AC/DC 1973-1980: The Bon Scott Years
By Jeff Apter
For a band that many think is nearing the end of its lifespan, AC/DC sure has been in the news the past few years. Mostly for personnel changes.
Drummer Phil Rudd was cut loose in 2015 while facing drug and attempted murder charges. Lead singer Brian Johnson departed/was ousted (depending on who you believe) in 2016 for medical issues, replaced by Axl Rose for a series of shows that went better than anyone could have anticipated. Bassist Cliff Williams retired the same year. And rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young died in 2017 of dementia, after leaving the band three years earlier for other health issues.
But this great book by Jeff Apter turns the clock way, way back to the band’s founding and early years with lead singer Bon Scott – who himself died in 1980 from what his death certificate cited as “acute alcohol poisoning” that was ruled as “death by misadventure” when he reportedly choked on his own vomit.
But here’s Bon in all his short statured, bare-chested, tattooed, tight panted, swaggering self onstage and in the studio. You can see how he made songs like “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “Big Balls,” “Have a Drink on Me,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Girl’s Got Rhythm,” “T.N.T.” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” truly his. And here’s lead guitarist Angus Young in youthful ascension, not many years removed from actually being able to wear the schoolboy uniform that became his trademark.
This book is chock full of photos – many rare – along with memorabilia like record covers, T-shirts, posters, and promo flyers. The text, which takes a “day by day” format, is packed with information for both the casual and diehard fan of the band. And there’s ample anecdotes (many from gigs) and trivia. Like prior to forming AC/DC, members were in bands with names like Kantuckee, Fraternity, and…the Velvet Underground (not the Lou Reed-fronted group, of course).
It’s also interesting to read how some bookers – assuming that the band’s name meant they were bisexual or geared toward those audiences – would hire them to play in gay nightclubs (the early glam outfits didn’t help misconstrue that notion).
The truth, as fans know, is much more mundane: Angus and Malcolm’s sister suggested it for the band’s moniker after a power switch on her Singer sewing machine used to make stage costumes for her brothers. And it’s hard to imagine the show in 1974 when the opening act for this hardest of hard rocking bands were…fellow smooth sailin’ Australians the Little River Band.
Still, in the early years, AC/DC would play wherever and whenever, including pubs, clubs, bars, local fair, and even high school dances. This was a hungry group with no Plan B for their lives. And out front was the charismatic, libertine bad boy Bon Scott. Prone to fistfights with men, sexcapades with women, and a living-on-the-edge life of substance (and substances).
Author Apter come by his AC/DC credentials legit. He’s written two other books about the group and saw them (actually heard them outside a club) in the band’s home country of Australia in 1977. He also goes further back to discuss how the Youngs – along with other “Australian” ‘70s music icons like the Bee Gees/Andy Gibb and Olivia Newton-John – actually emigrated from the UK as kids when there was a big push for citizens to move and help populate Down Under.
And Apter’s inclusion of then-contemporary record and concert reviews shows how much history can triumph over journalism. Like this observation of a November 10, 1976 show by Tony Stewart of the New Musical Express. Which – depending on your viewpoint – is critical or accurate: “This bunch of delinquents have only an elementary musical knowledge, write pitifully trite songs, and to compensate they come on as vulgar, crass, and loud.”
The band’s trajectory only seems to go up and up as the ‘70s came to a close, so of course Scott’s death was a huge blow. Especially coming after what was seen as their breakthrough record, Highway to Hell. By September 1979, the band is selling out 2,000-3,000 seaters, including (as written) The Music Center in Houston.
But in one of the most famous cases of unexpected comebacks for any rock band, Brian Johnson was recruited and AC/DC want to on skyrocketing fame with their next record, Back in Black, which itself was kind of a requiem for Scott. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, and still sells out large arenas for live shows.
As to the future of AC/DC, fans with nuts with joy when an apparently genuine photo leaked this summer of Brian Johnson and Phil Rudd in Vancouver, Canada on a deck outside a studio where the band recorded its last three records (it was taken by a diehard fan with a view from her nearby apartment). Rudd and Stevie Young (Malcolm’s son, who took his father’s position in the band) were also spotted in the city.
So while the future of AC/DC is fuzzy, their very beginning years are celebrated and explored in this required reading for the band’s fans. “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll,” Scott once sang. And here, the reader is right along for the climb.