Left: Gay Mercader, music promoter
MADRILEÑOS like their metal: if there is another European capital that has a major city-center nightclub (We Rock) dedicated to the memory of Ronnie James Dio (1942–2010), I’m unaware of it. In a recent interview with the British weekly rock magazine Kerrang!, AC/DC’s erstwhile schoolboy and lead guitarist Angus Young was asked to describe the essence of rock ’n’ roll. His response was the band’s 1981 Madrid debut, during which the riot police intervened as non-ticket holders attempted to literally break down the doors in order to bolster an already rabid and over-packed crowd. As Spain underwent its transition to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, concerts were frequently riotous and intermittently violent events at which a police force versed in public order and crowd control during Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship (1939–1975) were only too keen to intervene. The Beatles may have toured Spain in 1965, but it was the arrival of the Rolling Stones in Barcelona in 1976 that marked the country’s beginning as a major stopping point on European tour itineraries.
Leeds undergraduate, Giselle Boxer, makes some new Spanish friends on her year abroad in Madrid. © Giselle Boxer
Conventional wisdom attributes this to General Franco’s death and the end of strict state censorship. In reality, it had more to do with logistics than legalities: Gay Mercader, the country’s first professional concert promoter, set about creating an infrastructure and industry pretty much from scratch. Previously, even major venues were not electrically grounded, and international bands were perhaps understandably less predisposed than their Spanish counterparts to risk electrocution. Mercader enticed over an impressive range of artists from Bob Dylan to AC/DC, Bob Marley to Bruce Springsteen — I guess the bar to make your mark is set high when your immediate family includes the film director Vittorio De Sica and Trotsky’s assassin. Musicians who arrived at this pivotal period in the country’s history have been rewarded with a phenomenal loyalty that has not gone unnoticed: it is no coincidence that Patti Smith began the European trek of her 2015 Horses tour in Barcelona. The punk poetess first played there in 1976, and she has returned repeatedly, invariably paying homage to her debut concert in the Catalan capital and to Mercader, the man she describes as her “twin black angel.” Since their inaugural tour of duty, AC/DC went on to film their 1996 No Bull DVD at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring and have a street named after them in Leganés, a working-class town in the commuter belt. Alongside Paris and Munich, the Spanish capital forms a unique triumvirate of cities in which the Antipodean metal giants have scheduled two concerts on their current Rock or Bust European stadium tour.
Mercader sold his business to Live Nation in 2006, but AC/DC’s return lured him out of retirement. In a country badly affected by the global financial meltdown, the fact that over 150,000 tickets priced at upwards of seventy euros for a concert at Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium and two at the Vicente Calderón Stadium in Madrid sold out in under an hour is remarkable. The metal giants might ostensibly be one of the few constants in a world constantly in flux, except that things aren’t quite what they used to be. Founding member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young departed the band some time after the grueling 2008–2010 Black Ice tour finally came to an end in Bilbao, with the subsequent disclosure that he was suffering from the onset of dementia. Never prone to sentimentality (they paid tribute to original singer Bon Scott, who died of acute alcohol poisoning, with a ditty titled “Have a drink on me” on 1980’s Back in Black, the second biggest selling record of all time), the working title for what became Rock or Bust was Man Down; it is fortunate this idea was not put into practice, for they would have been forced to re-brand it as Two Men Down, given drummer Phil Rudd’s subsequent arrest for drug possession and attempting to hire a murderer to kill two unidentified people. An infamously close-knit, inward-looking operation, AC/DC quickly recruited Stevie Young, Angus and Malcolm’s nephew, alongside Chris Slade — Tom Jones’s former drummer — who had replaced Rudd when he temporarily left the band due to alcohol-related problems in the late 1980s.
