Last updated: 07/08/2012 12:00:00 PM
Stiff Upper Lip is the 17th album from a group that many would call the world’s greatest rock band. The 12-song disc finds AC/DC as unflappable as ever, a vibrant, vital rock band at the top of their game.
Anchored by one of rock’s most rhythmic duos - brothers Angus and Malcolm - and buoyed by the infamous throaty drawl of singer Brian Johnson, Stiff Upper Lip not only serves up the kind of carnal shards that fans have come to expect, (it’s their first studio album in five years) but also tips its hat to the blues-rock-roots of AC/DC and brother/producer George Young - who returns to the work the boards for the first time since 1978’s classic Powerage. "Malcolm and I were sitting around going over possible producers one day," recalls Angus. "We started talking about records and stuff and the idea of using George again just snapped into our heads at the same time. Obviously he knows what AC/DC is all about. For us there has always been that subtle blues element in what we do. All good rock has that foundation of the blues in it somewhere."
From Angus’ scorching intro on the album’s title song, "Stiff Upper Lip," to the bluesy stomp of "Meltdown," right through the clipped bursts of thunderous guitar on the rousing "Can’t Hold Me Back," it’s evident that the boys’ camaraderie set the tone. "It was fun to make this record," says Angus. "We never like to be under pressure, and no band should make an album like it’s some sort of a chore. George likes to capture the character of the people in the studio and I think we did that. He doesn’t care so much about what’s technologically correct, as long as it sounds like AC/DC."
Vocalist Brian Johnson says he has another barometer when making an AC/DC record.
"This one was a 135,000 cigarette album," he laughs. "I can always tell if we’re making a good one, when the smokes are going before, during, and after a take."
Angus agrees: "We’re a bit like the old army when we go into record. Don’t forget that the number one staple in World War I and II was tobacco." A proper metaphor for a band that has never looked over their shoulder.
"We know who we are," says Angus. "We trust each other and rely on that. A lot of music you hear starts getting that fast food mentality - just put it out. We’ve never been about that." Brian says the process of give and take is important, as well. He points out that "Stiff Upper Lip" was a song that captured the band’s playful approach. "When the boys first played me that riff I just started going off in what I like to call my ‘Satchmo’ voice," laughs Brian. "I was like ‘is this too much?’ But the boys were ‘no, no that’s perfect.’ We had such a great vibe making this record. I think all the brothers had such simpatico going with the guitar exchanges and riffs – the whole thing was just a refreshing ball."
Other standouts fans will be flocking to are the blistering "Satellite Blues" and the slippery ride of "Can’t Stand Still." "I love that one," says Brian. "When I listen to that song it reminds me of everything that’s fun and alive about rock n’ roll. I sang it through in one take and if you listen at the end you can even hear the boys applauding. That’s the kind of atmosphere we had throughout the making of this album."
No wonder. George Young has produced some of AC/DC’s most classic albums, including their 1974 debut High Voltage, 1977’s Let There Be Rock, 1978’s If You Want Blood (You Got It), and Powerage. Says Brian: "I think the album has a wonderful feel – almost pre-Back In Black (produced by Mutt Lange) – which was the AC/DC era where George’s hand was felt the most. He really makes recording exciting. He makes it feel like everyone is contributing their best all of the time."
Back In Black, of course, is also a bittersweet demarcation line in AC/DC folklore. The band’s original singer, the legendary Bon Scott, died tragically before the making of what some consider AC/DC’s milestone work. Brian Johnson was chosen in April of 1980, and quickly stepped up to record the album the following month. Fans embraced the disc like no other AC/DC album. It would go on to make history for AC/DC, breaking dozens of sales records, and landing them sold out concerts across the globe, forever cementing their reputation as hard rock’s preeminent troubadours.
From their very first gig in the early ‘70’s in Sydney, Australia at a place called the Chequers Club (artists such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra performed there) the AC/DC legend grew in direct proportion to the band’s take-no-prisoners philosophy. "We’d play anywhere anytime, and not always to adoring fans," laughs Angus. "But we never stopped playing – mostly in fear of what would happen when we did." The group earned their stripes as one of rockdom’s most dedicated live bands, with Angus’ schoolboy attire becoming one of the most famous trademarks in rock history.
Throughout the years, AC/DC has managed to create that rarest of bond between their fans. Whether it was the classic Let There Be Rock of 1977, the anthem laced Highway To Hell of 1979, or the pseudo-best of collection, Who Made Who of 1986, the soundtrack for Stephen King’s movie Maximum Overdrive (He’s one of the group’s most vocal fans) AC/DC has never given in to the crass commercialism or shameless self-promotion that have scarred other bands’ careers.
Their most recent release, the 1997 Bonfire box set, a 5-CD collection crafted by the band as a tribute to Bon, was done with the usual AC/DC understatement. "That project wasn’t ever about nostalgia," says Angus. "It was about his spirit. We even called on fans to help us track things down."
Angus has said that one of the keys of AC/DC’s longevity has always been the ability of their audience to relate to them. "We always stop and say ‘what would our fans think?’" says Angus. "Sometimes it’s like we’re on a first name basis with ‘em. We’ve learned never to pay too much attention to the trends, or to what the experts are telling you is the next big thing. Our fans know what to expect from us. And that’s how we approach making a record. I always say sometimes it’s the guy digging the ditch that can tell you more about building the road then all the engineers put together."