Just months before Bon passed away in February 1980, AC/DC headlined Judas Priest on more than two dozen European dates on their Highway To Hell tour, starting in Brussels, Belgium, in early November 1979 and running through to Nice, France, in mid December that year.
K.K. Downing, Judas Priest's legendary guitarist from 1970–2011, remembers a different, little-known side of the hard-drinking, womanising rock 'n' roller that was the public Bon Scott: the Bon who was very, very attentive to his appearance.
‘Bon always presented himself as a gentleman,' he says. ‘He was always immaculate with his appearance. Even very early in the morning, to me he came across as a true professional and an ideal role model for any upcoming band.
‘All of the band treated us extremely well. I have nothing but very fond memories and appreciation to all members of AC/DC for making the tour as easy and as pleasurable as it was for us.'
Judas Priest enjoyed their breakthrough in the States with the 1982 album Screaming For Vengeance. As for any insights on whether Bon's lyrics ended up on AC/DC's biggest album, 1980's Back In Black, Downing plays a straight bat.
‘I am not able to comment as I am not familiar with that part of the band's history.'
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers. Check out K.K.'s official website at kkdowning.net.
In New York, during the writing of Bon: The Last Highway, I visited BARRY BERGMAN, formerly of Edward B. Marks Music Corporation. Edward B. Marks was AC/DC’s American publisher for High Voltage (1976) through to Highway To Hell (1979). When AC/DC first arrived in America in July 1977, he travelled with the band to Texas and Florida. The camaraderie, he says, was there to see.
‘I think the chemistry between them was incredible. I don’t believe [AC/DC] spend a lot of time with each other when they’re not working; I know that to be a fact, they do their own thing… my relationship with them was, I thought, excellent. I got along with all of them, at the time. I didn’t have a problem with any one of them.
‘We [Edward B. Marks] got involved with [AC/DC] through J. Albert & Son in the mid ’70s. Michael Browning was the manager at the time. I was sort of like a surrogate manager because Michael wasn’t here [in the States] all the time and there were times when they were here and he wasn’t and I would help them out, deal with things for them.
‘We gave Michael an office at Edward B. Marks, and I spent a lot of time running around with them to those early shows with Ian Jeffery, who was the road manager. I went to shows with them in Texas, here and there and everywhere else… I knew the way [the US scene] worked. I knew the way radio worked. This one worked. That thing worked. I was doing it, you know. So I was able to guide them.’
Bergman especially helped with airplay for the band out on the West Coast and in Florida, where they first got played anywhere in the States by Bill Bartlett on WPDQ/WAIV Jacksonville.
Florida, he says, was the takeoff point for the Australians: ‘That’s where it all started.’
Did you feel like you were needed by the band? That Browning didn’t know enough about America to handle it himself?
‘I got along well with Michael. I always liked and respected Michael. It’s like everything else. You come here [to America], you’re overwhelmed. It’s a big country. Of course he didn’t know. There were things I didn’t know about my own country here. If someone had have told me it would have taken four years and a bunch of albums to break this band I would have never believed it, because they were that good.’
In 1977, Bergman was in the audience for the recording of AC/DC’s Live From The Atlantic Studios promo album along with late Atlantic Records heavy Tunc Erim, who was Atlantic’s national album promotion director. Because of his seniority, Erim’s name appeared before AC/DC record-company loyalists Michael Klenfner’s and Perry Cooper’s on mailouts that went to US radio stations.
Bergman says Erim had many stoushes with the formidable Klenfner, an ex-bouncer, but Klenfner, despite his stature and size, always came off second best.
Says Bergman: ‘Tunc got the job [at Atlantic] as a result of being at a party one night years earlier when he was a kid seeing a little old lady in a corner, going over to the old lady because she didn’t know what she was doing there or she looked alone, and he danced with her all night, hung out with her, and took her home. And it was Ahmet Ertegun’s mother.’
Ertegun, of course, was the big boss at Atlantic Records.
‘It was shortly thereafter that Ahmet called him up, wanted to meet him, hired him and there was no way anyone could ever touch Tunc as long as Ahmet Ertegun was at that company. So Michael, who tried to uproot him at one point, was not going to be successful. As Michael once said to me, “His name isn’t Tunc Erim. His name is Tunc Ertegun!”