Although Young Jr. fluffed a couple of riffs (most noticeably in fan favorite “Shoot to Thrill”) and Slade’s eschewing of his predecessor’s Charlie Watts–esque minimalism for more elaborate fills was not altogether to my taste, the rhythm section remained tight. In fact, the first of the two Madrid concerts, held on Sunday May 31, 2015, far exceeded my admittedly modest expectations — the last time I’d seen the band, at the Sheffield Arena on their 2000 Stiff Upper Lip tour, they gave the impression of being near the end of their careers, and simply going through the motions. Since then, the exponential rise in their commercial fortunes seemed to have more to do with the dearth of new talent and strategic promotion — their highly publicized initial refusal to license their songs to iTunes along with the inclusion of their back catalog in the Iron Man film franchise — than the raw talent on which their legend had been built. Doubting Thomas was, however, proved wrong: the band, bolstered by the fact that the sound at large stadium shows in Spain is now generally both louder and of a better quality than in the United Kingdom, were an impressively tight machine, working harder than before to compensate for any limitations, with performances and musicianship alike infused with renewed vigor.
Lead singer Brian Johnson may no longer be able to swing on the giant bell wheeled out for the perennial intro to “Hells Bells” as he once did, but the vocalist was less reliant on lyric sheets onstage than he had been for recent tours, and his vocal chords and body are in better condition than they have been in a number of years: physically it appears as if his tour training now consists more of aerobics than the weight lifting of yore. Although I wouldn’t risk saying it to his face, his gait to more sensual numbers such as “Sin City” or “High Voltage” almost verged on camp. The individual members of AC/DC may be the very antithesis of sexy, but a strong reason for their appeal beyond the traditional demographic of metal aficionados is that their sinuous grooves and tantric rhythms hark back to the raw sexuality of traditional rhythm and blues. It would be misleading to describe a production that included inflatables, giant screens, and multiple raised platforms as minimal, but in comparison with the massive stage deployed for previous outings and the train that erupted out of the giant video screens on the Black Ice tour, the Rock or Bust show was almost understated. This was likely dictated by pragmatics (Angus’s trademark duck walk may have been no less frantic than on previous occasions, but his visibly plastered knee had less ground to cover) yet it held the collateral advantage of the spectacle serving as a backdrop to the music rather than vice versa.
Malcolm famously ruled the band with Stalinist authority: when he and bassist Cliff Williams would return to their allocated stage positions after coming forward to deliver backing vocals, he insisted they walked backward rather than ever turning their back on the audiences. This tradition was broken for the first time this visit; while there were hardly any incursions into, say, electronic experimentation, it would be difficult to imagine Vintage Trouble — a traditional enough rock ’n’ roll band but with the distinction of having a black crowd-surfing soul-revivalist vocalist who impressively remained in his suit when temperatures soared to nearly 40 degrees Celsius — being given the coveted opening slot on Malcolm’s watch. High temperatures and excessive alcohol use — even for a metal concert, the bars around the stadium did brisk trade throughout the day — perhaps explain why the band’s performance and the audience’s frenzied response to “Thunderstruck” or “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” in the first half were not sustainable for the duration; even the reliably anthemic “Whole Lotta Rosie” received an almost muted response, as an army of camera phones were held in the air. A sense of ritual and community, aided by the lucrative ploy of a remarkably high percentage of the audience purchasing 10-euros-a-pop luminous devil horns, is clearly instrumental to AC/DC’s appeal to fans of all ages. When this hits the right chord — the flames that accompany their return to the stage and the outbreak of “Highway to Hell” — it is pretty unbeatable as Dionysian spectacle; nevertheless, the more human communion between band and auditorium during renditions of lesser-performed classics such as “Have a Drink on Me” or “Sin City” did make me wish that the group were not so risk averse. Still, the complaints from fans that concert-staple “The Jack” — and Angus’s accompanying striptease — had been retired suggests that I was perhaps in a minority of one. AC/DC not only know like few others what stadiums demand, but they are also the most unlikely of sleek professionals: on stage at 10 p.m. on the dot just as the sun went down, they clocked out at midnight with cannon blasts and fireworks rounding off the aptly titled “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).”
Duncan Wheeler is Associate Professor in Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds, and Visiting Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford. His next book, The Cultural Politics of Spain’s Transition to Democracy, will appear in 2016.