set of maracas, ’cause that’s what Jagger used when, [sings “Not Fade Away”] “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gon’ be.” They were our gods.

When you joined AC/DC, Malcolm Young asked you to write the lyrics to Back in Black. In the book, you shoot down theories that Bon Scott wrote some of the words. Why did you feel you had to do that?
There was one particular journalist — a writer in Australia — who just wouldn’t let go of this thing. And of course, Malcolm and Angus were like, “What a fucking load of bullshit.” And I said, “I wish you would tell him.” And their attitude was always, “Just leave it. Just let them talk himself into a fuckin’ early grave.” And of course, it became more and more obvious by the day that Bon hadn’t, because the riffs weren’t written then. The boys were still doing it. So we didn’t say anything because otherwise it would have given him more fame.

It wasn’t something that stuck in me craw a lot, but every now and again, a fan would come up and say, “This guy’s saying this.” And factually, it wasn’t true. There wasn’t an internet then; it didn’t really get further than Australia. But I thought it was awful I had to explain meself and that’s why in the book, I went, once and for all, I want to put this baby to bed.

Why did you stop writing AC/DC’s lyrics in the mid-Eighties?
I think that was a management decision. It wasn’t anything to do with me. “Listen, Brian. I think the boys are going to write all the lyrics now.” I said, “It’ll give me a little bit of rest not having to worry about coming up with something every now and again.” I never thought of it that much. I just said, “OK, let the guys go ahead and do it.” And I must admit I miss some of my lyrics. There was some lovely tongue-in-cheek ones, you know, “Have a Drink on Me.” And in “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “She always kept her motor clean.” We all know what I meant, but it’s the double-entendres I miss. I’m fine with it. It doesn’t bother me at all.

Have you been writing much lately?
I’ve been writing some songs with a guy called Jimmy Nail, who’s had a few big hits of his own. And we don’t do anything with them. We just write these great songs, which, one day when we’re all dead, somebody will probably push out. But I’m quite proud of them. There’s one song keep your eye out for, called “What If.” It’s so fucking funny.

Why does your book end chronologically with the Back in Black tour? Why didn’t you write about the second half of your life?
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.

The only current subject you wrote about is your hearing loss. You’re hearing me fine as we’re talking. How do your new hearing aids work?
I’ve been working with a man named Stephen Ambrose. He said, “I’d really love to work on these brand-new in-ears that I have invented.” He put these things in, and I couldn’t believe it. I got it all back. I’d already lost the full use of me left ear. And I had about 38 percent left of me right. It’s not much. But Stephen invented these wonderful things that go in your ear, and they inflate, so it’s small like a prosthetic eardrum, and it becomes part of you.

We tried them out with a band a couple of years ago and it was fucking brilliant. And then, three weeks ago, Davey Grohl asked me to come and sing at Taylor’s [tribute] show at Wembley and I said, “OK, well, let’s try them out.” So Stephen flew over with [the hearing aids]. And I had the time of me life. It was great. I did “Back in Black” like I was 25, yee-haw, and then “Let There Be Rock” was just fabulous. I thought I was done. That was it. “Forget about it. Thanks very much. Next.” But I got through it.

Do you see yourself touring with AC/DC again or making another album?
I would love to. It’s as simple as that. I think everybody would. There’s a groundswell of people just asking. But I hate talking about the future, because, fuck, we were ready two years ago, and the pandemic came, and it screwed everything up. So I’m terrified to say what could happen and what couldn’t. And I hate talking for a band. If a couple of other boys [from the band] was with us, I could probably have an answer, but I cannot take the responsibility. It’s such a broad question.

You just sound so jazzed from playing at Wembley.
Well, fuck yeah, it was fucking brilliant. I mean, shit, there’s your microphone, there’s 100,000 people, and there’s Wembley. Ever think you’d fucking jump on this again? I don’t think so. It was like getting on a stallion and fucking breaking the fucker. I fucking said, “This is it.” You can feel the electricity and the love and the players when I got off. It was worth every fucking minute of it. Plus, the fact that Taylor was up there watching. At the end I said, “You see, Taylor? That’s for you.”

As you think back on the stories in The Lives of Brian, are there any aspects of your life you see differently now?
Yes, of course. Getting married young was stupid. We were told it was stupid, but we didn’t listen. I wish I’d have been a smarter person; I wasn’t. I always did things kneejerk, right-in-the-moment, when it felt good. We all got ripped off. I wish I had that foresight to see these people who made me sign a contract [with Geordie]. I recently found the first one I signed and about 12 pages in, there’s this big red stamp thing: “The artist will not make more than 10 percent of the gross.” We didn’t see that. Then there was the success that we got and then the failure. We were on Top of the Pops, and two years later, the band was broke and fizzled out. I had to go to work to pay the mortgage. That’s when I started to put the cap on, so nobody would recognize me because of the fucking shame that I had been on the TV and had songs in the chart and there I was penniless.

I just wanted to write a nice, joyful book, giving a little bit of the history of northeast England and what it was like to travel in a band. You know, to have a French customs officer slap a latex glove on and hear the squelch of the fucking gel as he’s looking for drugs up your ass, which were never there. It’s the things you do for rock & roll.

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