How Brian Johnson Overcame Hearing Issues and Returned to AC/DC
The return of AC/DC required more than just the mending of fences and the reuniting of members. For singer Brian Johnson, it required a medical miracle.
It was 2016 when AC/DC announced they were postponing dates on their Rock or Bust tour, revealing for the first time that their frontman was suffering from hearing loss.
“It was pretty serious,” Johnson admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t hear the tone of the guitars at all. It was a horrible kind of deafness.”
The singer was able to get through many Rock or Bust performances purely using ”muscle memory and mouth shapes.” But the deafness was getting worse and Johnson couldn’t battle through it any longer. “I was starting to really feel bad about the performances in front of the boys, in front of the audience. It was crippling,” he admitted. "There’s nothing worse than standing there and not being sure.”
“He’d pull his in-ears out and just shake his head,” bassist Cliff Williams recalled, noting that watching Johnson struggle was difficult for the band. “He couldn’t pitch. He was having a real hard time.”
At risk of permanent hearing loss, Johnson stepped away from the stage. In March 2016, the band announced that Axl Rose would fill in on vocals for the postponed performances.
For the first time in 36 years, Johnson wasn’t fronting AC/DC. The situation was difficult for the singer to accept. Eventually, he enlisted a medical specialist and began an experimental treatment designed to restore his hearing.
“The first time he came down he brought this thing that looked like a car battery,” Johnson explained. “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 exact science behind the treatment is something of a mystery, with Johnson willing to divulge only minimal information: “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.”
More important than the details of the procedure itself, the fact is it seems to have worked. Johnson kept his bandmates up to date with his progress and, when Angus Young decided to reassemble the group for a new album, the singer was up to the task.
“We’d get updated on how he was going with it and everything,” Young noted. “It was very good. I know how much a part of his life this is for Brian. It’s the same as the rest of us.”
Recorded in late 2018 and early 2019, AC/DC’s new album - reportedly titled Power Up - will be the 12th to feature Johnson on vocals. The band had hoped to tour the release in 2020, before the coronavirus brought the music industry to a halt. Still, the legendary rockers were able to get in one big concert rehearsal before the pandemic struck.
“It was with the boys in full battlefield conditions and it was smashing, brilliant,” Johnson admitted. “I felt like I was a kid again.”