Happy Birthday to AC/DC’s Brian Johnson

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Brain Johnson at center (in cap) in 1980

He wasn’t the original singer in AC/DC. But until March 7, 2016 (more on that below), for 35 years, he was the voice of the band. The man he replaced, Bon Scott, was responsible for Johnson’s recruitment.

On February 19, 1980, after a night of heavy drinking in London, Scott fell asleep in a friend’s car. Unable to rouse him when they arrived at his home, the friend left Bon in the car to sleep off his drunkenness. When he still couldn’t wake Scott the next day, he rushed the singer to a hospital, where he was declared dead. The official cause was acute alcohol poisoning even though what killed Scott was choking on his own vomit.

The band briefly considered calling it quits. But they felt Scott would have wanted them to carry on.

AC/DC considered other singers. But as AC/DC guitarist and co-founder Angus Young explains, “I remember the first time I had ever heard Brian’s name was from Bon. Bon had mentioned that he had been in England once touring with a band and he had mentioned that Brian had been in a band called Geordie and Bon had said ‘Brian Johnson, he was a great rock and roll singer in the style of Little Richard.’ And that was Bon’s big idol, Little Richard. I think when he saw Brian at that time, to Bon it was ‘Well he’s a guy that knows what rock and roll is all about.’ He mentioned that to us in Australia. I suppose when we decided to continue, Brian was the first name that Malcolm [Young] and myself came up with, so we said we should see if we can find him.”

When Johnson came in to audition in London in March 1980, he “had tears in his eyes. He was as sad about Bon as we were,” recalls Malcolm Young. “Anyway, we said, Do you want to give it a go? And he said, ‘I do “Whole Lotta Rosie” with Geordie’ [Johnson’s former band that Scott had seen him sing with], and off he went. We went, fucking hell, this guy is cutting the mustard. Anything else you know? ‘”Nutbush City Limits?”‘ OK, we can knock that out, and he sang that great too. It put a little smile on our faces – for the first time since Bon. So we just started working with him then.”

Soon the band and its new singer, born October 5, 1947, was in the Bahamas at Compass Point Studios with producer Mutt Lange, finishing up Back In Black, which they’d started with Scott. It went on to become the second-best selling album of all time, with worldwide sales estimated at some 50 million.

Related: The inside story of AC/DC’s Back in Black

On March 7, 2016, AC/DC announced that they were postponing the remaining leg of their Rock Or Bust World Tour. Johnson had been advised by doctors to stop touring immediately or risk total hearing loss.

On April 16, the classic rock band revealed that Axl Rose would be joining them for the resumption of their 2016 tour dates. The group’s statement was fairly terse in its lack of praise for Johnson: “AC/DC band members would like to thank Brian Johnson for his contributions and dedication to the band throughout the years. We wish him all the best with his hearing issues and future ventures.”

Johnson responded on April 19. He chose not to mention Rose by name – instead, simply referring to him as “a guest singer.” He also noted: “I don’t believe the earlier press releases sufficiently set out what I wanted to say to our fans or the way in which I thought it should be presented.”

He added: “I am not a quitter and I like to finish what I start, nevertheless, the doctors made it clear to me and my bandmates that I had no choice but to stop performing on stage for the remaining shows and possibly beyond. That was the darkest day of my professional life.

“Finally, I wish to assure our fans that I am not retiring. My doctors have told me that I can continue to record in studios and I intend to do that. For the moment, my entire focus is to continue medical treatment to improve my hearing. I am hoping that in time my hearing will improve and allow me to return to live concert performances. While the outcome is uncertain, my attitude is optimistic. Only time will tell.”

Related: Johnson’s complete statement on his departure

In August and September of 2018, there were sightings of several past and present members of the band – including Johnson – outside a recording studio… an intriguing scenario, for sure.

Watch Johnson’s last performance (at the time) with AC/DC

On September 30, 2020, AC/DC announced that Johnson would return to the band’s lineup, with a new album, Power Up.

On October 7, 2023, AC/DC, with Johnson, will make their return to the concert stage at the Power Trip festival.

Best Classic Bands Staff

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