AC/DC: Donington Ain’t No Bad Place To Be

AC/DC headline Donington for a record-breaking third time this weekend. When they do, the song you most want to hear, predicts PAUL ELLIOTT, is the classic ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’. So he corners problem child guitarist ANGUS YOUNG for a wander down memory lane, to hear the true story of Rosie, and to hear some fond recollections of the man who made it all possible… the late, great and legendary Bon Scott

”WANNA TELL you a story ’bout a woman Iknow…’

BON SCOTT loved a story like he loved a drink. And like many of rock ‘n’ roll’s most notorious barflies — Fish, Phil Lynott et al — Bon spun some ripping yarns in his lyrics.

Bon’s tall tales are as much a feature of classic AC/DC albums as Angus Young’s white-knuckle lead guitar playing, or brother Malcolm Young’s hard chording. The line that begins this feature is, of course, from ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’. 10 years ago, Kerrang!‘s readers voted ‘Rosie’ their all-time greatest Heavy Metal track. It’s a killer riff, sure, but much of the song’s charm is in Bon’s gasping lyrics:

She ain’t exactly pretty/Ain’t exactly small… 42-39-56/You could say she got it all…/Ain’t no fairy story/Ain’t no skin ‘n’ bone/But you give it all you got/Weighin’ in at 19 stone!’

These days, flat-capped Geordie Brian Johnson sings ‘Rosie’ and other tales by Bon Scott. In 1980, Bon’s hard drinking had finished him off. At the end of another heavy night’s boozing, Bon was left to sleep off his hangover in a car parked in a London street. During the night, an unconscious Bon vomited and subsequently choked to death. One of rock ‘n’ roll’s great characters was gone, but Bon Scott won’t be forgotten.

When AC/DC crown this year’s Donington Monsters Of Rock festival, and Brian spits out Rosie’s vital statistics (the most famous curves in rock ‘n’ roll, and the most generous!), Bon will be remembered: the barrel chest, the busted-tooth grin, the back alley tattoos — ‘A rocker, a roller, a right out of controller…’.

“HE CALLED himself a ‘toilet wall graffitist’,” Angus recalls with a laugh. “Bon was full of compliments about himself!” You must have gigged in a few toilets with Bon during the ’70s: that shithole on the inner bag of Dirty Deeds for starters?

“Some of the places we played were worse than toilets, lemme tell ya!”

Breaking off from AC/DC’s Donington rehearsals, Angus remembers the old days, the hard times, with great affection.

“Bon used to say to me, ‘Whatever I do, you don’t’. Oh, I had a few wild nights over the years, but most of the time, everyone else was having them for me! Because of the schoolboy uniform, some women have tried to mother me — they think I’m cute cos I’m so short.

“But playing’s always been the thing for me. I never really looked beyond the next gig. In the early days, all my mates used to say to me, ‘You must be meeting loads of girls…’. Well, yeah, I used to meet plenty of girls, but none of ’em used to want to go home with me! Some women do come up and make, uh… bold statements, but I dunno why. There’s nothing sexy about a schoolboy, is there?”

IN AC/DC’s wildest years, Bon was the king birder, the kinda guy who fell in love at first feel. And yes, Rosie was for real.

“Rosie was a lady from Tasmania,” Angus smiles, “a big girl. Bon met her one night when he went off on a midnight walk. He went past this sleazy old motel and Rosie stuck her head out of a window and yelled out, ‘Ooh, Bon Scott!’. Now, Bon had had a few drinks that night…”

Now there’s a turn up!

“He liked a drink, but the drink done a bit of ‘distortion’, if you know what I mean! Bon went into the motel and Rosie and her friend dragged him off to bed. Bon, uh, done his duty, so to speak. He didn’t remember much of what went on, but he did remember pretending to be asleep and hearing Rosie whispering to her friend, ‘That’s 27 this week’! Bon liked his women in all shapes and sizes and Rosie wasn’t no skinny little puppy!”

Was it on that night with Rosie that Bon got ‘The Jack’?

“I guess it coulda been, but ‘The Jack’ was written about another night, when some woman did some bedhopping. First she went with Phil (Rudd, AC/DC’s hardhitting ex-drummer and aspirant stuntman) and during the night she crawled into Bon’s bed.

“The next night we played a pub in Melbourne. This girl went to see a doctor, and when she came back, she handed a bill to Phil. The doctor had diagnosed a social disease. Phil said. The cheek of it! I got no f**kin’ disease!’ During that night’s show, we did a slow blues song and Bon got the lighting guy to turn a spotlight on this girl’s table. Bon says, ‘I’d just like to inform you that you gave the doctor’s bill to the wrong guy!’

