EVERYONE AGREED that Peter Head had chosen his name well. The erstwhile Peter Beagley took his new name around the same time, in the early ’70s, that he formed Headband. Headband were, well, a “head band”, a band of heads – hippies who liked to take drugs – making music for hippies who liked to take drugs.
And nobody in Adelaide liked taking drugs more than Peter Head – well, maybe one guy, Bon Scott. Bon was a member of Headband’s local allies and rivals, Fraternity, who shared a big communal farmhouse in the hills north of town and spent more time smoking dope, drinking and dropping mushrooms than doing much else. The tattooed, pint-sized singer seemed to lead a charmed life.
After a near-fatal motorcycle accident, in 1974 Bon Scott joined a fledgling young Sydney outfit called AC/DC. By 1979, with their sixth album Highway to Hell, AC/DC had broken through to the top level of international touring.
Fate hadn’t been quite so kind to Peter Head. In February 1980, he was playing a pub in Alice Springs, a cocktail bar piano man lost in the outback. During a break in a show, he got a call from his wife Mouse, in Adelaide. On the other side of the world, their old pal Bon, the rock’n’roll Peter Pan, had been found dead. They were shocked, deeply shocked. They were in their early thirties like Bon himself, and they’d never known anyone who’d died.
Peter shuffled back up on stage and announced that he couldn’t continue his set. A wave of shock ran through the dusty room. Everybody loved Bon, even blackfellas in the Centre, who, like everyone, were weaned on Countdown. There was a stunned, sad silence. Peter shuffled off to stare into his Scotch, and the motley crowd just followed his lead, shuffling off to sit quietly under the shady gums of a nearby dry riverbed.
That was the sort of impact the death of Bon Scott had, not only in Australia but all round the world. It was one of those events that people remember hearing about, the same way as when, just ten months later, John Lennon was shot in New York.
The two deaths, in fact, neatly bookend 1980. Rock was at a crossroads in 1980. The year before, Sid Vicious died; the year after, Bob Marley. On the same day Bon was found dead in London – Tuesday, February 19 – another Antipodean outlaw Nick Cave arrived there, to begin his career in exile.
The death of Bon Scott, in a way, might have marked the beginning of the rest of rock’s life. Because it was out of this tragedy that arose the great triumph of Back in Black.
Even before 1980 was out, Back in Black had sold three million copies and was already rewriting the rulebook. By now, it is accountable as the fifth-biggest album of all time, just behind Led Zeppelin IV.
Back in Black didn’t so much define a genre or a time as it set a benchmark for pure rock action that’s barely been matched since. In a fell swoop, it laid the blueprint for both what would become known as stadium rock – the ’80s! – and its official antithesis, ’90s grunge. Today, the influence of AC/DC is still pervasive: In 2004, American death metal band Six Feet Under covered Back in Black in full as the album Graveyard Classics. More recently, new Melbourne band Airborne incited an international bidding war on the basis that they sound more like AC/DC than all the other bands trying to sound like AC/DC.
Certainly, Back in Black is the greatest resurrection act in rock history. What band, after all, has ever survived the loss of a charismatic lead singer? Think of the Doors, or INXS, Nirvana.
What band, in 1980, was poised to impact on rock as enduringly as AC/DC? What other band has transcended the leap from a pre-punk to post-metal world? Remember the new wave bands that were so touted at the time – the Clash, the Police… U2 were still barely a neighbourhood threat at the time, likewise INXS.
How did AC/DC do it?
ON THE 25th anniversary of the release of Back in Black in June this year, AC/DC was awarded double-diamond status for the album in the US, signifying sales of over twenty million. Worldwide, it’s sold over forty million.
It’s extraordinary, in the first place, that AC/DC did what they did: got a replacement singer straight away – like, straight away – and went straight on in to the studio. It’s even more extraordinary that it worked, that the band didn’t just fall flat on its face. But it’s less extraordinary when you know AC/DC.
