Written By: Jed Gottlieb
An imp in a bloodred crushed-velvet schoolboy outfit held 50,000 rock and roll fanatics in the palm of his hand. Not literally, as he had his hands around a classic Gibson SG guitar. But he had the audience rapt. Diminutive and drool-flecked, Angus Young, then 60 years old, tore into a 12-minute guitar solo. Throughout the wailing, Young duckwalked across the mammoth stage at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He jammed away while standing on a hydraulic lift that rose three stories above the thunderstruck crowd. He crashed to the ground and kicked like a toddler having an epic temper tantrum—and he never missed a note.
The year was 2015, during AC/DC’s last world tour. But if you had closed your eyes, it could have been 2002, or 1982, or 1975. Over 50 years, 18 albums, and a few thousand gigs, AC/DC with Young, all five-foot-two of him, has delivered the same high-voltage energy, thrilling multiple generations of fans.
It’s tempting to award Angus the lion’s share of the credit for the band’s electricity and endurance. Certainly his Energizer-bunny-with-devil-horns act makes him equal parts lead guitarist, front man, focal point, and band mascot. But AC/DC’s success derives more from its ethos than anything else. And Malcolm Young, Angus’s older brother, defined AC/DC’s ethos right from the start.
“I’ve never felt like a pop star; this is a nine-to-five sort of gig,” Malcolm told Rolling Stone in 2008. “It comes from working in the factories, that world. You don’t forget it.”
Malcolm, who died in 2017, ran the band like a factory foreman. Writing together, Malcolm and Angus stamped out impeccable riff after impeccable riff. They recruited a series of rhythm sections—bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd are the definitive pair—that served to reinforce the blue-collar churn that underpins the band’s catalog. The Young brothers also brought in two singers—first Bon Scott, then Brian Johnson—who echoed AC/DC’s keep-it-simple-stupid approach.
Scott gave the band its nasty, naughty, bawdy color. He also spent his days careening 100 miles per hour until his rock-or-bust lifestyle killed him. Amazingly, the Youngs found a fitting replacement in Johnson and then graduated from underground legends to mainstream rock gods with Back in Black.
Across its long and extraordinary career, AC/DC has proved it has nine lives, abusing every one of them and running wild, yet continuing to outlive new trends. Doing the same old thing, AC/DC thrived (often) and survived (at the very least) through the peaks and valleys of disco, synthesizers, rock operas, hair spray, glam metal, pop metal, thrash metal, grunge, unplugged sessions, and power ballads. “It was Malcolm who had the vision of what the band should be,” Angus told the Chicago Tribune in 2003. “He said, ‘We’re going to play the only music worth playing: rock and roll. And we’re going to play it hard.’ ”
That unwavering value system led AC/DC to sell more than 200 million albums. It put the band on tours that packed American football stadiums, British soccer stadiums, and festival grounds in Moscow. In short, it lifted the band to extraordinary heights.
The journey to get there, not surprisingly, is testament to AC/DC’s own adage: It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.
Here are a selection of images from LIFE’s new special issue on AC/DC.