The main thing that strikes you as you watch AC/DC whip 70,000 people into a frenzy at Wembley stadium is, of course, how very similar they are to David Hockney. And Peter O’Toole, come to think of it. Not to mention Beryl Bainbridge, Eric Morecambe and Sheridan Smith. What all these people share in common is perhaps the most important quality any artist or performer needs: the ability to take your work seriously without taking yourself seriously.
It is very, very difficult to play guitar as well as Angus Young, or to hold an audience as well as Brian Johnson. Watch a pub band cover ‘Highway to Hell’ and you’ll realise just how good the originals are. Young and Johnson must know this – but you could tell at Wembley on Saturday night that they also know how ludicrous the whole idea of a rock concert is. Turn the sound down, take away the gut-grabbing riffs and you realise how absurd everything looks. The same is true of opera, or indeed most artistic enterprises. The trick – and this is what AC/DC are so great at – is to simultaneously acknowledge that truth and ignore it. Play your heart out, but never believe you’re a god.
It’s not about clowning around. We’re not talking about the fact that Angus Young does every gig dressed as a schoolboy – even if he was in T-shirt and jeans like the rest of the band, the humour would still come through. It’s a humour of the soul, a warmth, an awareness that even though you’re a world-beater at what you do (Back in Black is still one of the 10 best-selling albums of all time), it must never go to your head. There has to be a charm about what you do, and this is what so many performers forget. As Brian Johnson himself says: ‘A lot of bands know how to rock. Not many know how to roll.’
Saturday’s gig started with the title song of their newest album Rock or Bust, then three classics from the 1970s (including ‘Back in Black’ itself), then back to the new album for ‘Play Ball’ – and you couldn’t have guessed from the crowd’s reaction which era was which. All the songs were uniformly loved, because they had all been written with love and are still performed that way. AC/DC took the advice of Queen’s Roger Taylor on how to play the first ten minutes at Wembley – ‘blind ‘em and deafen ‘em’ – and applied it to the whole two hours.
This ‘take your work but not yourself seriously’ thing is the same in any art form. Anthony Hopkins has the quality, Ben Kingsley does not. Iain Banks had it in spades, Jeffrey Archer will never have an ounce of it. (Nor for that matter will Louise Mensch, which makes it even more amusing that she was one of the fans in the video for AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’.) Spinal Tap lacked the characteristic entirely, but only because the creators of Spinal Tap had so much of it. John Lennon was a past master, Paul McCartney has never quite got there.
In the end it’s all about passing the F. Scott Fitzgerald test. ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence,’ said the writer, ‘is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ As a performer you have to know and respect how much what you’re doing matters to your fans, while also remembering (as those fans do themselves) that it doesn’t matter at all. No one who saw Wembley’s reaction to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ will be in any doubt that both the band and the crowd fulfilled both sides of the bargain. It made for a truly joyful experience.