Bon Scott was cremated in a quiet ceremony at Fremantle (where he grew up) on February 29th, 1980. Malcolm and Angus Young, AC/DC’s twin guitar axis and the greatest sibling instrumental team in rock history, flew directly back to London after that. Within a couple of days, they were back in the rehearsal room; within a couple of weeks, they were rehearsing new singers, and within a month had settled on Brian Johnson; within six weeks, in April, they were in the studio in the Bahamas recording Back in Black…
More than just dedicated to the memory of Bon Scott, more even than a fitting tribute in its totality, Back in Black is in fact a voice from beyond the grave, an album possessed of the pure spirit of Bon Scott, his not going gently into the night.
Back in Black was a huge hit right out of the blocks, going to Number One in the UK, Top 5 in the US and Number Two in Australia. It was like a party and everyone was there, except Bon.
But the thing about Back in Black is, unlike a lot of records that get caught in their time, it just keeps on selling, which is why its influence is so pervasive – because it keeps on turning on successive generations of fans.
Back in Black was the album Kurt Cobain taught himself to play guitar to. It is the album Motorhead use to tune their PA.
It is the album American troops blasted at besieged Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989, forcing him to surrender.
It is the album Commie rockers rushed the record shops of the west to buy when the Berlin Wall fell, also in 1989.
It is the album against which producer Rick Rubin measures all his efforts.
It is the album Jack Black ‘taught’ in School of Rock.
It is the album that yielded the single ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, the ultimate frat-house party-starter and poledancer favourite.
it is the album for which air guitar might have been invented, its title-track rated as the Greatest Riff of All Time.
It is the album that entrenched AC/DC in the upper echelons of rock royalty. When the Rolling Stones played a small side show at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney in 2003, who but Malcolm and Angus got up to have a jam with them? Keith Richard likes AC/DC so much he lobbied for their induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame – but then maybe he was feeling guilty about having nicked some of their licks!
It is significant though that the graph of AC/DC record sales traces a steady ascent up to Back in Black, and after that spike, begins to decline.
It’s hard not to ascribe that to Bon Scott’s fading presence.
RONALD BELFORD Scott died after he was left to sleep off a drunk in a parked car in the south London suburb of Dulwich. Aged 33, he was pronounced dead on arrival at nearby Kings College Hospital. An autopsy found nothing but a fair bit of Scotch in his system, and the coroner ruled it was death by misadventure due to liver failure.
Bon had arrived back in London in mid-January 1980, after spending Christmas, as had become his custom, in sunny Australia. He had just over a month to live. He was already working on lyric ideas for the new album AC/DC was due to go into the studio to record. With the breakthrough Highway to Hell had made in the US, in large part thanks to the new producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the pressure was on to follow it up.
Bon’s mother Isa told me Bon had already written a lot of lyrics for the album. The band was always working on new material. Malcolm and Angus would jam in the tour bus; Malcolm was and is the riffmeister, off which Angus bounces. That’s why they’ve always had such an explosive dynamic – the secret of AC/DC’s success – Malcolm and Angus interlock in perfect complement. The two brothers and Bon were always trading tags and hooklines, which Bon would develop up further into full lyrics. It is classic organic rock songwriting, and if Back in Black was born anywhere, it was born here.
In London in a cold January, Bon’s ex-girlfriend Silver Smith, a hooker and heroin addict, helped him find and furnish a flat in Victoria, in a block called Ashley Court, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. Bon then went to Cannes for the annual MIDEM music industry convention, at which AC/DC received a swag of precious metal awards for Highway to Hell.
Back in England, the band played two gigs, at the Newcastle Mayfair on January 25 and the Southampton Gaumont on the 27th. At the second of these, Bon’s last live gig with the band, he met a woman called Anna Baba, who was a friend of AC/DC tour manager Ian Jeffery’s Japanese wife Suzie.
On February 3, Bon went to a UFO gig at the Hammersmith Odeon, and was photographed backstage with his mate, guitarist Pete Way.
On February 7, AC/DC taped an appearance on Top of the Pops, performing their new single, the now-prophetic ‘Touch Too Much’. It was Bon’s last public appearance with the band. That night, Anna went home with Bon. She moved in to Ashley Court the next day. The couple went to Angus’s wedding.
