As the singer for Thunderstruck NC, Lee Robinson channels AC/DC’s famous front man Brian Johnson down to the sleeveless black T-shirt, the flat cap and the skyscraper-high voice – shrieking like a man with his jeans on too tight.
As a bonus, the 29-year-old Robinson can also pull off a credible Bon Scott, the band’s original wild man vocalist, who expired in 1980 – a victim of whiskey, tattoos and bad dentistry.
If you close your eyes, the tribute band promises, you’ll swear its version of “Hells Bells” flew straight off the vinyl of “Back in Black,” AC/DC’s towering homage to bad behavior. And in March, Thunderstruck convinced the most discerning ears in all of hard-rock fandom: AC/DC itself.
“I got a phone call,” said Jeff Young, Thunderstruck’s guitarist, who of course plays his Gibson SG in a schoolboy uniform. “It was from Beverly Hills. Who the heck is calling me from Beverly Hills?”
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I’ll pause here and throw in some context for those few readers, namely my mother and the ice cream man, who are unfamiliar with Australia’s loudest and hairiest export. Formed in 1973, AC/DC plays a form of hard rock that combines 12-bar blues with the nihilism of ’70s metal, and it requires that listeners bob their heads violently and gnash their teeth.
Its members have, however, grown old, infirm and decidedly less menacing. Rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young left the band in 2014 because of dementia. And in March, the aforementioned singer Johnson announced he would leave the band’s tour or risk total hearing loss.
Which is why Jeff Young got the phone call. AC/DC’s agent wanted Robinson to audition as Johnson’s replacement. It turns out bassist Cliff Williams had discovered Thunderstruck on YouTube. Could Robinson fly down to Atlanta and sing with the band? The real band? In three days? Robinson, who is originally from Stem and works in commercial heating and air conditioning, hopped on a plane like it was – excuse the pun – a Flyway to Hell.
“I got to legitimately have a drink on AC/DC,” he said.
Nerves understandably clouded Robinson’s memory – I asked if Angus Young wore knickers to the audition, and he couldn’t recall – but he offered this classic assessment of meeting the chain-smoking teetotaler who co-wrote “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”
“Very small.” (Angus stands 5-foot-2.)
But as they chit-chatted and snacked in the studio, which wasn’t marked with any name, the magnitude of the experience weighed on Robinson. He had mimicked a famous person so well that the famous friends thought he’d make a good substitute. Here he was sitting next to a man that millions of adolescent boys from my fifth-grade class to the present have impersonated in the bathroom mirror, most often while grimacing and clutching a broomstick guitar.
“Angus Young sat down with me on the couch and ate hamburgers,” said Robinson.
The nerves didn’t pass right away. As Robinson explained, 11 o’clock in the morning isn’t the preferred hour for screaming AC/DC songs. You don’t expect to be singing AC/DC at 11 a.m. But he couldn’t stop smiling when Angus hit the first chord, and he tore into “Givin the Dog A Bone.” And from there he sang the whole set: “Sin City.” “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place to Be.” Angus didn’t exactly duck walk across the stage, but he didn’t stand still, either.
When they were finished, “Angus took off his guitar, turned to me and said, ‘No matter what happens, you’ve got a hell of a voice.’ ”
You know how this story ends. The band picked Axl Rose out of the wreckage of Guns N’ Roses, creating a new lineup Roger Daltrey of The Who dismissed as “karaoke.” Robinson was more diplomatic: “I don’t really think it’s a good fit.”
But after this experience, he comes at Thunderstruck a little harder, bringing a little more swagger. You never know who’s listening.