So who outside of the band was responsible for AC/DC making it in America?
‘I would say [AC/DC’s booking agent] Doug Thaler, myself, Klenfner, and maybe one or two others were the reasons the band made it, especially Doug and myself. Because Doug was a real believer and a team player and he worked for ATI’s Jeff Franklin at the time. He put together a great tour for them and everything, and I think it was on a handshake.’
He also says Klenfner, who got sacked by Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg in 1979, told him about the idea of dropping Harry Vanda and George Young as AC/DC’s producers and getting Mutt Lange to produce AC/DC. (This clashes with Browning’s version that it was solely his idea to recruit the Zambian producer for Highway To Hell and supports the testimony of others who I have spoken to previously from Atlantic who said the idea originated elsewhere, most likely from Doug Thaler.)
‘If someone had have told me it would have taken four years and a bunch of albums to break this band I would have never believed it, because they were that good.'
– Barry Bergman
But didn’t Klenfner want Eddie Kramer to produce the band?
‘At one point, yes… Klenfner had mentioned to me Mutt Lange… it came to me through Michael Klenfner, that, “You know, Barry, we gotta make change with the production of this band, because we’re selling records – [AC/DC] went from 75,000 to 150,000 to 225,000 [sales] and then the fourth album was the one.”’
Bergman relates his account of Klenfner flying down to Australia to have an audience with the band and Vanda & Young.
‘I remember him saying, “I’m sitting in the room”, the big guy that he is, “on the floor and these little guys there and Vanda & Young.” And he told them, “If you really want to see your brothers make it, you’ve gotta let go of the production. You’ve gotta bring somebody else in here.”’
Bergman’s voice is made for FM radio. In fact, he could turn his home into a radio station. Thousands of records have been lovingly catalogued along one wall that runs the entire length of the apartment. He gets up off his office chair and pulls out an original Live From The Atlantic Studios album, a birthday card signed to him by the band, and photo albums of unseen AC/DC pics. They are very personal. Sightseeing together at the Alamo. Various stage shots. A picture of his cousin, former North Miami mayor Mike Colodny, with Bon and the band, of which Bergman owns and is inordinately proud. Colodny had given them the keys to the city on 7 August 1977.
‘Nobody knew that at the time,’ says Bergman of his role in calling up Colodny and arranging a photo-op with AC/DC. ‘That stayed a secret for 27 years until the Miami Herald published it and found out. For years they called my cousin the “rock ’n’ roll mayor” after we did what we did.’ I called my cousin up one day and I said, “Michael, I got this band and we’ve gotta do something. I gotta do some sort of promotion or something to bring attention to this band.’ And he’s very powerful in Florida. He says, “Barry, I’ll get them the key to the city and we’ll throw them a lunch at City Hall and I’ll have all the press there, because everybody will be wondering, ‘What the hell is all this about?’ and then we’re going to play at the Sportatorium that night in Miami.” This worked very well. That picture went around the world. This was beautiful.’
It’s been an impressive show-and-tell. But he’s most chuffed about his cameo on Live From The Atlantic Studios. Bergman says there was 300 to 400 people in the audience.
‘I’m on this record. I make my singing debut with Bon. It ended up in the Bonfire box set. I will play it for you.’
Bergman walks over to his turntable and carefully removes the vinyl from the mint packaging. It’s an original Atlantic Records promo-only copy. The needle finds ‘The Jack’ and Bergman turns up the volume. The sound fills the room, like we’re actually there.
Bon looked out for him specifically, he says, while Bergman was sitting up in the bleachers, ‘and he’s pushing people out of the way and he’s coming towards me, and he comes to me, and grabs my shoulder and puts the mike in my mouth and says, “Sing it Barry!” And I’m singing with him. No sooner the track was recorded the Young brothers, Angus and especially Malcolm, both said, “That’s the track we want to use.” And Angus said, “Yeah, we’re going to make Barry famous.” That’s a true story.’
He finds another memento. ‘Here, this is a picture you’ll never see in a magazine,’ he says, laughing, and shows me a photo of members of the band holding up the blouse of a woman, a real looker, revealing her breasts. He then shows me on his mobile phone a picture of a very silver-haired Cliff Williams, photographed recently stopping by Bergman’s apartment. In the photo Williams is standing against the same crammed shelves of box sets, LPs, CDs and books, most of the LPs and CDs in their original shrink wrapping. Bonfire, AC/DC’s box-set tribute to Bon, had been taken off the shelf by Williams for the photo.