Bon was in and out of the rehearsal room. By this time it was typical for Malcolm and Angus to demo up tracks with Bon sitting in on drums. They already had a couple of tunes, which had been bubbling for a while: ‘Have Drink One Me’, which had that title, and the riff that would become ‘Back in Black’. Bon was putting his hand into these arrangements, and trying out lyrics, constantly scribbling in the notebooks he always carried around. There were a lot of ideas in the air. Bon was energised by the prospects. He knew the band could really nail it with this album.
Bon liked to fly high and he often crashed hard, but he was always first into the lobby the next morning, freshly scrubbed and ready to go. He took his work, his toilet poetry as he called it, seriously, but he never took himself too seriously. He was confident of his role in taking AC/DC up the next level.
On February 13, Bon dropped in on a London recording session of French punk band Trust, whom he’d befriended in Paris. Together they cut a version of AC/DC’s ‘Ride On’, one of Bon’s finest songs and his final recording, which has occasionally cropped up on bootlegs: “That’s why I’m lonely!” he bawled, “I’m so lonely…”
On Sunday the 17th, Trust came over to Ashley Court for a Japanese meal cooked by Anna. Rose Tattoo guitarist Mick Cocks, then stranded in London and a friend of Bon’s, was there too. Anna remembers it now like the Last Supper. Trust’s Bernie Bonvoisin later sang in ‘Your Final Gig’, “Everything had gone great, we’d laughed the night before…”
The next day, Monday the 18th, was Bon’s last.
Anna and Bon had had a bust-up, and Anna was preparing to move out. She was going to stay with Ian and Suzie Jeffery at Maida Vale. She left Bon at Ashley Court in the late afternoon.
At about 11pm, Bon rang Maida Vale and told both Ian and Anna that he was going to bed, having an early night.
Around the same time, he makes a couple of international calls. He’d had a few drinks and he wanted someone to talk to. Former management aide and friend Coral Browning got a message on her machine in L.A.. He might have called Irene, his ex-wife in Australia, too. Bon made another call, to Silver Smith. He asks her if she wants to go out and see a band. Bon was never able to quite let go of Silver. Neither she nor Joe Furey, Silver’s partner in crime, felt like going out, but a visitor, Alistair Kinnear, had to drive home anyway, so he goes and gets Bon and takes him to a club in Camden called the Music Machine.
The original news reports quoted Kinnear as saying that Bon was already quite drunk when he picked him up at Ashley Court around midnight. The pair had a few rounds at the Music Machine, and left at about 2am. Kinnear gave Bon a lift home, but when he was unable to help the fast-fading singer inside Ashley Court, locking them both out of the building in the process, he had little choice but to take him on to his own place in Dulwich. When they got there Bon was completely comatose and wouldn’t budge, so Kinnear went upstairs to fetch a blanket, covered Bon with it, and left a note telling him to come up if he came to.
Bon didn’t show up at rehearsal on the Tuesday, and Ian Jeffery, among others, was starting to get a bit peeved.
Alistair Kinnear didn’t go outside his flat again for fifteen hours, till around 7:45 on Tuesday evening. It was then that he found Bon awkwardly curled around the gearstick of his little Renault 5. Kinnear’s parents were medical people, so he knew something was wrong straight away and he raced Bon to the hospital. But it was too late.
Kinnear gave the hospital Silver’s phone number, she was the only person he could think of. Silver phoned Angus, hysterical. Angus phoned Malcolm. Ian Jeffery got a call at about midnight and he and AC/DC manager Peter Mensch went to the hospital to positively identify Bon. Malcolm phoned Bon’s parents.
The news hit the Evening Standard on Wednesday afternoon, and quickly bounced down to Australia. As the reports started to seem inadequate, the band closed ranks and Malcolm and Angus accompanied Bon’s body back to Perth.
EARLY THIS year, I got a phone call from Richard Jinman, an Australian journalist on secondment to the Guardian in London, who was writing a piece on Bon Scott to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. Even Malcolm Young had managed to release a statement – (“Bon has already become part of rock folklore,” he said, “Ride on, Bon”) and Jinman was keen to get me, as Bon’s biographer, to comment.
