Over the last 30 years, Cliff Williams has been laying down solid, straightforward bass lines for AC/DC, one of the most successful and distinctive rock ’n’ roll bands in history. Songs from the band’s oeuvre are always just a flick of the switch away. Flip on the television and watch a recent Gap ad where Audrey Hepburn shakes her angular, stockinged limbs to
Back in Black. Twist the dial on your radio any random moment and chances are you’ll hear one of the 20 or more AC/DC songs still in regular rotation on classic and hard-rock stations.
At the heart of AC/DC’s hits is Cliff, plucking away like a metronome, holding things together. Cliff is more than a 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. He is more than the bassist for a band whose worldwide album sales exceed 150 million. He is a devoted husband of 26 years, a proud father, and he has been an active Fort Myers resident since 1986.
Q. This isn’t the first time you and I have hung out. The last time we saw each other was in 1985. You were on stage at the Boston Garden with AC/DC, and I was in the upper loge holding binoculars. What’s happening with AC/DC now? I thought you looked familiar! The band’s been on an extended vacation. We could make a new album and then go on tour later this year. We’re scattered to the four corners of the world. I’m here, [singer] Brian Johnson is in Sarasota, [drummer] Phil Rudd is in New Zealand, and [guitarists] Malcolm and Angus Young hop between Australia and England. We’re a bunch of old guys now. It takes dynamite to get us out of our rocking chairs. Once we get rolling, an album can take as long as a year or as little as three months, which was the case with the last one.
Q. Is it a big adjustment to shift gears from living out of a suitcase to settling into your own home?
Q. You were in a British group called Bandit in the mid-1970s, and then in 1977 you joined AC/DC. How did that come about?
Bandit played for a couple of years and released an album that didn’t go anywhere. I have a copy here at home, where it will remain hidden. After the band broke up, I considered myself retired from music. I was 27 years old. A friend of mine called and told me about the AC/DC audition. I wasn’t really interested. He said, "Why don’t you just go down and play with them for fun?" So I did, and it was a lot of fun, and I was lucky enough to get the gig.
Q. Since AC/DC’s on an extended vacation, do you have any current projects?
There’s a young guy here in town named T.J. Kelly who has a band called Kerosene. Also involved are [producer] Arnie Wohl and Steve Luongo. Steve was the drummer in the John Entwistle Band, and also played for Mountain for awhile. He’s a heck of a drummer and producer. We’ve been in the studio for the last couple of weeks laying down tracks. T.J. can do it all—great singer, great songwriter, great performer. In the next month or so, we’re performing at the Alliance for the Arts. Also, Brian Johnson, Steve Luongo and I are playing with a guy named Mark Hitt from New York. We’re just basically trying to keep our chops up and have fun. Brian and I enjoy playing with these guys, and there just so happens to be a tape recorder running in the background.
Q. Fort Myers is a long way from Liverpool. How did you end up here?
My family lived in Hawaii. It was gorgeous, but also extremely isolated. It took me two days of flying to attend a one-day video shoot, then two days to fly back. Plus the Hawaiian school system was terrible, and we wanted something better for our children. Brian was living on Fort Myers Beach and suggested that my wife, Georganne, and I check it out. We got very lucky when we sent our kids to the Canterbury School. And they went to a great preschool. Now our son goes to the Savannah College of Art & Design. Our daughter is in her senior year at NYU. This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere—20 years. Ever since I was a kid, my family never lived in any one house for more than three years. I feel a real sense of community here, belonging to it, and my only complaint is that I would love to see this town get a little more live music.
Q. Why do you think the local music scene is lacking?
It’s the demographic. The town’s grown, which is good and bad. There are more younger people here now, and so there’s a real need for more venues where younger artists can play. I mean, you can go out and hear some bloke playing cover versions of beach songs, which is fine, but there are no venues to go and hear good live music. The downtown area is screaming for it to happen. It needs to be populated at nighttime; people need to live there for it to thrive.
Q. Can you tell me about your charitable work?
Every December, Vincent Wolanin and his daughter, Whitney, hold the Rockin’ Christmas Party. I take part in that, and all the proceeds go to different charities, including the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. Other than that, I don’t really align myself with any one charitable cause. If someone approaches me and I can do something, I do it.
Q. There have been reported sightings of you and Shania Twain at Blu Sushi. Is that true?
Isn’t it amazing what kinds of stories get started? That’s a total fabrication. I’ve met Shania Twain, but we’ve never gone to Blu Sushi together. We know each other through her husband, Mutt Lange, who produced three of our records, including Back in Black. I’d love to work with him again, but Mutt’s booked until 2073, I think.
Q. What changes have you seen in the music business since you started 35 years ago?
Up until the early 1980s, record companies invested time, effort and money into developing an artist. Contemporary society wants everything right now … for nothing. Consequently, we’re being spoon-fed the Britney Spears of the world, which is pretty much created and packaged. It’s all you hear on the radio, and it’s horrible. We were visiting our son in Savannah, and his school was holding a film festival. We saw a film called Before the Music Dies, featuring Eric Clapton, which explores exactly what we’re talking about. These two independent filmmakers drove around the country to see what’s happening in the music industry. To find new music now, you have to go on the Internet. I would hate to be starting my musical career now. If you’re on a major label and don’t make your quota, you’re out the door. It’s a horrible state of affairs. But in saying that, the good news is there’s great music out there. You just gotta know where to look for it, ’cause it ain’t on your radio.
Q. A lot of people are turning to the Internet for their music. Do you own an iPod?
That whole downloading and iPod thing, the accessibility is fantastic. Who’d have ever thought you could have this little box that holds x-thousand songs, and that you can clip it on your belt? Amazing technology, but it’s kinda like the music business, when you think about it. It’s not warm and fuzzy anymore. It’s like razor blades out there.
Quite honestly, when I’m on tour, I have no idea what city I’m in. I get a little sheet of paper slipped under my door each morning, telling me what time to be downstairs, and away we go. After the tour’s over and I get home, I wake up in the morning looking for that sheet of paper telling me what to do when.