The ultimate boy done good, rock star Brian Johnson’s timely return to Tyneside coincides with the rejuvenation of the streets he once called home and the rise of the university that chose to honour him. Simon Rushworth reports.
Tardiness might be synonymous with certain high profile entertainers but when it comes to a live date Brian Johnson is never, ever late. It’s most unwise to keep 100,000 baying Argentinians waiting for a feast of hard rock anthems and plain foolish to eat into a set that’s taken months to plan and millions of pounds to stage.
However, AC/DC’s veteran frontman was still in the shower 10 minutes after he was due to meet Northumbria University dignitaries on the morning of his graduation ceremony earlier this week. So very “rock n roll”, you might imagine.
Yet strip away the Florida mansion, fleet of vintage sports cars and revenue from album sales that could support a South American nation and Brian Johnson is about as rock n roll as the shabby flat cap that’s become his trademark. It seems nerves had got the better of him and the shower provided sanctuary.
In an age when an entourage of bodyguards, publicity agents, press officers, managers and stylists are employed to ensure today’s celebrities are as far removed from reality as possible, the down-to-earth dad of two from Dunston eventually turned up at Northumbria’s sun-baked city campus flanked only by his wife Brenda and daughters Joanne and Kala.
Genuine and humble, Johnson’s heartfelt pride at receiving his doctorate in music offered a refreshing antidote to the attitude of those moneyed individuals who feel a fortune allows them the freedom to act with outrageous disregard for decency and convention.
“Honours from your hometown are few and far between,” said Johnson as he reflected on the award of his doctorate. “I saw Sting and Jimmy Nail in Chicago the week before and they were both so pleased for me. Sting told me to enjoy the day. He told me he had the time of his life when he was given his honorary degree.
“Sting and I were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame together and I remember exchanging the odd knowing nod and wink as two Geordie boys done good. That was a special day for the North East and so is this.”
Johnson might not have sat through hours of lectures, paid thousands of pounds in tuition fees, worked three jobs to pay his way through university and studied long and hard for his music degree. But as a Tyneside-born, Newcastle United-loving, broad Geordie multi-millionaire with a global reach he’s surely the perfect pick as a figurehead for an institution like Northumbria.
Both Johnson and Newcastle’s former Polytechnic are striking examples of genuine North East success stories – the latter now boasting established bases in London and across the Far East as it looks to follow in the former’s footsteps and forge a truly global reputation.
“For me to see how far Northumbria University has come is incredible,” added Johnson. “It’s absolutely amazing to see what the university has grown into in such a relatively short space of time.
“It already has an international reputation and rightly so. It always had a reputation for engineering and design and engineering is in my blood. So for Northumbria to honour me in that way gave me goosebumps. I had a tingly feeling! To begin with I was speechless - I just couldn’t find the words. It’s pretty tough to express how I feel and I know that sounds soft.”
Little of what Johnson says sounds ‘soft’. Despite years spent living in the USA, the distinctive accent honed on the streets of Dunston has never deserted one of hard rock’s most famous faces. A stone’s throw from the place Johnson called home, Northumbria is playing a key role in regenerating the south side of the river Tyne – the university’s flagship Trinity Square development yet another example of its determination to offer students the very best in 21st century off-campus living.
Trinity Square’s bespoke flats, trendy bars and cool eateries are a far cry from the Gateshead of Johnson’s adolescent years – in the 1960s the town offered few opportunities to a wide-eyed teenager with a rock and roll dream. He said: “I always dreamed about becoming a rock star. From the moment I saw the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and the reaction to their music – all of those teenagers screaming their names and going wild – I wanted that for myself.
“A lot of lads my age wanted to be just as fabulous. But I quickly realised it was going to be a long hard slog to get there. My first gig was at Walker Boys’ Club – and so were the next two. It was the only place I could play at the start! I sang with my eyes tight shut but I was already bitten by the bug.”
Johnson’s remarkable rise to the forefront of the ‘80s rock scene is the stuff of dreams – a story that continues to engage generations of wannabe singers and a triumphant tale that inspired the nomination for his Northumbria doctorate. Wednesday’s ceremony was reported around the world with current students and graduates alike glowing in their praise of the university’s latest – and some would say greatest – recruit.
“I first got into AC/DC when I was a student at Northumbria,” said 40-year-old John Evans, a Sage software expert who graduated in computing for business in 1995. “By the time I left university I was a huge fan. When I saw that Brian was receiving an honorary degree from Northumbria I was absolutely delighted.
“He is synonymous with the North East and Newcastle and he fully deserves the doctorate in music. I can’t think of a more worthy recipient. I saw AC/DC on the Black Ice tour at Glasgow’s Hampden Park a few years ago and they’re still one of the most phenomenal live acts in the world. A lot of that has to do with Brian’s charisma and talent.
“His influence transcends generations and that’s why he’s such a perfect fit for a forward thinking University. Students, their parents and even their kid brothers and sisters all love AC/DC!”
Evans works for The Northern Path – another Gateshead-based success story offering clients industry leading advice and support in relation to Sage’s accountancy software. “It’s a great place to work and I’m sure Brian had to look twice when he crossed the Tyne Bridge this time,” added the North Tyneside-based father-of-three. “He doesn’t get back to the North East very often and this is one part of the region that’s changing at pace. And for the better.”
Back on campus and Johnson was charming staff and students alike with his trademark smile and cheeky banter. John Hayton, a member of Northumbria’s PR and communications department, has been following AC/DC for three decades and was delighted to see the 66-year-old publicly recognised in the twilight of his career.
“Brain Johnson is a name I’ve known since I was nine when I bought my first AC/DC single,” he said. “Since then he and the band have been a part of my musical landscape – as that landscape has developed and changed there have always been a couple of bands who have anchored me and to whom I return for musical grounding. AC/DC is that central anchor.
“AC/DC are the ultimate antithesis of pop stars. With hundreds of millions of records sold and as one of the most successful ever touring bands they shun the limelight off-stage and remain genuine blokes who just happen to play (very popular) rock music.
“It’s this reputation for being so down-to-earth which shone through when Brian visited the university this week. It’s difficult to believe that this publicly quiet man has sold the records and played the colossal shows that he has.
“He played for the cameras, joked with the photographers and journalists and made everyone feel comfortable and happy. This last point is perhaps his greatest legacy – his ability to make people smile. He didn’t refuse anyone’s request for a selfie or autograph or handshake.
“Getting to meet Brian and speak with him for a while was remarkable - not because I’m a huge fan of his and love his work but because he was so welcoming and humble that I didn’t feel like a star-struck fan. I was just chatting with a warm, friendly, bloke.
“This, I think, gives a measure of the man - in the midst of the day of his honorary degree, my abiding memory will be of Brian welcoming strangers who wanted to shake his hand and spreading happiness and smiles like wildfire!”
That sense of happiness was writ large across Johnson’s face as he listened intently to Wednesday’s glowing citation from Professor Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Northumbria University. 34 years after replacing the late Bon Scott as the singer of AC/DC, the one-time engineer had the chance to look out on a sea of expectant and optimistic young faces preparing to make their own way in the world. And he wasn’t required to sing a note.
“Everyone looked so happy surrounded by friends and family at their degree ceremony,” Johnson added. “But they’re just starting out on life’s journey. It’s easy for me to say but I’ll say it anyway – enjoy the ride!”
Simon Rushworth is The Journal’s former chief sports writer. He now writes for Classic Rock Magazine and is editor of Rushonrock.com.