4 July 2015
And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
Whilst my marginally less ancient feet are walking up Olympic Way once more (a mere ten after having last done so), the one man who might be able to answer those questions is doing a decidedly poor show of proving his right to do so. As the sweet summer sun is beating down upon the flagstones of Wembley and the massed battalions of heavy rock are march raucously towards the stadium with all the fervour of Napoleon’s Grand Armée entering Moscow, a lonely Christian preacher on a nearby overpass reads scripture through his loudhailer: “And, as we learn in John 14: 19, ‘Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.’”What’s really irksome is how thoroughly half-hearted he sounds. He is reading with all the devotional fervour of a second year student quoting passages from the current edition of the Handbook of International Public Sector Accounting Pronouncements: “Through these standards, the IPSASB aims to enhance the quality, consistency, and transparency of public sector financial reporting worldwide. The IPSASB also issues guidance and facilitates the exchange of information among accountants and others who work in the public sector and promotes the acceptance of and international convergence towards….zzzzz…..” C’mon man, we’re on a highway to Hell! We need Jimmy Swaggart, not Michael Gove. We’re going to see AC/DC! Tell us about how our immortal souls are damned to burn eternally in Hell and about how the Evil One has taken possession of our hearts, filling them with lustful and drunken thoughts. Give it some fucking welly preacher.
Sadly, welly is demonstrably not his strong suit, and so it is left for us to begin whipping up the mood for ourselves. And so we are. The Metropolitan and Jubilee Line tube trains are arriving nose to tail to disgorge their cargo of expectant rockers out into the west London heat, and the atmosphere, even on the escalators of Wembley Park tube, is already electric. Whilst still on the tube, Fiona and I have been chatting to a couple of guys sitting next to us, and, briefly, spirits have dampened as we all take a collective moment to worry about George Michael’s wellbeing. There is consensus that all is not well for the troubled songsmith. We think he really needs to stop getting loaded and crashing his car into things. The reason for this sudden burst of group analysis is that one of our new friends turns out to be an old school friend of George, and of his erstwhile Wham! compadre, Andrew Ridgley. George was apparently charming, charismatic and effortlessly academic. Ridgley, though, was just a twat. [Note to self – Watch the “Club Tropicana” video online again soon].Heading into the stadium, though, spirits are soaring once more. There is cheering, jeering and leering going on everywhere. Burgers are sizzling on griddles, empty cans of cider are hitting the concourse like ripe berries falling from fecund branches and the click of virtual smartphone camera shutters is almost deafening as selfies are snapped ten to the dozen. Everywhere people are buying red plastic Devil horns and strapping them to their heads; cheap battery-operated tat poured out of some Export Processing Zone on the Guangdong border is the must-have accoutrement for the day. With a flick of the little switch, the horns flash in a lazy 4-4 tempo. The hawkers are having a field day – “Sweet Mary Malulha, this is the one year we don’t have to wait until Halloween to try and flog this crap. Thank you AC/DC.” I’m drinking up all this ambience like an ‘82 Mouton Rothschild. Man, I love this shit.
The one cloud on the horizon is, well, a large cloud on the horizon. A warehouse is ablaze on Wadsworth Road in nearby Perivale. Over 100 firefighters are wrestling the terrifying conflagration into submission, but meanwhile the dense, choking smoke has risen into an enormous dark plume, drifting out over west London like a sinister cloud of post-nuclear fallout. Truly a sight from the end of days.
And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?
Strangely, a squabble of seagulls is wheeling majestically overhead, arcing and banking with nimble and effortless grace around the iconic Wembley Arch, under which the bank of screens aside the stadium proclaim boldly: “AC/DC, Rock or Bust World Tour”. It’s been almost eight years since their last world tour and, with the recently-minted Rock or Bust album in tow, Acca Dacca are back for two dates in the UK and one in Ireland. Having missed them every time they’ve toured in recent years, I made a solemn vow a few years ago that at the next available opportunity, I would put that right. And lo, so it has finally come to pass.Taking our seats on the south side of Wembley’s gaping maw, I think of Alan Rowland. Not that I’ve seen him since about 1983, but bless him. He holds the singular distinction of being the man who first introduced me to AC/DC. I was a callow youth of 14, inordinately proud of my first band T-shirt – a rather natty Bauhaus “Kick in the Eye” affair, with Pete Murphy’s eyes visible in a thin strip along the chest. All things dark, gothic and mysterious were my new chosen milieu. Preferably with razor-sharp cheekbones. If terror couples were killing colonels or if bats were being released, I wanted in on it.Alan, on the other hand, was old school. Literally, he was at my old school. But, more pertinently than that, he was into metal. Emphatically, incontrovertibly, unmistakably, he was into metal. The patches all over his scrotty denim cut-off (worn symbiotically over knackered leather biker jacket, natch) shouted out his allegiances with defiant, greasy-haired pride: Sabbath, Purple, Maiden, Saxon, Rainbow, Venom (ooh, dig the new breed), Scorpions. Christ, Whitesnake might even have been on there somewhere (Whitesnake!). But, the central spot, the largest back panel, the prime inter pares piece of metal real estate was reserved for one thing: the cover of Highway to Hell, the recently-departed Bon Scott (shaggy hair, toothy smile, subtle neck-chain pentagram) grinning out from camera right and Angus Young slap-bang in the middle, curled lip, horns peeking out from beneath his black cap and forked tail held casually in his right hand like a fine James Smith & Sons umbrella.
