Today Powerage stands tall in the AC/DC catalogue and is a favourite among AC/DC fans and rock musicians the world over, including Eddie Van Halen and Keith Richards. Aside from Bon Scott hitting his peak in his lyric writing, it also features some of the grooviest basslines AC/DC ever recorded, particularly on songs such as ‘Gimme A Bullet’, ‘Down Payment Blues’ and ‘Gone Shootin’’.
To my ears (and the ears of many musicians who have contacted me about it over the years), there is a perceptible difference from later AC/DC albums on which Cliff Williams plays bass, which is probably one reason why Powerage, recorded in early 1978 in Sydney, Australia, still sounds so special.
As one musician who shall remain nameless put it: ‘I don't care what AC/DC says, that's George Young playing bass on Powerage. The bass playing on “Gimme a Bullet” is outstanding. I like Cliff but George is in a different class. I love George's bass playing: very similar style to Andy Fraser from Free, slippery and groovy. Check out the studio version of “High Voltage”: it sits in a different place in the groove; very clever playing. Unless Cliff just learned George’s bass line – but I'd doubt it, as he never played it like that again.’
But to a corps of hardened AC/DC fans there is no argument to be had: it was Cliff on Powerage and that's the end of the matter.
In his autobiography Dog Eat Dog, former AC/DC manager Michael Browning claims the British-born Williams, who was having work-visa issues at the time, ‘reached Alberts [Studios in Sydney, Australia,] in January 1978, just in time for the recording sessions… it was his first record with the band and he loved playing on it’.
Mark Opitz, who engineered the album, wrote in his own autobiography, Sophisto-Punk, that Williams ‘wasn’t there for the first month of Powerage… so George played bass during rehearsals’.
Yet the man who made way for Williams the year before, Mark Evans, told me a markedly different story when I wrote my 2013 book, The Youngs: ‘My understanding of the situation is that George played bass on the whole album.’
In an interview with Bass Player, Williams rubbished the allegation (and talk Evans himself may have played on some of Powerage): ‘Not at all, and Mark was long gone at that point… I finally got my [Australian] visa, it was all good, and we did the album.’
In support of Williams, it’s well established that heavy rehearsals were going on for AC/DC’s fifth Australian studio album, a few weeks’ worth.
‘Mark [Evans] was long gone at that point… I finally got my [Australian] visa, it was all good and we did the album.'
– Cliff Williams
The truth, however, is Evans was hardly ‘long gone’ from Alberts. Evans was actually recording with Finch (aka Contraband) right in the adjacent studio to where AC/DC were rehearsing Powerage.
Evans remembered all his gear being set up and ‘I’d come in the next day with my white bass [which would be] sitting up, [I’d] pick it up, and the tuning would be different on it.’
Owen Orford, lead singer of Contraband, confirms ‘it was January ’78’ and the recording took place ‘opposite George and Harry [Vanda]’s studio’.
Evans said he had a good idea who was using his bass.
‘“I know.” So I’d go in next door and [I’d say], “Hey George, did you borrow my bass?’” [And he responded:] “Oh yeah, we did some bass tracks and we came and borrowed your bass.” I would have met Cliff between the recording of Powerage and Highway To Hell. From my memory, the sessions for [Powerage], in the back of my mind, I don’t [think] Cliff was in town for that or much of that.’
George certainly wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around in the studio as a bass player, as Rob Bailey, AC/DC’s bass player who was supplanted by George during the recording of AC/DC’s first album, High Voltage, and Evans, who had to stand by as George did some bass parts on albums he worked on, will both attest.
It's now well established that AC/DC album credits don't always tell the full story of who played on the recordings and AC/DC already had a history of using early monitor mixes in final recordings, such as the 1975 single ‘High Voltage’, on which George’s bass is highly distinctive.
Explains Tristin Norwell, a London-based record producer and composer who got his start at Alberts: ‘Monitor mixes are often mono, never more than stereo. In a rehearsal room in the 1970s you may have had a cheap little ¼ inch recorder taking a stereo mix of the monitor board, using all the mics in the room. It’s a rough ’n’ ready capture – usually dreadful – of a live rehearsal session. In proper recording sessions a monitor mix is usually a version of the song “as it stands”. Traditionally you have a recording day, and then a day mixing all the tracks – instruments – together to create a final mix. This stereo mix then gets mastered by another boffin.
‘From my memory, the sessions for [Powerage], in the back of my mind, I don’t [think] Cliff was in town for that or much of that.’
– Mark Evans
‘However, monitor mixes from recording sessions in proper studios are often very successful and hard to beat – they are often an amalgam of the energy and all the ideas firing around the room, at the inception of the recording. The endless debate is how much you lose of this “energy” by spending lots of time on a final mix – the finessed, overly processed, overly considered stage. There are many, many final mixes that have been beaten by a rock-solid vibey monitor mix, usually as they are instinctive and fresh-sounding.’
Is there any reason to think George wouldn’t stand in for Williams, a relatively new and untested (at least in Albert Studios) bass player who couldn’t even get into Australia because of visa problems at a time when AC/DC was under serious pressure from Atlantic Records to come up with a hit record? Nothing less than AC/DC's survival as a recording act was at stake.
Then again, Williams may well be right. But if he says he recorded bass tracks for all of the songs on Powerage, does that also mean they were actually used on the final album? Powerage was a critical album for AC/DC. The future of the Young family business – AC/DC itself – was at risk if the album failed to sell, as well as a substantial portion of George’s future income from producer royalties. Evans’s claim appears at least plausible.
