Red beats black

AC-DC

You need a big personality to front one of the world’s biggest rock bands. AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson is a man who loves to tell a story just as much as he loves to race a car. Add his passion for the Prancing Horse and Italian family background, and you have the perfect ingredients for an exclusive Official Ferrari Magazine interview

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

As regular readers will no doubt be aware, the usual format for these pieces is a sort of informal interview/conversation, with a few starter questions in order to maintain some kind of continuity between the subjects. On meeting Brian Johnson, singer and frontman with AC/DC, whose 1980 album Back In Black is the second-biggest selling album of all time, it quickly became apparent that this formula was not only out of the window, it was also

escaping down the street at high speed. What transpired was closer to being provided

with a golden circle ticket (that’s one of the expensive front row ones with after-show

hospitality for those unfamiliar with modern rock concert parlance) and simply letting Brian, the great showman, take centre stage. By the time we got to middle distance we had still to unravel the very first question about his relationship with Ferrari. On the other hand, we’d done Newcastlenightclubs, the curious nature of rock drummers, and the wonderful story of his AC/DC audition. We had also been exposed to an innumerable cast of characters all played expertly by Brian, including New Zealanddrummers, various Italian designers and engineers, and most of his family and friends from the north of England. I’m not sure how Maranello will take to the description of a 246 Dino’s leather interior as ‘matching the fake tan of the owner’s girlfriend’, but I have an uneasy feeling it might be a car I once owned… What did come over was a real passion for the sheer pleasure of driving and racing, which Brian has been doing rather successfully in the US Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR) series. For me, this makes him, perhaps, the most simpatico of all my interviewees of the past five years. I absolutely recognised that total respect from someone at the top of his occupation, for the drivers who are at the top of theirs. It’s all there in his highly amusing automotive memoir, Rockers And Rollers. Although there is an assumption that rock music and exotic cars are all part of the package, it’s the guys who go racing that I forge a special bond with. It’s nothing to do with how good you are; it’s that commitment to inevitably frightening yourself, possibly getting hurt and, worst of all, making a fool of yourself. I loved Brian’s story of dealing with the smug

pro driver with a mixture of modesty and diplomacy that got the entire grid on to his side before the race started. I also recognised he had the personality to ensure the great drivers were only too happy to help and contribute to his learning and enjoyment. That goodwill has to be earned: it doesn’t come in return for a ticket and T-shirt. There’s also a clear understanding and affection for engineering . A particularly useful facet to have if racing as well as paying for it! The assumption that there must be something wrong with the oil pressure gauge if it’s stuck on zero is not the method of endearing yourself to your mechanics.

If any reader feels short-changed by the lack of specific answers to the usual questions, I

apologise, but I really think the content more than makes up for it… One more thing: while reading, imagine Brian leaping animatedly from foot to foot, then intersperse with salty language.  Thanks Brian. Great day out! I’ve already put in an application for the next show.

Nick Mason Let’s start where we often do, by pinpointing your relationship with Ferrari.

Brian Johnson The first Ferrari I saw, back in the early 1970s, was a Dino, which was owned by

a nightclub owner inNewcastle. I think his girlfriend’s fake tan was the same colour as the

leather interior. The Dino struck me in the same way that the Citroën DS had: it was otherworldly.

Who made these cars? It certainly wasn’t anyone from Vickers or Austin! Then I saw Malcolm

Macdonald, the footballer. He came ripping down the road in his Ferrari… it was the noise as much as anything. AC/DC’s drummer Phil Rudd loves his cars, and he had a 308 GTB. He would ask members of the band if they wanted to go for a drive. Well, Angus [Young] would feign a bilious attack, Mal [Malcolm Young] was practising the guitar on Hell’s Bells, I’d be rearranging my fridge magnets – anything to get away from Phil. I remember he bought a 250 California, we were in Monte Carlo, and we looked out of the hotel window to see him trying to get two leggy birds into it. ‘You can’t do that, you daft sod…’ we shouted, but off he went [mimicks V12 engine sound] and 10 seconds later there’s an almighty crrruummp. He’d driven it into a fountain! Water everywhere, the women are screaming. He bought a 599 GTB last year, he’s just bought an F40 – I’d been looking for one and he beat me to it – and a 458 Italia. He bought 11 cars recently, all sorts of things.

