Heavy metal is the noise that annoys.
Sprinkle it with satanic references and it's a red flag in front of the charging bull of antirock righteousness.
All of which faintly amuses Angus Young, the diminutive founder and guitarist of AC/DC, the best selling heavy-metal band of all time (which means since 1970 or so). Heavy metal may be the music that can't get no respect, but in the past six months, it's had no trouble getting attention.
Young, 27 years old and a few hairs above five feet tall, remembers watching television at home in Australia last August when Richard Ramirez was arrested for the notorious "Night Stalker" murders. "I'd heard about this killer running around California and doing people," he says a few hours before yesterday's concert at the Washington Convention Center. "I should have realized, put two and two together, when they started talking about satanic cults. I knew they'd come after us."
And that's exactly what some people did after one of Ramirez's acquaintances told reporters he'd been obsessed with "Night Prowler," a song on AC/DC's 1979 album, "Highway to Hell." Soon there were rumors that an AC/DC hat had been found at one of the murder sites, and reports started circulating that AC/DC stood for "Antichrist Devil's Crusade" (when the group first appeared, there were complaints that the name was an allusion to bisexuality). People magazine blasted the connection from a cover, asking whether rock had finally gone too far, as if the song had somehow become a training manual for a legion of night stalkers. There's been talk that families of Night Stalker victims might sue the band. And for some reason, zealots have always loved to burn records made by AC/DC.
"Night Prowler," Young says, was actually "about a peeping Tom," and AC/DC's name came from a label on the back of an Australian vacuum cleaner. But don't try telling that to the city council in Springfield, Ill., which tried to ban an AC/DC concert there (the council lost in court). Or to the elders in a Southern California city who did succeed in blocking a concert. Or to the Parents Music Resource Center, which has targeted AC/DC for songs celebrating the occult and substance abuse.
"Everywhere there's a few," Young sighs -- "people who believe in their absolute power. It's the way of the country."
"When you write a song you don't do it to upset someone," he adds. "You've just got to paint it the way people are, reflect what's on the street, your environment and how you see things."
Sounds pretty serious for a band whose purpose on earth Rolling Stone once described as "to offend anyone within sight or earshot," adding that "they succeed on both counts."
"We've always been rebellious," says Young, who has been rocking and rolling since he was 15. Dropping out of school to play in tough Australian bars, he became an instant pragmatist. "It's hard to walk into those bars and get their attention. You've got to half-shock them."
The band soon developed an image as an ear-numbing, nose-thumbing and decidedly incorrigible group of juvenile delinquents ("Bad Boy Boogie" and "Problem Child") and a persona that includes Young performing in schoolboy shorts and knee socks, and dropping said shorts briefly during every show. There's also the occasional cannon fusillade and the two-ton liberty bell, but mostly there's the deafening, grating guitar, yowling vg around, parties at night, rock 'n' roll bands playing, all that fun. You put two and two together, where's the hell?"
If one reads AC/DC's lyrics literally, they can be disturbing; if one approaches them realistically, they represent little more than a bridge between Saturday morning cartoon violence and adulthood. Someone once said heavy metal was invented to reassure adolescent boys who have limited experience with women that they're not gay, and there is certainly a blatant misogyny at the root of the music (which may explain why AC/DC fans are overwhelmingly young males). But AC/DC's real force comes from the power chords, shout-along choruses and a deafening, incapacitating decibel level that millions of adolescents seem to thrive on.
"It gives them energy," Young insists. "They can swing their arms, bang their chairs, jump around. It's a form of getting rid of steam. Then they go home happy. It's something you either love or hate."
No doubt about that -- ask the 1,500 Belgian fans who were arrested several years back at an AC/DC concert, and the nonfan who started it all. "One policeman came on stage with a machine gun and tried to stop the show," Young recalls. "Our roadies threw him off the stage, so he got upset and called in the riot police. He was upset because somebody had taken his toy. That was his big power, to walk on stage and stop a rock show.