I’m nervous about summing up a book that heavily references various vehicles with the line, “your mileage may vary,” but there it is. That’s essentially how I feel about Rockers and Rollers: A Full-Throttle Memoir by Brian Johnson of AC/DC, even if the inherent pun makes me look like a rank amateur.
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The problem is, I suppose, I’m not the prime target audience for this book. That audience consists of the rabid fan base AC/DC has amassed over time, built upon the veneer of hedonism and hell-bent excess. There are things they’ll be looking out for in the book and Johnson doesn’t disappoint them. For someone who wanted a bit more than the usual, tawdry, behind-the-men’s-room-door blow by blow (and yes, these words were chosen quite carefully), you’re liable to walk away jilted.
For starters, the book is not composed of chapters as much as they are of what appear to be blog entries, some installments taking up less than half a page. That makes for insanely easy reading, but doesn’t offer much in terms of depth. Johnson loves his bandmates and says so effusively; he loves cars and professes his ardor with no reserve. Groupies? Well, we’ll cover that in a moment, but if you’re looking for the genesis of a tortured rock ’n’ roll soul, or more regarding being in a famous band beyond the stereotypical perks, this book is not for you.
What I would have liked to have read was some insight into his becoming the second vocalist for AC/DC, only glancingly touched upon here. The first singer, Bon Scott, had just achieved a major breakthrough with the group stateside with the Highway To Hell album, and the band was preparing Back In Black with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. On Feb. 19, 1980, Scott went out drinking and, from there, the reports clash. Did he die of alcohol poisoning as the official report indicates? Did he choke on his own vomit during an episode while being drunk as other reports would argue? Or did he die of hypothermia? The body was cremated, so any internal evidence is long past the point of rediscovery.
This is not, however, a book about Bon Scott. Brian Johnson, previously the lead singer for the group Geordie, was called to audition. The band liked him and he liked the band, hands were shook and rock history was forged. My questions stem from this pivotal moment. Scott, while singing like the hellraiser the annals recall, had a very specific delivery. If a pornographer’s boxer shorts could sing, they’d have the voice of Bon Scott. Johnson, on the other hand, is all danger. He sounds like a motor unmuffled, all fire in the exhaust, nothing and nobody spared. In many ways, he wouldn’t seem a proper candidate to replace Scott, and there he was.
The audience took to Johnson just as fervently, making Back In Black the signature album in the band’s discography, spawning hit tracks like the title cut, “Hell’s Bells” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” This is an extremely uncommon occurrence. Popular music is littered with stories of bands that lost vocalists, took on new singers and were permanently shunned by their fans. The big story ought to be how Johnson was not only welcomed, but championed, by the fans.
Instead, there are tales of youthful indiscretions, excretions, ejaculations, the thrills of being a rocker, the joys of owning cars—there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Likely, for the person waist-deep in the AC/DC ethos, that’s what they’re looking for. There is a lot about cars, their drivers, a remembrance of actor Paul Newman who had the courtesy not to rear-end Johnson during a race, a lot about groupies that, over time, Johnson… uh… rear-ended. Johnson is blissfully misogynistic in his tales of the wanton and willing. It is a take on his career that, again, ought to surprise no one but makes a case for the major problem with the book.
In spite of the musings over motoring, the thrill of cars and of car culture, the book is just what you would expect the book to be with no real stunners or revelations included. You expected accounts of a rowdy life, of sexual conquests without attachment, of being able to live this life of excess from relatively modest beginnings, and you get it. Never once are you smacked sideways by anything other than the expected agenda, and that’s a shame. Johnson comes off as a likable guy with dirt-under-the-nails attitude; a randy raconteur, a wolf found regularly without clothing. It’s just a shame that he hasn’t given himself enough leeway to deviate from that old familiar drumbeat.
Like I said, with Rockers and Rollers, your mileage may vary.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer/musician/artist hailing from Red Bank, N.J. He is an editor for the pop culture website Popdose as well as regular contributor. As contributor, he has shepherded such site mini-series as 50Prog50 and 50CCM50. He has recorded several albums including Enigmatic, Modernism and the recent instrumental album People Wearing Masks.