Talk naturally turned to the conspiracy theories. Almost from the first, there were grey areas surrounding Bon’s death. Like that his flat was shortly afterwards broken into and cleared out. The AC/DC machine itself cast suspicion and blame on Bon’s friends, who, it’s true, were hookers, heroin addicts and drug dealers: precisely the type of lowlife that populated and so enlivened Bon’s songs.
The strongest conspiracy theory, fuelled by the fact that Alistair Kinnear, the man who found Bon dead, had seemed to disappear from the face of the earth, was that Kinnear was nothing more than an alias, used by another person close to the action, a man who was a friend of Bon’s and Bon’s ex, who was a heroin dealer and had plenty of aliases as it already was, like Joe Blow, Joe King and Joe Silver. The inference immediately arose that drugs were more involved than originally thought.
The wildest theory, based on the changeable recovered memories of various ex-members of metal band UFO, who were friends of Bon’s and junkies too – and given credence in the latest AC/DC book, Paul Stenning’s Two Sides to Every Glory – was that Bon had gone to Dulwich to see Alistair Kinnear, whoever he might have been, to score smack.
But none of these conspiracy theories added up, even as some questions, like the whereabouts of Alistair Kinnear, remained unanswered. Bon didn’t use heroin, I knew that all along, just as the coroner found none in his system. Besides, even if Joe Furey (aka Joe Blow etc), the man who was supposed to be Alistair Kinnear, was somehow able to pass himself off as someone else at a coroner’s inquest, I had found and interviewed him, as no one else has ever done – just as I’m still the only person to have spoken to so many other people close to Bon at the time – and I remained convinced by the consistency of his and Bon’s other friends’ accounts of those fateful last few days.
Besides, the whole thing rang of the familiar: Bon sleeping it off in the back of a car? People in Australia who knew Bon could remember him doing just that many, many times.
I told Richard Jinman it was my belief that everything on the night of Bon’s death was pretty much as it seemed, but that as long as Alistair Kinnear remained a phantom, until he was positively identified I could never be 100% certain. I knew that Joe Furey wasn’t Kinnear, but after ten years of searching I still didn’t know who Kinnear was, and I told Jinman, exasperatedly, “He just doesn’t seem to exist.”
The Guardian ran the piece, closing it on Jinman’s words, “Walker believes Kinnear was a name adopted by one of Scott’s associates who did not want to be identified.” Which was at the very least a misinterpretation of my position – a very different meaning to the quote “He just doesn’t seem to exist” – and certainly not what was ever put in my book fron its first edition onwards.
A couple of days after that, the paper had to print a retraction. Daniel Kinnear, the son of Alistair, had been in touch to say that his father did indeed exist, was alive if not very well in the south of Spain, and that the whole matter had already caused his family enough distress without any further aspersions being cast on his father’s character. So the truth was finally flushed out.
I myself sent Daniel Kinnear an email, but short of his father making any public comment, it was enough that Daniel finally outed him. The missing piece in the jigsaw fits neatly enough to finally put paid, I hope, to all the harmful speculation.
The more pressing question, however, remains: It isn’t even so much, Who broke into Bon’s flat? – because I know who that was, it was AC/DC roadies Ian Jeffery and Jake Berry – but rather, What were they looking for?
And what did they find?
AT THE FUNERAL, Bon’s parents Chick and Isa implored Malcolm and Angus that they must go on, they could not quit the band, that that would be the travesty. It was briar Scots stoicism all round, and Bon himself would have counted on no less.
But if it seems at all graceless that Malcolm and Angus got back together to continue working on the songs for the new album a mere two days after returning to London – two days! – the fact is the Youngs have never been big on social niceties. AC/DC had got where they were thanks to a take-no-prisoners tunnel vision, and they weren’t about to start going soft now. Like their music, they were suspicious of airs and embellishments; there was an austerity almost about their insular regimen, in which a pure Scots work ethic trampled all over any less noble emotions. And so it was business as usual, even if their blood brother was still warm in the ground. Plus, the machine couldn’t just stop, it had to keep up the momentum; in fact, what it did – to stay ahead of any grief, or regret? – was speed up, like songcatchers leaping at the remains of the day…
The gift in all this was Bon’s anointing. Bon’s generosity of spirit even in death paled anything most people could muster in life.