AC/DC’s recently retired bass player had called Bergman out of the blue, after years of no contact, to say he was the luckiest man in the world, that the band had given him so much, he’d had 30 years with his wife Georganne and borne two great kids. Williams then flew in to New York to spend the day with Bergman.
‘I said to Cliff when I saw him, “What are you doing with yourself?” He says, “You know, Barry, I’ve been to every country in the entire world, now I’m travelling with my wife to see them because I never saw any of these countries. I was in every one but I never saw anything.’
As for Bon, whose heavy and increasingly problematic drinking he saw up close, Bergman remembers him as being ‘kind' to the end.
‘Decent, caring, loving, he was really very nice to me.’
So even when he was drunk he was kind?
‘He was a good guy, yeah. You know, he could function.’
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers. Barry Bergman is giving a seminar about the music industry in August in New York City. For details, click here.
It's a debate that flares up from time to time. Does the infamous ‘I'm A Rebel' demo feature the vocals of Bon Scott? The song, written by Alex Young (aka George Alexander) was recorded as an eight-track demo by AC/DC during a tour furlough in Hamburg, Germany, in 1976 and has remained unreleased to this day.
So I asked STEFAN KAUFMANN, drummer of Accept from 1979 to 1994, to clear things up. His band recorded ‘I'm A Rebel' for their second studio album of the same name at Delta-Studio in Wilster, Germany, in 1979 after being offered it by Musikverlage Oktave, a subsidiary of Alex's music publisher, Alfred Schacht.
Alex, the brother of George, Malcolm and Angus, died in Germany in 1997. His cousin, Stevie Young, told me in 2013 that he was ‘very talented; all the brothers thought so’.
The demo of ‘I'm A Rebel' that periodically pops up on YouTube (and periodically gets taken down) sounds very much like Bon Scott was doing backing vocals on it (I'm certainly convinced it's him), with Alex Young, brother of George, Angus and Malcolm, doing lead vocals. Fans can't seem to agree whether it is Bon on the record or not. Do you know about this demo and the story behind it? Do you know how that track came into being? It was recorded during a break for AC/DC in Hamburg in 1976, but your band recorded the track in 1979.
As much as I remember, Accept had a meeting with the brothers Schunke (the owners of the recording studio in Wilster, Germany, in which we recorded the first three albums) in 1979. During this meeting they played this demo version of ‘I'm A Rebel' to us. Bon Scott was definitely the [backing] singer on this demo. They wanted us to record the song for our second album, and they wanted it to become the single.
Accept's guitarist Wolf Hoffman told a metal website: ‘This George Alexander guy came in and coached us a little bit how he wanted it and we played it. In fact, we didn¹t really like the guy. I don't think he really cared. I don't think he liked us very much. We didn't like him pretty much. In those days we didn't know what he meant when he was talking about terms, legal terms. We were too green.' Is that accurate? Did the band have legal issues with using that song?
It's true that George Alexander [Alex Young] was in the studio during the recording session for a day or two to get an impression of our version of the song. We didn't have any real close contact with him. But I also don't know of any legal issues with him. But as much as I remember, it never stood in question that we would record the song and also release it.
‘Bon Scott was definitely the [backing] singer on this demo.'
– Stefan Kaufmann
I can't remember that he really ‘coached' us. We had Dirk Steffens as our producer and he more or less told us what to do. So I'm sure that he had close contact to George in order of how to record the song. What I definitely remember about AC/DC's version of the song is that it was much slower than we finally recorded it. But as I said, that decision was made by Dirk Steffens.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers.
SCOTT KEMPNER of New York bands The Dictators and The Del-Lords has some great insights and anecdotes about Bon Scott, which you can read in the book when it’s released this November. But I’m going to share here some of his very interesting views about AC/DC: the personality dynamics inside it and its work ethic.
The Dictators played several dates on the road in America with AC/DC between 1977 and 1978, but their association is most significant because they headlined AC/DC on the occasion of the Australian band’s first New York City show: 24 August 1977 at The Palladium (you can listen to the bootleg of AC/DC's set in the YouTube clip below).
