Of course, both Ken & I gave in to Ellen’s second request that we join them all in feasting – happily so. The meal would have also given me an excuse for my silence – shock, more than silence – keeping my mouth full (though politely) could have calmed me down, I thought. And it worked. It just worked. The meal was delicious, which I am sure helped me quite a bit. Dinner was a healthy Asian recipe cooked by Ellen in a wok, containing rice, chicken and vegetables. Lightly on the spicy side (ask Ken about it). Eating “family style” was a relaxing sign for us all.
While we were eating – at this point, chatting – Ken finally spoke a few words about the Schaffer Replica project – and a bit about me. Luckily, as if it had been coordinated, he passed the baton to me and I picked up from there. Finally looking directly at Angus, I began talking normally – AC/DC tone was, of course, a subject I could talk about from inside out and I had thought – or dreamt – of this moment countless times, decades before I imagined to one day have this chance to speak one-on one with Angus; as usual, for many of us it’s better to talk about what we know. My fears at this point were gone.
I told Angus what many of you already know (Angus didn’t), which is that I had always been passionate over his sound of those days and specifically, of Back in Black (no… really?). But – I detailed – despite having identical equipment to his in those days, something was missing. It had taken me years to realize that, I said, explaining how I went back to research and read (again) all of his interviews until, one day, I re-read a passage where he answered the question of “do you use… any special effects?” He answered (we all know it now) “I just use a Schaffer-Vega.” I kept on going – by memory playing back entire phrases, what he had himself specified in other interviews. Might have been me – but he truly did seem interested.
He mentioned that it had been Malcolm. It had been Malcolm who had taken to Ken when Ken had brought a few units of his new Schaffer-Vega Diversity System to a sound check at the Palladium in New York City’s Village one afternoon. Malcolm and Ken were the ones who talked about the properties – and possibilities – of the SVDS, not Angus. He (he said) was in the dressing room giving back-to-back interviews. Angus also continued, telling me that it was often Malcolm who would “dial in the sound” for him – Angus himself would “most of the time overdo it.” It was also Malcolm who explained to Angus that with the SVDS, he could further overdrive the amps. I was in awe. I remember exactly still my facial expression right that moment. I remained like that for quite a few seconds, with my head slightly tilted to the side.
It was more or less at that point that Angus explained that “…George (Young: Angus’ and Malcolm’s older brother and first AC/DC producer) had suggested that I use the SVDS ‘in the studio album in 1978’…” He thought about it and we both said at the same time “Powerage.” He nodded and smiled. Then he added “… then, when Mutt Lange came in, he asked me to use the same stuff that I was using for my stage sound, so we used the SVDS again, but only for solos and power chords” (meaning that he was using the SVDS from within the control room, and they were underlining the choruses with yet another rhythm guitar part, that being Angus again). So there you have it. My intuitions (and information gathered so far over the years) were all confirmed. “But the backing tracks…” and I interrupted him, politely “Oh I know, your backing guitar is usually on the right side, and it was done off of the floor with the band and mostly on a regular cable”. It was then that he said “Oh wow, you are able to tell the difference by listening?!” I nodded, smiling (and thinking to myself, “by now I can”). It was then that I handed Angus his Schaffer Replica Gold Tag Edition S/N 001 (with a swift move). We were sitting at the table again. Angus handled it, fondled it, and smiled, commenting on how similar it was to his original SVDS. He also said – and I almost fainted for the first time – that he had heard about it and read about it (the Schaffer Replica). He had read about it (the Replica) somewhere… and quickly added that he didn’t know where his original SVDS unit was. And Mrs. Ellen interrupted him happily, “Oh I know where it is!,” smiling (and Ken smiled too, visibly pleased). At this point, everything was engaged and meshed – we were flowing.
We were all pretty much finished eating (and I had asked Mrs. Ellen for an espresso, which was great – and I do know my espressos!) – and we were all smiling and joking.
Cameras came out – Ken draped his elbow around Angus’s neck – Young and Schaffer – had their picture taken – same pose – after 37 years – same pose. I asked Angus if I could have a picture with him, holding his unit. He said “of course!” and, as I was going for my camera, noticed that Rick (St. Pierre) – who had been smiling and listening to all this until then – had camera in hand and was happy to take the pictures. Rick took a few of Angus alone holding The Schaffer Replica then some in which we posed together. That is – and you can see it for yourself – I got to literally hug my hero while he was holding a two year long project of mine in his left hand (the fretting hand).