‘I wouldn't compare my bass playing to George [Young]. I'm a sort of cut-down version of George.'
– Mark Evans
Furthermore, as Evans said to me back in 2013, ‘A real advantage of the way [AC/DC] used to record is the fact that we used to record as a band [two guitars, bass and drums]… the only thing that was added on was [Bon’s] vocals and [Angus’s] solos, guitar solos.’
George was in a different league to him as a musician.
‘I wouldn’t compare my bass playing to George. I’m sort of like a cut-down version of George.’
For what it's worth, photographs of the Powerage sessions from that Australian summer of ’78, taken by then-music journalist Jon O’Rourke, clearly show George playing bass with Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Phil Rudd in the studio. Only Bon is missing. To my knowledge, no known photos exist of Cliff recording the album. The only other photos of the sessions, taken by Andrew Paschalidis during the later recording of the single ‘Rock 'N' Roll Damnation’, also fail to show Cliff being there. Paschalidis even states that George was playing bass when he arrived at the studio. George, rhythm guitarist of The Easybeats, writer of classics ‘Friday On My Mind’ and ‘Evie’, was one of the best bass players of his time, who’d already played on early albums by the band, including 1977’s seminal Let There Be Rock.
Yes, Let There Be Rock. Evans admitted in 1998: ‘George is on some of the songs and I’m on others. Sometimes I can’t tell who’s playing what because I ended up playing bass very similar to George, but I played most of the bass on Let There Be Rock.’
Did George really change the working habit of his entire recording career with AC/DC and fail to record a single bass track on the band’s most important album to that point, at a time when Williams, despite his best efforts, was having trouble getting his work visa?
With George on bass in the studio, and AC/DC firing as a band, only a fool wouldn’t have hit the RECORD switch.
Mark Opitz says the whole thing is a nonsense: ‘What a load of bullshit; the photos are from rehearsals. I recorded the album with Vanda & Young producing and Cliff played bass, end of story.'
Former Angels bass player James Morley, who plays rhythm guitar in Bon But Not Forgotten with Mark Evans today, insists George played every song on the album bar ‘Rock 'N' Roll Damnation': ‘It's George. Except “Damnation".'
Meanwhile, O'Rourke, who took the famous photos, says, ‘The photos speak for themselves. I had the pleasure of being invited into the sessions by George while AC/DC were writing and recording the album. Bon would be in the writer's room in Alberts and come in every so often with lyrics to try on the songs. Simply amazing to be there!'
Whatever the truth, we were left with AC/DC's greatest album.
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.
Any AC/DC fan will know the pictures. A series of photographs from 1975 showing Bon Scott, Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Phil Rudd and... er... some tall blond guy that looks like the Australian actor who plays Thor, Chris Hemsworth.
He was far too handsome for AC/DC and far too tall, but Paul Matters was AC/DC's bass player before Mark Evans and toured with the band promoting the High Voltage album in the early months of 1975.
Then, abruptly, he was no longer the bass player and Evans was drafted in as his replacement, lasting until he too was sacked from the band two years later. Cliff Williams then joined the band and lasted until his retirement in 2016.
And that, pretty much, was the last anyone saw or heard of Matters publicly. That is... until this book.
I was fortunate enough to track down Matters – I wrote him an old-fashioned letter and posted it; he's not on social media and doesn't use email – and he granted me his first ever interview about AC/DC in over 40 years; if not his first interview about AC/DC, period.
In Bon: The Last Highway he finally puts to bed all the rumours about his departure from a band that would go on to become arguably the most popular in the world, talks about his relationship with Bon and the Youngs (‘Angus was a bit of a smart Alec,’ he told me), and opens up about his own battles with life after AC/DC.
Before joining AC/DC, Matters played in a Newcastle (NSW) four-piece called Armageddon. It formed in 1968 but Matters left in 1974 because of what Armageddon drummer Les Gully describes as ‘musical differences’.
In his 2012 book AC/DC: Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be, British writer Mick Wall says Matters lasted all of 11 gigs and offers a curious explanation for why.
‘They [AC/DC] took against his easygoing charm and tendency to remind one and all that he had, of course, already been there and done that in Armaggedon. For Malcolm, it was Dave Evans all over again.’
The actual truth, as Matters reveals in my book, was far different.
Says Gully: ‘As far as Paul's sacking, I would suspect that he was removed because he didn’t fit the values of the Young oligarchy. Too pretty, for a start. He didn’t really fit, had strong opinions and sensitivity, and played just what he liked.’
‘I heard Bon was up for sacking in the year preceding his death.'
– Les Gully, Armageddon
Being fired by AC/DC cut Matters deeply, according to Gully.
‘He had been booted from the two greatest bands, opportunities, of his lifetime.’
And the rest, as they say, is history. Still, as I was to learn, Matters, now a recluse, relives that painful event every day.
‘I heard Bon was up for sacking in the year preceding his death,’ adds Gully. ‘A rockstar’s death, by misadventure, is a much better marketing ploy though.’
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. You can read more about the history of Armageddon at Les Gully's website, including an anecdote about Bon here.
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.
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).
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.'
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.
Jesse Fink is the author of Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC's Back In Black, which is available now. For more information about the book, click HERE or click the book covers below to be directed to editions in your preferred territory and language.