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Still Electric

Many years down a tough road, the Australian hard rockers of AC/DC find themselves in something of a renaissance as they arrive in the Southland.


COLUMBUS, Ohio — If there was a moment when AC/DC felt like an eight-track tape in a Napster world, it was when the venerable rockers found themselves playing to a roomful of . . . Britneys?

The band that has been making devilish, raunchy rock since the Nixon era found itself invited to MTV's "Total Request Live" last year just before the release of its 17th album, "Stiff Upper Lip." The band wasn't sure what to make of the invite or their place in today's music scene. It's one thing to be "old school," but AC/DC is more, well, "old school dropout."

To make matters worse, the band says that die-hard but scruffy AC/DC fans who had won access to the show were turned away in favor of more telegenic faces. "They pulled in all these little model-actors and wrote 'AC/DC' on their shirts with a marker or whatever," said Malcolm Young, a founding member of the band. "It was a challenge, playing to 15-year-olds who don't know us."


"And they loved it. It's good to know a bunch of old guys can still get up there and rock these kids off."

That apparently holds true in record stores and arenas as well. AC/DC, the Aussie band that has rattled arenas and morality groups for a third of a century, is back in the black with "Stiff Upper Lip." The disc debuted, remarkably, in the Top 10 on the U.S. album chart last year, and despite little radio airplay it has sold 724,000 copies in 13 months. The band is now rumbling through sold-out show after sold-out show on a tour that winds its way back to Southern California on Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood and Monday at the Long Beach Arena.

No one was caught more off-guard by AC/DC's hard-rock renaissance than the band itself. "We were surprised, to be honest," Young said during an afternoon interview at a hotel overlooking the Ohio State Capitol. Sitting next to him was his brother Angus, the band's most identifiable member thanks to his two stage traditions: frenzied guitar playing and an Australian schoolboy uniform.

"We didn't know what to expect," Malcolm said. "The new stuff today, it's pop-rock. It's like that '70s period, you know, when things got really stale in rock and everything was polished.

"When we were writing the new record, we thought, 'This here is going to cut right through all this [expletive] today or we're going to sink into oblivion with the old rockers from the '50s. You know, five years since the last album and things change. We were ready for clubs. Which would have been OK. To be honest, we've done well enough anyway, so we thought, 'Whatever.' "

Chain-smoking and laughing, the soft-spoken Brothers Young often finished each other's sentences during the interview. Their rock journey has been a long and twisting one, and has yielded such classic arena anthems as "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Hells Bells" and "Highway to Hell."

Along the way, AC/DC has weathered tragedies (popular lead singer Bon Scott died in 1980 and three fans were crushed to death at a 1991 Salt Lake City show), grueling tours, the wrath of religious groups and the disdain of music critics. Still, as with Led Zeppelin and Metallica, AC/DC's most popular albums remain must-have items for each new generation of heavy-music fans. "Back in Black," which came out a few months after Scott's death in 1980, has sold 19 million copies, making it the sixth-best-selling album of all time, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

For the record, AC/DC is not about subtlety in music nor metaphor. Most AC/DC lyrics would fit in nicely on the bathroom wall of a pool hall. And the band's tunes can be boiled down to three chords, delivered with an oddly danceable metal groove that has inspired strippers everywhere.

"It's the really simple tracks that get the majority of the audience," Malcolm said. "Very straight-ahead songs with not much thinking that people go for."

Angus nodded, adding, "It's the caveman element that jumps up at you, you get that roar."

The only thing cruder, louder and more obvious than an AC/DC album is an AC/DC concert. And the fans love it that way, appreciating every well-worn gimmick and familiar solo, like "Phantom of the Opera" zealots attending their 40th matinee. And like "Phantom," there's more theatrics then menace in AC/DC these days. There are no mosh pits, and with many of their fans graying, families and young children dot the crowds.

"The little kids like that image of Angus, they always focus on him, he charms them," Malcolm said. "We've seen granddads, sons and grandsons hanging out together after the show waiting for autographs."

That may sound a little odd considering that this band was once railed against as Satan-worshipping sexual predators, but these days the members have toned down the wild life and let the Eminems and Marilyn Mansons of the world take the flak. Said Angus, "Compared to them, they think we're the [expletive] Beatles,"

Rough Performance

on a Rough Night

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