5 Things I Learned About Writing from AC/DC

When I was 19, I was way into AC/DC. I wouldn’t date a guy who didn’t own Highway to Hell on vinyl or cassette. Not because I was a spoiled brat, although I suppose I was at 19. But because the album meant so much to me. If we didn’t connect on this most basic level, what was the point? I’m no longer 19, but I’m still an AC/DC fan, and I have been for more years than I care to count and through untold ups and downs.

I was thinking about this the other morning–what hooked me about this band and this album? What could I learn from that? And how could I harness the power of AC/DC’s effect on 19-year-old me in my writing?

I still own Highway to Hell on vinyl, so I listened again, and here’s what I came up with:

1. Simple does the trick. When I wanted to learn to play the bass guitar, my drummer friend Mark W. told me to start with an AC/DC song. “Their songs are so basic,” he said. American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine recently wrote: “AC/DC’s rock was minimalist–no matter how huge and bludgeoning their guitar chords were, there was a clear sense of space and restraint.” In a 2008 article for The Guardian (“Things really must be bad–AC/DC are No 1 again“), British rock critic Alexis Petridis wrote that AC/DC’s music is “wilfully basic,” a band to turn to “when the world appears on the brink of chaos.”

Listening again, Mark W. and the critics who recognize AC/DC’s intentional simplicity are right. And yet, the simple notes and chords and beats are strung together in ways that are sometimes thrilling, sometimes harsh, sometimes sexy, sometimes menacing, always charged with electricity. Always powerful. AC/DC’s songs aren’t complex or fancy, but they don’t need to be to move listeners. And writing doesn’t need to be complicated or sophisticated or grandiose to move readers.

Photo Credit: Jim Houghton


2. Readers are loyal. When AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott died in February of 1980, my friends and I were distraught. Our friend Cary H. rode his motorcycle in the pouring rain to Hartnell College in Salinas, California, to pull me and my best friend Kathy W. out of typing class. He wanted to break the bad news before we heard it somewhere else. We all gathered in a friend’s garage to jam all night and mourn together. We loved Bon Scott and knew no one could ever replace him, and AC/DC felt the same way.

AC/DC considered disbanding after Bon Scott’s death, but ultimately knew that’s not what Scott would have wanted. They chose a new lead singer who, Angus Young said, was not “just a perfect imitation of” Scott, but who had similar qualities and who was someone Scott had actually admired. Scott is the one who’d told them about Brian Johnson’s distinct voice, and Johnson was an Australian who embodied Scott’s spirit, as well as the band’s. They recorded Back in Black with their new vocalist, released it in the summer of 1980 with an all-black album cover, and dedicated it to Scott’s memory.

What can writers learn from this? If you’re honest with your readers, respect them, and give them what they are looking for, they will be loyal to you and will follow you wherever you go. For AC/DC, this meant fans mourned Scott, but embraced Back in Black and AC/DC’s new lead singer because they trusted AC/DC to be respectful of Scott, thoughtful about the way they moved forward, and considerate of the fans. For writers this means that, if your readers trust you, and if you respect that trust, you can try new things in your writing and lead your readers in new directions.

Photo Credit: Bridgeman Images


3. It’s all in the voice. The things AC/DC writes about–sex, rock and roll, flaunting convention, misbehaving, partying, being badass–aren’t all that unique. What made AC/DC special in 1979 was the band’s heavy rock guitar, courtesy of brothers Malcolm Young (rhythm) and Angus Young (lead); Bon Scott’s unique rasp and growl; Phil Rudd’s measured involvement of the kick and snare drums; Cliff Williams’ rhythmic downpicking on bass. What makes AC/DC special in 2022 is the same, except that Malcolm Young’s nephew Stevie Young has replaced him on rhythm guitar (RIP Malcolm) and the unique rasp and growl belong to Brian Johnson (RIP Bon). Scott’s and Johnson’s voices are different, but similar enough to capture the essence of what AC/DC is about.

A writer’s voice is what sets them apart, too. “A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.” (“Writer’s Voice: ‘Intolerance and Love in Jamaica,'” by Katherine Schulten for The New York Times.) It can take many, many years for a writer to find their voice. But with practice, it will come, and that is when the writing really takes off and becomes something special.


4. Writing is for the readers. Like I said, AC/DC’s song topics aren’t unique. Their songs embody the usual teenage anthems, but they encapsulate the kind of powerful calls to action that remain meaningful to us, through adulthood and beyond–no matter our ages, we remember how it felt not to be beholding to anyone or anything, and we yearn for that kind of freedom again. AC/DC gives listeners what they want.

Successful authors don’t write to the market. They remain true to themselves and their own voices. But if they want their stories to be read, they remember that they aren’t writing for themselves alone. They are writing for their readers. So they don’t write in a way that is cutesy or condescending or shuts readers out. They write in a way that lets readers in, makes readers a part of the action, allows readers to feel something. It’s that connection and partnership that build a bond between writer and reader.

Photo Credit: Josh Cheuse


5. It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll). Actually, after AC/DC formed in 1973, it only took them three years to become one of the most popular bands in Australia, score a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and get worldwide distribution of their music. But they’re the exception rather than the rule, and that doesn’t mean those three years were easy. For a musician, “overnight” success is particularly grueling–it means nonstop touring, starting in their hometown and gradually expanding out to other venues. During those early years, AC/DC played live shows every night, giving their all even in seedy venues with few patrons. Next year marks the band’s 50-year anniversary, and they’ve toured hard for most of those 50 years.

Bon Scott, Angus Young, and Malcolm Young wrote “It’s a Long Way to the Top” in 1975, to commemorate those early years. Scott taught himself to play the bagpipes–he played them on the recording and live in about 30 performances. Out of respect for Scott, Brian Johnson doesn’t perform the song.

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll
It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

If you think it’s easy doing one night stands
Try playing in a rock-roll band

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

Most artists spend many years painting, sculpting, or writing in solitude and without acknowledgment, and enduring a great deal of hardship, before they reach a modicum of success. It takes a special kind of tenacity to become a successful artist, as well as an understanding of what success means to you. And it takes hard-rock stamina to maintain and to keep building on that success. The lesson to take from AC/DC, writers, is to give it your all, each and every day, to be consistent, and to keep working hard even when you feel discouraged. Keep the faith, and trust in the process–if you continue to put in the work, you will get there. It probably won’t happen overnight, but that will make it all the sweeter when it does.

This is the official video for AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” It’s one of my favorite AC/DC songs–the call and response between the bagpipes and guitar is amazing!