How AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Bells’ Left Brian Johnson ‘Heartbroken’
Brian Johnson recalled being left “heartbroken” after listening to his debut AC/DC album Back in Black for the first time.
He’d left English band Geordie to replace the late Bon Scott in 1980, and learned a lot during the process of recording the record in the Bahamas with producer Mutt Lange. When he received a copy weeks after returning home, he shared the listening experience with one of Geordie’s guitarists – and remembered that he’d done it out of necessity.
“I didn't think I would ever get a job with a rock ’n’ roll band at the age of 32,” Johnson told WMMR in a recent interview. “And it just kept getting better as the weeks went by with these new songs.” He recalled that, in a moment of doubt during sessions, he’d thought: “What have I got to lose? I’ve got a week’s holiday in the Bahamas, at least.”
One of the things he’d most enjoyed was the revelation of what he could achieve with his voice, which he learned as he worked on the album’s title track. “Mutt Lange… said, 'Sing it higher. I've heard you do it.' And I went, 'Well, I'll give it a try.' And it was just like being set free from a straitjacket. Once I found out I could do it, I went, 'Wow!’… And I just wanted to do it all the time.”
Johnson went on to explain that, due to the tight budget, he was sent back to England as soon as he’d finished his recording duties. “And I got back home, and I just went, 'Well, I think I've just made a record’,” he continued. ’[I]t wasn't even mixed yet. And it was another six weeks to two months before I actually got a copy of it that came with the mailman.”
When it finally arrived, however, there was a problem: “I didn't have a record player in the house,” he explained. “I took it to a friend’s, the guitarist in Geordie – he had a record player – and we put on ‘Hells Bells’… I think it was a few bars in, and he went, ‘No, that's never gonna fly. Come on, let's have a pint.’ He said, ‘You're singing way too high. That's not you.’ And I was heartbroken. I just went, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ So I went to the pub and drowned my sorrows, and he said, ‘Never mind.’ But it all worked out fantastically well.”