High Voltage Reborn: Brian Johnson Joins AC/DC

Following the tragic loss of Bon Scott, AC/DC faced a crossroads that threatened the very essence of their hard-rock legacy. Amidst this uncertainty, a voice from the English working-class city of Newcastle emerged to redefine the future of one of the greatest rock bands in history.

A black and white photo of Brian Johnson, AC/DC's lead singer, performing energetically on stage in 1980. He is wearing his iconic flat cap and is mid-gesture, singing passionately into the microphone. In the background, Malcolm Young is playing guitar, contributing to the dynamic live energy of the band.
Brian Johnson (1980)
Key Takeaways
  • Following Bon Scott’s death in 1980, AC/DC chose Brian Johnson as their new frontman.
  • Johnson’s unique vocal style and charismatic stage presence, reminiscent of Scott’s, were key factors in his selection.
  • Johnson’s joining marked a new chapter for AC/DC, leading to the creation of the successful album “Back in Black.”

The Crossroads of Rock

In the wake of Bon Scott’s untimely death in 1980, the members of AC/DC found themselves at a profound crossroads. The loss of their charismatic lead singer not only plunged them into deep mourning but also brought them to the brink of dissolution. The question that loomed large in their hearts was whether to continue as a band or let the curtain fall on their illustrious career. The grief was palpable, the uncertainty real.

Bon Scott’s family, particularly his father, emerged as unexpected beacons of encouragement during this dark time. Understanding the immense potential and legacy of AC/DC, they urged the band to persevere and keep the spirit of rock alive. This nudge from Bon’s family was pivotal; it was a call to rise from the ashes and honor the legacy Bon had helped build.

In their darkest hour, it was Bon Scott’s family who urged AC/DC to continue, marking a pivotal moment in the band’s history.

The search for a new frontman was not just about finding a singer; it was about finding someone who could carry the torch with the same fervor and passion as Bon did. Among the myriad of candidates considered, one name stood out – Brian Johnson. Johnson, leading the UK-based band Geordie at the time, was known for his powerful, gravelly singing style that resonated with the raw energy AC/DC was famed for.

Interestingly, the connection between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson had roots in a chance encounter during the early 1970s. Bon, while leading his band Fang, witnessed a performance by Brian Johnson with Geordie. It was a performance that left a lasting mark on Bon. Johnson’s stage presence and vocal prowess, especially his screaming, reminded Bon of the legendary Little Richard. What truly captivated Bon was a moment when Johnson, in a display of raw intensity, was on the floor, writhing and screaming into the microphone. To Bon, it seemed like an electrifying act of rock theatrics. Little did he know, Johnson was actually in the throes of acute appendicitis at the time.

This dramatic episode, though a result of a medical emergency, showcased Johnson’s dedication and intensity – qualities that Bon greatly admired.

Unknown to Johnson, his performance under such distress left a lasting impression on Bon. It was Scott’s praise and recollection of this incident that later played a crucial role in the decision-making process of AC/DC. As the band contemplated their future, the memory of Johnson’s powerful performance, as recounted by Bon, echoed in their minds.

The Unexpected Call

1980 marked a turning point in the life of Brian Johnson, who was at the time semi-retired from music and working in an auto shop. His days of electrifying performances seemed to be a memory, replaced by the more mundane rhythms of everyday life in Newcastle, U.K. Then, out of the blue, came a cryptic phone call that would change everything. A woman with a German accent was on the line, extending an invitation to audition for a band in London. The mystery and ambiguity of this call piqued Johnson’s curiosity, but also left him hesitant.

Johnson’s initial reluctance to travel for the audition was rooted in practical concerns. Financial constraints were a reality, and the unknown identity of the band added to his reservations. However, the revelation that the audition was for none other than AC/DC shifted his perspective. Despite his apprehensions about the age difference with the existing band members and having been away from the music scene, the opportunity to audition for such a legendary band was too significant to pass up.

With a mix of excitement and uncertainty, Johnson approached his boss at the auto shop, requesting time off to travel to London for this once-in-a-lifetime audition. Little did he know, this decision was the first step towards an incredible new chapter in his life.

