Sad news in the rock and roll world last week: Australian powerhouse AC/DC announced that rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, older brother to band mascot Angus Young, is suffering from dementia and has left the band, and will be replaced by his nephew.
Word is that the band plans to continue its 40-year career with a big anniversary tour to support its new album, “Rock Or Bust.” I am sure that this tour will be very lucrative — AC/DC’s last tour was the most successful of their career, raking in $441 million, the fourth highest-grossing rock tour of all time.
They should quit while they’re ahead.
Like any American human born after 1960 with male genitalia, I love AC/DC. I remember when I was in high school and all my friends were going to see them and my mother wouldn’t let me go because she thought I was too young — I don’t know if I was ever so mad at her before or since. When I got my first CD player in 1987 my first two CDs were “Van Halen II” and “Back In Black,” and I wore them out. As a guitar player, I can’t claim to have perfect pitch but when am tuning my guitar without the aid of a tuning device, I imagine the riff to “Back In Black” in my head and tune to that, a method that has always worked surprisingly well. I eventually did get to see them in the early ’90s, when I was in college, and that show stands in my memory as the loudest rock show I ever went to.
Most people don’t realize, because Angus Young is such an iconic figure with his schoolboy outfit and his Gibson SG and his thrashing head and kicking legs and bitchin’ solos that AC/DC was always Malcolm’s band — Malcolm founded the band, came up with the riffs, and ran the business end (to the extent that any musician handles any business).
AC/DC continuing without Malcolm Young is like the Rolling Stones continuing without Keith Richards. Like the Beastie Boys continuing without Adam Yauch. Like Menudo continuing without Ricky. Certainly stranger things have happened; Lynyrd Skynyrd continued after its principal members (including the singer) died in a plane crash; The Allman Brothers Band is still at it even though one of the two Allman Brothers died in the ’70s.
But continuing AC/DC at this point is just a naked cash grab, the crassest kind of fan exploitation. Not because they’re too old; the thing about aging classic rock bands is that they generally have their drug problems behind them, and are finally sober enough to play their material well enough to justify the outrageous ticket price.
A lot of bands lose important members and soldier on. Sometimes they even rise to greater commercial heights. AC/DC did it themselves when Bon Scott died of alcohol poisoning in the back seat of a car. They got another singer and put out the biggest album of their career. But that’s not going to happen this time. We already know what post-Malcolm AC/DC looks like.
I am not a big baseball fan, but every 15 years or so my hometown Baltimore Orioles make an appearance in the playoffs, and when they do I like to root root root for the home team. I can’t even name one player on the roster, but I enjoy playoff sports in general, more so if I have a rooting interest. So I tuned in to the third game of the Orioles-Tigers ALDS and during a commerical break I heard this abomination:
“Play Ball”? Really? AC/DC wrote a song called “Play Ball”? Because if there’s one thing I associate with athletics, it’s five-foot-nothing Australian dudes with guitars and whiskey flasks. When I think of AC/DC I think of neon beer lights, cigarette smoke, denim vests, muscle cars, devil horns. Fast machines that keep their motor clean. Not blue sky, green grass, and cracking bats.
They obviously wrote this song for one reason and one reason only: to get it placed prominently in the commercial breaks during the baseball playoffs, to give a big launch to their new album “Rock or Bust.” (And while we’re here: “Rock or Bust”? Really? Was there a race to see who could come up with the dumbest possible album title? If so, we all lost.)
Working musicians that never made much money — which is most of them — look with envy at songs like John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” because those tunes get played at every game at every ballpark everywhere in America. Ballparks pay their ASCAP/BMI royalites so Fogerty and Springsteen are getting Paid In Full from April to October every year.
There is a similar phenomenon with Christmas music — if you can make a Christmas song stick (like John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas/War Is Over” or Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”) it pays off like a slot machine — you’re guaranteed radio play from Halloween to New Year’s. (Look for my Christmas song, “Relatively Merry,” hopefully by Thanksgiving of this year.)
So AC/DC is obviously trying to shoehorn itself into the lucrative ballpark market, which is deeply cynical on several levels: one, the very idea of any member of AC/DC even knowing which hand the glove goes on is laughable (at least you can imagine Springsteen or Fogerty playing ball, or existing in sunlight); two, as I mentioned earlier AC/DC grossed $441 million on their last tour ($80 million per member) so they don’t exactly need the money; and three, THEY ALREADY GET PLAYED AT SPORTING EVENTS: “Hell’s Bells” is a common crunch-time PA selection, as is “Thunderstruck.” Those tunes have nothing to do with sports but their promise of doom and despair and bodily harm fits nicely in the right sudden-death-overtime situations.
It’s appalling, and if Malcolm Young were still in charge, this would never have happened. (Full disclosure: I have no idea if this is true.) So while I regret not going to see the last AC/DC tour, which I have on good authority was great, that window is closed. AC/DC IS DEAD TO ME BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE THE TITLE OF THEIR NEW SINGLE. Who’s with me?