BON AND Phil had a lotta trouble with, uh… diseases on the road. There was a song in the musical West Side Story called ‘Maria’. Bon used to take the piss out of it. Instead of singing, ‘I’ve just met a girl named Maria’, he’d say, ‘I just got a dose of gonorrhea’.”

Bon Scott was the definitive drinking man’s rock ‘n’ roll singer. As an Australian rock photographer once put it over a coupla tinnies, mateship is big in Oz, always has been. Australian working men don’t get into the back seats of taxis. They get in the front next to the cabbie, like a mate would. Australians don’t give a XXXX for airs and graces. An honorary Aussie — born in Glasgow — Bon was everyone’s mate, a hard bastard, but he’d stand you a beer.

‘Cool as a body on ice’. Bon talked a good fight on ‘Live Wire’ and ‘TNT’, but his streetfighter’s demeanour told you it wasn’t all talk.

Brian Johnson can match Bon for bad sexual metaphor: ‘She had the body of Venus with arms’, purred Bon on ‘Touch Too Much’; ‘Quick draw, on the floor!’ spluttered Brian on ‘Guns For Hire’. But when it comes to boozy anecdotes, Bon, like Rosie, steals the show.

“Bon had a great way of telling stories,” nods Angus. “There was ‘Rosie’, the tale of a big woman. ‘Jailbreak’, a tale of desperation. He wrote ‘Problem Child’ for me, but y’know, I never owned a knife like it says in the song (‘With a flick of my knife, I can change your life’) — my dad took my knife off me when I was four!

“Just having a guitar was bad enough, I s’pose. Bon could conjure a story from anything. ‘She’s Got Balls’ was about his first wife! Some people in America got real mad about the lyrics to ‘Night Prowler’ (the dodgy, menacing last track on the legendary Highway To Hell LP). Some guy in a Satanic cult claimed he was influenced by the song, but we didn’t take it so seriously. Most of our stuff’s just about sex, as is most rock music. It’s pretty hard to write a song about your dog.”

You wrote ‘Given The Dog A Bone’!

“Well, er… yeah!”

WHO WROTE the lyrics on that song and the others on Back In Black? Bon, or Brian, or both?

“Bon wrote a little of the stuff. A week before he died we started writing the music, with Bon on drums. He was a drummer originally. He’d bang away while me and Malcolm worked out the riffs.

“The whole Back In Black album was our dedication to Bon. That’s why the album cover was pure black, and why the album starts with a bell ringing, something sombre and different to anything else we’d done. To get that tone, that frequency, we had a bell cast to order. As a person, Bon stared death in the face a lot. The way he said it was, ‘One day you gotta go, you gotta be a stiff’.

“After Bon died and we auditioned singers, they’d say, ‘How am I supposed to sing over all this volume?’ We said, ‘We don’t want you to sing — we want you to scream!’

“I don’t call Brian a singer. He sounds like somebody dropped a truck on his foot! It’s emotion, like on those old blues records. The grammar in blues music is fantastic. They sing ‘whummen’ instead of ‘women’, and ‘choo’ instead of ‘you’. But you get what they mean.”

STRANGELY, AFTER 11 years, Brian Johnson is still regarded as the new screamer in AC/DC. The band’s biggest-selling album, Back In Black, was recorded with Brian, and it was after the success of Back In Black that AC/DC first topped a Monsters Of Rock bill in 1981. This year’s is the band’s third headlining appearance at Donington. Angus hopes it won’t be their last, although he does admit…

“I don’t wanna be krobbling around in a schoolboy suit when I’m 60 years old!” he chuckles.

(We’ll tell ya when you’re too old, but until then, you just keep on krobbling, mate! — Ed.)

“Y’know, early on, we always thought we’d be lucky if we got past the first week. For us, it’s been rush, rush, rush. Last year, for the first time, I sat down and said, ‘What happened to the last 17 years?!'”

In the 10 years since you first played at Donington, many bands have come and gone, but you’ve hung in there. Why have AC/DC stayed on top — is it because you haven’t changed?

“Well, people have said we’ve hung around long enough! Some bands fade when they try to adapt to what’s current. We play rock music. It’s a little late for us to do a ballad. Rock is what we do best. Sometimes I’m asked if I want to play music other than AC/DC. Sure, at home I play a little blues, but after five minutes I’m like, sod this! And I’m playing hard rock again.”

