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.
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.
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.