Compiling a list of any “best ofs” is usually a fraught task when it comes to one’s favourite band, especially a group as mighty as Bon Scott–era AC/DC. Bon wrote some of the best rock songs ever recorded over his short career with AC/DC, a band he joined in 1974, yet the focus of my book, BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY, is specifically his time in America, 1977–79, and his death in London in 1980.
How to pick just a few when so many — dozens, in reality — would be worthy?
But when I was asked by my North American editors at ECW Press to come up with 5 songs had “particular significance to his story and his death”, it was a fairly straightforward exercise. These are the 5 songs that are a kind of aural roadmap to Bon’s life during the 1977–80 period and reflect key events or themes in the book.
1. “GONE SHOOTIN’” (1978)
Bon told the audience in Columbus in September 1978 that this standout track from Powerage was “a lady who took it upon herself to do whatever she wanted to do”. That lady was Silver Smith, Bon’s muse and tormentor, who earlier that year in Sydney had broken up with him to go “overland” through Asia with their mutual friend, Joe Fury. But the lyrics in the song are actually about her decision to leave Bon behind in Indianapolis, Indiana, in December 1977, where she bought a train ticket west. Her plan was to go out to California. Hence the first verse:
Feel the pressure rise
Hear the whistle blow
Bought a ticket of her own accord
To I don’t know
Silver was a heroin user, as were many people in Bon’s orbit, so he makes a sly reference to it in the lyrics and well as the title of the song.
I stirred my coffee with the same spoon
Knew her favourite tune
My baby’s gone shootin’
Silver, who died in December 2016, told me she never injected heroin. So why, then, did he insert make a reference to a spoon?
“Some poetic licence,” she said. “‘Gone Snortin’” doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?”
2. “DOWN PAYMENT BLUES” (1978)
Arguably Bon’s finest moment as a songwriter. This song, which has its origins in a rough 1976 composition called “Rock ’N’ Roll Blues”, contains some of the best lines he ever put to paper:
No, I ain't doing much
Doing nothing means a lot to me
Living on a shoestring
A 50-cent millionaire
I got myself a Cadillac
But I can’t afford the gasoline
Can’t even feed my cat
On social security
Feeling like a paper cup
Floating down a storm drain
I got holes in my shoes
And I'm way overdue
The whole song is just a brilliant piece of writing.
Bon never had much money during his time with AC/DC. He was constantly borrowing money or getting other people to pay his bills. When he died in February 1980, thanks to the breakthrough of Highway To Hell, he had just over $30,000 from album royalties in his savings account. That was the sum of his entire estate.
Doug Thaler, AC/DC’s booking agent for their American tours during that period, told me he got a phone call from Bon just before he died.
“Highway To Hell was just about platinum by then and I congratulated him on that – I said something like, ‘You’ll finally have some real money for your pocket now.’ He said that with all the newfound success, nothing had trickled down to him yet so his life was still the same as it had been. It was only a couple of weeks later that I got the call from [AC/DC manager] David Krebs that he’d been found dead in a car in London.”
3. “GIRLS GOT RHYTHM” (1979)
Michael Fazzolare and his punk-rock band Critical Mass hung out with AC/DC during their Miami rehearsals for the Highway To Hell album. Bon had a gorgeous teenage lover in Key Biscayne called Holly X and was having a fine time, contrary to his well-known quip that the city was “God’s waiting room”. This song most likely was about Holly X or another of his Miami lovers, Pattee Bishop and Beth Quartiano.
AC/DC had just parted ways with Vanda & Young as their producers and were in Florida to work with Eddie Kramer at Criteria Recording Studios, which didn’t turn out well. In the end, they ended up recording the album at Roundhouse Studios in London with Mutt Lange, who gave the band a much more polished, commercial sound. You can really notice the difference in the backing vocals, especially.
As Fazzolare recalled about the writing of “Girls Got Rhythm”: “Malcolm Young asked the band if they were all aboard in going with this more refined, slightly more dynamic commercial style. They were writing ‘Girls Got Rhythm’, and Bon was singing some racy lyrics: The girl’s got rhythm, she’s got the freestyle rhythm. [Laughs] Malcolm stops playing and says, ‘Mate, those words are a bit too strong. We need to tone it down a little.’ Of course, the lyric became the back seat rhythm. To be honest, I didn’t see the difference. Then again I was 23 so my imagination was very active.”
4. “TOUCH TOO MUCH” (1979)
A very sexual song containing some great writing from Bon:
She had the face of an angel
Smiling with sin
A body of Venus with arms
It’s a song about Holly X, according to Michael Fazzolare: “I still say ‘Touch Too Much’ is about Holly.” According to Holly’s friend Liz Klein: “Bon was madly in love with Holly. She was always gorgeous, still is; just a beautiful woman, really beautiful inside and out. She had just like a perfect body.”