Now, Coverdale and Byford did nothing for me. I was unmoved by the riffs of Blackmore and Murray. Did they have the chiselled, ghoulish charisma of Murphy or Cave? Or the brooding, jagged elegance of Daniel Ash or Rowland S Howard? Oh no. Decidedly, they did not. I could remain aloof from it, smug in the knowledge that I was training for a life of cool Byronic decadence, not the acne-faced neoteny that such bagatelles represented.But then Alan played me Back in Black. It was neither chiselled, nor ghoulish. It certainly wasn’t brooding or elegant. If there was a spectrum anywhere in the vicinity, it was at completely the opposite end of it. Hell, my spectrometer blew a fuse if I so much as got it out of its case to try and measure the polarity. Back in Black was simple, rowdy, unsophisticated balls-against-the-wall rock and roll. Now I may have been prissy and slightly prejudiced at the time, but fuck, even I could see that. Not that I admitted it at the time, but sat here, high in Gods of Block 524, looking out at the Dionysian spectacle unfolding in front of me, I have to say, “Alan Rowland, I salute you”. Pass me another beer and crank it all the way up to eleven.
And, like a dog sensing the imminent return of a master still out of sight, the enormous crowd begin to cheer and whistle and hoot at the coming of the maestros. A wall of noise rises up like an ocean swell. It is truly deafening. The intro music swirls and pulses, huge screens depict a fiery meteorite burning out of the inky blackness of space and into the atmosphere of planet Earth. It’s coming your way and you’d better be ready for it.Reaching fever pitch, smoke bombs explode and all Hell breaks loose. Onto the stage they come, ripping into the riff of “Rock or Bust”. It is utterly furious. There’s no sense of introduction or mild pre-amble, we are suddenly at maximum acceleration, like a friend picking you up from the station in a Bugatti Veyron and putting the pedal immediately to the metal. I can feel the G-force on my face.
Racing through “Shoot to Thrill” and “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”, I can scarcely draw breath. Noise, sweat, cheering, beering, it’s carnage. And, it’s also absolutely fucking amazing. Then, suddenly, up comes the intro to “Back in Black”. Even the few remaining sitters in the rear rows leap immediately to their feet and, in unison, 85,000 people begin bellowing their lungs out as one: “Back in black/I hit the sack/I been too long/I’m glad to be back/Yes I am.”And so it continues, classic track after classic track, killer riff built upon killer riff. Normally I’d want some sense of architecture in a set list, a modulated dynamic in which quieter moments counterpoint the more intense. But fuck that. This is just Devil take the hindmost, no foreplay, all petit mort. And it’s what we all want. No subtly, no nuance, just our heads cudgelled in by Angus Young’s beautiful black Gibson SG. I haven’t felt an atmosphere like this since the 2012 Olympics. It is escape, pure revelry, a moment of blissful release from the crushing burden of dour ideological propaganda that has been heaped on us these last five years. All provided by a man in a flat cap and another dressed as a schoolboy. You couldn’t make it up. Really.
