Dirty Deeds

AC/DC tribute band TNT squeezes extra mileage out of the highway to hell

After New Times ran a feature last year focusing on four of the biggest-drawing tribute bands in the Valley, their audiences grew. Even naysayers who pooh-poohed the idea of tributes (read: other musicians) found themselves wanting to form a cover band for any number of bad reasons. But there was an underlying sense that either audiences or the bands themselves would eventually tire of limited set lists and derivative stage struts, and the whole thing would peter out.

They didn't. It hasn't.

By wisely staying off the regular local grind, they've managed to maintain the novelty factor. Good word of mouth and calling-card Web sites did the rest. Far from petering out, all sorts of weird offers keep pouring in. Who'd have thought that early Van Halen tribute band Atomic Punks would play a fictional washed-up '80s hair band called Danger Kitty for a credit card commercial? Or that TNT, the Valley's own superlative AC/DC tribute band, would not only get to meet their heroes but also secure permission from AC/DC's publishing company to record AC/DC songs never before released for Yankee consumption?

TNT: Not the real thing, but an amazing facsimile of AC/DC.
Todd H. Lillard
TNT: Not the real thing, but an amazing facsimile of AC/DC.

Other tribute bands have been trying for years to record unreleased songs from their mentors and have had the door slammed on them. Cover bands can get permission to record any track as long as it's already been pressed and circulated. TNT found a loophole -- recording a song that was never released, pressed and circulated in this country. Getting permission was an e-mail shot in the dark that yielded a bull's eye.

Which is why we're here in Robin Wilson's Mayberry Studios in Tempe. The ex-Gin Blossom and Robbie "Lord" Watson (Cousins of the Wize, Sir Pie, Living Daylights) are producing TNT's recording of "On the Borderline," the Australian-only B-side of "Moneytalks" that was inexplicably bumped off the 1990 album The Razor's Edge in lieu of material of a lesser value.

"Normally, a recording session is fraught with tension, bands trying to nail down something that's been floating around their head for months," says Wilson. "But this is more like building a model ship inside a bottle. You're just trying to get it to look like it does on the box."

Adds Watson, "I've never had a situation before where the band has a clear path -- they knew exactly what to do. As opposed to when a band writes their material. Every band member's desires and wishes are wrapped up in a particular song, so there's some clashes. Here it's, 'Would Brian do that? No, he wouldn't.' It's been a breeze."

Four of the guys in the band have just finished laying in the last piece of the puzzle, belching out the outback-background harmonies, and are ready to hear the playback, when drummer Joe Lamia comes into the control room with a concerned scowl. For the first time today, he's refrained from addressing someone as "Booby." He's just heard something Phil Rudd would assuredly run the erase heads over.

"I can't mute the overhead cymbals without taking out the high hat," Wilson informs him. After some grimacing and fader floating, Lamia decides to drop out the drums completely for a measure and let the Angus Young chording stand alone, like it does in a million other AC/DC songs. "That's what Phil does in the background," he qualifies. It's not the first deviation "On the Borderline" has undergone.

"The original arrangement was too long," says singer Donnie Malone. "We cut it down to make it a little more immediate." It's now four minutes on the nose.

"She's an idle child of high society/Never pushed a broom yet physically/Her eyes look down on you, her nose is up/She never spills her whiskey when she fills her cup . . ."

Even out of 30-inch speakers, it takes a United Nations to decipher what the hell Brian Johnson is pushing out of his shredder on any given song, but Malone spells out that the lassie of this lyric "is living with a sugar daddy and likes the high life."

"When Brian does the pterodactyl screech, it's crotch rock," he continues. "You just grab your crotch and go for it. Bon's a little easier because it's closer to my real singing voice. When I do Brian, it's coming from the throat, while Bon's from the diaphragm."

When TNT was invited by AC/DC's road crew to meet the band backstage after its last America West Arena show, Malone and Brian Johnson had a Lucy-meets-Harpo Marx-in-the-mirror moment, with Johnson hugging Malone and quipping in his bastard English-Scottish accent, "You look like me bleeding brother."

Malone moved from Australia to the States at an early age and claims, "I learned how to speak American by getting my ass kicked." Being a kindred spirit to Johnson entailed more than a similar taste in black tee shirts and hats. Nods Lamia, "They even hold their beers the same way! It's like they haven't seen each other in 20 years. He said, 'If you guys aren't the shit, I'm gonna kick your asses.'"

Sadly, TNT's Angus doppelgänger Sal Cartagine didn't get a private audience with the man in short pants but seems well-adjusted about it. Maybe it's harder for the real Angus to snap out of character after being mum onstage for two hours. Similarly, Cartagine's Angus never speaks during TNT shows because "it helps the audience buy into the whole thing."

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