5. “HIGHWAY TO HELL” (1979)
Bon’s career apogee and the inspiration for the title of the book and its narrative arc from Route 79 outside Milano, Texas, to Overhill Road in East Dulwich, London. An all-time classic that remains as popular and powerful as the day it was released. Doesn’t get any better, really. Not much more I need to add, though anyone interested in World War II history might appreciate a clipping I found from 1943 that is probably the first mention of a Highway to Hell, bizarrely from Egypt. It was the name given to “a crude strip of rocks and brushwood flung into the marshy land of the wadi – the almost-dry river bed – by British engineers under artillery cover in their week-end attack against the Nazi strongpoint… the thin line of communication and supply across the wadi for the British… a bottleneck for tanks and guns."
BONUS TRACK: “NIGHT PROWLER” (1979)
This track’s mysterious sign-off — “Shazbot Nanu Nanu”, the last words ever spoken by Bon on an AC/DC album — has nothing really to do with Bon being a fan of Mork & Mindy. It’s a reference to a guy called Teddy Rooney, who was the son of Mickey Rooney and played bass in a Miami band called Tight Squeeze. Rooney jammed with AC/DC in rehearsals. He died in 2016.
Says Michael Fazzolare: “It was something we were all saying when we hung out, which was started by Teddy. He was the one who went around using the phrase. We would all chime in on occasion. I would guess it winding up on the album was either a nod from Bon to Teddy himself or a nod to the entire Miami gang.”
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.
2017 is an important year for AC/DC – or should at least be for every serious AC/DC fan. It marks the 40th anniversary of the international release of AC/DC’s landmark album Let There Be Rock and the 40th anniversary of its first American tour. My book, Bon: The Last Highway, is the untold story of Bon in America from 1977–79 and his death in London in 1980.
It’s hard to believe just how far AC/DC – a band that has sold well over 200 million records – has come since that first show in Austin, Texas. To give you an idea how long ago we're talking about, John Lennon had just got his Green Card. Bjorn Borg had won Wimbledon. The Soviet Union had performed an underground nuclear test. Vietnam had joined the United Nations. Jimmy Carter, a Southern rock–loving Democrat governor from Georgia, was President of the United States.
They also had a proverbial mountain to climb to get the attention of booking agents and radio programmers, being such a relatively unknown quantity in the States at that time, practically unheard on the airwaves outside Texas, Florida and California, though the portents for their first crack at the USA at least seemed good for the Australians when they arrived in July 1977.
AC/DC had made quite an impression in England and Europe and the Sydney Morning Herald trumpeted that the band was on the cusp of international fame: ‘They have moved with calculated accuracy in the direction of fame and fortune both here and overseas. Their records are consistent powerhouses of raw energy. Their songs move as restlessly as Hannibal’s elephants.’
The reality, however, was a little starker for AC/DC. Down Under, the band was hardly flavour of the month.
AC/DC got banned from performing at Tamworth’s Town Hall in December 1976. An editorial in the Northern Daily Leader praised local aldermen for ‘acting wisely and in the best interests of our young children in refusing to allow the hall to be used if there is any danger of [rock] groups infringing decent moral standards by their on-stage actions and lyrics. Unfortunately, audiences at many of the rock concerts are mainly sub-teenage girls. They need protection.’
On December 30 1976 an article appeared in Melbourne’s Age: ‘The five-member Melbourne group who claim to be the original punk rock band have had concerts banned, official concert programmes seized, and been attacked in both State and Federal Parliaments for corrupting children’s morals.’
In January 1977, Portland and Eaglehawk councils in Victoria asked for $500 and $2000 bonds respectively before they’d allow AC/DC to play. ‘This will prevent one of the group’s guitarists dropping his pants on stage,’ said the Age. In England, too, as Angus Young admitted, the dropping-pants act had worn thin with the authorities: ‘We’d have the whole vice squad at some shows. The same Britain where they have topless women in their daily papers… in the end, even the police were laughing about it.’
‘Audiences at many of the rock concerts are mainly sub-teenage girls. They need protection.'
– An editorial in the Northern Daily Leader
Stateside, too, AC/DC’s first international album, High Voltage (1976), a collection of cuts from their first two Australian albums (I've posted some photos of an original mint press release in the gallery above), was only getting heavy airplay from Bill Bartlett at WPDQ/WAIV in Jacksonville (proved by a lone 22 January 1977 mention in Billboard’s ‘Album Radio Action’ charts, substantiating without doubt Bartlett’s longstanding claim that AC/DC took off in Florida before anywhere else), but the band was to get a key review further south in the Miami News – nearly a year before they even touched down on American soil.