That is what it was. As I write this, I still feel that electricity in my body and difficulty breathing normally. Ok, breathe – normally, Fil! I am such a nerd. I remember that after the last picture, I sort of turned towards him – and, almost whispering in his ear, I said “Thank you, Angus”. He nodded normally.
I can’t recall exactly what happened right after that… but, be sure, my memory picks up at the moment Angus asked me clearly if I wanted to see his guitars.
If you consider that nothing of all this had been taken for granted – neither by me, Franz nor Ken Schaffer – this was surprise-after-surprise. You can imagine what I answered to that. Probably one of the quickest answers in my life. And there we went, right into the recording room of Studio 2.
As we were in the small corridor that leads to the recording room, I noticed to my left the control room window.
Cliff (Williams) was inside, with one or two more people, playing bass in front of that famous, huge Neve Console. Yep. Ken wanted to take a picture of the sign over the door to the recording room (“TESLA,” it said; Nikola Tesla is to Ken what Angus is to me – Ken
can go on battle-by-battle about the century-old feud between Tesla (“brilliant visionary, proponent of AC”) and Edison (“power-hungry control freak “thief” who promoted DC.”). Ironically, “AC/DC.” Angus and Rick posed beneath the sign and we went inside. It was a pretty big room, and filled with equipment, much of it in racks and road cases having the “AC/DC” logo on them.
Angus’ guitar rack – the famous guitar rack that we have been seeing for years in the past – was to the left of the room, in front of the control room big window (a window through which spectators, producers and sound engineers usually communicate with the artists in the recording room). You can probably see it in some of the images (and by the way, it was prohibited to take pictures in there, as Rick kindly let me know – for which I left my camera in the lounge – but it’s hard to keep Mr. Schaffer put, he’s a rebel by nature – so these pictures are exclusively courtesy of Rebel Schaffer himself).
The moment I saw the guitars, something clicked. Again, some sort of natural thing. Maybe Ken is right, maybe two guitar players connect together – these two definitely did (well I did at least!). I immediately noticed the black SG that was sitting to the far left of the rack, and recognised it as Angus’ current Number One. I asked without thinking, “Is this really a 1964 standard painted black?” But Angus, didn’t seem to know (or better yet, care). He looked at Rick briefly, and I sort of heard some confirmation but I somehow felt that it wasn’t important after all. Nobody cared. And Angus nodded – I should be satisfied, I thought. So I asked if I could handle it. And I did. It felt… like a guitar. light, but not even extremely so, and with the typical neck contour of what I know could well be a mid sixties Gibson SG Standard. Angus gave me immediately his own pick – a Fender Extra Heavy, as we know too well – which I will keep forever. Small stuff. I started playing right away, in the crouched position, as you can see.
Guess what I played? Didn’t even think about it. Back in Black (I hit the sack). That was it. I HAD to try the lick and the chords on that one. And boy… surprise. It didn’t feel at all magic. Nothing.
Nothing special. A guitar. I tried quickly some soloing licks, and several times Angus’ classic vibrato on it. It worked, but no better than how it could come out of many other guitars. Surprise? I still don’t know. Should we be surprised…? Maybe not. We all know it’s more the guitar player than the guitar, don’t we? Also, the action. One thing that had been bogging me for decades was Angus’ action. I was convinced that it had to be so low that the strings would be buzzing and yet… not at all.
I’d say it was a medium low action, but not at all too low. You in fact had to work hard to make it sing on solos! Was it just a setup thing? Unknown. I did point out to Angus that I thought the action would be lower than this, but he just nodded and smiled (that’s it, wannabe-boy). What a surprise. And also, notes wouldn’t be sustaining for 30 minutes without the usual workout (albeit I was playing unplugged). Yes, you got it: a guitar, after all. I gave it back and passed onto another. Angus handed to me the other favourite one, the famous “lightnings” one. I said I naturally knew this one as well, and he mentioned that – yes – this one was the one that had been copied by Gibson. I mentioned I had one of the copies and proceeded to crouch again and play. This one felt… easier to play. The neck is in effect narrower than the previous one, and the action slightly lower. Definitely easier to play but still, I did not notice absolutely anything magic about this guitar either. Naturally, knowing it was Angus’ guitar played some effect on me, but I remember I was extra careful and concentrated in feeling any possible interesting things there might be to notice and felt none. It wasn’t particularly easy to play – still had to struggle with vibrato and bending – and I did my usual Back in Black thing. It was at this point that I also asked if he was playing the A chord of the super famous Back in Black (E, D, A) including (as I thought) the extra high E string, and he showed me immediately that he was not. He said “I only play the three lower strings” and showed me with the guitar (pictured).