Johnson’s journey to the audition was not without its quirks. In a serendipitous twist, he found himself nearly an hour late for his big moment. Engrossed in a game of billiards in the studio lounge, Johnson was blissfully unaware that he was actually playing with strangers, not the band members as he had assumed. It was only when AC/DC’s tour manager came looking for him that he realized his mistake.

In a moment of unintended comedy, Brian Johnson was late to his life-changing AC/DC audition, mistakenly playing billiards with strangers, oblivious to the waiting band.

Meanwhile, the members of AC/DC were waiting, perhaps growing impatient, for Johnson to begin his audition. It was a humorous and human moment that perhaps broke some of the tension surrounding the high-stakes tryout.

When the audition finally commenced, Johnson delivered performances that would seal his fate. Singing “Whole Lotta Rosie” and a cover of Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” among other songs, he showcased not just his powerful voice but also the natural charisma that had once captivated Bon Scott.

Malcolm Young’s role in making Johnson feel at ease was pivotal. In a gesture that spoke volumes, Malcolm offered Johnson a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, acknowledging and honoring Johnson’s roots in a simple yet profound way. This act of camaraderie would be remembered by Johnson as a warm welcome into the AC/DC family.

The culmination of this journey came with a phone call from Malcolm Young, confirming Johnson’s place in the band. This call, coinciding with his father’s birthday, was an emotional moment for Johnson, marking the official start of his tenure as AC/DC’s new frontman. Johnson’s down-to-earth personality, coupled with his impressive vocal abilities, had won over the band. The audition was more than just a test of musical skill; it was a meeting of minds and spirits, paving the way for a new era in the history of AC/DC.

A New Voice for AC/DC

The journey of Brian Johnson into the heart of AC/DC took a pivotal turn following his initial audition. Malcolm Young, recognizing something special in Johnson, invited him to share a beer. This casual yet significant gesture led to plans for Johnson to return in about a week to play with the entire band and record the session. It was a moment of informal bonding, setting the stage for what was to come.

During the follow-up session, Angus Young recalled working on the song “Back in Black” with Malcolm. As they delved into the creation of this now-iconic track, they envisioned Johnson’s voice for the vocal melody. Angus noted Johnson’s ability to hit the high notes and the distinctive edge in his voice, qualities that resonated with them and their producer, Mutt Lange. Johnson’s vocal prowess was not just impressive; it was a perfect match for the band’s style and energy.

Brian Johnson’s impressive vocal range and distinctive voice, capable of hitting high notes with a raw edge, were key factors in his successful audition for AC/DC.

The audition proved to be a resounding success, culminating in Johnson officially joining AC/DC on April 19, 1980. Both Angus and Malcolm Young were particularly struck by Johnson’s vocal range and the raw edge in his voice, which seamlessly aligned with AC/DC’s sonic identity. But it wasn’t just Johnson’s musical talent that made him the right fit; his character and personality also played a crucial role. The band members, especially Angus and Malcolm, felt a genuine connection with Johnson, appreciating him as much for who he was as for what he could bring to their music.

Johnson, reflecting on this period in interviews, often recounted the moment of his audition with a mix of disbelief and excitement. He recalled the phone call from Malcolm Young with fondness and humor, noting the serendipitous nature of his late arrival and the warm interactions with Malcolm and the rest of the band.

Johnson’s joining marked a significant shift in AC/DC’s dynamics, heralding a period of continued success and evolution. The band, with its new voice, quickly began working on their new album, “Back in Black,” in the Bahamas at Compass Point Studio. In a whirlwind of creativity and synergy, the album was completed and released just three months after Johnson’s joining, on July 25, 1980.

“Back in Black” was not just another album; it was a monumental success. Featuring hits like “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Hells Bells,” the title track “Back in Black,” and “Rock & Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” it captured the essence of AC/DC’s rebirth and resilience. The album’s impact was staggering, selling over 50 million copies worldwide and becoming the second highest-selling album of all time, only trailing behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

This chapter in AC/DC’s history was not merely about the replacement of a band member; it was about the birth of a new era. Brian Johnson’s voice, character, and spirit infused the band with renewed vigor, helping to create a masterpiece that would stand the test of time.