During a trek to Mount Everest base camp in 2009, I met a young Sherpa wearing an AC/DC T-shirt beneath his jacket.
He spoke next to no English and I’m not well versed in Nepali, but the words “Highway to Hell” soon transcended the language barrier – and made for some award-winning air guitar 5000 metres above sea level.
And just like the world’s highest mountain, it was a long way to the top for AC/DC, the migrant kids from Scotland who built rock’n’roll in Australia from the ground up and then took the world by storm.
And as proof of that, AC/DC have chalked up 200 million album sales in 40 years.
But such statistics merely reflect the unprecedented influence the band has had on the international musical landscape.
AC/DC delivered an aggressive take on rock’s raw essentials with driving rhythms, slicing guitar riffs and lyrics about sex, booze and rock’n’roll.
More than three decades of sell-out concerts demonstrate the savage effectiveness of their simple but intoxicating sing-along choruses that translated worldwide in a way INXS or Kylie Minogue never would.
When Malcolm and Angus Young migrated as children from Glasgow to suburban Sydney in 1963, they hadn’t yet discovered the versatility of school uniforms and bagpipes.
Their elder brother George was a talented guitarist who would soon have No.1 hits (including Friday On My Mind) with his group The Easybeats.
Music-obsessed teenagers Malcolm and Angus founded AC/DC in 1973.
As far as rock stars went AC/DC weren’t all that cool, eschewing the glamour and complex guitar solos of many other artists of the time.
After recruiting lead singer Dave Evans, the band earned a local reputation for the raucous concerts they gave in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
It was their sister Margaret who suggested that diminutive 18-year-old Angus perform in his school uniform.
Even in his 50s, Angus still bounced around on stage in his trademark school tie, jacket and shorts.
“Most of the time I’m quiet, but when I put on that suit it gives me that kind of confidence,” he said in 2008.
When Evans was replaced in 1974 by another Scottish-born musician, the gap-toothed Bon (Ronald) Scott, the band’s success snowballed.
The Young brothers decided Evans was a bit too glam-rock, whereas Scott had the look of someone who’d give you a Glasgow kiss any minute.
It was more their vibe – so were his outrageously tight jeans – and the group stabilised in 1975 with bassist Mark Evans and drummer Phil Rudd to release their scattershot debut album, High Voltage.
But it was their second album, TNT, in 1976 that set the tone for the sound and mood Acca Dacca would carry through the rest of the decade.
It included perennial anthem It’s A Long Way To The Top, the R&B-infused single that pared rock right down the basics and included bagpipes.
Just as they were on the verge of superstardom – in 1979 their Highway To Hell album hit the US Top 20 – Scott died suddenly after a night out in London in February 1980.
His untimely death only served to galvanise the group: their 1980 album Back In Black, which was dedicated to Scott, became their most critically acclaimed.
Including the hits Hells Bells, Shoot to Thrill and You Shook Me All Night Long, the album sold 20 million copies and ranked on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the `80s.
Rolling Stone described Back In Black as “the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre”.
It helped that Scott’s successor, Brian Johnson, could scream ferociously. He had to, just to be heard above the deafening thunder of the Young brothers’ guitars.
Johnson helped boil Acca Dacca down to its simple best as they unleashed on America.
For a group living all over the world and fronted by an Englishman, AC/DC’s Australian roots were forgotten by some fans.
But their 1988 induction into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame will ensure it’s cemented there for good.
Fifteen years later they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Money was never a problem for AC/DC: the “Thunder from Down Under” reportedly grossed more than $450 million on their last world tour between 2008 and 2010, performing for nearly five million people.
AC/DC’s commercial success flew in the face of conventional music-industry wisdom: right up until 2012, the band refused to sell its music for download online.
But their eccentric, off-beat style is the very reason AC/DC’s music will continue to be played everywhere from downtown New York to the peaks of the Himalayas.
BRAS, SUPERHEROES AND DICTATORS – SOME RANDOM FACTS ABOUT AC/DC:
* Malcolm and Angus Young named the band AC/DC in 1973 after their older sister Margaret saw the initials – which stand for “alternating current/direct current” – on a sewing machine.
* They played their first gig at Sydney’s Bondi Lifesaver on New Year’s Eve, 1973, one month after they formed.
* Malcolm Young’s first job after dropping out of school at 15 was as a machine maintenance engineer for bra company Berlei.
* Before Angus Young started wearing his trademark school uniform on stage he tried out a number of other outfits including Spider-Man, Zorro and gorilla costumes, and a parody of Superman.
* They nearly sacked Bon Scott after the frontman overdosed on heroin in Melbourne in 1975. “There were some doubts about Bon at that stage,” former bass guitarist Mark Evans said in biography The Youngs: the brothers who built AC/DC. “He’d had a problem or he’d had an OD very early on. It was just a dabble … Bon just made a bad decision. It was only one bad decision.”
* Angus Young still has the late ’60s Gibson SG he bought from a music shop near his family’s Sydney home when he was 16. To this day it remains one of his main go-to guitars. “I think it was the little devil horns (that sold me),” Young said in 2010. “I’ve still got it and it’s still my favorite guitar of them all.”
* A 1976 review of their first album in Rolling Stone declared, “Hard Rock has unquestionably hit its all-time low”. When they band released Back in Black (1980) the magazine praised it as “the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre”. In 2004 they ranked No.72 on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, before finally appearing on the cover in 2008.
* After Brian Johnson’s British band Geordie split and before he got the gig with AC/DC, the singer ran a vinyl car-roofing business in the northeast of England.
*In 1989, the US military blared AC/DC music and other artists at General Manuel Noriega’s compound in Panama for two days straight. The dictator surrendered.
* The Back In Black album has achieved RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) Double Diamond status for sales in excess of 22 million copies in the US, and is America’s fifth largest-selling album ever.
* AC/DC has sold nearly 71 million albums in the US alone, making them one of the five top-selling bands in American music history. They have sold more than 200 million worldwide.
* The band were reportedly invited to the Sydney 2000 Olympics closing ceremony, but turned down the invitation because the organisers insisted they mime rather than play live.
* They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
* AC/DC has their own beer in Germany and wine in the US. They also produced a Back in Black Shiraz from the Barossa Valley in 2010.
* Current members of the band are Angus Young (1973-present), Malcolm Young (1973-present), Phil Rudd (1975-1983, 1994-present), Cliff Williams (1977-present), Brian Johnson (1980-present).