The Confederate Battle Flag belt buckle Bon Scott wore everywhere in 1979 is the source of numerous tales and is clearly visible in many photographs taken of Bon that year. In fact, you won't find many photos of Bon in 1979 without him wearing that buckle. What’s little known outside the worldwide AC/DC fan community is that on the buckle, in place of stars, it actually spells out LYNYRD SKYNYRD.
So the big question is: Did Bon get the buckle from late Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant?
Former Florida-based concert promoter Sidney Drashin has claimed that Van Zant possibly came to see AC/DC when they first played Jacksonville in August 1977, while guitarist Gary Rossington, who still plays in the current incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd, went public a few years ago with a story that the band jammed with AC/DC the following day, the veracity of which I examine briefly in Bon: The Last Highway.
However, the Van Zant–Scott story is almost certainly a rock myth: from what I have seen from the available photographic archives, Bon only really started wearing it long after Van Zant, Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and three other people were killed in the band's plane crash in October 1977. It seems a reasonable assumption to me that he’d have worn it much earlier if he were paying his respects to the dead Skynyrd frontman and his fallen bandmates.
After the release of Bon, former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle expressed on Twitter his hunch that Leon Wilkeson, Skynyrd's bass player, who like Pyle had survived the crash, had given one to Bon: ‘My guess: buckles were gifts to Skynyrd from [Day On The Green promoter] Bill Graham. Leon gave his to Bon when Bon stayed with him.’
In 2015 when Dylann Roof, a homicidal white supremacist, killed nine African-American parishioners in a Methodist church in South Carolina, the Confederate Battle Flag came under unprecedented assault for being a pernicious symbol of racism. The killer had earlier photographed himself with a firearm and the same flag. Images of the flag were being removed everywhere. Reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard were taken off American cable TV.
Then in 2017, the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy came under renewed attack again after the terrible events at Charlottesville, Virginia. The world's greatest Civil War historian, the late Shelby Foote, argued that the Confederate Battle Flag was not a racist flag (listen to him in the clip below) but to millions of Americans it is just that and will always be thus: a symbol of white nationalism and those Confederate soldiers who fought to maintain chattel slavery in the South. Those arguments are valid and to be respected. Flag supporters argue the opposite: it is about ‘heritage not hate’. The debate rages on.
So what does it have to do with AC/DC? Firstly, Bon was no bigot (there is no suggestion of him ever having a racist bone in his body). Nor were the other members of AC/DC, who’d hung a Confederate Battle Flag inside their tour bus in 1979. Call it ignorance or innocence or both, but they were celebrating the Southern ‘spirit’ like so many rock bands or performers of that era: Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas, Ted Nugent, Outlaws, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet and so many more. Tom Petty and Kid Rock both adopted Confederate Battle Flags at various times, though the late Petty came to reject it completely. Charlie Daniels, a defender of the flag, has written a piece here. An opponent of it, Richard Fowler, has written a piece here. What's abundantly clear to me is that the American South, Southern rock and and its rebel spirit had indisputably struck a chord with Bon. That fascination is most evident on AC/DC's best album, Powerage (1978).
‘For most of my life, that flag just represented geographical pride, no more no less,’ explains Charlie Starr, lead singer and guitarist of Atlanta band Blackberry Smoke, the finest exponent of Southern rock playing anywhere in the world today – including Skynyrd.
‘I have a Grateful Dead Southern Tour shirt from 1988 that has a Confederate flag proudly displayed on the front of it. Unfortunately, it’s been hijacked by hate groups and come to represent something evil to a lot of people. There are two sides, ya know. Skynyrd would fly it, The Allman Brothers wouldn’t.’
‘For most of my life, that flag just represented geographical pride, no more, no less.'
– Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke
In recent times, though, the members of the band that performs as Skynyrd have decided to no longer use it as a backdrop on stage; that said, they haven't quite disavowed it either.
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.