AC/DC: High-Voltage Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Ultimate Illustrated History, by Phil Sutcliffe

By Adrien Begrand

If you’re going to put out a book about a band that’s been written about countless times already, there’s no harm in trying to do whatever’s necessary to attract the attention of potential consumers, and you’ve got to give Voyageur Press credit: AC/DC: High-Voltage Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Ultimate Illustrated History does just that. A spinning Angus Young; yeah, that’s definitely a new one. And I’ll admit, the “spinner” featuring the inimitable Mr. Young in full Curly Mode, which my three year-old niece Julianna happens to think is the greatest idea for a book cover ever, had me going, What the hell? Well, sometimes something as silly as that is all you need to get someone to crack open a book on a store shelf, and in this case it works.

Gimmicks aside, the Minneapolis-based publisher has been on a bit of a roll as of late when it comes to music-related books, having put out Jim DeRogatis’s cool The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, Jim Walsh’s well-received All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History of the Replacements, and Andrew Earles’ promising new Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock. Written by veteran British music writer Phil Sutcliffe, High Voltage Rock ‘n’ Roll follows the model set by the DeRogatis book: a good sized, hard-bound book crammed with extensive essays and a plethora of band photos and memorabilia. However, seeing how a) we’ve already seen numerous AC/DC biographies come along over the years, and b) the band put out an illustrated coffee table book as part of last year’s Backtracks extravaganza, just how essential is Sutcliffe’s volume?

Although I haven’t seen the Backtracks book (my review copy of the Deluxe Edition came without the book and the one-watt amp, sadly), spending a weekend immersed in High Voltage Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s 224 pages, I can’t see how any fan of the band would not want to own this. When it comes to a photographic history of AC/DC, it’s easy to envision it turning out as predictable as their music: a photo of a sweaty Angus with a Gibson SG, another sweaty Angus, a shirtless Bon Scott, a scowling Malcolm Young, and countless more sweaty Anguses. And indeed, there’s no shortage of such photos. However, there’s a lot more here than just the rote arena stage snapshots. The band’s infancy is wonderfully documented, from their rather comical first photo session, to glimpses of the young musicians in the studio, to various early gigs in Australia, and we’re subsequently taken through more than 40 years of history, right up to the conclusion of their staggeringly successful Black Ice world tour this past summer.

The deeper you delve into the book, however, the more the actual writing starts to take over. So much has been said about AC/DC, and so much of their history is already common knowledge to millions, that it’s very difficult to say something new, but Sutcliffe does a fantastic job of putting together a surprisingly extensive career overview as well as examining just why the band is so appealing in the first place, at one point playfully paraphrasing Antony and Cleopatra of all things: “They mingled the joys of groin-stirring riffs, blood-stirring rhythm, and belly-laugh or sometimes gut-level blue lyrics into an elixir of eternal youth promising age cannot wither us nor custom stale our infinite…sweatiness at least.” Of course, this being an unauthorized biography, there are no new interviews with band members, but Sutcliffe does draw from a wealth of sources, each quote dutifully noted, and while the primary focus is justifiably how damn great this fine band is, he’s never fawning, always quick to point out the band’s odd mis-steps.

Speaking of mis-steps, it’s nice to see how he doesn’t gloss over the band’s 1983-85 era. That three year span was a curious one, one that’s long fascinated yours truly, where AC/DC attempted a subtle and rather strange period of reinvention that yielded a pair of commercial flops (I’ll always fiercely defend Fly on the Wall) and saw them playing to half-empty arenas in America. Hard as it is to believe now, there was a time where AC/DC was a lousy draw, and Sutcliffe splendidly captures that period, from the apathetic response to Flick of the Switch to the incredible comeback of Who Made Who three years later.

Additionally, every AC/DC studio and live album is given a thorough dissection by various writers, including Ian Christe and Canadian hard rock/metal authority Martin Popoff. All give excellent, balanced, extensive write-ups on each record, save for Bill Voccia’s slavering assessment of 1981’s mediocre For Those About to Rock, which is so laden with hyperbole that it becomes embarrassing. We’re also privy to an interesting examination of the Young brothers’ guitars and equipment, as well as a fascinating essay by Garth Cartwright that convincingly makes a case how the band embodies true punk rock better than many punk rock bands ever could.

Particularly interesting is how the images that prove to be the most memorable are the ones of the fans, not the band. Three in particular: a massive crowd at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium in 1979, drained front-row punters at Donington in 1981, and best of all, a glorious shot of ecstatic young men and boys at Glasgow’s Apollo Theatre in 1979. In that last photo, they’re all out of their seats, headbanging, dancing, air-guitaring, completely enveloped by Malcom’s ferocious heavy blues riffs, compelled to move with the contagious groove of drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams, won over by the charm of Scott, arguably the greatest frontman in rock ‘n’ roll history, and utterly blown away by the five foot two dynamo in the schoolboy uniform who moves so violently yet unleashes the nastiest solos they’ve ever heard. While Sutcliffe and his guest contributors do fantastic work of explaining the universal appeal of AC/DC, it’s best conveyed in that one shot. With this band, it’s never a case of, either you love ’em or you don’t, but rather, if you don’t like AC/DC, what the hell is wrong with you? Whether you’re a youngster new to the band or have been a fan for decades, this fun book will have you digging through the back catalogue in no time.

(Voyageur Press)

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.