It was a coming together worthy of the Olympian setting. The first concert held at London’s Olympic stadium would see Aussie rock veterans AC/DC join forces with new frontman Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, sitting in for the group’s hearing-impaired singer Brian Johnson — literally in the case of early shows, which Rose performed from a wheelchair after breaking a metatarsal. But would this prove to be a union blessed by the rock gods or a massive display of hubris?
Early signs were auspicious. Since GnR rose to fame with Appetite for Destruction in 1987, Rose has displayed an appetite for self-destruction and gained a reputation for egregious lateness. So it took the vast stadium crowd by surprise when an apocalyptic rumble heralded the band’s arrival a full eight minutes ahead of schedule.
Rose is no ingenue. Unlike, say, reality star Adam Lambert trying to fill the shoes of Freddie Mercury, he is rock royalty in his own right and to the opening chords of “Rock or Bust” he strode on to the stage, his image projected on the stadium-high screens like a Colossus, not only on time but upright, the chair replaced by a surgical boot.
AC/DC have survived the loss of a lead singer before — the death of Bon Scott in 1980 — and Rose confidently spanned both periods, belting out the Scott-era “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” before adopting Johnson’s trademark caterwaul for the crowd-rowsing “Back in Black” immediately after.
But for all this confidence, Rose kept his banter short and seemed to understand that here he wasn’t the star of the show. Lead guitarist Angus Young, dressed in schoolboy duds even in half term, is the beating heart of AC/DC, the only survivor of the band formed with his brother Malcolm in 1973. It was Angus who most often took the spotlight, duck-walking out on to a long thrust stage. Later, the rest of the stage blacked out, the 61-year-old turned “Let There Be Rock” into a staggering display of endurance. Dripping with sweat, the Glasgow-born guitarist writhed on the floor like a Scots salmon, still shredding as if his life depended on it.
There wasn’t much light and shade. Over the course of their 40 years AC/DC have never seen fit to fiddle with the formula of riff-heavy bluesy rock, resisting numerous passing fashions along the way. But it remains irresistible, and, young and old, the crowd lapped it up, seemingly grateful for a blast of uncomplicated escapism. The gladiatorial closing number “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” sounded a defiant note: change of personnel or not, AC/DC are far from done yet.