Much of the secret history of Bon Scott is to be found in, of all places, Florida. Miami band Critical Mass features prominently in Bon: The Last Highway because of their great friendship on the stage and off with Bon in the early months of 1979.
During the writing of the book I went to Miami to meet rhythm guitarist and lead singer Michael Fazzolare, who spent a weekend with me and a group of other characters you'll meet in the book driving around Miami pointing out places he'd hung out with Bon during the five weeks AC/DC spent in the city preparing Highway To Hell, an album that ultimately would be Bon's last.
These included bars, rehearsal studios, recording studios, private homes and even hotel rooms. AC/DC would end up skipping Eddie Kramer and Miami for Mutt Lange and London, but they would leave an indelible mark in Miami. The full story of Bon's time in Miami has never been told and it's been my immense privilege to write it.
But unlike AC/DC, Critical Mass never conquered the world. Not for lack of talent or musicianship; just bad luck.
In the 2008 documentary Rock And A Hard Place: Another Night At The Agora, Fazzolare described the band’s sound as ‘power rock with catchy melodies’ and he was bang on; Critical Mass was doing Green Day – and doing it better – decades before Green Day ever came on to the scene.
Having formed in North Dade in 1974 and described by Good Times as ‘non-sweetened, heavy-handed, English-styled power pop aimed right at the bellies of the young male who goes for the hard stuff – Nugent, AC-DC [sic], Cheap Trick and a bit of new wave’, Critical Mass recorded their first and only album for MCA with late Yes bass player Chris Squire in England in 1980.
Managed by Sid Bernstein, the promoter who brought The Beatles to Shea Stadium, Critical Mass got coverage in Billboard, sold out the first pressing of It’s What Inside That Counts and had the 13th most ‘added’ album on radio in the United States the week of 3 October 1980, but they had stiff competition leading into Christmas that year with Bruce Springsteen’s The River, Lennon’s Double Fantasy and Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
According to lead guitarist David Owen, the band ‘hit a brick wall’ because of radio-programming consultant Lee Abrams, who was also Yes’s manager and went on to co-found XM Satellite Radio, for which he was chief programmer before its merger with Sirius Satellite Radio in 2008. Among other achievements, Abrams is credited with having invented the AOR rock radio format. On his blog, Abrams recalled the band as being ‘kind of a US version of the Buzzcocks thing. Real engaging. The guys were like The Three Stooges on acid… playful but decent musicians, but the sessions were a disaster. Part of the problem was that US radio wouldn’t accept that sound.
‘Kinda funny ’cause I was viewed as the guy who was responsible for the US radio sound back then. If we could do it over, we’d record in Miami, their hometown, outlaw all substances from the premises, get a US engineer and bore into doing what the band was capable of – which was Green Day in 1979.’
‘I loved the first record, as badly produced as it was,’ says Neal Mirsky, who was program director at WDIZ Orlando and WSHE Miami and produced the nationally syndicated Howard Stern Show in New York.
‘Critical Mass was great. The songs were great. They were a cross between The Beatles, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. I think “1964” should have been a hit. They had a couple of great songs on the album. Unfortunately the album was co-produced by Lee Abrams. In every market in America, the stations that Lee consulted, management wouldn’t let them air the record because they were afraid it would look like collusion: their consultant produced, now we’re adding the record. So the stations Lee consulted wouldn’t add it because Lee was their consultant. The stations across the street, the competition, wouldn’t add it because Lee produced it.’
Worse, says Mirsky, MCA Records was ‘a horrible label… they were the mid-chart label; they just couldn’t break a band at that time’.
Critical Mass broke up in 1982. When Phil Rudd left AC/DC in 1983, there was a hot rumour going around Miami that Phil had recommended Mike Barone, who had jammed with AC/DC during rehearsals for Highway To Hell, as his replacement.
But Barone says that is not true: ‘Let me put it this way: if AC/DC did [want me to audition], I didn’t know about it. It never happened.’
‘Critical Mass were a cross between The Beatles, Cheap Trick and AC/DC.'
– Neal Mirsky
A reunion followed in 1989 and in 2008 Critical Mass performed a benefit show with good friend Johnny Depp, a contemporary from Miami band The Kids. Since then, they have gone their separate ways. Laplume lives in Miami, Barone in Colorado, Owen in Gainesville and engineer/sometime guitarist Frank Prinzel in Tampa Bay. Lead singer and songwriter Fazzolare now works in an appliance store in Orlando but is still actively writing and recording music.
If any band deserves a critical rediscovery, a record contract and a second shot at stardom, it's Critical Mass.
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. Just click the title above (in red). You can like Critical Mass on Facebook.
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.
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.