On Sunday (November 27),AC/DC singer Brian Johnson joined Matt Everitt on his "First Time With…" program on BBC Radio 6 Musicfor an interview about the pivotal musical moments of his life. Brian discussed hearing Little Richard through a neighbor's window as a young boy, finding his talent for singing in a Scout show, joining AC/DC in 1980, the difficulties he faced when he lost his hearing and the revelatory new technology that's brought it back.
Reflecting on the hearing loss that forced him to miss shows on AC/DC's spring and summer 2016 North American tour, Brian said (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET): "You get into your motorcar and you can't tell who's singing the song; you can't tell the song. It's just this noise. It's horrible… It's just a 'musicy' noise, but you don't know what key it's in; you can't hear who's singing it; you can't tell if it's Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger. It's a horrible gray area. I think I called it a murderous silence, and it certainly is. But I did it the way I always do it… I got the best whisky I could have… I tried to forget all about it and didn't answer the phone. I wouldn't talk to any kind of press, 'cause they were like vultures coming in. I just kept myself to myself."
To enable him to perform live with AC/DC again, Johnson worked with audio expert Stephen Ambrose, who said he could help resolve the singer's hearing problems.
Ambrose, who invented the wireless in-ear monitors that are widely used by touring artists today, claimed to have invented a new type of ear-bud that would allow Johnson to perform without causing further damage to his eardrums. After three years of experimenting and "miniaturizing" the equipment, Johnson said the technology could allow him to tour again.
"Stephen Ambrose, who did [the in-ear monitors], he put them in and was trying them, developing them," Brian said. "And I could see there was light at the end of the tunnel. But it was a long way off. And then the great thing was Angus [Young, AC/DC guitarist] phoned up and he just said, 'Hey, them in-ears working?' I said, 'Brilliant.' He said, 'You wanna do an album?' I went, 'I'll be there yesterday.'"
Asked to describe how the technology works, Johnson said: "It's easy. It's a tiny small little — a little sack. You put it in your ear. You don't have to get it fitted. You put it in your ear, and there's a little thing on the end, a little tube, and it's a pump. And you press it, and it inflates, and it becomes an eardrum. And it uses the bones and the bones in the chin… But also, it can be fitted to Bluetooth, and you can hear. And you can hear 360 — globally, as they call it — and there's no hissing. These regular hearing aids, they're always hissing and sissing."
According to Brian, he isn't the only musician who has benefited from Ambrose's creation. "It's already helped K.D. Lang," he revealed. "She was gonna retire. We sent it out to her, and she started crying on the Zoom. And she's back out on the road now. Huey Lewis needs it. A lot of people now, because it's something new, it can be scary. But it isn't. It's just absolutely wonderful… We wanna get it out to the public to make it cheap enough so we can help people who are really deaf — in warzones and soldiers and guys who worked on aircraft and tank drivers."
You can hear the entire interview at this location.
AC/DC postponed the last 10 dates of its spring 2016 North American trek after Johnson was advised to stop playing live or "risk total hearing loss." The band went on to complete the European and North American legs of its "Rock Or Bust" tour with GUNS N' ROSES frontman Axl Rose as a "guest vocalist." At the time, Johnson had been AC/DC's singer for 36 years, ever since replacing the late Bon Scott in 1980 and making his debut on the classic "Back In Black" album.
AC/DC's comeback album, "Power Up", was released in November 2020. The LP was recorded over a six-week period in August and September 2018 at Warehouse Studios in Vancouver with producer Brendan O'Brien, who also worked 2008's "Black Ice" and 2014's "Rock Or Bust".
In a 2020 interview with Rolling Stone, Johnson spoke about how he managed overcome his hearing loss to record a new album with the band and prepare for an upcoming tour.
"It was pretty serious," Brian said about his hearing loss. "I couldn't hear the tone of the guitars at all. It was a horrible kind of deafness. I was literally getting by on muscle memory and mouth shapes. I was starting to really feel bad about the performances in front of the boys, in front of the audience. It was crippling. There's nothing worse than standing there and not being sure… The docs said, 'Deaf is deaf, son.' Cliff [Williams, bass] and Angus didn't want to be responsible for me damaging my ears any further. … Shit happens. At least it wasn't terminal."
Johnson eventually found Ambrose, who was willing to try an experimental treatment on him and spend as long as necessary figuring out a solution.
"The first time he came down he brought this thing that looked like a car battery," Johnson said of the specialist. "I went, 'What in the hell is that?' He said, 'We're going to miniaturize it.' It took two and a half years. He came down once a month. We'd sit there and it was boring as shit with all these wires and computer screens and noises. But it was well worth it. The only thing I can tell you is that it uses the bone structure in the skull as a receiver. That's as much as I can tell you."
In a 2020 interview with Apple Music, Johnson stated about the technology that enabled him to return to performing live: "I've gotta tell you, it was just lucky. When this wonderful gentleman came up and was looking for me; he was an audio professor. And he wanted to try this new technology. And he said, 'Listen, we could do it together, if I can come down and visit you.' And I thought it might have been all smoke and mirrors, somebody trying it on, but he was the actual, genuine article, and he did fly down all the way up from Denver, Colorado. And we sat there for two days, and I just couldn't believe the results. But, unfortunately, it was the size of a car battery, so we spent the next two years basically miniaturizing, which is the hard thing. And anyway, it worked well.
"When we'd done the album and we'd shot a video in Amsterdam, Angus said, 'Do you wanna do a rehearsal?' Because I didn't wanna go through what I went through again. I said, "Yeah.' And then Angus put the whole backline up. And they were saying, 'Well, we're gonna start quietly,' and we said, 'No, no. I want full battlefield conditions.' And we put it in, in the ears, and we were expected at least maybe two days of screwing around with, but boy, oh boy, it worked straight away… I don't have the words. I really don't have the words to tell you how I felt. But I know 'happy' was one of them. It was really good."
Johnson's autobiography, "The Lives Of Brian", arrived in October.