I mentioned to him that maybe I had heard some spurious frequencies because of the plate reverb – and that was that. Fascinating. The truth is often simpler than we make it out to be, ain’t it!
You do understand that I would have loved to stay there for a few hours (if not days), but I knew this wouldn’t be possible and also, I didn’t want to stress him or Rick or anyone else for that matter too much. They had already given me way more than I had ever expected (I tried to expect nothing, in fact) and I was content. We went back to the lounge area. At that point, I started talking with Mrs. Ellen, who was super nice with me the whole time. We had somehow connected nicely before – from the meal time – and I was feeling relaxed and satisfied. The Schaffer Replica was safe in its case, by the table, and she mentioned to me something very special, something I will never forget in my life. She said “You know Filippo, Angus had heard of this and he was asking around where to get one, so nobody can touch this”. That was magic. It was a magic moment that I’ll never ever forget. My heart bounced in the chest with a sound that – I thought – could have been heard on the outside.
We talked a bit more, Ken with Angus and Mrs. Ellen with me; before Rick said goodbye as he had to do other things, we spoke a while together. Some things I feel I can’t disclose (maybe in the future), but he mentioned to me that “AC/DC now is all greenbacks (25 watters)”. It felt great to talk to Rick (St Pierre). A true gentleman, extremely loyal, another member of the kin, really. I have been in touch with him for years (three I think) and I always let him know too of how much I esteem him. Matter of fact, we’re still in touch these days, and I hope it’s going to last forever. Talk about someone who should get way more recognition for what he’s done in his professional life.
It was about then that Ellen asked me to please tell Angus to quit smoking, as he is still smoking (on and off, she admitted. “4 sticks a day, he repeatedly told Ken). I would have rather shot myself in a foot, but decided to not disappoint her and actually told Angus that I had quit smoking two years ago thanks to those e-cigarattes, the vapour thing. He told me “Oh I tried but I smoked even more with the thing” so I smiled and shut up immediately. And then she went on telling me stories, among which was one that made us all laugh: they were touring, travelling somewhere on a private jet when all of a sudden, Angus disappeared. Everyone was smoking on the plane, but seemingly that was one of those times where Angus was supposed to have quit entirely. She was terrified, as he couldn’t be found. She headed towards the bathroom, and he wouldn’t open the door. She feared he may have had a heart attack. With help of others, she forced the door open, freeing a huge cloud of smoke, behind which Angus slumbered out with his classic style that we all know (maybe, duck-walking?). That made us all laugh out loud. It’s also a picture of him in my mind that I know I will love to remember him by. She then, out of the blue as I was sitting on the floor in front of them all – kneeled for my own comfort while speaking to them actually, as you can see – asked me a question. “How do you think they managed this success, Fil?” Wow. Are you really asking me, Mrs. Ellen? (That’s how I called her). The question was naturally a rhetorical one, but still I replied immediately. I felt I knew the answer to this. “Simplicity” I said. She nodded and smiled, and added “humility and dedication to you”, meaning us, the fans. “They still do all of this for the fans, for you all”. I let her know right away that we all knew too well, and I smiled again, happily. Still, I was totally impressed.
As she went back to the kitchen space, Ken and Angus were deeply into something – and it was then that I said – I really did – “AC/DC is my religion.” But I knew it somehow was fitting in that context, or I would have not said it. Angus looks at me and says “They might lock you up for that, mate”. And I’m like “No, not anymore Angus, nowadays, not anymore”. And we smiled.
Minutes after we were to go, Ken was happy, hanging with Angus outside on the grill area, while someone was cooking some grilled meat. (“Coke, no Pepsi!”) It was there that I shook hands with Stevie, who introduced himself to me. I mentioned I very well knew who he was, and proceeded to thank the tribe for having us. After that, we walked toward the door, Mrs. Ellen wishing me the best of luck. We all hugged.
I’m pretty sure I will never, ever forget this. Yet I made sure to take notes of all this as soon as we returned to the hotel, so as to memorialize and not forget a single bit of the information that I could share about this. I figure many have been in my place, many would have wanted to and many more will be in the future (wishing Angus, Ellen and entire family 100 more years to go).
Angus was now, more, not less, my hero – more so, as a generous man of such warmth & humility.
A last thought goes out to Malcolm.
Now you know the whole story.
Thanks for staying with me,
A few more random images.