In a rehearsal room in Pimlico, Malcolm and Angus worked over song ideas. It was different, a bit weird without Bon, but they could still hear him, sort of, when they got really pumping on a riff. He was indeed as he himself had said, “the lightning bolt in the middle” that charged the two poles on either side of him, the Gibson and the Gretsch.
The band have said that they resisted management/record company pressure to get a replacement for Bon, but they can’t have done so too strongly, as it was within a mere fortnight that they were auditioning new singers under the extra eyes and ears of Mutt Lange and Peter Mensch. A list of containing nine names was drawn up and the call went out. Former Easybeat Stevie Wright was never really a contender (due to his drug problems), just as the same is probably true of the Steve Marriott rumour. And the band was wise to reject former Heavy Metal Kid Gary Holton (he would die in ’85). They were wiser still to take on Brian Johnson, who’d been languishing in Newcastle since his band Geordie broke up in 1977, and who impressed with versions of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and ‘Nutbush City Limits’. “He’s got the range,” declared Lange. Bon wasn’t four weeks in the ground and Brian Johnson was already the new singer in AC/DC.
The announcement was made on April 8. The new line-up spent a couple of weeks getting it together with Mutt Lange, honing material for the album, then set sail for the Bahamas. The famous Compass Point studio was chosen for tax reasons, plus also Lange, who’d worked there before, felt its vibe would suit the band. That is, the vibe in the studio itself, not the islands generally: For the spotty young Young boys a tropical paradise would mean nothing to do, and so all they could do was work. And Lange was a famous marathon man in the studio.
Born in South Africa, Lange was a musician first, raised on country mainly (which might explain his current incarnation as Shania’s Twain’s husband and producer). As the man usually credited with inventing lycra metal in the ’80s, going on to work with Def Leppard after AC/DC, Mutt Lange is today probably one of the richest record producers in the world. But in 1980, both he and AC/DC were still just knocking on the door, and their relationship worked because it was so mutually beneficial.
The general vibe was convivial and confident, the band going out of its way to make Brian feel comfortable. Brian was naturally nervous but he did pretty well considering only weeks earlier he was working under cars in the garage.
Highway to Hell had succeeded because Mutt Lange made the band sound bigger and smoothed out some of its rough edges. Back in Black succeeded because it sounded even bigger again, and because within that hugely enveloping ambience, it could afford to restore some sharper edges. Highway to Hell is a warmer and more well-rounded album than Back in Black (a few of the tracks on Back in Black are relatively weak, whereas nearly all the songs off Highway to Hell became AC/DC staples), but it is the overarching sonic vista of Back in Black, the vastness of its dynamic crunch, that makes it irresistible
Now with that name, ‘Back in Black’ was the first track the band recorded at Compass Point. A classic slice of self-aggrandisement as Bon did so well on songs like ‘TNT’, ‘Back in Black’ was a monster from the moment Lange got it down on tape.
As an album, Back in Black is uneven. But the superior half of it is so overwhelming, that it’s enough to carry it.
The album’s eventual opening track, ‘Hell’s Bells’, is one of the slowest dirges AC/DC have ever recorded. Slowing the tempo a bit generally was one of the keys to opening up the band’s sound, but this track, obviously enough, was a funeral march…
AC/DC made a tradition of ten track albums, five songs per side. Of the remaining four songs on Side One, only ‘Shoot to Thrill’ and ‘Givin the Dog a Bone’ barely measure up; ‘What Do You Do For Money Honey?’ and ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’ are both really pretty ordinary.
It is the double punch of Side Two’s opening, the title-track followed by ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, that cements the album’s impact. The side closes strongly too, with three songs that hark strongly back to Bon, ‘Have a Drink On Me’, ‘Shake a Leg’ and ‘Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’. But it’s the title-track and big single that are worth the price of admission alone.
‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ might be one of the few actual pop songs that AC/DC have ever done, which would account for its broader success. And ‘Back in Black’, even if it sounds like an outtake from Physical Graffiti, is still the Greatest Riff of All Time.
With the assistance of Mutt Lange, AC/DC had distilled their formula down to a pure essence. Already virtually a less-is-more genre in their own right, AC/DC combined with Lange to dare strip it back even further. At around the same time, the Ramones were taking minimalism to an alter-zenith; their sound was a buzzsaw wall of noise, whereas AC/DC’s was full of holes and spaces.
What Back in Black is really all about is the relationship between drums and guitars, the distances – tension and release – a not so much what’s there as what’s not, what’s left out. Although its rhythms and textures were more mechanistic, not as loose as classic Zeppelin, Back in Black has a funkiness that other such pillars of metal as Sabbath or Purple can only dream about (but does recall the underrated Free). And while Brian Jonhson may have lacked the twinkle in his eye that made Bon so endearing, again, the sheer drive of it all swept up everything in its path. These qualities that make AC/DC unique we can now see as so Australian: the rejection of artifice, an essential modesty (if not inferiority complex), the grittiness and saltiness…
Bon, of course, was a larrikin incarnate, whose presence on Back in Black isn’t so much an absence as a shadow, or a sort of embedding, like tattoo ink under skin.
It’s one thing though to say that Back in Black is driven by the spirit of Bon Scott, but something else again to find concrete elements of his input. But if there is one conspiracy theory that refuses to go away, it is that Bon hasn’t received due credit for his contributions to Back in Black.
Malcolm and Angus, again, always maintained they weren’t interested in “graverobbing” any of Bon’s ideas – just as they didn’t want a clone of him (and in Brian Johnson, didn’t get one) – but given the way the famous Young-Scott-Young writing team worked, it’s hard to imagine that some of Bon’s ideas didn’t seep into Back in Black even if only by osmosis.
At worst, the allegation is that there are songs and lyrics on the album actually written by Bon. Listening to it, it is possible to hear things that sound like they could be Bon’s work – just as it is possible to hear other things that quite clearly aren’t.
“Some songs on Back in Black,” says Anna Baba, “I could have explained too well, with much confusion and tears. They who call themselves mates and declare they don’t do it, but have done it, with cool cheek – sneaky! ‘Shake a Leg’, ‘Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’, ‘Have a Drink on Me’ and others, obviously his, no-one else’s.”
Bon had already sat in on rehearsals for ‘Have a Drink On Me’ and ‘Back in Black’. It seems unlikely he wrote his own epitaph (though some people still seem to believe they’ve heard a demo of it on which Bon sings), but certainly Angus as well as Anna dates ‘Have a Drink On Me’ as prior to Bon’s death.
‘Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ is another song whose provenance is curious. The standard line goes it was the only track built from the ground up in the Bahamas, but Anna Baba can explain how Bon arrived at the title, after the caretaker at Ashley Court, a Mr. Burke, told Bon to turn down the loud music late at night. And it just sounds so Bon, tres Bon…
There are trace elements of Bon all over the album, titles and couplets that if he didn’t write, then certainly do him proud. So, the thing is: Either Bon’s spirit palpably inhabited the sessions in order to produce writing this good, or else Brian and the boys just all of a sudden got really good at songwriting. There’s not a lot of evidence, after all, in Brian Johnson’s back catalogue to suggest he would ever become even an adequate songwriter, and neither did Malcolm or Angus have much experience in completing lyrics. But then maybe Bon’s muse did inspire them.
Or maybe: Since Ian Jeffery and AC/DC production manager Jake Berry forced their way into Bon’s flat after he’d died, and Jeffery has admitted he has a folder containing Bon’s lyrics to fifteen songs, might this not have something to do with it?