‘I first heard AC/DC on the road,’ he recalls. ‘Our late great drummer, Richie Teeter, had cassettes of those first few albums that, at the time, were not released here in the States. It instantly caught my ear. Richie told me who they were, and how the older brother [George Young] of the guitar players had been in The Easybeats, and had co-written the awesome ‘Friday On My Mind’, one of the greatest records of the ’60s.
‘We played with them several times. A few times it was us, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy, and a few bills were with Cheap Trick… over time, as their songs got better, the middle matched the quality and power of the songs that bookended their shows, and they were one of the very greatest rock ’n’ roll bands in the world.
‘Verse, chorus, chorus, solo, hook – lots of hooks – verse, chorus, out! Classic. The sonics might have been more hard rock than pop, but underneath there were the same sharp writing and arranging skills hard at work.’
‘Malcolm Young was the engine [of the band]. It was his basic idea, and he was the one who knew if something was right for the band, or if it wasn’t. One day Angus Young told me, “Ya know, my brother’s really the better guitar player – but it interferes with his drinking!”
‘As for the New York City show, I do not remember having anything but us and our audience having the usual frenzied rock ’n’ roll experience. The place went nuts for us from the opening chord, and it stayed that way (check out rare silent Super-8 footage of Bon and the band filmed on the night in the YouTube clip below).
‘AC/DC were the opener with Michael Stanley Band in the middle. AC/DC did well – I do remember that. They rocked, and the audience was in the mood for exactly that. I remember that after their set, they walked down The Bowery to CBGB, where they proceeded to rock the hell out of that place, too. Yes, the same night!
‘The only New York City show of theirs I ever saw was the one with us, and our audience was a good stylistic fit for them, too. So, that New York City audience at least, loved them. [AC/DC] were, and are, very easy to like. We did not get to socialise much with them outside of the venues. We chatted plenty, though, on show days, as we were in close proximity of each other for several hours a day several days a week, for a few weeks. Very friendly – as you might think. The Dictators were very friendly sorts, as well. We had no attitude. Well, we did, but not towards other musicians.
‘One thing I will always remember about those few weeks we were out together, there was a live review about AC/DC in NME or Sounds, one of those British music papers. In it, there was a quote from Malcolm. He had been asked by the interviewer if he had seen any other good bands while in America. He said, “The only American band we saw that works hard for their money is The Dictators!”
(The actual quote, made to Sounds magazine’s Phil Sutcliffe, was: ‘The Dictators were the only band we saw really working.’)
‘Knowing their work ethic and working class identification, I knew Malcolm meant it as a strong compliment, and that’s how we took it. They wanted us to come open their upcoming Australian tour but instead our label dropped us. Too bad about that one.’
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers. Visit THE DICTATORS' official website here.
On 3 June 1979, AC/DC was invited to appear at the Mississippi River Jam II festival in Davenport, Iowa, on a bill with Heart, Nazareth, UFO and Seattle’s TKO, whose debut album Let It Roll had been released on Infinity Records.
‘The headliners were Heart and Nazareth,’ remembers BRAD SINSEL, lead singer of TKO. ‘The promoter [the late Bruce Kapp] thought it’d be funny to open the show with what he called “the alphabet bands”, the other three acts being us, UFO and AC/DC. His logic at the time was that bands with letters for names was some fad, to which he was openly poking fun at.
‘They segregated said alphabet bands from what was at the time rock royalty and all their pageantry. Nazareth’s bass player [Pete Agnew] in his silk shirt, flared slacks, heeled shoes and golf cap, sipping chardonnay, or Heart, with their gowns and costumes, were a big contrast to UFO, AC/DC and TKO. The top headliners were given a hospitality tent fit for Louis XIV, very aristocratic. The rest of us were given a roped-off area with barely the basics.
‘Being resourceful, I slipped into the A-list tent and helped myself to the luxury. I noticed that Bon had made it into the tent as well, however we stood out like sore thumbs. Within three minutes we were confronted by some goon asking us what we were doing there and barked, “You can’t be in here with those wrist bands. You have your designated hospitality tent – leave now!” We both gave him a nod, shook our heads and before we returned to the ghetto, Bon shook his head and mumbled an expletive as we retreated.’
‘The top headliners were given a hospitality tent fit for Louis XIV, very aristocratic. The rest of us were given a roped-off area with barely the basics.'
