Music Journalist Paul Elliott talks AC/DC and a Life Mixing with Rock Royalty
To say rock journalist Paul Elliott has been there, done that, got the t-shirt would be something of an understatement. Having started writing for Sounds magazine in 1985, Paul has worked for the likes of Q, MOJO and Classic Rock over the years, interviewing a who’s who of musical legends. Previously he spoke to us about his memories of hanging out with Guns N’ Roses in the 80s, having been the first British journalist to champion the cause of the hedonistic L.A. rockers.
This time around, with the release of his fantastic new book on the mighty AC/DC, For Those About to Rock, which charts the band’s storied history & features 250 rare and unseen photos, Paul spoke to us about conversing with the likes of Angus and Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson and how he came to end up in the crazy business called rock and roll in the first place.
The MALESTROM: How did you get into rock journalism?
Paul Elliott: It was 85’ when I started working for Sounds, I used to read the mag, but I can’t play a note of music and I can’t sing, which was proven when The Darkness got me up on stage in Bath a couple of years ago in a joke that got out of hand. They got me up on stage during the middle of their set and put a guitar on me taking the piss. I said, “I’ve told you a million times I can’t play.” Dan the guitarist said, “just hit a f**king E chord,” but I didn’t even know what that was. I had this little Les Paul model with an on/off switch, so I switched it off, then Dan leaned in and said, “just make it look good”.
I digress, so 85’, Sounds put an ad in the papers looking for young writers to write about hard rock and heavy metal, I was in the middle of retaking my A-levels cause I messed them up the first time and I thought, that is me. So I sent some stuff in, got an album back to review for them, I can’t even remember what I wrote or what the album was, but they gave two of us a shot at it, so I did that. I was still working part-time at a garden centre and the editor had said to me you can do some work for us, but don’t give up the day job. Eventually, they gave me a full-time job and that was it.
Even the garden centre I worked in has rock credibility, I’d be walking around there with a pen and pad in my back pocket writing reviews, one day this fella walked in, long hair, looked a bit rock and roll and he came up to me and said “can you help me buy a load of plants?” I said I don’t know much about plants and he said, “don’t worry I just want someone to get them out for me and carry the trees.” It turned into the biggest order ever, he was having two of these and three of the other, he must have had a big garden. My boss comes over and says, “everything going alright?” And I said, “yeah, we’re having a great laugh”. The order was a few grand, so a lot of money back then.
When I took him to the till he says, “there’s my card” and it was those days when you used to drag this thing over paper and your card, he does that and the name appears and it’s Robert J. Lange (Back in Black producer). And I thought it’s got to be hasn’t it? He’s got a slight accent and obviously I wanted to jump straight over the counter and grab him, he produced my favourite album of all time, but he’s so reclusive no journalist has ever met him, apart from me, only cause he came in that day. The first interview I did for Sounds was Ronnie James Dio, that was tremendously exciting and I just carried on from there. In about 88’ I struck out and became a freelancer for them.
TM: Have you had any nervy moments when doing interviews?
PE: The biggest c**ts I’ve ever interviewed were Katrina and the Waves, they’ve got one song. I may have gone in there a little underprepared, but the interview itself was not pleasant at all and I walked out of there thinking what a bunch of tossers. The worst moment for me generally was being in the Marquee in the old days, about 97’, when Wolfsbane were playing. I thought they were brilliant, they’d just sent me a cassette demo at Sounds that said, “have a listen to this, we hope you like our band.” I loved them, I went to see them play live and I thought they were just amazing, Blaze was such a great frontman, he had so much charisma, they’d make you laugh, but they were a really good band.
So I was watching them at the Marquee and I’d just reviewed an album by this glam band from Wales called Tigertailz, their bassist Pepsi, who died a few years back was a lovely fella but their singer was a right tearaway, a guy called Steevi Jaimz, he wanted to sound like he was in Mötley Crüe. He came out swinging for me, I was watching Wolfsbane then the next thing I know someone was blowing fag smoke in my face, then I turned around and he spat in my face and then took a couple of swings at me. I’m standing there on my own and he’s got all his mates behind him, I’m trying to stay out of it because I’ve never had a fight in my life, anyway it sort of calmed down when someone got in between it.
The whole fight was because I’d given their album one out of five and said it was shit, but that’s the first time I’d been made to pay a price for something I’d written. God love him, Blaze offered to duff him up for me, but this bloke had obviously been really, really humiliated by this review and that wasn’t my intention, I just said the album was shit, so I went back and looked at the review and there was nothing personal there. All the way home from the gig I was thinking I don’t want to be in this business if that’s what it’s like, but in that same copy of Sounds I had the cover story with Def Leopard and I thought f**k it, I’ve just been away with Def Leopard and they’re a great band, and still are, I’ve had a great time hanging out with a brilliant band, you can’t let one arsehole ruin it for you.