If these are the lost scrolls, should they not be revealed? But the shutters went up around AC/DC almost from the moment Bon was gone. Ian Jeffery is still in the music game, living in Japan now and working on the road with bands like U2, but like everyone else in the AC/DC camp around that period – not only the band themselves but also Mutt Lange, Peter Mensch and Jake Berry – he has never really spoken about Bon’s death and the genesis of Back in Black, or anything for that matter, and he doesn’t look about to start now.
So there are questions that still remain. When Anna Baba asked Jeffery for some of her things that were at the flat, he told her it was all packed to be sent to Bon’s parents. Yet Bon’s parents got a suitcase with a couple of pairs of jeans in it and not much else. Why couldn’t Anna get her keepsakes back? Why couldn’t Silver get back the furniture she’d lent Bon?
What happened to Bon’s diaries and notebooks, the photo albums he treasured? His records and tapes? His bongoes?
What happened to all the lyrics he was working on?
THE BAND finished recording the album at the end of May and went to New York to mix it. In June, they played a couple of warm-up dates in Holland and Belgium. Brian Johnson seemed a marriage made in heaven.
As if to prove the truism that death is a great career move, the UK charts were littered with old AC/DC singles, and when Back in Black was released in July, it went straight to Number One. During August/September, the band played a 64-date US tour. It was business as usual, same as it ever was. In November, they toured the UK, by which time the album was peaking at #4 in the US. Then they went on to Europe.
On the first anniversary of Bon’s death in February 1981, after Back in Black had gone Platinum in the US and the band had just toured Japan for the first time, AC/DC came back to Australia. It was their first tour down under in four years. It seemed like a lifetime. It was a lifetime.
Back in the summer of 1976/’77, when AC/DC played their first return tour of Australia after decamping to the UK, they were hounded by the tabloids intent on a punk rock shock and even had some of their gigs banned. This storm in a teacup caused the band to virtually renounce Australia, which, of course, they could afford to do because they had much bigger fish to fry overseas – but which also meant that Bon Scott would never again appear on Australian soil. When AC/DC finally did return again in ’81, Brian Johnson already had a hundred gigs under his belt.
With shows in the five major capitals, Jake Berry came out to do a recce on the venues. Now armed with the props (Hell’s Bell) and pyrotechnics they’d once disdained (their lighting rig was bigger than Kiss’s, they claimed), AC/DC were leading the charge into ’80s arena rock.
Despite the high ticket price, an extra show had to be added in Brisbane and another also staged at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl. But even as AC/DC was already one of the slickest big touring operations on the international circuit – certainly one of the loudest! – and even Australia was regarded as a homecoming, again it was tainted somehow.
The Melbourne shows were the last of what would end up a 119-date world tour, but the gig in Sydney, the band’s home town, was the wrap party. After opening the tour in Perth at the Entertainment Centre on February 13, at which gig Bon’s family were guests of honour, the band moved on to Adelaide to play Memorial Drive on February 17. On Thursday the 19th, a year to the day that Bon had died, a typical late summer storm rolled in over Sydney. It probably wouldn’t do to read too much into all the thunder and lightning, but the next day, when the gig was scheduled to go on at the Showgrounds, the wet had turned bitter, and the show had to be postponed.
The show was postponed on Saturday night too. But when it finally went on on the Sunday night, it went off. Angus gets itchy fingers if his routine is interrupted, and he doesn’t know how to give less than 130%.
Australia took Brian Johnson straight to heart. But as warmly as Brian was received, as celebratory as the crowd and the band’s experience was, there was still something… incomplete: The absence of the prodigal son was conspicuous. There was the chiming echo of Bon Scott in every song and every note and beat the band played.
After the performance, another trophy night: Everyone was there, except Bon, and Angus. AC/DC’s backstage set-up now included a hospitality area in the form of a complete, mock English pub. Brian liked an ale or ten, and so did Malcolm. The band was presented with forty gold and platinum albums. The cream of the Australian rock scene was there. Every one of them had some sort of investment in the past life of Bon Scott. Straight away, for example, the two support bands, Swanee and the Angels: Swanee front man John Swan is Jimmy Barnes’s half-brother, and both of them had tried to replace Bon in the latter-day Fraternity; the Angels were another Adelaide band, virtually discovered by Bon after he first met them jamming with Peter Head. For many of these people, and Bon’s other musical mates like Rose Tattoo, the occasion was bittersweet, a sort of homecoming without a King. It was a bit like the fake pub backstage; you didn’t need props like that when Bon Scott was around, because Bon was a walking talking one-man party as it was.