“Dirty deeds” sings Brian Johnson. “Done dirt cheap” scream back the crowd in delirious ecstasy. At “High Voltage” – a personal favourite of mine – I lose the last vestiges of propriety. Thumping the air? Check. Headbanging? Check. Air guitar? Check. Air guitar! Me! Fuck, I don’t care anymore. This is AC/DC. I look around from time to time (Fiona is away with the spirit of rock), and it is a truly awe-inspiring sight to see that every man jack, woman jack and child jack of us is doing exactly the same thing. Exactly. The hive mind has taken over. As far as the eye can see we are one. And it’s loud. Man, there’s no sense of a distant event here. It’s all around you, the acoustics driving a circumfluent river of riff around the steep banks of seating like a circus stunt rider on a wall of death.Then comes the deep, minatory tolling of a huge bell, and there is no mistaking what is about to happen. I look up at the sky, and at that precise moment the burning orange sun sends its last solar flares through the metal lattice of the stadium, like the blazing disc at the end of The Wicker Man. To the grinding riff of “Hell’s Bells”, I look up at sky and, for a moment, experience a feeling of real transcendence. This is just how such things were always meant to be. Stripping out the jaded, faded feelings of 2015, the sheer glorious, ludicrous, unpretentious power of this music is enough to make me 14 again. God gave rock and roll to ya, gave rock and roll to ya, put it in the soul of everyone…
At “You Shook Me All Night Long” the crowd become, impossibly, even more fevered and possessed. Despite the enormous stage set and impressive pyrotechnics, there is no boundary between performer and audience here, everything has blurred into one huge, organic entity. The camera zooms into audience members and, on seeing herself projected on the screens, fifty feet high, one girl, rocking along merrily atop her boyfriend’s shoulders, whips up her top and bares her breasts at the stadium. A roar of approbation goes up. She understands the Bacchanalia in which we were are all involved, all equal. For tonight, AC/DC are true Levellers.One might question whether this kind of thing was ‘appropriate’ (how I loathe the smothering dead-hand of such an archetypal piece of New Labour Newspeak) for the kids in the audience? And the very fact that there are kids in the audience is true testament to this band’s appeal, their ability to reach out over the decades and pull in legions of converts year after year after year. It’s pleasing to see, (sadly other than in terms of ethnicity), how demographically mixed this audience is. But, really, what kind of appropriate vision would you want your kids to see? A government’s expedient violence, bloodshed and BAE Systems-assisted death on a foreign shore, or togetherness, peace, joy and rock and roll right here, right now (and the odd pair of boobs). What tells you more about the better side of the human race?
For the penultimate track, an age-old ritual is re-enacted, yet always as if for the first time: “Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, ANGUS! Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, ANGUS!” A giant inflatable version of the titular Rosie wafts around at the back of the stage, displaying her ample charms and the audience, singing along, are by now utterly demented, driven to new heights of delirium. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, and this is what it looks like when you get there.
The set closes, appropriately, with “Let There Be Rock”. It is here that Angus Young, with his ‘solo’, takes the show further than I know how to explain. As Mick Jagger drawlingly explains in Nic Roeg’s fractured countercultural underworld masterpiece, Performance, “The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right? Eh?” Well, Mr Turner, what we have here is undoubtedly madness of the highest order. Stripped down to his shorts, straggly balding head, withered, scrawny torso, Angus Young is no-one’s image of a groomed self-aggrandising A-list star. Yet, as any fule kno, that is precisely why we love him. Never speaking, he is our modern Harpo Marx:
Audience: “Who is this?”
Brian Johnson: “This is my partner, but he doesn’t speak.”
Audience: “Oh, that’s your silent partner!”an elongated piece of gymnastics, of clowning, of pantomime: he ascends to the sky on a riser, he battles a cyclone of wind and glitter, he mounts an enormous Blue Cheer wall of Marshall stacks, playing all the while, writhing on the floor, propelling himself around in a circle with his legs. Jesus, it’s exhausting just watching it. In three and half decades of gig-going, only Iggy at his very best has matched this. That’s how physical, how committed, how jaw-droppingly bloody lunatic it is.
I almost can’t take much more. Almost. The inner rocker, the one unleashed a week and a half ago by ZZ Top, the one who seemed so insatiable at the time, whose rock and roll thirst could not be slaked, now looks like Mr Creosote. “Gaston, one more wafer-thin riff for this gentleman”. “Fuck off, I’m stuffed”. Oh, go on then.
And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark Satanic mills?They’re back on for the encore, and the spirit of Bon Scott rises high above the London night. We’re on a “HIGHWAY TO HELL”. And with the darkness of the night, something has happened, something wonderful. A delicate alchemy in which, almost imperceptible, the tawdry flashing plastic Devil horns have turned slowly into a pulsing sea of bioluminescent beauty. The night finishes with “To Those About to Rock, We Salute You”, their tribute to us. In the bi-centennial year of Waterloo it feels rather as though the battle is actually being re-enacted before our very eyes, ending as it does with huge fusillades of canon-fire, smoke and confusion. It ends, not with a whimper, but with a bang. If TS Eliot had lived long enough, he would have seen his vision of the Wasteland disproved by this bunch of Anglo-Aussie louts.
Spewed out of the stadium into the Wembley night, we descend – as after the ZZ Top gig – on the small branch of Sainsbury that, curiously, sits on the plaza in front of the venue. Far from being dug in and clad in kevlar body armour, the staff are extremely welcoming. They have to regulate the numbers going in, so legion are we, but smilingly they chat with everyone, asking how the gig was and displaying a grace under pressure which should undoubtedly make them a shoo-in at the next set of corporate retail excellence awards. “Sorry to keep you waiting”, says the woman at the till. Sorry? No need to be sorry luv, there are 700 rowdy people packed into this tiny shop with three tills. You’re a bloody national treasure. I’m betting no amount of customer service training included an ‘AC/DC scenario’. The shop itself becomes a party, boisterous, happy locusts stripping the shelves bare of anything edible. No rhyme nor reason. Preposterously unlikely pairings, whatever is to hand. Doritos and fig jam? Hell, sounds good, why not?a copper pulls out his smartphone, brings up “Thunderstruck” on YouTube and puts it to his bullhorn. The crowd go mental, cheering, clapping and singing along. In one small act of understanding and solidarity, that one PC has done more for the image of the Met than any number of glossy, million-pound ad campaigns. This isn’t a kettle, this is a party! Suddenly the wait doesn’t seem so bad.