– Brad Sinsel
TKO opened the festival and Sinsel thought they ‘held our own’ but when AC/DC got onstage, ‘I remembered thinking, “This is a game changer.” The audience went crazy. The band was fierce, unpretentious and unrelenting. They quickly owned the day and after their performance the event didn’t really recover. It was one of those rare days in rock you get to see everything change.’
An interesting side note for AC/DC trivia buffs: TKO producer Rick Keefer died in 2014.
‘He owned Sea West Studios [in Pahoa] on Oahu,’ says Sinsel. ‘Cliff Williams was trying a solo project for a while and used Rick’s studio.’ Williams played and did backing tracks on ‘I Want My Heavy Metal’ off Adam Bomb’s album Fatal Attraction (1985). Bomb, whose real name is Adam Brenner, was TKO’s guitarist from 1980–82.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers. TKO's debut album LET IT ROLL has been rereleased by Rock Candy Records (to find it: click 'T' in the shop link).
38 Special’s ‘Caught Up in You’ (1982) is one of my all-time favourite songs and videos. The first time I heard it, the first time I saw the clip, I thought it was the perfect good-time American rock-pop song and I don't feel any differently about it today – it’s still a track that instantly gets you moving and makes you feel great.
Growing up in Australia we didn’t really hear much of 38 Special – if any of the band's music – on the radio. So the joys of the band came to me in my mid-30s while listening to car radio in the States. Interestingly for me, AC/DC and 38 Special had played together on a bill at the Masonic Auditorium, Detroit, 27 August 1977, with Johnny Winter headlining.
JEFF CARLISI was 38 Special’s lead guitarist that night and played with the Jacksonville (FL) band from 1974–1996: the classic line-up. He spoke to me about playing on the same stage with a young and hungry AC/DC on its first tour of the States. 38 Special's debut self-titled album (below) had just been released that May on A&M Records.
What do you remember of the Masonic Auditorium gig in Detroit?
I remember sitting with Angus and Bon back at the hotel bar. They seemed a bit bummed out because they were not well received by the audience. I thought they were great even though they probably shouldn't have been on that bill. I don't remember much of our conversation (all of us being well pissed, not to mention Bon's heavy accent). I do remember us having a good laugh about all of us being 'newbies' and if this is what we should always expect.
‘Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience.'
– Jeff Carlisi
Did you get the sense they were trying to blow you off the stage?
I never felt that AC/DC was trying to blow us off the stage, even though that's what we [musicians] all try to do. It's part of our DNA. They seemed more to be doing their job.
Did anything about Bon's drinking strike you as out of the ordinary?
Drinking? Hmmmm... I suppose we all drank a good bit back in those days. Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience. I felt bad for him and Angus as well. However, they were super nice guys and very personable as well. I was shocked to hear of Bon's passing as we all are when we lose one of our brothers. At that time I had no idea that his alcohol consumption was a problem. Again, very nice people. I think they appreciated a shoulder to cry on.
What do you think of AC/DC today without Bon?
I still love the band as much as ever. As a matter of fact my friend Brendan O'Brien works with them as their producer and I've spent some time with Brian Johnson at a few racetracks talking about cars. I was introduced to Brian by our mutual friend Brian Howe.
Lastly, I’m a huge admirer of 38 Special and especially your outfit in the video for ‘Caught Up in You’. What happened to those threads? They should be on exhibition in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Thanks for being a fan – especially of my wardrobe! Ha! My wife had a bed quilt made for me years back. It was made up of all my favourite shirts from all the years of touring. That shirt lives!
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers.
Miami-based Australian photographer ROBERT VALENTINE, whose real name is Robert Proudfoot, describes himself as ‘old friends' with the Young brothers, Angus, Malcolm and George Young.
‘I lived with the Youngs and their family in Burwood, New South Wales – 4 Burleigh Street – from about 1969 to 1972. So I kinda grew up with Malcolm and Angus, even before AC/DC.'
That was how Valentine got invited on the road with the band in America in the late 1970s and the early '80s. His candid snapshots – from 1978, especially – are valuable as they offer a rare glimpse into what it was really like backstage at an AC/DC gig before they became the biggest rock band in the world. Bon Scott appears in many of them.
