By Brian Ives
It’s not the type of event you see anymore.
As temperature dropped and the windchill worsened, a line extended around the corner for New York’s Webster Hall for an AC/DC listening event. Not an AC/DC concert, which would have been a more understandable explanation for the hundreds of people braving the cold.
No, it was an “Album Playback Party.” Like: come to the venue, and listen to an album. An album, mind you, that will be commercially available in two weeks (the appropriately titled Rock or Bust is scheduled for release on December 2, pre-order it here).
Events like this—fans gathering at a bar/club to actually hear an album for the first time—weren’t unusual in the ’80s and even the ’90s. If the internet didn’t render them irrelevant, then social media surely did. But the idea of gathering somewhere to hear your favorite band’s brand new album is as rare as a new Camaro with a cassette deck.
But if you’re AC/DC, it kind of doesn’t matter what year it is: 1984, 1994, 2004, 2014, whatever. It’s all post-Back in Black, really. Pretty much every album since that 20-time platinum 1980 release has had a few great songs, and the rest are merely very good. If the lads in the band have been aware of any music trends—punk rock, new wave, hair metal, alternative rock, nu-metal—it doesn’t show up in their music.
The band has always stuck to their “true north,” which is: Chuck Berry rules, Little Richard is pretty great too, it’s tough to improve upon the blues, and a lot of guitar distortion never hurt anyone. Every album for the past few decades sounds more of less like the one before. “Zeitgeist” isn’t a word that you’d figure comes up in their conversations, nor is “trending,” “trends” or any variation thereof. And while that blissful, or willful, ignorance might spell death for most rock bands, that hasn’t been the case with AC/DC: every album since Back in Black has at least gone platinum, and they’ve never dipped below arena headlining status.
Which brings us to Rock or Bust. Spoiler alert: there’s no real surprises, which in and of itself, shouldn’t be a surprise. There’s a few songs featuring their usual play on words (“Miss Adventure” “Emission Control”) and a couple that celebrate rock and roll music (“Rock the House,” “Rock the Blues Away,” “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder”). And as with the last few albums (really, probably every album since 1981’s For Those About To Rock, We Salute You or at least 1983’s Flick of the Switch) there are a few standout tracks, in this case, the title track and “Play Ball.”
One question about the album was how would the band fare after losing founding guitarist Malcolm Young, who is suffering from dementia. Well, he’s been replaced by his nephew Stevie Young, who honors his uncle’s legacy by carrying the torch and not doing anything notably different.
Is there a hint of sentiment in the album, due to that sad situation? Keep in mind, this is the band who responded to their founding singer’s death with Back In Black. So, no.
After every song had been played for the audience, guitarist Angus Young and frontman Brian Johnson, along with producer Brendan O’Brien, greeted the fans and thanked them for coming. They said little else, but Johnson did mention that “Malcolm was with us the whole way” (in interviews, he has stressed that the guitarist wanted the band to continue on without him).
Johnson and Young seemed out of their comfort zone with mics but no band. It didn’t matter: the fans greeted them as heroes, and anyway, the songs told the story. “Pick me up/Fill my cup/Pour me another round,” Johnson bellows in “Play Ball.” “Come on man, mix in the sin/Come in and join the crowd.” For one night, AC/DC’s fans got to enjoy the thrill of hearing the band’s brand new album in a most old-school way: face to face, with other fans, drinks in hand. Will this actually be AC/DC’s last round? That remains to be seen, but if it is, they’re going out on a strong—and loud—note. And rightfully so.