The world of music is one that eternally reminds us of the importance of timing. Brian Johnson might be a singer with a voice that could stir honey into tea from a country mile away, but it was the fickle fate of circumstance that amplified his talents to the attention of the global stage. Luck is a beast of a thing and seeing as though it can’t be tamed, Johnson’s tale to the top is one that reminds us, we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate our own good fortune and berate others for their lack of it.
When the photographer Jorgen Angel, who captured Led Zeppelin’s first-ever gig and continued to snap the unfurling rock shows of the era thereafter, was reflecting on the best bands he witnessed in his career, he remarked: “There was a band called Geordie, the singer was Brian Johnson who is now with AC/DC, they toured a lot in Denmark, and I spent a lot of time with them and took photos. They were really good on stage.” Despite that glowing appraisal from a man who witnessed the cream of the crop from 1968 until the mid-1980s, Geordie were a band condemned to the lower echelons of the doldrums of cult, and the soaring talents of their frontman were likewise tethered to the underground like a Kestrel on a kite string.
“I was living at home with my parents in my thirties, a fucking loser,” Johnson joked on the Howard Stern show. Geordie were floundering, and Brian Johnson was being forced to face up to adulthood. He planned to give the music industry another couple of weeks while he transitions into an automotive business. He was literally weeks away from being a gravel-voiced man talking about horsepower when ultimately, the spotlight wandered onto him an auspicious swing of fate before the final hurdle. As Johnson explains: “There was a fan from Cleveland, who to my eternal debt I thank, Mutt Lange [Record Producer] who said you’ve got to try this guy. And unwittingly Bon Scott himself had said, ‘Of all the singers I have seen in England this kid called Brian Johnson was the best’… which was a very nice thing to say.” Thus, when Scott tragically passed away in 1980, his AC/DC bandmates already had a replacement in mind.
Johnson, however, had all but washed his hands with music, so when one day he got a phone call to his office with a German lady saying you have to come to London to audition for an unnamed band he was naturally reluctant. “Well, I’m not coming down to London if you can’t tell me which band it’s for,” Johnson explained to the mystery caller, “You’ve got to give me a clue.” To which the German enigma apparently said, “The initials are AC und DC,” before adding, “Oh, I have said too much.”
Thus, Johnson didn’t take long to deduce which band were after him. But it is from a case of the rest being history thereafter. Having been a beleaguered member of the music industry for a decade now, he was still worried about pursuing it as a career. After all, although AC/DC were beloved at this point, they were still very much a cult act yet to register on the mainstream. “I’m 32, I’m past my sell-by date for rock bands, I’m an old fart,” The Newcastle lad mused. But once more, the stern German lady assured him, “This is zee man they are after.”
As it happens, his phone line was fairly busy that day as the stars aligned to force Johnson down south. Thirty minutes after a tentative maybe to the audition request, Johnson received a call from an old friend now in the jingle industry who said he would pay him £350 for a quick vocal take on a vacuum commercial. Thus, his trip to London was set in stone and he was due to sell heavy suction houseware and pelt out ‘Thunderstuck’ on the same day.
However, after the jingle session, with £350 in his pocket and a long drive to Newcastle ahead of him, he was still hesitant about the audition and wondered whether to cash out early on what had been a successful day in the big smoke. As it happens, he stood across from Vanilla Studios and let fate run its course. He crossed the road and was greeted with a welcoming bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale and a nod from Malcolm Young, who said, “Here you go my son, I know you like this.”
Johnson swilled back the homely beverage, he burst into ‘Nutbush City Limits’ and suddenly some alchemical atmosphere suddenly coalesced and it was at this point that this here writer, 31 years later, gets to pen the final line: And the rest, as they say, is ancient history.