AC/DC: Bonfire

AC/DC’s box- set tribute to late vocalist Bon Scott comes in packs of four or five CDs (remastered Back In Black optional). Includes rare and/or live material, plus 48-page booklet, poster, sticker, guitar pick, temporary tattoo and the all-important AC/DC bottle-opener keyring.

They got their name off the back of a Hoover, figuring it sounded powerful; legend has it that the head of a big music publishing company interpreted it otherwise and followed vocalist Bon Scott into the men’s room. No-one made the same mistake again. They played the kind of Australian bars where men pick their teeth with axes and shot you if they didn’t like you. Fortunately it was impossible not to like AC/DC. Everyone likes AC/DC. Even the people who don’t like AC/DC like them really. Assuming they like rock ‘n’ roll, that is, because that’s all it is – hooks, riffs and stomping grooves with Carry On, nudge-wink lyrics. Songs you need penicillin just to listen to.

The Bon Scott era AC/DC albums were sweaty, raunchy, filthy things, and utterly delightful. And they appeared, you’ll recall, in the mid-to-late ’70s – Britain was all poker-faced punks and new wavers, America all sterilised, middle-aged AOR. The band graduated to the British pub circuit, then halls, then arenas. And then Bon Scott died after an all-night booze-up in London. That was 18 years ago – but his ghost still haunts the band. Though his successor Brian Johnson – the ex-Geordie frontman, who looks like Andy Capp after a Cosmo make-over and sounds like he gargles drain-cleaner – is definitely no slouch, it’s Bon, the tatooed, testosteroned rock ‘n’ roller, and his crateful of double entendres, who was, and is, the band’s boozy heart.

This four-CD set (five if you want the optional remastered version of Back In Black, their first album with Johnson) is the band’s tribute to Bon, simple as that. Malcolm Young (the guitarist who doesn’t wear the schoolboy gear) came up with the idea; the others agreed because it was long enough since his death and far enough from any significantly-numbered anniversary to look like grave-robbery. The title was Bon’s; he used to say, “when I’m a fucking big shot I’m calling my solo album Bonfire“. The whole thing finally took off when the band got the rights to Live From The Atlantic Studios – an eight-track set performed in 1977 in front of a small, invited crowd in a New York radio station studio, and previously only available as an expensive bootleg.

The whole disc is one enormous groove, the band sounding relaxed and confident on the early tracks (half-and-half, mostly, from High Voltage and Let There Be Rock) and their vocalist on excellent form. Hard to believe they could make ‘The Jack’ any sleazier, but the eight-minute version here just about manages.

Discs two and three are live as well – an extended version of the soundtrack to Let There Be Rock: The Movie recorded in Paris in ’79. You get a lot of the same songs played on Atlantic Studios – a lot of the same songs, for that matter, on 1978’s live If You Want Blood. But this is, overall, a better live album. An intense show – at one point Angus Young had to be revived onstage with oxygen and a cup of tea. Close your eyes and you can smell your neighbour’s beer-breath, feel your feet sticking to the floor. As a showcase for Bon, it’s faultless – a lecherous, exuberant vocal that does songs like ‘Girl’s Got Rhythm’ and the legendary ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ proud.

Disc four is for the diehards: the rarities album Volts. Not that there was much in the vaults – this isn’t Def Leppard; AC/DC didn’t go in for endless soul-searching rewrites. Opener ‘Dirty Eyes’ is a first attempt at what would become the ode to Rosie – Bon’s Tasmanian one-night-stand – recorded during pre-production for Highway To Hell. Also from those sessions are different takes of Highway‘s ‘Touch Too Much’, ‘Get It Hot’, and the revved-up blues-rock ‘Back Seat Confidential’, which wound up as ‘Beating Around The Bush’. There’s a blistering live version of ‘Sin City’ from Midnight Special; an even more blistering live ‘She’s Got Balls’, bootlegged from a 1977 show at the Sydney Lifesaver. Bon composed it for his wife – “She makes my heart race/ every time she sits on my face” – after she complained he never wrote songs about her. She left him shortly after. But best of the lot are the cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘School Days’ (from Aussie-only album T.N.T) and the slow, dark tomcat-growl ‘Ride On’ (from non-rare Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap) – two tracks which show that, though the critics wrote them off as mindless Metal, their roots, hearts, and other bits frequently alluded to, were in blues and rock n roll.

‘Touch Too Much’ proved to be prophetic. Bon was found dead in a pool of his own puke in February 1980. Back In Black, recorded just two months later with a new singer, Brian Johnson, and new lyrics to the songs Angus, Malcolm and Bon had already started writing, was unsurprisingly a lethal combination of wild and barely suppressed emotion. It’s an album that makes the little hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It also has two of the best rock anthems in history, ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. Sadly, there are no examples of the early demos with Bon.The album is included probably because the band consider it their tribute to Scott, and possibly because they didn’t want Johnson to feel left out. Since it sold over 10 million copies, you’ve probably already got it.

So is it worth the money? If you want, and ain’t got, the Atlantic bootleg (going rate around £40-£75) it certainly is. It’s a nice bit of packaging (despite the lack of info on the liner-notes), and if it’s a bit short on the studio rarities, then judging by other acts’ bonus tracks, that could be for the best. But if you just want to relive the Bon Scott live days – and there’s far worse ways of spending your time – go ahead and get it. Like a night on the skids with an old pal, you know you’re going to get up to nothing new, but you’ll be staggering home, deaf, dumb and blasted, with a dirty grin on your face.

© Sylvie SimmonsMOJO, February 1998

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