AC/DC's Brian Johnson on the mysterious phone call that changed his life: 'Like out of a spy movie'

Brian Johnson singing with AC/DC in the early '80s. (Photo
Brian Johnson singing with AC/DC in the early '80s. (Photo" Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

Brian Johnson lived many lives before he became the frontman for the legendary Australian rock band AC/DC — hence the title of his new autobiography, The Lives of Brian. The book actually ends with him receiving the fateful phone call to audition to be the replacement for original AC/DC singer Bon Scott, who died in 1980. With Johnson on board — joining the group less than two months after Scott’s death — AC/DC orchestrated one of the biggest and most surprising comebacks in rock history with Back in Black, which sold 50 million copies worldwide.

But there was a time, not long before Johnson got this big break at the relatively old age of 31, when Johnson felt his chances for success had passed him by. As detailed in The Lives of Brian, the Northern British belter had reached a certain level of fame with his ‘70s band Geordie — even breaking into the U.K top 40 with their debut single “Don't Do That” and playing Top of the Pops — but when that band fell part, he found himself living with his parents in Newcastle and working a regular blue-collar day job.

“I was sitting in at home with no money coming in, wondering what to do next. Geordie had fizzled out, and I had to find a job, when I've been on TV not long before. It was f***ing awful. So, I was a windshield-fitter, and I wore a hat so people wouldn't recognize me. I didn’t want people to see somebody that hadn't made it all the way,” Johnson admits to Yahoo Entertainment. But Johnson never totally gave up on his rock ‘n’ roll dream.

“There's a bit in a book where I was doing Top of the Pops with Geordie, and Roger Daltrey was there,” Johnson recalls. “You know, you talk about a rock god! We couldn't even believe we were on national television, but for this guy to say, ‘Hello mate, would you like to join me for a beer?’ F***ing hell! He told me, ‘I like that way you sing. They're rock ‘n’ roll pipes. What are you doing after this?’ I said, ‘I have to go back to this horrible flat in a place called Hackney’ — in London, where I was staying at the time — ‘where there's just some mattresses on the floor. I've got just enough money to buy myself a takeout Indian meal and a can of beer.’ And he said, ‘Me and the wife lived like that, not very long ago. Let me give you a piece of advice: Never give in.’ And I know he probably forgot he said that now, but it stuck with me, because I respected the guy so much. That kind of stuck with me all me life.”

After Geordie, Johnson experienced another epiphany that “kicked me up the ass,” when he was dispatched to do an emergency side-of-the-road windshield-repair job on a car that “had to be in London, at Hammersmith, and it was imperative that it be there for 9 o'clock.” He eventually realized that the passenger inside was punk/new wave icon Ian Dury, who was on his way to a London gig. “I went, ‘Oh, f***,’ as I watched the car drive away,” he explains. “I thought, ‘I want to be in that car. I want to be in a hurry. I want to be on the f***ing road, having to be there in time to get onstage at 9 o'clock!’ And I said, ‘Right, I'm gonna start a band again.’”

Johnson chuckles over the fact that he chose to rather unimaginatively christen his new group Geordie II, but regardless, they quickly generated a local buzz, and he felt his life was back on track. In fact, he was so content that even turned down opportunities to sing with Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann. “Geordie II was playing out five nights a week, and we were easily the most popular band in all of Newcastle,” says Johnson. “We were making great money. I started a business, and I’d met a girl who was just lovely. Everything seemed to be working out fine.

“And then… the phone rang.”

Johnson describes that mysterious and out-of-nowhere 1980 phone call as “f***ing unbelievable” and “like out of a spy movie,” from a German woman he nicknamed “Olga from the Volga” and he never actually met. “There was this lady with a hell of an accent. She said, ‘You are Brian Johnson?’” Johnson laughs, doing his best exaggerated Berlin brogue. “I said, ‘Yes, who’s this?’ She said, ‘This not important. You are singer? You will come to London and you will meet the band.’ I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. What band?’ She said, ‘I cannot tell you… but you must come to London!’”

