‘The Lives Of Brian’ by Brian Johnson Revisits Raspy Voiced AC/DC Singer’s Early Years With Humor & Decorum (BOOK REVIEW)

For those who have rocked with Brian Johnson in AC/DC for the last 42 years, his new memoir, The Lives Of Brian, will have you foaming at the mouth happy; but not if you’re wanting the whole story of his AC/DC adventures: for Johnson, only covers the making of his incredible AC/DC debut album, Back In Black. That’s it, gang. No For Those About To Rock, no on-the-road adventure stories, no savory gossip; nothing except his battle with hearing problems that began in 2016.

However, Johnson does take you on one heck of a ride through his life up to then. With his knack for jovial double-entendres, he has written this just as he saw it and the reader is engrossed from the get-go, feeling as if Johnson was telling his tales to you in his local pub back in Newcastle, England, with lots of belly laughs, even when reflecting on the hard times. And hard times were plenty. The region was dreary with only hard labor jobs to look forward to in your adulthood unless you were lucky enough to find an escape path through school, the military, or plain dumb luck. Johnson found all three in one form or the other.

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,” Johnson writes in his Author’s Note. “This is a book about what happened when I didn’t get what I wanted but never stopped believing and never gave up.” His father was a soldier in WWII who met Johnson’s mother in Italy and brought her to northern England to sire and raise three sons and a daughter. They lived with relatives, including a set of grandparents who called the offspring “Italian pigs” and treated them as such. Once they were able to move into a place of their own, it was only slightly better.

One thing you do get with Johnson’s book is the invaluable time spent with his parents and his own earliest years growing up. He doesn’t skim over this to get to his rock & roll life, as typically happens in so many life stories. By doing this, you are able to connect to Johnson from the very beginning. You can feel the cold seeping in through drafty windows, you can feel the angst of an untouchable father who showed little affection except when bellowing at the top of his lungs. And you can feel his giddy moments of hope and his disappointment when they’re shot down. Life kept wanting to keep him in one place as one type of man but he kept fighting to be someone different – a singer. Obviously, he won that battle but the steps of the journey are intriguing.

Once Johnson enters into his musical dreams, you find out what it was really like to be a struggling band of young men trying to play gigs with a breaking-down van and jobs to get to in the morning; and in Johnson’s case, a wife and baby. Geordie took him to Top Of The Pops semi-stardom. Geordie II eventually brought him to AC/DC. He speaks highly of his bandmates, giving immense credit to Malcolm Young, who passed in 2017, and was always the heart and soul of the band: “Malcolm also had this uncanny ability to simultaneously watch every single move of every single person in the band, listen to their performance, study the audience’s reaction and at the end of the night, give the kind of feedback that might not have been easy to hear but made the show better the next night.”

The last portion of the 373-page book focuses on the making of the now-legendary album, Back In Black. Most of the lyrics were written by Johnson, giving the heave-ho to rumors that former singer Bon Scott had written them before dying tragically in February of 1980. After five weeks of recording in the Bahamas, the album was primarily done and would be released in July of 1980, sparking ravenous sales by fans who were anxious for their music. Album tracks like “Hell’s Bells,” “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the title track are still played on the radio and at sporting events to the same enthusiastic roars as they were in the early 1980s, except its now several generations instead of the one. 

You will also get some fun tidbits along the way about that cap, the t-shirt of his early years, how he got to those high notes during recording, meeting – but not realizing till years later – Bon Scott, and how Roger Daltrey encouraged him to never give up on his dreams.

Johnson’s story would continue through more albums, tours, and videos with AC/DC before the aforementioned ear problem kicked him into a long sabbatical. He writes openly about playing a show in the cold rain, immediately boarding a flight to the next show, his hearing going in and out during the next concerts and finally having a doctor give him a deflating prognosis. But new technology has given him hearing aids that work wonders and in March of this year Johnson performed at the Taylor Hawkins Memorial Concert.

So having just turned 75 in October, this singer from humble beginnings is not through yet, and picking up his Lives Of Brian is a great place to get to know this guy who found his calling at eleven years old after seeing Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti.” “My dream of becoming a singer was born in that moment.”

Check out Leslie’s interview with 1975-1977 AC/DC bassist Mark Evans.

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