LESS THAN a year before releasing their first American hit, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, AC/DC came close to throwing in the towel.
Having been formed in Australia in 1973, the manic onstage cavortings of their short-trousered axe-imp Angus Young gave the quintet an instantly identifiable image and their no holds barred sonic assault drew favourable comparisons with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
They laid waste to their homeland and rapidly exported that success across to Europe but the mysterious death of their notoriously hell-raising frontman Bon Scott made it all seem empty and meaningless.
On the morning of February 20, 1980, Scott had been found dead in a car in a London suburb, half a world away from his bandmates. The precise circumstances of his lonely death were never ascertained, but he had been on a drinking bender the night before and, unable to be prised from the car, had been left to sleep it off. He never woke up.
The band was in shock for some months. “We really didn’t know what to do,” Angus has revealed but, “Funnily enough, even Bon’s parents said that we should go on and that made us feel better.”
Replacing a frontman as charismatic and beloved as Scott seemed impossible, however, until they recalled having seen a leather-lunged youngster with an awesome vocal range some years earlier fronting an obscure Brit band called Geordie.
Things had not gone well for Geordie, however and by the time AC/DC tracked him down, Brian Johnson was beginning to feel he was, at 33, already over the hill. Johnson lacked Scott’s onstage charisma but that turbo-charged voice more than compensated, and his rough-hewn personality fitted AC/DC perfectly.
They headed for Compass Point studios in the Bahamas with a clutch of songs written before Bon’s death and met up with revered but reclusive producer Mutt Lange (aka Mr Shania Twain) who had helmed their previous album, Highway To Hell.
The band set to work, determined to create a fitting tribute to Bon, and things were already going well when Johnson pulled off his masterstroke. “I was in this little concrete shell thing with a window, and it came to me,” he recalled. “I’ve always been into motor cars, and cars and women are pretty much the same: They go fast and then let you down. Then they bring you right back up again when you see the new model.” He hit on the line, “She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean” and it became the spark of ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, a simple but effective tale of a seismic one-night stand.
The inspiration, he feels, came from a higher place. “I don’t give a f*** if people believe me or not, but something washed through me and went, ‘It’s all right son, it’s all right’. This kind of calm. I’d like to think it was Bon but I can’t because I’m too cynical.”
Powered up with an Angus Young riff that still crops up in All-Time Greatest lists, and promoted via an outrageously erotic video brimming over with leather-clad be-zippered lovelies, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ gave AC/DC their first American hit, propelling its parent album Back In Black to multi-platinum status.
Beyond all this, the song has subsequently proved to have legs as long as the women in its video, easily transcending its genre stereotype in a bewildering range of covers including an impassioned makeover by kooky songstrel Tori Amos, a unholy duet between Anastacia and Celine Dion and a bluegrass romp courtesy of hillbilly funsters Hayseed Dixie, not to mention a more mainstream treatment by country crossover queen Shania Twain (aka Mrs Mutt Lange).
Little wonder then that this is the song they chose to play when they, now the fifth biggest-selling band in US history, were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2003, with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler guesting alongside Johnson on vocals.
© Johnny Black, Blender, October 2007