Brian Johnson in his Geordie days, 1973.  (Photo: Jorgen Angel/Redferns)
Brian Johnson in his Geordie days, 1973. (Photo: Jorgen Angel/Redferns)

Johnson actually turned down the mystery invitation at first, but when he was offered a one-day job in London to sing a Hoover vacuum commercial jingle for an easy 350 pounds — on the very same day that “Olga” had ordered him to come to London — he accepted. “I went down and did the advert in the afternoon, and then I walked across the street and into a different f***ing world,” he recalls.

Once Johnson realized that he was auditioning for the one and only AC/DC, he was shocked; he’d been a big Bon Scott fan, and Geordie had even once played on a bill with Scott’s pre-AC/DC band Fang, although Johnson didn’t realize that until years later when Scott’s brother pointed it out. “Well, that's one thing you find out about AC/DC: They move on. They just do things,” Johnson shrugs. “They'd already been there about, gosh, three or four weeks, with different singers, trying different people out. And then Mutt Lange, the producer, said, ‘Try Brian Johnson!’ But they didn't know where I was. I was off the radar.”

After Johnson was tracked down and convinced, he grudgingly arrived at London’s Vanilla Studios and suddenly felt oddly at ease. “The wonderful thing was [AC/DC guitarist] Malcolm [Young] came straight up to me with a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale and said, ‘This is what you drink up there, isn't it?’ And I said, ‘I tell you what, man, I could kill one,’” Johnson recalls. “I popped it open and started drinking. The guys were just sitting on chairs in front of the amps and speakers, and Mal said, ‘Right, what do you wanna sing?’ And I suggested [Ike & Tina Turner’s] ‘Nutbush City Limits.’ Afterwards, he said, ‘Thank God it wasn't “Smoke on the F***ing Water.” Everyone f***ing sings “Smoke on the Water.”’ And so, that evened the playing ground. You know, if I’d just done their song, obviously they could judge me on how I did it, fair enough — but hey, why not make them work as well? So, they had to learn it as we were playing it. And that was the magic.”

Johnson then sang AC/DC’s “Whole Lot of Rosie” with the band and it went well, but he figured this was a one-off experience. “I thought that was it. The strange thing was when we finished, I finished the beer and said, ‘Well, boys, look at the time. Eight o'clock. I've gotta get f***ing back, sorry! But thanks for doing that, I really enjoyed it!’ And I'm walking the door and they’re like, ‘Whoa, where you going?’ I said, ‘I've gotta get home. I've gotta open the shop up first thing in the morning, and I've got three gigs this week.’ And so I started walking down the stairs, and this roadie ran after me and said, ‘You can't leave! The boys aren’t finished!’ I said, ‘Mate, I’d love to stay, but I've got a six-hour drive, and I'm pretty f***ed. I left home this morning at 5 o'clock.’ He said, ‘We’ll put you in a hotel!’ I went, ‘No, no, I've gotta open the shop.’ So, I just jumped into me car and drove off. And I felt fabulous. You’ve gotta remember, I did not think I had the job, nor was I even looking for it at the time. I was just happy to say, ‘Well, that's another little bucket-list thing. That was pretty f***ing cool.’ And I could hardly feel that drive back home.”

Even when AC/DC’s manager Peter Mensch rang Johnson up the very next morning and invited back to London — this time for three days — to run through more songs with the band, Johnson was blasé. “I told them I spare them two days,” he laughs. “And I thought I'd blown it from the very first minute [of the second audition]. I went back down there and the boys said, ‘Hey, we've got this riff. We want it to be for Bon, but we don’t want it to be maudlin or too mawkish. It’s a tribute to Bon and it's called “Black in Black.” And this is all we've got.’ They played it over and asked, “You think of anything?” And I just sang, “Back in black! I hit the sack!” — that's all I had, so that's what we went into the studio with. That was it. It was straight off the top of my head. I sat down with a legal pad and wrote probably the first rap rock ‘n’ roll song. … So, I didn't think I was gonna get it. It was a great time that I'd had, and I would've been just happy with that.”