‘I haven’t seen [the Youngs] now in about 25 years,' he says. ‘Just always been busy or not around when they were in town. I knew Bon. It was sad when he passed and now I'm sad about my good friend Malcolm in that condition.' [Malcolm has passed away since the interview was conducted. – Ed.]
But in the '70s and early '80s, the Burleigh Street boys were all still close, as these intimate photos reveal.
‘The guy with glasses [pictured below in the Powerage T-shirt] was our friend, Ian Baragry, who we all grew up with. He lived up the street from the Youngs in Burwood.'
Enjoy a selection of Robert's shots from Allentown (September 1978), Rochester (September 1978), Buffalo (October 1980) and Uniondale (October 1980) in the slideshow below.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available to preorder now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers.
CHARLIE STARR is the lead singer and guitarist of what I regard as the greatest Southern rock/country rock band playing today, Blackberry Smoke. They've recorded with AC/DC production alumni Mike Fraser and Brendan O'Brien and a lot of their harder edge songs have a distinctly AC/DC feel. They've covered 'Highway To Hell' on stage. He's a big Bon fan.
Bon's songs make up so much of the setlist AC/DC (what’s left of it) still performs. What do you think is special about Bon's songs?
They are special simply because they were so damn good. Bon was a gifted lyricist and composer of melodies. Just a natural, apparently. No one could turn a phrase like Bon at that time. Just genius use of double entendre and innuendo. Completely witty and confident.
What do you think Bon represents to you and other fans of AC/DC? A rock legend who lived for the day or a guy who even 37 years on from his death is still a bit of a mystery? Or something else? What spirit does he embody to you?
I’ve always been fascinated with Bon. His voice, songwriting, prowess as a frontman… the whole thing. Obviously, dying young can seem to deify most rock stars, but that’s not really the case with Bon. He didn’t carry himself like a complicated, tortured genius, but a fireball powerhouse who lived life to the hilt. People like him are the most influential to rock and roll musicians because he was frighteningly real.
Bon was a major Southern rock fan. What attracted you to Southern rock? The music itself, the people, the heritage, the rebel spirit? All of it?
The music and the freedom that those bands took advantage of. Funny that a single genre could contain elements of so many other genres. All the other stuff was cool, but it became ‘cartoonish’ after a while.
‘Bon didn’t carry himself like a complicated, tortured genius, but a fireball powerhouse who lived life to the hilt. People like him are the most influential to rock and roll musicians because he was frighteningly real.'
– Charlie Starr
What's special about the Southern rock of the 1970s and is it something you try to carry over in spirit and tone in your own music?
Those were just great bands who wrote great songs that will live forever. We really just aspire to do the same thing. I think we are lucky to enjoy a bit of the musical freedom they did.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers around the world. Blackberry Smoke's new album, FIND A LIGHT, is out now.
KEN SCHAFFER, inventor of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS), an ingenious wireless transmitter first used by Angus Young in concert at The Palladium in New York on 24 August 1977, got to hang out with Bon Scott on four or five occasions in three cities. Bon even used a microphone version of Schaffer's wireless technology. Friend and confidant of the famous, best friend of Sting, one of the few people to have a song by REM written about him, he's one of the unsung heroes of classic rock.
‘I looooove Ken Schaffer!’ booms David Krebs, former manager of Aerosmith and AC/DC, over the phone from Malibu. ‘He’s a genius kind of guy.’
Such a genius that Schaffer once hooked up Krebs’s star client, Steven Tyler, to some electrodes to get him off heroin. He was paid $5000 for his trouble.
‘I thought was a great idea,’ sighs Krebs, ‘but it didn’t work.’
Schaffer remembers slightly differently when I meet him in the mid-Manhattan penthouse he’s owned since the 1970s.
‘I got Steven off of dope with an invention of mine that cures junkies. He used to sit here for two weeks for an hour a day with electrodes dangling off his ears. They thanked me on the Best Of Aerosmith album, but they spelled my last name wrong, the fucking assholes,’ he laughs.
In the same apartment, Schaffer entertained Angus Young.
‘Angus, on his first tour, with [then AC/DC manager] Michael Browning, they used to hang out here. Angus spent a fair amount of time here.’
So much so that Browning tried to get an apartment on the same floor. There’s a framed photograph of Angus with Schaffer in a glass cabinet where he keeps his most precious items.