“I was caught
In the middle of a railroad track. (Thunder)
I looked round
And I knew there was no turning back (Thunder)”
Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire,
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land.
I can’t believe how moving it sounds, nor how inspiring it is to hear it being sung now in such circumstances, at the end of such a perfect night.
We live in positively Orwellian times these days, when our ‘way of life’ is presented to us as being constantly under threat by the dark forces of ‘terrorism’. Nameless, faceless, we must be ever more vigilant, ever more suspicious of those that would overrun our defences and enslave us. What they want, and why they want it is not up for any kind of rational debate. Do we seek first to understand, then to be understood? We do not. We are told to reach first for the laser-guidance mechanism of a Tomahawk missile. This is Orwell’s Two Minute Hate, Britain as Airstrip One, where the face of Emmanuel Goldstein has been replaced by that of Al-Qaeda, which turns slowly into that of the Taliban and then again into that of Islamic State. Few can, or will, question why or how this is happening. As soon as the capacity of one ‘terror organisation’ to ‘threaten our way of life’ is ‘degraded’, another springs up in its wake, like a new head on the Lernaean Hydra. As if our social bonds were really that weak. Just look around at this evening.
As a result, despite the fact that the much-underrated British value of Stiff Upper Lip carried us through the Luftwaffe’s death from above, and years of Irish Republican bombing with our dignity intact, these days we must all be treated like scared children, our liberties quietly, but surely, eroded and our information channels carefully ‘managed’. Take Libya: a perfect example. Gaddafi is an arch sponsor of terror said Thatcher in the wake of Yvonne Fletcher and Lockerbie. Flash forward some twenty years, and there is a different view, a different prime minister, this time one who is embracing him and writing to him officially to say “[Your] support – and the excellent co-operation of your officials with their British colleagues – is a tribute to the strength of the bilateral relationship which has grown up between the United Kingdom and Libya…As you know, I am determined to see that partnership develop still further.” It was signed “Best wishes, yours ever, Tony.” How nice. Flash forward another four years and we’re bombing the fuck out of it until it becomes a mangled Hell of bloody mayhem. Go back to sleep, forget the past, there is only an eternal present in which we will give your new opinion to you. You will be expected to release the old one without question and cleave to the new one with joy. Even if it is itself the most soulless, joyless thing you can possibly ever fucking imagine.It doesn’t take much for evil – real evil – to make the headlines. Seifeddine Rezgui, an ‘alienated’ youth (Alienated? Really? Well, get to the back of the queue mate, what makes you so special?) runs amok in Tunisia, and it is touted as further proof that the UK needs to be on a permanent war footing, engaged in an ‘generational’, Huntington-esque clash of civilisations. Although, as always, no-one could put so much as a name to those supposed to be the enemy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no apologist for fundamentalism abroad (nor, indeed, at home), but is that really the best vision anyone has to offer the people of Britain? After two thousand years of our island’s history, slap bang in the middle of the 800 year celebration of Magna Carta, does no-one have a more positive or inspiring narrative to put forward than that of endless religious divide and economic austerity?
Well, fuck them all then. Tonight is what something better might look like. It is not a fanciful comparison, it is one shared and recognised implicitly by the crowd’s rendition of “Jerusalem”. We all feel it. This is what close on a hundred thousand people look like when they come together in peace and unity in order to celebrate their ‘shared values’. And as an example, it’s a pretty fucking good one, more positive and hopeful than anything Cameron or Osborne or their wealthy snouts-in-the-trough ilk have to offer. To subvert Orwell’s subversion, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping out the rhythm to ‘Back in Black’ – forever.” So put a picture of this up on the broadsheet front pages and the 24-hour rolling news channels, because Angus’s SG will beat IS’s AK any day of the week. And then some.When, finally, we really apply ourselves to building Jerusalem here in England’s green and pleasant land – playing international mediator rather than policeman, manufacturing things instead of gambling on speculative financial services, investing in our infrastructure instead of selling it – we’ll have AC/DC blasting out of the stereo as we hew the granite blocks with which to do so.
Stepping into the train, whisked quickly away south on the Jubilee Line, my heart is sad that tonight ever has to come to an end.
-Words: David Solomons-
-Pictures: David Solomons, Alex Pym, Lily Pym-