NM It’s people like that who keep car dealers alive.

BJ: [laughs] My wife Brenda bought an Audi R8 and it’s fantastically technically fabulous but also

the 458 Italia, I have to say, I think it’s the best-driving car I’ve ever been in.

fantastically jerky. I was expecting the same when I got the Ferrari 458, but, I have to say, I think it’s the best-driving car I’ve ever been in. I drove it toFranceearlier this year, and I had a smile on my face a mile wide when we got off the Eurostar and on to those French motorways. Because the roads are so much better over there, so much smoother, and they’re empty! I was in heaven.

The Official Ferrari Magazine: British roads are a challenge… When did you get your first Ferrari?

BJ: This is it. I was always worried about them, especially how to take care of them. Which was a

bit silly, especially living in theUS. I always used to buy British – Aston Martins and Bentleys and so on. But these new Ferraris are super-clever. Like the FF, for example. Have you driven that, Nick?

NM: Yes. It’s incredible. It’s one of the few cars where you’ll actually be quicker with the electronics left switched on than off. You can get it out of shape.

The FF looks kind a brutal, stunning. I’m very taken with it, I must say.

BJ: I’m thinking of buying one in theUS as a grand touring car. We’ll actually be able to take friends out for dinner in it. And it looks kind a brutal, stunning. I’m very taken with it, I must say.

TOFM: Is it the engineering or aesthetics that do it for you, Brian? You sound like someone who takes his driving very seriously.

BJ: Oh aye, I do. I drove the 458 up toHaydonBridge recently, on the beautiful A69 road, halfway

betweenNewcastleandCarlisle. It was a Roman road originally, built to move supplies along,

which was then modernised by Cromwell. Of course, it’s as straight as an arrow. You can leave

the ground and bottom out, if you’re going fast enough, but the Ferrari didn’t. It was actually quite a strange sensation, almost terrifyingly good. Brenda was screaming at me the whole time to

slow down. So I left her at the side of the road, by a reservoir, and I said, ‘Don’t worry love, I’ll be back! I’m off for a drive…’ Then you go through all these little hamlets and villages with shops that sell cheese and pies and all sorts of fantastic stuff. That’s before you get to what the locals call The

You drive it and you realise that you’re in this heady territory that very few people in the world can afford

Tops, which is like Siberia orNorway. No trees, just moorland. Amazing. Then you head down again towards the Lake District towards the M6 and suddenly you’re inSwitzerland– it’s  witchback, corner, switchback. You go under the M6 and end up in a wee place called Underskiddaw. Wonderful name. The 458 is so beautiful I had to get out and take a picture of it meself. And I’m not usually like that, but that’s what the Ferrari does to you. You drive it and you realise that you’re in this heady territory that very few people in the world can afford. In fact, even if they can afford it, they still don’t do it because they don’t appreciate it. People

who sit in the back of a car and get other people to drive for them. What’s that about?

NM: People always put rock ’n’ roll together with fast cars and all the rest of it, but the number of

people who actually put on the fireproofs and race is very limited. This makes you a bit special.