ANGUS YOUNG is possessed by rock ‘n’ roll. On stage, every sinew of his bony frame convulses to AC/DC’s mental beat. Currently, the first song of their set is ‘Thunderstruck’. Before Brian has sung a line, Angus loses his school cap as he headbangs, knobbly knees shaking uncontrollably. By the end of each show, he’s lost most of his clothes, plus a few pounds in sweat.

“On the last American tour my weight went down to 94 pounds (that’s under seven stones, weightwatchers!). I was 109 pounds when I started! I reckon I could give Jane Fonda a good run for her money. Get those jugs jumping with Angus!”

You gotta have balls — and big ones at that — to get up at Donington in your shorts before 70-80,000 people…

“Sometimes it is frightening, yeah, but you gotta psych yourself up a bit, give yourself a good kick up the ass. Being older, Malcolm’s the best person to give me a kick. He’ll just say to me, ‘Those feet look a little slow tonight’. Usually, once I’ve got the uniform on I’m okay. I’m on edge, nervous, but I’m not in a panic. At least I don’t have to put on make-up. I sport my own pimples!

“I think the first time I wore the uniform was the most frightened I’ve ever been on stage. But I had no time to think, thank God. I just went straight out there in this pub. I had just one thing on my mind; I didn’t wanna be a target for blokes throwing bottles. The crowd’s first reaction to the shorts ‘n’ stuff was like a bunch of fish at feeding time, all mouths open. I never stopped moving that night. I reckoned if I stood still, I’d be dead. The first blazer I wore was actually my old school blazer from the Ashfield Boys High School. I didn’t go to school much. I was prize truant. When I went in it was like, ‘Welcome, Mr Young! A year is a long holiday’, y’know?

“The first day I went to that school, we all went to assembly and and the headmaster dragged all the boys who’d been caught smoking up on the stage in front of the whole school. Of course, Malcolm was one of ’em!”

THE CLASSIC juvenile delinquent, Malcolm’s bad habits came to a head when nephew Stevie Young replaced him on rhythm guitar for the US leg of AC/DC’s ‘Blow Up Your Video’ tour. Malcolm entered detox to curb his drinking. Before, he was on the same highway to hell as Bon.

“Over the years, Malcolm had given alcohol a helluva beatin’,” reveals Angus. “Finally, he decided he wanted to dry out. He didn’t want to become another casualty. We were already committed to touring the States, so we got Stevie in. He fitted right in after just 10 days’ rehearsal. Stevie’s like Malcolm, a real rhythm player, like Keith Richards, Ike Turner, Pete Townshend. There aren’t many like ’em today.”

Angus rarely, if ever, needed a drink to get up on stage. For him, playing is a natural high.

“Adrenalin takes over. It’s like when you take off in an aeroplane, it’s exhilarating. When you’re firing well, it’s the best feeling in the world. When it goes wrong, it’s like someone’s shoved a red hot poker up yer backside!

“Cos of nerves, I’ve tripped over and even forgotten to do my zipper up a few times! I go for a pee and forget. Last thing before I go on stage, I always go for a piss and then have a cigarette. If you ever see my shorts smoking, you know I didn’t put it out right!”

Where did you learn your striptease number?

“It’s just self-parody,” he smiles. “I saw Rod Stewart once and my brother was poking fun at him cos he had these really tight spandex trousers on. I thought, anyone can do that! Then when we played at the Reading Festival for the first time, the real showstopper was some blonde girl who walked real slow across the photo pit right in front of the stage, and 30,000 eyes went with her! Malcolm says to me, ‘You gotta do something to get the crowd’s attention back!’. So, uh… I dropped my trousers! On stage, I’m on my own little cloud.”

WHAT ABOUT when the show’s done? There didn’t appear to be too many excesses going on in your dressing room on the early part of the current tour. In Mannheim, everybody was just slumped around suppin’ tea.

“I just wind down for a couple of hours. I try to hide, just in case somebody grabs me and says, ‘Hey, you didn’t play this song tonight!’. We don’t get much rest on the road, with days running into the next. I need time to relax. I wouldn’t like to be the Angus-Young-on-stage all the time. I’d be burnt out inside a week!”

But Angus and AC/DC have not burnt out. After two decades of blood, sweat and beers, they’re still doing that ol’ bad boy boogie. And when Angus drops his shorts at Donington this Saturday night, an old drunk will be smiling: not from up there, but from way down there.

Like he said, hell ain’t a bad place to be.

© Paul ElliottKerrang!, 17 August 1991

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