For Those About to Tread Water, We Salute You
How AC/DC's static career makes it one of the most unique groups around.
By Greg Beato
Are you tired of change? Are you fed up with extreme makeovers, disruptive innovation, the constant pressure to extend your product line? In a world overdosing on frantic novelty, are you perfectly happy thinking inside the bun? You may feel guilty about your lack of ambition, your indifference to life coaches, plastic surgeons, the spiritual handymen, and Oprah-certified hucksters who promise you dynamic transformation. You may feel alone, out of step, defective in a world that prizes self-improvement above all else. But at least you still have AC/DC, the patron saints of high-voltage complacency, to believe in.
Thirty-five years into a career that has seen less innovation than Fidel Castro's beard, the Aussie rockers are at the top of the Billboard charts. They sold 784,000 copies of their new album, Black Ice, in its first week of release. They've just embarked on an 18-month world tour. Wal-Mart, the only place you can buy their new album, has apparently put Housewares or Ladies Underthings in storage for the moment and created a special AC/DC department exclusively for them.
These days, you don't have to look hard to see the bodies of those done in by a failure to keep pace with the rapidly changing times. Newspapers and magazines continue to implode. Independent bookstores and record shops are as rare as blacksmiths and cobblers. Floppy disks, rap rock, Bear Stearns, we hardly knew ye! Meanwhile, AC/DC remains. AC/DC is thriving, and it's thriving precisely for the same reason so many other entities are failing: Because it has made absolutely no effort to update its skill-set, embrace new technologies, or revise its core mission in any way to better match contemporary consumer desires.
In 1974, on its first recordings with lead singer Bon Scott, everything that would always define AC/DC was already in place: The kicked-in-the-groin vocals, a punk-like rhythm section pared with the kind of bombastic guitar solos that would never show up on a Ramones album, choruses that sounded as if they were being sung by a bleacher's worth of sullen soccer fans. Over the next six years, AC/DC refined its sound in the same way corporations streamline their logos — via incremental steps that are all but undetectable to casual observers. Gradually, however, the riffs got even louder and shinier, the hooks got catchier, and when Scott drank himself to death one night in 1980 and the more pleasingly generic yelper Brian Johnson took his place, the evolutionary phase of the band's career was complete. Their first post-Scott release, Back in Black, was pure sonic Budweiser, and no more R&D was needed, ever.
Since then, their unshakeable complacency has been awesome to behold. After the tremendous success of Back in Black, they weren't inspired to create a rock opera, or explore the possibilities of sitars and dulcimers, or collaborate with Brian Eno. When their record sales started slowing in the mid 1980s and Rolling Stone was tweaking them for making "the same album nine times," they didn't panic and add some Flock of Seagulls keyboards in an effort to update their sound. They simply released Fly on the Wall, the same album the 10th time. And every so often — but never too often — they release the same album the 11th time, or the 12th, or whatever it is they're up to now.
It's an effective, gracious approach, keeping us interested but not inundated, and, one suspects, it's harder than it looks. Like many successful artists, AC/DC must have had the kind of epiphany Steve Martin describes in his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up, when he realizes that he has perfected his act and is never going to make it any funnier, or more innovative, or more surprising. "I saw that the only way I could go, at best, was sideways," he writes.
Martin's response was to quit stand-up and make movies instead. Axl Rose lost himself in a studio for 10 years. Jerry Seinfeld temporarily retired. AC/DC, on the other hand, has continued to move sideways, duck-walking to their eternal 4/4 beat. In 35 years, Angus Young has updated his stage persona less often than Miley Cyrus does in a single set. In 35 years, he and his bandmates have never released a Neptunes remix of one of their hits. No self-help guru will earn a place in Oprah's heart telling you to stay in that rut, cultivate complacency, and be less productive, and yet look at how well this strategy has served AC/DC. They're incredibly rich. They're extremely popular. They appear to be enjoying themselves immensely. • 18 November 2008
Greg Beato writes regularly about pop culture for Las Vegas Weekly and Reason magazine, where he is a contributing editor.
Teaser photo from I'm Heavy Duty! via Flickr (Creative Commons).