It’s another gorgeous day in Sarasota, Florida, where Brian Johnson has been living since 1990 after moving from his native United Kingdom. He particularly enjoys the small-town vibe of the Gulf Coast city, along with the food and the vibrant music scene that comes with it. On this day though, he has been doing the dreaded rock and roll morning show circuit to promote his latest book, The Lives of Brian: A Memoir. Like most things that come down the road, the AC/DC singer took the over-caffeinated American disc jockeys asking the same old questions in stride.
“All these fabulous names,” Johnson muses to Metal Edge. “I wanna be called ‘Johnny Rock!’ Ya know? What a name. [imitates an announcer’s voice] ‘And our lead singer…Mr. Johnny Rock!’ Yeah!”
Residing primarily in the States for more than three decades, Johnson will sometimes get tripped up balancing the lingo between here and across the pond.
“When I go back to England, I forget meself,” he says. “I’ll be up in Newcastle with the family, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, I need gas in the car.’ And a sudden silence. And they’ll turn to me and go, [solemnly] ‘What.’ And I say, ‘I’m just sayin’ there’s gas – petrol! Petrol! I need petrol!’ [And they say] ‘Fuckin’ hell, Brian…you’ve changed.’ Now if I say ‘petrol’ in America, nobody knows what I’m talking about! You get caught in these things, but it’s wonderful.”
There’s no such communication breakdown in The Lives of Brian, which details Johnson’s childhood in North East England through his youth trying to make it in various bands and up until the moment he stepped onstage for his first gig with AC/DC. It’s quite different from his 2009 ode to automobiles, Rockers and Rollers: A Full-Throttle Memoir. This time around it’s much more personal, with the front man going deeper into the tales of the people and moments who helped get him to where he is today.
Johnson sat down for a conversation with Metal Edge to discuss the new book, why it’s not about AC/DC, how he decided now was the time to address rumors about whether he wrote the lyrics to Back in Black, what his favorite Bon Scott era song is to sing, and much more.
What was your approach going into The Lives of Brian as opposed to Rockers and Rollers?
Brian Johnson: Well, Rockers and Rollers was really all about cars, with a few stories thrown in. This was all about me. Every week, I’d say, there was a book out. “Rod Stewart: His Life Story.” “Elton John: His Life -” on and on and I said, “Jesus Christ, not another fuckin’ dinosaur with a book out.” But people kept telling me I was good with the stories and I should write them down. My manager said I should just do it with a pen because I cannot type. So, I did; I wrote a couple of little chapters down from the early days and I enjoyed it.
I started to remember things that I’d forgotten. If you write by hand, it does that to ya. I don’t know why, but it comes from the brain, through the heart, into the arm and your hand. You can tell when I get excited when you look at my bits of paper, because sometimes the writing goes up and down and then it starts sloppin’ when I’m in a hurry. It’s a strange thing.
Writing history books because that’s what this really is, isn’t it, when you think about it, it’s a history book really. Telling the story of life in the ‘50s in the North East of England. I asked a few of my good friends – and they’re still me friends – and they helped me get through life. It validates their life as well as mine. They’re good lads, you know? And they were always with me through thick and thin and they’re worth a million dollars each [to me] and more.
And you pointedly did not want to write a book about your time in AC/DC, which is why the story ends right as your first gig with the band takes place.
Johnson: I told the boys in the band, I said, “I’m gonna write a book, but don’t worry lads, ‘cause it’s not gonna be about AC/DC.” Obviously, I’ll be referring to the band, but this is not goin’ to be a tell-all, life on the road book. It’s boring being on the road.
When you think about it, in general, you do a show – which is the best part of the day – and then you sit on a bus, or a car or on an airplane. Then you get to the next hotel at 2:30 in the morning, have a glass of wine, play on your computer or whatever, go to bed and then you wake up at 11:30, get something to eat and hang around all day waitin’ for the next gig. And if there isn’t a gig, hanging around all day and meetin’ Cliff [Williams] in the bar, and then it’s six o’clock and you’re goin’ for a bit of dinner.
But people think you rolled out of bed in the morning and there’s six girls waiting for you and then you go to the bar and then you go onstage. Then after the show, there’s more girls and more beers and it’s just nonstop decadence.
Johnson: Maybe in the early days when you were young and daft, but [today] bands like AC/DC or Fleetwood Mac – it doesn’t matter who you are – just stepping out the hotel door can be a fuckin’ hazard with all the people who have 30 albums to sign and guitars sellin’ ‘em to your fans for exorbitant prices. So, going back to the early days, when nobody knew ya, nobody cared. I look back on them with great fondness.
The AC/DC book, that should be written by one of the boys who was there at the very beginning, because I would love to read that book. I would love to know what it was like when Mal and Ang got together. Malcolm turned to me he said, “You know Jonna, at the time I was sick of the shit on the radio and I wanted to get a real rock band…” I wish somebody wrote about that era – I would love it. That’s someone else’s book. Phil [Rudd] was there at the start, I know they had a different singer at the start…then Bon came in and – what a guy he was, songs and everything.
