35 Years Ago: Brian Johnson Joins AC/DC
On April 1, 1980, hard-rock heroes AC/DC officially announced that Brian Johnson had been chosen as their new singer. While his hire may have seemed astonishingly expedient to fans who were still reeling from the shocking death of original singer Bon Scott just six weeks earlier, but the seeds for Johnson’s arrival had been planted years earlier, under most serendipitous circumstances.
It was Scott himself who tipped off his bandmates to Johnson, whom Scott had witnessed onstage during his first sojourn to England in the early ‘70s. Scott was still fronting the Aussie hippie troupe Fraternity, who had just changed their name to Fang in a desperate bid to keep their ailing career hopes alive. In March 1973, shortly before throwing in the towel and sulking back home to Australia, Fang secured a series of gigs opening for a moderately successful glam-rock band named Geordie, who were fronted by Johnson.
But the most amazing part of the story may be the peculiar circumstances that helped Johnson make such a strong impression on Scott. In a 2011 interview with the New York Post, Johnson revealed that he “had a terrible case of appendicitis, and I went down on my side, kicking and going, ‘Ooh!’ But I kept on singing. Apparently, [Bon later] told the boys, ‘I saw this guy Brian Johnson sing, and he was great. He was on the floor, kicking and screaming — what an act!’ Of course, it wasn’t an act. I was really ill.”
And according to multiple sources, Scott also got the idea for hoisting guitarist Angus Young on his shoulders and then carrying through the audience after watching Johnson pull the very same stunt with Geordie guitarist Vic Malcolm.
So when it came time for Angus and his brother Malcolm to make the difficult decision to continue AC/DC after Scott’s death, they added Johnson to their list of potential replacements, alongside candidates like Slade’s Noddy Holder, Buzz Shearman of Canadian rockers Moxy, Alan Fryer of Australia’s Heaven and onetime Back Street Crawler singer Terry Slesser. But it was Johnson, now largely retired from music and working in an auto shop in his native Newcastle, who wound up beating out the rest — though he had to request time off simply to make his way to London for the audition.
Once there, Johnson got so distracted shooting pool with AC/DC’s roadies while awaiting his turn to sing that they had to fetch him to belt out “Whole Lotta Rosie,” a cover of Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” and a few other jams with them. In the end, Johnson’s down-to-earth cheerful friendliness, as much as his amazing voice and natural charisma, that wound up earning him the gig. They were immediately rewarded with the hit Back in Black album, which was released that July.
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