BJ: Aye, I suppose so. My first race was in 1998, in a Lotus Cortina MK1. I found it on a lawn in Sarasota, in Florida, got it for $200, the guy didn’t know what the hell it was. It was a rust-bucket, but I restored it with my mechanic, Thomas. It was like a brick to drive, but it taught me everything. I was at Daytona in it, Hurley Haywood was there [five times Daytona winner and Le Mans veteran], he was racing a Porsche 962. I said, ‘Do you fancy a co-drive?’ He said, ‘Love to.’ And we won. Well, he won. Jim Clark’s widow was there and after the race, she said, ‘Jim would have been very proud…’ I nearly cried. What a moment! Hurley taught me a simple thing: ‘Brian, just get everything done before the corner. Get everything done…’

TOFM: That’s very good advice. Was someone like Jim Clark a significant childhood hero for you? BJ: Jim, oh aye. Fangio. Tazio Nuvolari [rolls the words for full effect]. He had strength, like a bull.

The more I read about those guys, wow…

NM: How did you find out about Nuvolari?

BJ: Well, my mum was Italian, from Frascati, from quite a wealthy family. She fell in love with my dad, and ended up moving to a mining village called Dunston. Her family didn’t talk to her for years. Anyway, she gave me a book, in Italian, which made it even more mystifying. They all had these white eyes. The only people I’d seen like that until that point were mine-workers! Nuvolari was chiselled. They were proper heroes, those guys. That drive Fangio did – the 1957 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, wasn’t it? He was going faster, faster and faster. Senna probably had that thing, that feel for a car when it’s right on the limit. I think Alonso’s got some of that about him, too.

NM: Who turned you on to racing?

BJ: Brenda bought me a Skip Barber [DrivingSchool] weekend. I came fourth in the race at the

end of it, up against guys who were about the same as me. I thought, ‘I’m not bad. I’m not that good  either but…’ This racing thing is harder than you’dthink. I thought it was all about who could go the fastest, and that’s just nonsense. So then I realised I wasn’t very good at all going in and out of the  corners. I was braking too early, too late, falling off the track… It’s like anything else in my life, I wanted to get good at it. Because I knew I was never going to make it as a golfer, or indeed

anything to do with a ball. [Laughs raucously]

TOFM: Motor racing is like that. If it gets to you, it really gets to you. You just want more and more…

NM: Yes, but then we’ve met people who love the cars but don’t want to go racing. Eric [Clapton] had no interest in it. Nor does Chris Evans. One of the things I like about the sport is that racers tend not to be big headed, it’s all proven on the track.

BJ: When the flag drops, the bullshit stops. Racing inEngland is extremely competitive. It’s a bit more social inAmerica. When I got my first podium finish – second – and all I got was a wee medal, the feeling was incredible. Being at the pointy end of the grid is wonderful. The biggest gig we played was to a million and a quarter people inMoscow. But there I was on the podium with my medal.

NM: For me, it was when I got my BRDC [British Racing Driver’s Club] membership. It beat

everything. What we do is an amazing experience. You couldn’t really call it a job, and we’re very

lucky. But it’s also an experience that’s shared with other people. When you’re racing, and you cross  the line or end up on the podium, you’ve done it.

TOFM: So, you have the Ferrari. You also own a Rolls-Royce Phantom and a 1928 Bentley 4.5-litreLe Mans tourer that you famously use to drive to the shops. Don’t you also have a classic Lola?

BJ: I do. A T70 MK1, that keeps trying to kill me. I love it, but I hate it, if you know what I mean. It’s

chassis number 15, the last one ever made, and it was lost for 32 years. The other guys in my team

have ex-Surtees and ex-Dan Gurney Lolas. I gave my mate John a private detective fee to find this car,  and he discovered it in a barn inConnecticut. Still had the Ford engine, when most had Chevy

