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If This Is Being Rocked, It Sure Feels Like Being Drained

If This Is Being Rocked, It Sure Feels Like Being Drained

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Just like the neon wristbands that transform modern Coldplay shows into Jackson Pollock fever dreams – designed to light up in the proximity of a chiming indie guitar riff – the devil horn headpieces that pepper Wembley Stadium tonight seem programmed to start flashing as we approach the turn-off for the highway to Hell.

They add to an already electric sense of anticipation. AC/DC’s 2024 tour reaches London after almost 10 years, a time during which fans wondered if the band would ever be back in any shade of black. Their Rock or Bust Tour of 2015-16 ended up busting; flat-capped singer Brian Johnson, the only rock legend with the stage presence of a plumber, was forced off the road by hearing issues and replaced for the final leg by Axl Rose. During the hiatus that followed, the band appeared to disintegrate around the 2017 death of guitarist Malcolm Young and the retirement of bassist Cliff Williams. That these 200 million-selling stalwarts of classic rock – or what remains of them – are back to finally tour 2020’s Power Up album, fit, healthy and ready to rock… well, we salute them.

The lights drop, the devil horns flash, and a cartoon roadster races across the big screens en route to the gig. But at the precise moment you might expect it to fly out of the back of the stage spewing flames from its exhaust, Johnson and his ageing schoolboy sidekick Angus Young – now resembling a man held back in Year Four for 60 years straight – simply stroll onto a stage ranked with Marshall stacks and kick into “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” from 1979’s Highway to Hell.

For a band renowned for their large-scale stage gimmicks, from gigantic wrecking balls to full-sized train carriages bursting from the backdrop, it’s a low-key entrance. Several iconic AC/DC props survive: the chiming church bell that descends from the rafters for “Hell’s Bells” and the Napoleonic array of cannons discharging on “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” have been mainstays of the set since the early Eighties. But for the most part, the AC/DC of 2024 want the music to do the talking.

Tricky one. Because AC/DC’s music doesn’t talk so much as it does bawl relentlessly in your ear about rock, booze and Satan, along with plenty of thinly veiled sexual innuendo. They are not a band you turn to for sonic breadth, variety and subtlety. Tonight has just two settings: loud, sludgy classic rock, and loud, speedy classic rock. Johnson really doesn’t need to glance down at his crotch to hammer home the double entendre of “Stiff Upper Lip”, but he does. Minor seventh chords? Fuggedaboudit.

All of this is aggravated by the fact that both Johnson’s voice and Young’s quicksilver guitar work are buried in a mix muddier than last month’s Download festival. Few gigs may be louder, but the songs themselves are virtually inaudible. The likes of “Shot in the Dark” and “Sin City” are lost beneath the swampy noise. “Have a Drink on Me” sounds like Johnson trying to order a round mid-bar fight. Mind you, AC/DC’s woker fans might appreciate the lyrical thrust of “Whole Lotta Rosie” being reduced to an indistinct whimper – their hellbound horndog blues rocker tribute to the bedroom talents of one particularly body-positive Melbourne groupie arrives more muffled than ever.

Thankfully, AC/DC compensate for their lack of clarity and pizzazz by dotting major hits evenly along the way. “Why don’t we pick up where we left off,” Johnson suggests as Young deploys the extinction level power-chords of “Back in Black” two songs in. A few tracks later “Thunderstruck” hits, Young spilling out its operatic Arabian riffs while shrouded in virtual electricity on the screens, as if Thor had part-exchanged his hammer for a Gibson. Towards the end of the main set, they unleash a pack of the big dogs: a dynamic “Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap”; the behemoth glam of “High Voltage”, an explosive “TNT”; and monster choruses like “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Highway to Hell”. Sadly though, their ferocious momentum dies yawning during a 20-minute Young guitar solo on “Let There Be Rock”: virtuosic yes, but he milks it like Cravendale. If this is what it is to be rocked, it sure feels like being drained.

Just as there’ll always be a demand for concrete, bran flakes and election cycle xenophobia, AC/DC’s unfiltered and unrefined brand of crude Seventies proto-metal will always draw massive audiences seeking the hard rock source. They are, after all, the National Rock Grid from which all other heavy guitar bands syphon off their sound. You hope tonight was all just a sound desk issue and that, beneath the bombast, the raw power of AC/DC isn’t fizzling out.

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