Let There Be AC/DC-A Sitdown w/Author & Music Critic Martin Popoff

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Martin Popoff

Everyone loves to hate a critic.  The critic has the unenviable role of telling us that, on occasion, our beloved bands suck.  We forget, sometimes, that they also remind us why we love music. They share those goosebump inducing moments when the vocal or solo hits just right, when the breakdown drops, when the outro crescendos into a kerosene drenched fireball.  They feel it, often more intensely than the average listener.  That is why they do what they do.  Author and music critic Martin Popoff has been at this for more than three decades, and he has again delivered his knowledge and insight into his latest book: AC/DC At 50.

Screamer Magazine recently sat down with Martin Popoff–author of over 125 books–to talk AC/DC and the role of music criticism in the 21st century.

There are few things people feel more impassioned about than music.  We consume not only the latest releases but also the minutia of a band’s creative process and their personal lives.  For this, we look to trusted critics.  “I think that the role of the critic is the same that it has always been,” Popoff explains.  “However, today they’re needed as a gatekeeper to help you sort out all this traffic, to alert you to stuff because there is so much stuff out there.  In the old days, it wasn’t so much as gatekeeper.  It was more to enhance the enjoyment of those albums that you bought.  That you spent your money on.  I think the role of the critic in the old days was to help you appreciate the albums more, whereas today, there is just so much more to filter through, that the critic’s role is to help that process.”  Popoff, having published volumes on rock, metal, and punk, has a unique perspective on approaching his subjects and ‘gatekeeping’ our musical choices.

The relationship between critic and band is undeniably a parasitic one:  we rely on each other, and, if the reporting is going to have value, relationships and trust must develop.  You need to balance integrity with your respect for the artists.  “You don’t want to burn your bridges with entire bands or entire record labels over something.  So, yeah, it’s always a bit of a calculation of ‘what is the value of me doing this or saying this kind of thing?’ But holding back?  You get to be buddies with some of these bands.  You don’t want to hurt feelings.  Sometimes you think your opinion, even if it is your opinion, is unfair because it might not be the consensus opinion anyway.”  For Popoff, it is not only about the individual opinion of the critic.  There is a context and a deeper delve into what the band is doing.  “The deeper point is that those guys are deliberately making decisions that are not to my personal taste,” he says.  “I always say, ‘look, they just made some decisions, chord changes that in my stupid head sound sour and don’t like them, or some cheezy lyrics or whatever.  So, yeah, they put together thirteen songs and ten of them don’t happen to be to my taste for me.”  A recognition that, at the end of the day, it is just one man’s opinion—even if that man’s opinion is weighted by research and experience.

“The deeper point is that those guys are deliberately making decisions that are not to my personal taste.  I always say, ‘look, they just made some decisions, chord changes that in my stupid head sound sour and don’t like them, or some cheezy lyrics or whatever.  So, yeah, they put together thirteen songs and ten of them don’t happen to be to my taste for me.”

Approaching a history as lengthy and storied as AC/DC’s is a monumental undertaking.  Popoff and Motorbooks’ AC/DC At 50 attempts to condense this career by focusing on pivotal highlights, grounding the reader to the chronology of the band.  “I like the one album per chapter,” Popoff explains his prefered approach.  “I’m talking about every song.  The album cover.  The production.  The playing.  Reading those credits.  I’m more about really digging into a record and wanting you to really love that record.”  It is obviously a challenge and a passion for Popoff.  “They say ‘we want you to do this AC/DC book,’ then the fun starts.  Then I get to go away and pick my fifty career highlights.  The nice thing about these books is that they’re not reliant on me having a huge bank of interviews.  They’re not interview intensive books.  The challenge is actually how to write so little on AC/DC’s career highlights.  And, I’m trying to put a little opinion in there and stuff, so people get at least some analysis.”  This is an understatement.  Popoff uses a voice that we understand.  He intricately describes his subject, but it is as relaxed as having a pint with a friend, and one that would get us arguing about AC/DC long into the evening.

Image from AC/DC At 50

AC/DC has been a notoriously private band.  Interviews are few and insightful commentary can be difficult to come by for any writer.  “Even though they were guarded, there did turn out to be a fair amount of drama and tragedy.  There were things like that within the band, but there was not a lot of arguing, backstabbing, or the crazy behavior that causes that kind of drama.  Because they had such a massive career, having to come up with fifty highlights?  It was pretty easy.  And there are so many milestones along the way: Malcolm dying, and Bon dying, and George Young dying, so there is a lot along the way.  There is some alcoholism, and things like that, but there’s not the big drama.  They are a closed shop.  They are that way.  What was happening in the public sphere was interesting enough.”  Public drama aside, Popoff and publisher have managed to produce a work of general history yet included the essential private moments that have shifted the direction of the band in a way any fan can appreciate.