Mark Evans was there too, and he knew how it felt to be left behind by AC/DC. Evans had played bass in the band between 1975 and ’78, on TNT, Dirty Deeds… and Let there be Rock, and he was a loyal footsoldier – he knew what it was like to have to carry Bon Scott home! – but nobody gets bigger than the game in AC/DC, not Bon Scott or Mutt Lange or even Angus, and when Evans was no longer required, he was seamlessly replaced by Cliff Williams. For people like Evans, there was a sense of a wall being up around the machine (he eventually won an out-of-court settlement over unpaid royalties).
Angus just disappeared. In fact, his absence backstage was almost as conspicuous as Bon’s. He slipped away to have a quiet cup of tea and a fag before going to bed, or maybe painting a watercolour. For him, it was just business as usual. Or was it?
The band had to race to Brisbane the next day for the first of two nights at Festival Hall. And it was here that things started to unravel. A couple of cars got torched after the show. Queensland hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s stormtroopers were remarkably caught off guard. But that wasn’t going to happen in Melbourne. In Melbourne, the police surrounded the Myer Music Bowl, intent on nipping in the bud any public drunkenness or petty vandalism. On the first night, they made thirty arrests as the crowd dispersed after the show.
On the second night, the band played as if cowed, but still that didn’t stop the cops from arresting another thirty kids – and this the city that now names a street after AC/DC! For the band, there was a real sense of déjà vu about it, another storm in a teacup, and they left Australia again not hankering to soon come back. (And indeed, they wouldn’t do so for seven years, at least in a professional capacity; personally, both Malcom and Angus still call Australia home.)
YOU WOULD be forgiven for expecting that at this stage the band might take a break, just to catch a breath if not reflect any.
But Malcolm and Angus kept on pushing harder and harder, and that’s how it all finally caught up with them.
After Australia, they never even really went off the road. They continued touring the US from March till June ’81, and in July went to Paris to start recording a Back in Black follow-up with Mutt Lange. The sessions became fraught. The band was drying up, running aground. The album that resulted, For Those About to Rock, which was out even before Christmas, was almost an empty vessel. Certainly, it was the first AC/DC album that didn’t outsell its predecessor – and the last, as a consequence, produced by Mutt Lange
If there was ever a sense of insularity about AC/DC, it escalated now into fully blown paranoia. For drummer Phil Rudd, it was never the same after Bon died, and he started to go off the rails. Subsequent albums like 1983’s Flick of the Switch and 1985’s Fly on the Wall were even worse, clearly lacking the quality songs the band seemed to turn out at will when Bon was still alive. The band was now officially falling apart.
After sacking Mutt Lange, Malcolm and Angus set to a full purging, sacking drummer Rudd, manager Peter Mensch and others. None of it was ever going to bring back Bon though.
But even if AC/DC quickly recovered from this mid-’80s nadir, finding a born-again energy, they’ve still never quite scaled the heights of their first seven years, first seven albums. The guts of their live set, to this day, is drawn from the six albums Bon made with the band plus his posthumous PS, Back in Black. Only occasional tracks from the subsequent 25 years – like ‘Thunderstruck’, or ‘Who Made Who’ – have become AC/DC standards.
After Melbourne City Council in 2004 renamed one of its famous bluestone back alleys “AC/DC Lane” – and this after the band got the same honour from some town in Spain, and got a star on Hollywood Boulevard – there’s now talk of a public monument to Bon in Fremantle. The coach of the Fremantle Dockers AFL side Chris Connelly is supporting the push because he’s a fan of the man and uses his songs to inspire his players.
Bon Scott may be dead, but he’s a long way from gone.
© Clinton Walker, Rolling Stone (Australia), January 2006