Casual AC/DC fans might be surprised to read in the book how you once shared a couple pints with Bon.
Johnson: I talk about being in Torquay [England] and the band that was supporting us was called Fang and watching this band and thinkin’, “They’re pretty good.” And afterwards having a beer with the singer, who was Bon Scott. And we swore undying friendship after getting a few beers down, “Ahh mate!” because we were from the same kind of background – he was from Glasgow originally, just like Angus and Malcolm – and just years later finding out who this guy was, it was the man in Torquay – it was Bon Scott. If it hadn’t had been for him telling the boys [in AC/DC], you know he said some really nice things about me, and when I put two and two together, that was ’73. I think [Fang] finished the tour that year and went back to Australia and I got a funny feeling it was ’74, ’75 when Bon joined AC/DC, so it wasn’t long after that.
One of the things I was surprised you addressed in the book were the rumors that you didn’t write the lyrics for Back in Black. When did you first hear the theory it was Bon’s lyrics?
Johnson: It was a bit of a shock. It was probably about 1984, ‘85. There was no social media at the time.
Really – that early? And then of course it’s gained more steam over the years.
Johnson: Yeah. And then there’s this guy in Australia, who was absolutely positive that Bon had written the lyrics. And he wouldn’t shut up and he wouldn’t go away and he was even to the point of phoning Derek, Bon’s brother, and he’s a lovely guy and all that and he was sick of this guy as well.
I won’t say his name, ‘cause it’s not worth mentioning it. He was saying that Bon had written the words and that I had claimed them. Now, in the real world, that just doesn’t happen. First of all, the boys in the band would’ve given me them to sing, and they would’ve put his name on there – it’s simple as that, it’s a simple thing. And it was proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, you know, but this guy just kept pestering people. “You sure you haven’t gotten any lyrics somewhere that Bon had written that we can prove?” And he’s becoming a pest and Derek was saying that this guy still tries to phone him. He wants to make a movie of Bon’s life and of course the family absolutely forbid it, with the privacy and all. One day they might, who knows. But I don’t know – it’s not my place to say.
Now that man’s getting older and he knows his time’s coming up…and he can’t keep on saying it, he’s just gonna look foolish. There’s too many people who were there, you know, that saw what happened and I just felt…I just felt I had to say somethin’. I wasn’t going to because I’m not gonna let this guy think it’s bothering me. But the truth was, it did bother me in a way. “Why would he do that?” Then, of course, he’s one of these conspiracy theorists – you know what I mean – they’re always there. I just said, let me put a full stop on this. I’ll just put a full stop on this and just say, “That’s enough.”
The theories go deep. There are rumors that Bon’s family receives royalties on Back in Black because it’s his lyrics…
Johnson: No, no. Bon’s family receives royalties from the stuff he’s done – I’m sure. They’ll have an estate, most people do afterwards if they die and there’s still money coming in from that period of their work. That would be right. That’s the right and proper thing. But I don’t think so…I know so, ‘cause I get them [Back in Black royalties]. [laughs] There’s the simple answer.
So unequivocally: no Bon Scott lyrics have been used since Highway to Hell.
Johnson: No. I can honestly say that.
You briefly touch on a story about recording Back in Black in the Bahamas when Phil and Cliff went missing and Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads, who were recording there at the same time, sat in with the band.
Johnson: The lads had suddenly got an idea or something and they went, “Where’s Phil and Cliff?” They’d gone off somewhere, because it was free time, and I think Mal and Ang had an idea because the whole album wasn’t even written, and they wanted to get it done real quick. [Producer] Mutt Lange said, “I’ll ask,” because [Chris and Tina] were upstairs, they were a married couple. I wasn’t there when they did it, because it was my free time as well, and they put a basic, rough track down for Mutt Lange to have a listen to. All in all, I was talking to Cliff when I was writing this book, and he said “Jonna, it’s a blur. We worked so hard, it was nonstop on that album.”
What’s your least favorite AC/DC song you’ve done?
Johnson: Ooof. Dammit. I can’t remember – that’s probably why I can’t remember. [laughs] I’m really, really not sure. I couldn’t put a name on it.
What’s your favorite Bon song to sing?
Johnson: Well, I wish we did it. We only did it [a couple times] and I loved it to death. [sings] “Well, I tied my baby to the railroad track / cannonball down the line…It's your love that I want / it's your love that I need.” “What’s Next to the Moon”!
Next year is going to be the 50th anniversary of AC/DC. Is it going to be celebrated, either with some live shows or...
Johnson: I didn’t know it was the 50th. You’ve just told me and…wow. It’s just sort of been 40 years since Back in Black came out. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? That would be lovely. You know…good god. 50 years. You’ve just shocked me there, me son. [laughs] You have – I’m not kiddin’! That’s absolutely wonderful that Mal and Ang’s dream to start a rock band would last so long. Boy oh boy. Fuckin’ hell. Well, there you go – I’m lost for words to be quite honest with ya. I wasn’t there at the start – I know that – I’m just pleased and happy that I was a part of the whole thing to keep it going and keep it active.