Few bands have the longevity of AC/DC.  They have remained relevant and resonant with such a broad audience while maintaining a consistent sound.  It is a surprising fact that Popoff has a clear explanation for.  “I think it is the simplicity, the accessibility.  You know what you’re going to get every album—album in, album out.  For a ‘normie,’ you can walk on the wild side and say this is your heavy band.  The same way Metallica is in a more extreme sense.  Or, you’ll cop to liking Motorhead’s Ace of Spades but only the song.  You won’t even have the album.  AC/DC is accessible enough: everything is in 4/4 time.  Nothing is too incredibly slow or too fast or too complicated.  There are no tom-toms, practically.  It’s really really simple.  The bass drum hits on ‘one’ and hits again on ‘three’ and that’s it.  So, it’s all very easy drinking.”   AC/DC has managed to be both simple and edgy in equal measure.  While capturing a broad audience, their origins even appealed to the brash disaffected youth of the emerging punk scene.

“I think it is the simplicity, the accessibility.  You know what you’re going to get every album—album in, album out.”

Image from AC/DC At 50

AC/DC is a band often copied but has a self-defining sound.  AC/DC is AC/DC.  However, as Popoff notes, they were once included in the emerging punk scene of the late 1970s.  “I hope I didn’t overstate that narrative.  I know it’s out there, and I wanted to mention it because it’s amusing to me.  You’re right.  There’s something about them at that time when you couldn’t characterize them.  They had that simplicity, and they were all short skinny guys, a little rough around the edges.  Punk in the very early stages—the hair was still a little longer [The Ramones] and even The Clash had a little bit of long hair at times.  On a deeper level, I suppose, it was sorta undermining the seriousness of the serious rock that punk was ostensibly rallying against, like prog rock or whatever.   So, everything looked kinda punky and gritty, and they are from Australia which is just this alien place, and you don’t know what’s going on there anyways,” Popoff jokes.  “But then, they pushed back against it, but it might be a neat study.  I wonder how many punk fans liked AC/DC in ‘76/’77 England.  That would be interesting to find out.”  Defining AC/DC, a band with so much popular appeal, as belonging to a fringe genre might be a stretch, but it speaks to an appeal that crossed rock genres when few bands did.

The tragic death of Bon Scott in February of 1980 should have been the end of AC/DC.  However, the band emerged triumphant with the addition of Brian Johnson and the critical and commercial success of Back in Black.  The release would eventually sell upwards of fifty million copies, but also influence the band’s creative outcome to follow.  “It would be pretty hard to find any negatives with that.  That falls into the category of ‘nice problem to have.’  Thinking about it now, they did try to duplicate Back in Black with the next album, and it kinda critically failed even though it was a massive commercial success.  They were sorta, now, not as cool as they were.  I love Flick of the Switch.  It’s probably my favorite of the Brian Johnson era, but they did falter. To answer, did they try to change their writing?  I don’t think they did.  Though, I do find Back in Black to be a very different album than Highway to Hell for some reason.  Maybe it is the change in singer, but I think the recording doesn’t sound the same even though they’re both [producer] Mutt Lange.  I don’t think there’s a lot of similarity between them for me.”  It was a rock ‘n roll recovery rarely repeated before or since.

Image from AC/DC At 50

While Popoff lists AC/DC as one of his personal favorites, he is not without his criticisms of much of their output.  One of the greatest bands of all time manages to miss the mark with some of their albums.  “Yeah!” Popoff laughs.  “Literally, half of them!  Let’s go from the beginning: the Australian High Voltage is pretty crappy.  I’m not a huge fan of but quite like For Those About to Rock.  Fly on the Wall I don’t think is that great.  Blow Up Your Video, I find quite crappy.  But, as you pointed out, I can call AC/DC my favorite band on any given day, so when I’m talking about these albums and not liking them now, they’re still 6.5 or 7 outta 10.  But the one I’ve always had it in for and have never liked is Rock or Bust.  I like two and half songs on this stupid thing!  It really bothered me.  There’s no reason for it not to be great because these guys just overthink everything to death.”  AC/DC At 50 reflects on a band that has survived five decades when it probably should have disappeared from musical relevance.  Popoff’s honesty is refreshing–a fan in the truest sense of the word but knowing when things don’t work.

“So, what I would love to see happen is for them to make another record.  I can care less if they play live.  It doesn’t matter to me to see them live again.  I wanna see five more AC/DC records.  Surprisingly, this is a band that can keep going when some of them really can’t.”

AD/DC At 50 is much more than your typical coffee table book.  Popoff has injected a sincerity and intimacy into a format that is too often reliant on glossy images and minimal text.  However, the book does leave one question unanswered: what is the future of AC/DC beyond these pages?   “You have a couple of personnel compromises.  You have a set of vocal cords at 75 years old, so we’ve got that problem with AC/DC.  You don’t know how much gas Brian’s still got in the tank.  So, what I would love to see happen is for them to make another record.  I can care less if they play live.  It doesn’t matter to me to see them live again.  I wanna see five more AC/DC records.  Surprisingly, this is a band that can keep going when some of them really can’t.”  Popoff sees a way forward for AC/DC in the face of tragedy and loss.  For any other band, we might disagree.  AC/DC, however, has surprised us again and again.  Bring on the next Back in Black.  Rock and roll will never die.

AC/DC At 50 from Martin Popoff and Motorbooks is out now.

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