Ex-Atlantic Records Exec Phil Carson Talks About Signing AC/DC

Classic Rock posted a great interview with former Atlantic Records Executive Vice President Phil Carson, who was responsible for signing AC/DC.  Some excerpts from the interview have been posted below.

You once described Atlantic’s investment in AC/DC as “the most profitable deal in the history of the music business”. Can you elaborate on that?

Phil Carson:  It was a fifteen album deal. Normally you would do a deal for four or five albums over a period of five years. But I thought: “These guys can sell records.”

Did it feel like a gamble at the time?

Phil:  Well, at that time Jerry Greenberg was the President of Atlantic in America, and at that time I had never signed anyone without running it by Jerry. Even though I could, I just didn’t. The reason being, if you sign something in England and the guy running the company in America doesn’t like it, he’s not going to work it. So I always deferred to Jerry.

But on this occasion he was on vacation, so I thought I’d better make a deal that he can’t possibly complain about. So I signed a deal for twenty-five thousand dollars per album, one confirmed album per year, with options going forward. And the math on that is I signed a deal for twenty-five thousand dollars with AC/DC that gave us the rights to fifteen albums.

Highway To Hell, released in 1979, was the band’s first album with producer Mutt Lange. It must have been a tough call for Malcolm and Angus Young to make the break from their trusted production team – their elder brother George Young and his partner Harry Vanda. Was that a decision that you personally were involved in?

Phil:  As far as the creative direction of the band was concerned, it was Malcolm and Angus driving that ship. But we as a record company did have some input. By this time Jerry Greenberg had really bought into AC/DC, and it was him that persuaded them to go with Mutt Lange.

Sadly, that album was AC/DC’s last with singer Bon Scott. Do you remember where you were when you heard that he’d died?

Phil:  I was standing right next to [AC/DC’s then manager] Peter Mensch. We’d been to a meeting together in New York, we were flying back to London from JFK, and that’s where we got the message, right at the check-in desk. Bon’s death was attributed to “acute alcohol poisoning” in the coroner’s report.

Did you ever watch Brian rehearse with the band, or hear the new material, before they went off to Nassau in the Bahamas to record Back In Black

Phil:  No, I left them to it. I knew that they’d got together with Brian and felt that this was the guy. By then Mutt was firmly in control of production, and we all believed in Mutt. The first I heard of Back In Black was the rough mixes when they brought them back to England.

And what was your first impression when you first listened to it? 

Phil:  I thought it was going to be a huge album and a major step for AC/DC. Honestly, how big did you think that album could be? I would never have thought it would be as big as it was. I was thinking it would be a two- or three-million-seller, perhaps. But it just caught fire.

Don’t forget, this was the moment when albums were just falling off the shelves, and a lot of great bands enjoyed that great rush – the Rolling Stones, Foreigner. The enthusiasm for great rock music was at its zenith at that point. Rock music was what the kids in America wanted, and if you got on heavy rotation at radio, which you could do with the songs on Back In Black, you were off to the races. It was a huge moment for us.

There was another strange twist to this story, when the runaway success of Back In Black led to Atlantic belatedly releasing the Dirty Deeds album in America in 1981. 

Phil:  By that time, Back In Black had sold five or six million, and Doug Morris had replaced Jerry Greenberg as President of Atlantic. Doug suddenly found out that there was an AC/DC album that they hadn’t released. I remember him pulling me up one day and saying: “Man, we’ve got to put out this Dirty Deeds album!” But I thought it was the most stupid idea in the world – to have this massive record with Brian Johnson singing, and to follow it with an old record with Bon Scott singing.

You said this to Doug Morris?

Phil:  Oh yeah. His point was: “If we put this album out it will sell two million.” I remember what I said to him: “You’re absolutely right, Doug. It will sell two million. But you’ll also create a new sales plateau for AC/DC.” Which is exactly what happened. It was a situation where record company greed got the better of it all. Putting out Dirty Deeds when they did, I think it threw a bucket of water over AC/DC. To this day, I think that’s one of the worst decisions ever made by a record executive who didn’t turn down The Beatles.

Read the entire interview @ this location.