TM: Did you get a lot of that, people being prissy over reviews?
PE: You get that one side. His was a little band. I mean look, Guns N’ Roses turned up at the Sounds offices one day and wanted to duff up a guy who’d done a review of their first show at the Marquee, he said Axl sounded like he had his balls stuck in a door, which was partially true I suppose, my editor said, “there are your mates over there, got them out of here”, so I took them round to the pub and told them, “you’re all about freedom of speech, so you can’t turn around and want to beat someone up just cause they think your band sucks, you just have to take it.” The rest were alright, it was Axl who was really pissed off. It’s not always nice when someone has a go.
There are other levels, I worked with Ozzy in about 86’ and he was so fucking pissed when I was doing the interview and in the photo session, he had to be propped up. When I got home my editor said, “you’ve got to write this up, cause with the photos we can’t just say this is normal behaviour. I know you’re thinking Ozzy is your hero, but you’re with the big boys now, you have to write the truth.” So I did, I wrote it as it was and I got a phone call from Sharon going “I liked the story, it was honest.” So some of the big fish, they can handle it.
TM: Talking about Guns, what do you make about the most recent incarnation of AC/DC with Axel as the frontman?
PE: The weirdest thing for me is it feels like I’m trapped in a cycle. I’d just written a Guns N’ Roses book and then near the end of that book Axl joins AC/DC, which was all very strange, and then you write an AC/DC book and right near the end of that it’s like “oh, Axl’s joined them” and you pick up the last book and think, well I can’t repeat the same thing verbatim, I have to put something else in. I didn’t see Axl/DC live, but I was excited about the thought of it. I’ve seen some of the footage and I thought he did a great job. For me it’s not right, I think Brian Johnson should be the singer in AC/DC. I think they should have pulled the tour when Brian quit, I don’t think anyone would have criticized them.
Look Axl can still do it, the voice is still there. People are so snobby about lineups, do I want to sit in a pub with a bunch of old farts saying it’s not AC/DC without Bon Scott? I was 13 when Bonn Scott died, I was just getting into them, thinking Touch Too Much was awesome, then the next thing I knew the singer was dead, which was a bit of a blow, but do they have to now split up and never make Back in Black. What kind of a decision would that have been?
TM: What did you make of Brian from the time you’ve spent with him?
PE: Lovely, just a brilliant guy. I’ll tell you the best thing, with the book I wanted to give as much first hand from interviews I’d done that people may not have seen before. So I spoke to him around 2003 when they were opening for The Rolling Stones. They did two little warm-up shows, one was in Munich, one was in Berlin. Me and Jerry Ewing were in Berlin on a trip to interview them, I was with Q. We did this thing called cash for questions where readers sent their questions in. Some of the questions were quite cheeky, it was Angus Brian and Mal together, so I was tremendously excited that Malcolm was there.
We were sat around in this hotel room thick with cigarette smoke. Angus said “do you want one of mine”, it was a B&H, I said “go on then”, I can’t refuse one of Angus Young’s fags (laughs). So we’re sitting there, tea and fags all round and it just got into this thing where everyone’s laughing and about twenty minutes in the PR knocks on the door and I thought she’s surely not going to give it the five-minute signal, we’ve only just got going. And she said, “sorry, do you mind if I sit in on this interview?” I said I wouldn’t normally go with that, but she said, “I’m not trying to monitor it, I’ve just never heard them laughing so much and I want to know what’s going on.” So I said if that’s the reason then fine come on in.
They are a very funny bunch. Even Mal who was thought of as the serious one was very funny, and they had no egos, absolutely zero. They’re also incredibly small, they’re wiry and there’s nothing of them, but they’re all a good laugh, exactly what you want them to be. I took over about 15 albums to be signed for my mates and it was so touching the way they wanted to sign the right names and even wrote AC/DC under their signatures as if you needed to know who Angus Young was. They also stood there as they chatted and they waved the vinyl so it would dry and not smudge, they were really considerate, it was lovely. Every time I’ve done interviews with them since about 88’ I’ve had to pinch myself. I mean, I was in the AC/DC fan club. The little me that listened to Back in Black for the first time can’t quite believe you’re sat here with them. I felt like that with Keith Richards, when I shook his hand, I thought oh my word that’s the hand that played Brown Sugar.
TM: What’s your favourite story from the book?
PE: The best one has to be about Bon going and ironing his jeans on a bar. He’s got some oil and grease on his jeans because their old bus has broken down and they were a mess. He wanted to iron them cause it was 1976, so he gets an iron off the bus, clears peoples drinks off the bar, strips down to his pants, then in a packed pub starts to iron his jeans after which he just walks on stage. I mean that’s just brilliant, even if you don’t like AC/DC you’re going to love that story, because all the stories about Bon Scott apart from the last one are brilliant.
