Sunday, September 25, 2016

AC/DC Should Break Up (and Other Stupid Comments from the Peanut Gallery)

Cliff Williams, 1981
AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams announced his retirement from the band with the conclusion of their recent Rock or Bust world tour.

And now AC/DC should break up.

Of course, they should have broken up when longtime vocalist Brian Johnson was forced to retire due to hearing problems.  Or they should have broken up when rhythm guitarist and founding member, Malcolm Young, was diagnosed with dementia. Or they should have broken up when Phil Rudd, the drummer on nearly all of their classic albums, found himself in legal hot water for drug possession and allegedly soliciting the services of a hit-man. Or maybe they should have broken up decades ago when Bon Scott, the vocalist with whom they first found success, died from asphyxiating on his own vomit after a drinking binge.

These are all things you'll hear coming from the peanut gallery.

Rock fans are an opinionated bunch, aren't we? We always have something to say about our favorite (and least favorite) bands, and we say it loudly, regardless of our degree of knowledge or insight. Because of the visceral qualities and intense impact of rock music, and the way we incorporate it into our lives, fans feel a deep connection to musicians that they have never met, and somehow feel qualified to pontificate about their art and private lives.

I am frequently guilty of this myself. However, in the back of my mind, I never really forget that I am full of crap.

Fans complain when a band breaks up, when a band doesn't break up, when their new album isn't like their last one, and when their new album is just a rehashing of their last one. Sometimes you can't win with these people.

In the case of AC/DC, we are dealing with very specific, and some quite tragic, circumstances. Just a
few years ago, what was considered the "classic" lineup of the band (unless you prefer Bon Scott) was completely intact. Now only lead guitarist Angus Young remains.

The first casualty was founding member Malcolm Young, rhythm guitarist, co-writer of most of the band's material, and brother of Angus. Since being diagnosed with dementia, he was reported as having a complete loss of short term memory and unable to communicate. This is bad thing to happen to a band mate, a worse thing to happen to a brother.

Brian Johnson's departure from the band due to hearing problems (he was apparently warned by his doctor that another tour with the band could result in total hearing loss) was another shock. Johnson had attributed his hearing problem to car racing (who knew it got so loud in there?), and not to decades of touring in a notably loud rock band. Still, the band replaced him with Guns and Roses vocalist Axl Rose for their 2016 tour. Initial statements from Johnson indicated that this was done very much against his will, and that he was disappointed to be replaced before a second medical opinion declared his hearing damage to be less severe than feared. He later made a statement thanking his bandmates for their support. Quite a change of heart.

This reminded me of how Jon Anderson was unceremoniously dismissed from Yes, the band he co-founded in 1968, while dealing with health problems that prevented him from performing. Similarly, initial statements expressed sadness, disappointment, and shock, only to be contradicted by later statements in which he gave his support and approval to the rest of the band. Was this another change of heart, or did someone get a call from the lawyers?

Perhaps this is baseless speculation (but as a rock fan, that's what I do), but I have to wonder if Anderson and Johnson were approached by management and cautioned again disparaging members of the band and damaging the brand. Rock bands are also a business, after all.

This is the weird thing about bands. A lot bands started with a bunch of kids from the neighborhood coming together, guys who knew each other since they were twelve. These are often intense, volatile, and deeply familial relationships. Bands are also a business. Even the smallest time music ensemble requires management and at least one member with some business acumen.  The biggest bands are organizations that employ dozens of people. Breaking up a band, or "dissolving the partnership," often involves liquidating assets and can even include severance packages for longtime employees. It must be weird being a top tier touring act. You go from being a bunch of kids in a garage to being an organization that is too big to fail. When fans say, "why don't they just quit?" it doesn't take into consideration the future of the guy who has been on the road crew for, say, the Rolling Stones, for the last twenty years.

The "classic" line-up in their last days
It also doesn't take into consideration the specialized skill set that these guys have. I am pretty sure that Angus doesn't have his carpentry business to go back to. If anything, his family business was rock and roll. Angus and Malcolm's older brother George was a member of the seminal Australian band the Easybeats, and co-wrote their classic hit "Friday on My Mind" before devoting his time and energy to fostering his brothers' ambitions, guiding the early career of AC/DC and producing their early albums.

Can you blame Angus if he entertains the notion of continuing the band all by himself? If you had one entity in your life which was your livelihood,  your passion, and the ultimate mechanism for preservation of your youth, wouldn't you hold onto it as long as you could? (AC/DC for all of their integrity and strengths is a band that refused to mature, just look at Angus' stage outfit. He wears the same schoolboy uniform that he did four decades ago.)

So hold off on your judgment if Angus Young doesn't immediately declare the end of AC/DC after the departure of Cliff Williams. AC/DC is his life and his legacy. And he's been through a lot in the last few years. On the other hand, it would hypocritical of me to tell legions of rock enthusiasts to hold their tongues. It's not I ever tried to. At any rate, this is just my opinion. I will probably have a completely contradictory one tomorrow.

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