'The Lives of Brian,' 2022. (Photo: Tandem Literary)
'The Lives of Brian,' 2022. (Photo: Tandem Literary)

Not too long after Johnson returned to his normal, steady life in Newcastle, the music press actually reported that Allan Fryer, from the Australian band Fat Lip, was AC/DC’s new lead singer. “This was a big f***ing headline, and when I read the newspaper about this young Australian boy who got the job, it was as natural as apple pie to me. Of course an Australian got the job, right? I wasn't disappointed. I figured that was gonna happen. But that's how I found out how that you can never trust the f***ing press,” he chuckles.

Then, the day after the Fryer reports, Johnson got another phone call from Malcolm Young — and, once again, he was skeptical. “Malcolm said, ‘Listen, fancy coming to do an album with us?’ And I said, ‘Hang on a minute. Could you ring me back in 10 minutes, just to make sure that this isn't a joke?’ He said, ‘Sure, all right.’ And then 10 minutes he called me back. I said, ‘What do you f***ing mean? Are you telling me I'm in the band?’ He said, ‘Well… yeah!’ I went, ‘F***ing hell. Could you ring again in half an hour, just to make sure?’ He said, ‘F***, I'm running out of f***ing money here, mate!’ — because back then, you had to put your money in the phone. But he did call back. And so, I took a big swing out of me dad's bottle of whiskey. There was nobody to tell, nobody there — none of the doubters through the years that I would've loved to have walked up to and gone, ‘F*** you and a f*** you too — and you at the end, especially: F*** you!’”

Johnson admits that none of this felt real to him until Malcolm told him, “‘We’re leaving for the Bahamas for six weeks in the studio [to record Back in Black with Lange]. Have you got a passport? Good, then bring that and bring some clothes.’ In my bag I had two pairs of socks, a spare T-shirt, two pairs of underwear, and a hairbrush, plus the shoes that I stood in and a denim bomber jacket. And that was it. That was my luggage. I certainly realized how little I really had in life.” But his life was about to change forever.

Brian Johnson and Angus Young of AC/DC in 2015 (Photo: Martin Philbey/Redferns)
Brian Johnson and Angus Young of AC/DC in 2015 (Photo: Martin Philbey/Redferns)

Johnson certainly couldn’t have predicted that his first album with AC/DC — one of the most successful LPs of all time — would change all of their lives. “At the time I certainly didn't get it, even though it was all rolling along so wonderfully,” he says. But when he played his first public concert with his new bandmates in Belgium on June 29, 1980 — just five months after Scott had played his final show with the band in England — he knew they were onto something.

“I remember being in the dressing room in Belgium, and it was the first time the boys were playing without Bon, so it had to be a big moment in their life as well. The manager kept coming in and going, ‘Hey, listen, we've gotta let another f***ing thousand people in.’ What was supposed to be a 2,000-seat tester — just to test the songs and test the band, that's all it was meant to be — I think at the end was about 6,000 people, all by word of f***ing mouth,” Johnson marvels. “I went out there and I saw all the banners saying ‘R.I.P. Bon,’ but then right in the middle was ‘Good luck, Brian’ — and it was a big one. Back in Black wasn't even out yet, and we did, I think, six songs off that album in front of a crowd that had never heard them — and they went down a f***ing storm.”

And so, the overall message of The Lives of Brian — which chronicles not just Johnson’s career struggles and false starts, but also his hardscrabble childhood in Newcastle — is it's never really too late to realize a dream. In fact, Johnson speculates that he may not have appreciated his AC/DC success if it had happened earlier in his life. “I'd probably be f***ing dead,” he shrugs. “You know, a lot of kids go on the wrong path, so it could have been drugs. It could have been f***ing going mad in a car. I wasn't scared of much then, so who knows? It's a tough question trying to figure out what might have been. But it's all fairy-story stuff, isn't it? It really is.”

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