V8s put in them. He brought it down to Predator Racing, based near me, and told me the guy

wanted $250,000 for it. So I went up to see it, very excitedly. ‘Where is it?’ I said. ‘It’s in those boxes,’ John replied. ‘In fucking boxes?? Where are all the shiny bits?’ I said to him [laughs raucously again]. It came with a 1965 copy of Hot Rod magazine and a slot car model of it, with a photo of Bob Bondurant. Ronnie Bucknum raced it as well, before he went toJapan with Honda. It’s the only car I’ve ever seen with three DNFs and two DNSs on its history. Great provenance, that! So, I thought, I’d better do something about that. I drove it at Road Atlanta, but couldn’t get it to engage second gear. The guy who was showing me how to drive it said, ‘Ah, you’re used to driving cars with more power Brian, this is all torque.’ I think he was suggesting I didn’t have the necessary finesse to drive it, and he’d be right… I know where my talent ends and luck takes over! Anyway, I was  coming down the main straight and I thought I’d give second gear another go. I was holding on to the wheel so hard that when I did give second another go the whole gear lever came off in my hand, the connecting rod and everything. When I eventually came to a halt in the pit lane, a marshal shouted at me, ‘Move that car!’ I was still shaking, and I said, ‘You fucking move it!’

TOFM: Does the colossal success of AC/DC ever surprise you? What’s the secret?

BJ: Well, it took 25 years longer for theUK to get us. We were called heavy metal. Heavy rock.

Everything but what we were, which is a simple rock ’n’ roll band with simple tunes. Phil, our

drummer, plays so far behind the beat it’s a wonder he hasn’t fallen off his stool. He plays

with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth the whole set. But people ask me, ‘How do you get rock

’n’ roll to swing like you guys do?’ Because of Phil, as simple as that. He left the band for a while in the 1980s and it just wasn’t the same. A band is the sum of the separate parts. It just works.

TOFM: Yet, when you joined you were replacing Bon Scott, filling some mighty big shoes. How did

the band approach you about joining them?

BJ: That was a miracle. I actually said no to begin with, you see. I’d been in a pop band, Geordie, and we’d had three top 10 hits, but I’d left with less money than I had when I started. It was nonsense, bullshit. So I’d started my own business, North East Vinyls, doing vinyl roofs, and repairing cars. I’m a design engineer by trade, I designed turbines, so I was doing OK with my own thing. I was enjoying myself when I got the call to audition for the band. And then the phone rang, and it was a German woman asking me to come to London for an audition. Then a friend asked me to sing on a Hoover commercial – for £350 and petrol money – so I thought, I can do the advert then pop over afterwards to Vanilla Studios for the audition. I can still remember the lines I had to sing for that commercial! [sings: ‘the new high-power mover from Hoover/it’s a beautiful mover…’] Anyway, I did the audition and sang Nutbush City Limits. Two weeks later I was in Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. Of course, they didn’t tell me they didn’t have any lyrics. They had this tune Back In Black and the next one was You Shook Me All Night Long. ‘That’s a bit of a mouthful’, I said. I thought it was an awful title. I went to my room that night and wrote the words in about half an hour. I wrote this nonsense… “I got nine lives/cat’s eyes…” (Back In Black). “She was a fast machine/she kept her motor clean” (You Shook Me All Night Long).

Hell’s Bells was to do with that old English saying, “hell’s bells and buckets of shit”. I thought I was

going to get turfed out the next day! I showed the guys these lyrics and said, ‘what do you reckon?’ They said they didn’t have time to look at them!

TOFM: When did you think you’d finally made it?

BJ: You’re talking about a guy here who had owned nothing but second-hand cars at the time.

I remember getting back toLondonfrom theBahamas, and Peter Mensch [AC/DC’s then

manager] said to me, ‘Brian, what are you doing now?’ I told him that I had to go back up to

Newcastleto see how my business was going. I really didn’t know whether it was going to last with the band. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you take the company Mercedes?’ I said, ‘Is it insured? Has it got any petrol?’ It was my first posh car. It had proper buttons on the dashboard, not just blank spaces where the buttons should be. I drove all the way up the M1 shaking. I thought, ‘This time I think there might be some money here, y’know’.

Da issue 20, yearbook 2012

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  • Gregg Park

    Brian Johnson is always a great interview and story teller. Very enjoyable read here.