Schaffer’s relationship with Angus was ‘like an older brother kind of thing, something like that… it was nice’.
Angus used Schaffer’s most famous invention, a wireless transmitter called the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System, in concert up until 1985 when he switched to another inferior digital unit. It would coincide with AC/DC’s darkest days creatively.
Says Schaffer: ‘From what I understand from the AC/DC “fan fans” he never sounded the same’.
The two lost contact.
Schaffer is a friend and confidant of some very famous people. He custom-built the Sardonyx guitar John Lennon used on Double Fantasy. Sting wrote the song ‘Russians’ for The Dream of the Blue Turtles album while watching Russian TV with Schaffer at Columbia University. (The restless and curious Schaffer, an inveterate Russophile, had invented a satellite tracking system to intercept Russian signals.)
But Schaffer ‘got barricaded everywhere’ trying to reconnect with AC/DC.
In 2014, however, he got his wish in Vancouver when Angus picked up a bunch of Schaffer’s wireless guitar units — now rebooted as the Schaffer Replica by his Italian-American friend Filippo Olivieri of SoloDallas.com — for AC/DC’s Rock Or Bust world tour.
He was told in a letter beforehand by ‘someone in management’ to ‘wash your hands, shake hands, 10 minutes, hand him the gift and get out’ but ‘in the end, everybody walked out feeling higher and better for it. [Angus’s wife] Ellen made dinner for us. The ten minutes turned out to be three and a half hours.'
In the mid-1970s, Schaffer had been busy on the New York social hustings since ‘paralleling’ out of handling publicity for clients such as Jimi Hendrix and Steven Tyler to becoming a full-time electronics inventor. It had been a hobby of his since the age of nine.
In the words of New York’s Village Voice, Schaffer was ‘hustling his latest invention, a cordless instrument system’ in hot Manhattan clubs such as Trax, frequented by John Belushi, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Mick Jagger, Al Pacino, Peter Frampton and Stephen Stills.
The Schaffer-Vega Diversity System promised musicians – vocalists and guitarists alike -- it would ‘eliminate the gruesome possibility of on-stage electrocution’.
Schaffer brought his first wireless microphone, which he’d invented in 1975, to Trax and ‘I handed it to [John] Belushi, who was there with Dan Aykroyd, they were The Blues Brothers, and they would stand on top of the bar and do a set with the wireless. Nobody had ever seen, you know, running around like that kind of shit. They went up the stairs to the street, ’cause Trax was downstairs in the basement, still singing and doing shit. We had a lot of bands doing stuff like that.’
He says he personally delivered ‘seven, ten units’ to Atlantic Studios over on 60th Street between Broadway and Central Park West. The Rolling Stones got their hands on them.
‘There’s Woody and Keith, Wyman and Jagger. They were so freaked out over having this wireless on their guitars and shit that they had the humpers [roadies] put the amps in the windows facing the street and they all went downstairs into the street and The Rolling Stones were walking up 60th Street.
‘It’s a short block. They were walking up and down that short block to Central Park to Broadway to Central Park to Broadway, playing, and the sound would come out of the second-floor windows. Nobody noticed. Not one car slowed down. I mean, only in New York. Man, the fucking Rolling Stones walking down the street [laughs].’
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic would do a similar thing on 60th Street.
The first actual delivery of the wireless transmitter (some free prototype units) was to Jeff Lynne of ELO at a ‘blimp hangar’ in London, where the English band was doing rehearsals, because ‘they were such fans of what my vision was’.
But the first commercial order came from Kiss in 1976. Gene Simmons came over to Schaffer’s apartment and Schaffer did his pitch, talking up the staging possibilities of his new invention.
‘Gene’s looking at me like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He was not interested. The staging possibilities did not trigger his imagination at all.’
‘The Schaffer Vega Diversity System promised musicians – vocalists and guitarists alike -- it would “eliminate the gruesome possibility of on-stage electrocution.”'
One night three weeks later, close to midnight, Simmons called from Lakeland, Florida.
‘You still doing the radio guitar thing, Kenny?’
‘You still doing that? We gotta get some.’
‘Well, gee, what happened, Gene?’
What had happened is that guitarist Ace Frehley, on top of a multi-level stage made out of metal pipes at the Civic Center on 12 December 1976, had held on to a pipe and been severely electrocuted. He’d fallen and had to be revived with oxygen.