There aren't a hell of a lot of newspaper clippings about AC/DC from America in 1976 – I have a personal collection containing a few very rare clippings from Texas, and I found in archives several others I've included in the book – but during my research for Bon: The Last Highway, by pure luck I found this old newspaper from 29 October 1976.
Jon Marlowe even concluded his preceding review of the various-artists Atlantic Records release Live at CBGB’s by saying, ‘If you’re into punk, just forget this one and pick up on “High Voltage” by AC/DC instead.’
At a time when AC/DC wasn't getting a whole lotta love, how shrewd the floridly expressive Mr Marlowe turned out to be.
HIGH VOLTAGE – AC/DC – (ATLANTIC)
You say you ripped holes in your $30 jeans to look just like Dee Dee Ramone while dreaming of spending ten minutes alone with Joan Jett of the Runaways in the Aloha Motel with the Flamin’ Groovies blasting from your cassette player.
And you say Yes are five musical vegetarians you’d like to run through a Veg-O-Matic and you refuse to patronize music stores that even stock synthesizers.
Well, kid, have we got an album for you – ‘High Voltage’ – by a group of five Scottish-Australian punks who call themselves AC/DC and dress in London schoolboy clothes and utter such memorable statements as ‘Can I Sit Next To You Girl?’.
AC/DC is currently giving Eddie and the Hot Rods and the Sex Pistols (two of Britian’s [sic] primo punk rockers) a real run for the money [sic] and you should immediately fork over the price of this one just for the wonderous [sic] experience of hearing the 96 decibel delight: ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock ’N’ Roll’.)
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. Just click the title above (in red) to preorder and save on the retail price.
Kenny Soule's band Nantucket, from Jacksonville, North Carolina, did a fantastic cover of 'It's a Long Way To The Top' in 1980 and supported AC/DC on their North American Back In Black tour.
‘In the early summer of 1978, Nantucket was enjoying our ‘local celebrity’ status in the Carolinas/Virginia area with the release of Nantucket, our first album. We had been earning our stripes there since 1972, playing full-time on the club circuit, gradually replacing the cover tunes with lead singer Tommy Redd’s originals.
‘The promoters in the area were beginning to plug us into opening slots with national acts like Kiss, Charlie Daniels, Mother’s Finest, et cetera. We found ourselves with two dates supporting two up and coming major label bands, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. They were back-to-back small arena gigs, one in Salem, Virginia, and then Fayetteville, North Carolina. In Salem, we played first, then we stuck around for label-mates Cheap Trick, who we later became a little chummy with down the line.'
Fayetteville was where he saw AC/DC for the first time.
‘[After the show] I remember awkwardly blurting out, “Great show guys!” The next day I bought Powerage and Let There Be Rock, went home, cranked it way up, and have been a changed man ever since. Nantucket opened for most of the big headliners of the late 1970s, and all paled in comparison to AC/DC. No balls!
‘The following summer, 1979, Nantucket was recording our second album in Orlando, Florida. One day our lead singer Larry Uzzell came to the studio, telling us about bumping into Bon Scott. Bon remembered Larry, and was very cordial. They shared a drink or two. According to Larry, Bon said, “You boys blew us off the stage in Fayetteville!” Yeah, right!
‘Nantucket opened for most of the big headliners of the late 1970s, and all paled in comparison to AC/DC. No balls!'
– Kenny Soule, drummer, Nantucket
‘Of course by the time we shared a bill again, in 1980, Bon was gone. Nantucket’s third album, Long Way To The Top was hovering around the bottom of the Top 100 album charts. To our amazement we found ourselves with approximately 12 dates on the Back In Black tour that summer. It began in Erie, Pennsylvania, with Humble Pie as the middle act on the tour. After two or three shows, they were gone, and it was just Nantucket and AC/DC headed down the US east coast, and across to Texas, and then two dates in California. We were loving life at that point; we were on the biggest tour of 1980.
‘Our summer of glory ended the next morning after our final Back In Black date in Oakland, California. We were duly informed by Epic Records that they had dropped us. At least they held off until our final show with AC/DC! Epic dropped us because each album sold progressively worse, and by the second album, our sound and looks became passé seemingly overnight. We weren’t interested in suddenly wearing skinny ties, shaving, and getting haircuts. “Going New Wave”, as everyone called it. One of the reasons we were able to do the third album, Long Way To The Top, at all was that our A&R person, Doreen Reilly, suggested we cover “Long Way". We were happy to oblige.'
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.