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.
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.