‘Guitarists get shocks all the time,’ says Schaffer. ‘Poor Ace got knocked out. So Gene ordered a bunch of ’em… but it was for safety, not for staging whatsoever.’
Wireless technology has gone on to transform the rock business but Schaffer has not wildly profited from it.
‘I didn’t patent the wireless guitar. My greatest asset and my greatest liability is I make the best fucking thing money can buy. And I don’t look at the taxi meter on the price.’
Schaffer produced only small quantities of his product, which sold for US$4400 a pop -- a lot of money in the 1970s.
‘I just did things that supported my own, like, fascination and shit.’
But he discovered it complemented the tone of Angus’s famous cherry-red Gibson SG; a pleasant accident.
‘It just does some amazing shit to the sound of a guitar -- and to a bass, holy crap.’
Any kinks in Angus’s transmitter, of course, would be ironed out. There would be no more on-stage electrocutions for Angus when AC/DC performed..
‘I work up so much sweat I’ve had dozens of shocks when I’ve stood on amps or tried to pick up a can of Coke off one and found the amp, the can and me all stuck together and shaking,’ AC/DC’s enigmatic lead guitarist told UK music newspaper Sounds in 1977. ‘In Detroit just before I got [Schaffer’s] radio [transmitter] I was booted all over the stage by shocks whenever I touched Bon [Scott] or got near a cable. But with this thing there’s no chance of getting hurt.’
The rest is history. Today, an AC/DC concert without Angus and his wireless guitar is unthinkable.
‘I've heard conjecture that [Bon's cause of death] was drinking or that it was something else.'
– Ken Schaffer
‘When [Schaffer] finally got it fixed right he ran round the club jumping on tables, then ran out into the street shaking people’s hands and yelling, “It works, it works.” He’s an absolute nutcase.’
As for Bon, he was a prodigious drinker, obviously?
‘Ee-er, yeah,' he told me. ‘Well, I mean, I’ve heard conjecture that [Bon’s cause of death] was drinking or that it was something else.’
Can you elaborate?
‘You know, blah blah blah. I have no first-hand knowledge of it.’
But he did personally deliver an SVDS unit to Angus in Glasgow in 1978 and ‘I went to a bar with Bon and Malcolm… somehow I remember Angus being there too. I’m not a big drinker but I can do a single malt. One shot of whiskey and I woke up in my bed at the hotel. I had no idea how I got there. Apparently the guys carried me, whatever the fuck [laughs]. That’s the last I remember of that trip… as far as I know, Bon and Malcolm got me back to the hotel.’
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia, FNAC and hundreds of other retailers around the world.
In 1977, from 29–31 August, AC/DC played three shows, two sets a night, at Los Angeles’s legendary Whisky a Go Go. It was where Bon was famously photographed with a paint-splattered Iggy Pop. AC/DC’s opening act was Michigan band The Dogs. Loren Molinare was their guitarist and lead singer. The Dogs were so loud, even louder than the AC/DC, Whisky management made them turn down.
‘AC/DC were beyond punk. It was as the LP said: High Voltage. They kicked ass.'
– Loren Molinare, lead singer and guitarist,
‘The Dogs played three nights, two shows a night opening for AC/DC,’ he says. ‘They cleared the house out and brought in new ticket holders to see the show. Bon was very cool. He came into the dressing room to chat with us and say hello. We also took a nip of some good whisky with him. AC/DC were great. This was when punk was happening and people thought they were going to be punk. But they were beyond punk. It was as the LP said: High Voltage. They kicked ass.’
But the local press still wasn’t convinced. LA music journalist Alan Rockman stated blithely that ‘it seems quite clear… who their influences are: musically it’s Humble Pie, Bad Company and Status Quo. Socially, good booze and bad women… AC/DC’s choice of lyrics, even on steady rockers like “Never Had A Woman” [sic; he meant ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’], will hurt their chances of being more than just an underground cultist unit in the US.’
Clearly, some 200 million albums later – thanks in large part to those same sub-par lyrics written by Bon – AC/DC had the last laugh on Mr Rockman.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hundreds of other retailers around the world.
Jesse Fink is the author of Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC's Back In Black and The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC. For more information about Bon, click HERE or click the book covers below to be directed to editions in your preferred territory and language.