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Which AC/DC frontman, Bon Scott or Brian Johnson, rules the arena?

The Beatles. Fleetwood Mac. The Who. Maybe Pink Floyd, perhaps the Eagles (if Don Henley doesn’t make you nauseous). Too big for just one mouthpiece, each of these iconic bands was stocked with classic singers. • You can put AC/DC in that high holy mix, as well. With the Aussie rockers booming into Tampa on Sunday, the late Bon Scott and uber-replacement Brian Johnson could be the only men loud, brash and hatter-mad enough to stand up to a rocket-boosted Angus Young guitar solo. Bon, who drank himself to death at the age of 33, and Brian, who took over in 1980, have made their quintet the obvious choice for greatest hard-rock band of all time. • With drool-dripped reverence for both Scott and Johnson, Times pop music critic Sean Daly and Stuck in the ’80s guru Steve Spears sat down for a scholarly debate (and plenty of dorky air-guitar solos) over who is AC/DC’s ultimate frontman. Daly took Scott; Spears opted for Johnson. There is no easy answer; there is only rock.

All Hail Bon Scott (Sean Daly’s take)

1. In 28 years, Brian Johnson has made one great album with AC/DC; in only six years, Bon Scott made three. Although Johnson’s debut with the crew, 1980’s Back in Black, is hard to beat, Scott’s brief reign with AC/DC was punctuated by a trio of unforgettables: 1976’s High Voltage and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (two in one year!) and 1979’s life-affirming Highway to Hell. Johnson’s time with the band is littered with exceptional party hits but mediocre albums. Scott, whose heart, voice and fate were anchored to the poor-boy-blues, rarely wasted a track.

2. When I was 17, I spent the summer as a foreign exchange student in Norway. Yep, total Long Duk Dong action. My host family was anchored by my new “sister” Trine, an oft-topless teen with an intense passion for tanning outside my bedroom window. Anyhoo . . . Trine had a boyfriend (I think his name was Fruita) who loved AC/DC. So as a gift, she knitted him a spectacular Norwegian sweater, the front of which read “Bon Scott R.I.P.” There was even a trickle of blood dripping off the “P.” Let me tell you something: No one’s making a Brian Johnson sweater. Why?

3. Because Bon Scott died. And not from something sensible like a disease or a plane crash. His cause was listed as “death by misadventure.” I hate to be crass, but that’s the coolest bleepin’ thing I’ve ever heard. Booze, partying, dying in a car outside a London pub. Brian Johnson’s bars-and-strip-clubs persona has been vital to the band’s prolonged success. But he’s alive. So no sweater.

4. Brian Johnson knows one speed: the full-throttle rebellion of bad-boy rock ’n’ roll. Great. I love it. But Scott, who somehow made bagpipes sound cool on It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll), was a complex, mysterious musician, almost to an unsettling degree. His finest moment as a singer was not a fast song (although he cooked on Girls Got Rhythm and more), but the last-call despair of the brutal Ride On. Eat your heart out, Muddy Waters.

5 When Bon Scott died, Young brothers Angus and Malcolm went searching for a new singer. They didn’t want to take AC/DC in a new direction. They wanted their friend and their band back. And so the closest thing to Bon’s snarled, scraped plea was Brian Johnson’s giddy screech. With all due respect, Bon was the original, Brian was a copy, albeit a very good one.

All Hail Brian Johnson (Steve Spears’ take)

1. He’s alive! At 61, Brian Johnson dons his signature flat cap, slips on a muscle T-shirt and then sings every night for two hours with a voice that sounds like he just downed eight shot glasses filled with white-hot charcoal.

2. In these days of over-choreographed, Auto-Tuned pop nonsense, don’t you yearn for the grandiose symbols of full-tilt, booze-infused rock-and-roll thunder? Just wait for that magical moment Sunday when Brian lifts Angus onto his shoulders for a jog around the arena. Brian Johnson and AC/DC are THE REASONS people flick their Bics during rock shows.

3. But Johnson remains humble. During an interview a few years ago with the Times’ Stuck in the ’80s podcast, every kind word said about him was greeted with an enthusiastic “Aww, Steve, me boy!” And when AC/DC was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, Johnson kept it short and simple, quoting Bon Scott’s Let There Be Rock, giving a nod to the legend who held the mike before him.

4. He’s one of us! Johnson is now a Florida resident, making a home in Sarasota. (Bassist Cliff Williams also lives in southwest Florida.) Hang out at a local pub any given night and you might get to pound a beer or two with the spritely frontman, who has also been known to take the stage and belt out a tune or two when the spirit(s) hit him.

5. The closing argument? Three words: Back in Black. Johnson joined the band in 1980 and immediately was assigned the gargantuan task of penning lyrics for the album. He sat down in a dingy hotel room on the beach, watching an approaching storm batter the coast and wrote down these words: I’m a rolling thunder, pouring rain. I’m comin’ on like a hurricane. Yep, Hells Bells. The entire album remains a masterpiece, from the title track all the way down to Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution. Case closed.

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Gimme a double

For such a revered act, AC/DC has by far the dumbest double-entendre song titles in the rock canon. Prose-wise, there’s a thin line between Spinal Tap and AC/DC. Here are 10 examples of the Aussie band’s silliest wink-wink wordplay (unless, of course, Angus Young, right, really does have a dog).

10. Whole Lotta Rosie

9. Sink the Pink

8. Givin the Dog a Bone

7. Kissin’ Dynamite

6. Cover You in Oil

5. Love at First Feel

4. Hard as a Rock

3. Let Me Put My Love Into You

2. Beating Around the Bush

1. Big Balls

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The guy’s gotta have it

AC/DC guitarist Angus Young is 53 years old, but he still sports that short-panted schoolboy uniform for every show. It’s looking increasingly creepy, but let’s be honest: His fans would riot if he showed up in anything else.

With Angus coming to town, we started thinking of other sartorial rock staples that have become as mandatory as the songs:

Slash’s top hat: The shaggy guitarist jokes that for all the attention his chapeau gets, “you’d think it could talk.”

Chris Isaak’s mirror-ball suit: The smirky crooner wears this disco-ball dazzler for his encores. When they hit that spotlight — kapow!

Elton John’s sunglasses: It’s not Captain Fantastic without the zany specs.

Flavor Flav’s clock: Chuck D’s hypeman goes nowhere without his chest-plate timepiece.

James Brown’s cape: A rare moment of rest for the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

Freddie Mercury’s crown: King, queen, whatever — Freddie always earned his royal topper.


AC/DC performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $92.25. (813) 301-2500.

Which AC/DC frontman, Bon Scott or Brian Johnson, rules the arena? 12/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 5:31pm]
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