You get the sense that he was quite a complex man behind all the bravado, the song that tells you most about Bon Scott is Ride On, it’s got to be. That is the lonely life of a bloke who wants that total overstimulation night in night out. You get the sense that he was quite a warm-hearted chap and he probably saw himself doing it for not as long as AC/DC would go on for. You could imagine Bon, had he lived, might have walked out on it once he’d made a few quid, probably gone off and lived a quieter life. That’s the impression I got of him. Some people want to
That’s the impression I got of him. Some people want to play a stadium every night, but some don’t. I think he would have thought I’ve won now. You have to realise Bon got lucky, everyone goes on about Brian Johnson. It’s one of the great quotes from Joe Elliot that “Brian jumped on a winning horse just as it was crossing the finish line.” But Bon was pretty lucky as well, he happened to be around and bullshitted his way into the band.
TM: Although he was older it’s quite sweet the way the other band members looked after him. His reputation for hard living with his double Jack Daniel’s for breakfast preceded him wherever he went…
PE: In an interview they did with Phil Sutcliffe which I quoted in the book, they talked about looking after him. He was always going off and missing flights, I think he just wanted to have a drink with people he related to. It was a desperately sad end and that’s the great enigma that the truth will never come out around his death. Anyone who could have ever said how it happened are dead. Obviously, there is that element of drugs, specifically heroin, that is in the shadow of everything said there. You’re never going to get a straight story out of a heroin dealer. We’re getting so far away from that period now, it’s a long time ago, If you don’t know by now, nobody’s ever going to really know definitively.
TM: Was there anything from your research for the book where you found out something new about the band that surprised you?
PE: I suppose it was little things like the day they played day on the green and Van Halen were on at the same time, this cocky American band. I mean what a time to be into rock music. When you see the bills for the shows at that time I wasn’t aware of at the time. So it was AC/DC on first, then Van Halen, Aerosmith at their peak, pretty amazing.
TM: You talked to Angus about that first time he came on stage in ‘that’ outfit didn’t you? He said it was the most frightened he’d ever been on stage…
PE: Angus said he looked out at the audience and it was like murderers row out there, he thought he’d better start moving, but wasn’t sure about going on stage, then he felt a boot in his arse from Malcolm and he was on. Without Mal behind him, you wonder what Angus would have achieved, cause it was Mal’s band.
TM: What do you think set them apart from other bands?
PE: There’s a sort of power, I suppose people would say they’re a heavy metal band and they’re not far off it. Yes they’re a rock and roll band but they have this incredible power, again going back to my former customer Robert Lange, the effect he had on them was incredible, For Those About to Rock is too heavy metal for AC/DC, I think a lot of people would go along with that, whereas Highway to Hell is a phenomenal step up in terms of the way the band sound, for me the definitive versions of all those tracks are on If You Want Blood, if you want to really hear AC/DC that’s what to listen to. It’s the fact they’re no bullshit, they’re very route one, quite one dimensional. But I don’t see that as a failing. Apart from one or two tracks, it’s pretty much the same, but that has served them so well. There has been no better song recorded in the last twenty years in my opinion than Rock and Roll Train, that’s good enough to be on Back in Black.
TM: They really have endured. There can’t have been many better guitar pairings in rock history than Angus and Malcolm?
PE: When you say that, the one song I never realised how brilliant the interplay between them was in the intro to Thunderstruck. You’ve got the fast bit with Angus and then you’ve got Mal playing that almost jink like thing, he’s playing off him just brilliantly, and that’s before they start getting into the riff, it’s just magical, what a sound.
TM: What’s the future of the band? Where do they go from here? Will it be with Axel at the helm?
PE: I think there will be no new Guns N’ Roses album with Axl and Slash, I don’t think they can keep that façade going long enough to make another record, it’s all well and good playing shows, but I’ve heard a few things from reliable sources about the dynamic going on there and how much money is going to each individual. I just can’t see them getting an album done. At the most critical point for Guns N’ Roses he signed up to do the AC/DC tour, he didn’t need the money, he knew he’d have to prove himself, but he wanted to be the singer in AC/DC, he’s grown up with them and loves their songs so much. Surely he wants to be the one to sing with them on their last album, which is what the next one will be. What rock singer in the world wouldn’t want to do that?
My real preference would be they do one more album, it’d be Angus and Stevie, Phil Rudd and you get Brian Johnson back, one more album, one more tour. But I still think it’ll be Stevie, Angus, a drummer, a bass player and Axl. I would like to see that band go out the right way. There was a moment when they opened their concert at River Plate really early on where Brian’s singing with his fist clenched screaming at the crowd but with a big grin on his face, he’s kind of bowled over by how much the band is loved and it’s amazing to see it still in him. I love that and I’d love it to be the ending with him.
AC/DC: For Those About to Rock by Paul Elliott published by Palazzo Editions is out on Thursday. Buy your copy HERE.