2017 is an important year for AC/DC – or should at least be for every serious AC/DC fan. It marks the 40th anniversary of the international release of AC/DC’s landmark album Let There Be Rock and the 40th anniversary of its first American tour. My book, Bon: The Last Highway, is the untold story of Bon in America from 1977–79 and his death in London in 1980.
It’s hard to believe just how far AC/DC – a band that has sold well over 200 million records – has come since that first show in Austin, Texas. To give you an idea how long ago we're talking about, John Lennon had just got his Green Card. Bjorn Borg had won Wimbledon. The Soviet Union had performed an underground nuclear test. Vietnam had joined the United Nations. Jimmy Carter, a Southern rock–loving Democrat governor from Georgia, was President of the United States.
They also had a proverbial mountain to climb to get the attention of booking agents and radio programmers, being such a relatively unknown quantity in the States at that time, practically unheard on the airwaves outside Texas, Florida and California, though the portents for their first crack at the USA at least seemed good for the Australians when they arrived in July 1977.
AC/DC had made quite an impression in England and Europe and the Sydney Morning Herald trumpeted that the band was on the cusp of international fame: ‘They have moved with calculated accuracy in the direction of fame and fortune both here and overseas. Their records are consistent powerhouses of raw energy. Their songs move as restlessly as Hannibal’s elephants.’
The reality, however, was a little starker for AC/DC. Down Under, the band was hardly flavour of the month.
AC/DC got banned from performing at Tamworth’s Town Hall in December 1976. An editorial in the Northern Daily Leader praised local aldermen for ‘acting wisely and in the best interests of our young children in refusing to allow the hall to be used if there is any danger of [rock] groups infringing decent moral standards by their on-stage actions and lyrics. Unfortunately, audiences at many of the rock concerts are mainly sub-teenage girls. They need protection.’
On December 30 1976 an article appeared in Melbourne’s Age: ‘The five-member Melbourne group who claim to be the original punk rock band have had concerts banned, official concert programmes seized, and been attacked in both State and Federal Parliaments for corrupting children’s morals.’
In January 1977, Portland and Eaglehawk councils in Victoria asked for $500 and $2000 bonds respectively before they’d allow AC/DC to play. ‘This will prevent one of the group’s guitarists dropping his pants on stage,’ said the Age. In England, too, as Angus Young admitted, the dropping-pants act had worn thin with the authorities: ‘We’d have the whole vice squad at some shows. The same Britain where they have topless women in their daily papers… in the end, even the police were laughing about it.’
‘Audiences at many of the rock concerts are mainly sub-teenage girls. They need protection.'
– An editorial in the Northern Daily Leader
Stateside, too, AC/DC’s first international album, High Voltage (1976), a collection of cuts from their first two Australian albums (I've posted some photos of an original mint press release in the gallery above), was only getting heavy airplay from Bill Bartlett at WPDQ/WAIV in Jacksonville (proved by a lone 22 January 1977 mention in Billboard’s ‘Album Radio Action’ charts, substantiating without doubt Bartlett’s longstanding claim that AC/DC took off in Florida before anywhere else), but the band was to get a key review further south in the Miami News – nearly a year before they even touched down on American soil.
There aren't a hell of a lot of newspaper clippings about AC/DC from America in 1976 – I have a personal collection containing a few very rare clippings from Texas, and I found in archives several others I've included in the book – but during my research for Bon: The Last Highway, by pure luck I found this old newspaper from 29 October 1976.
Jon Marlowe even concluded his preceding review of the various-artists Atlantic Records release Live at CBGB’s by saying, ‘If you’re into punk, just forget this one and pick up on “High Voltage” by AC/DC instead.’
At a time when AC/DC wasn't getting a whole lotta love, how shrewd the floridly expressive Mr Marlowe turned out to be.
HIGH VOLTAGE – AC/DC – (ATLANTIC)
You say you ripped holes in your $30 jeans to look just like Dee Dee Ramone while dreaming of spending ten minutes alone with Joan Jett of the Runaways in the Aloha Motel with the Flamin’ Groovies blasting from your cassette player.
And you say Yes are five musical vegetarians you’d like to run through a Veg-O-Matic and you refuse to patronize music stores that even stock synthesizers.
Well, kid, have we got an album for you – ‘High Voltage’ – by a group of five Scottish-Australian punks who call themselves AC/DC and dress in London schoolboy clothes and utter such memorable statements as ‘Can I Sit Next To You Girl?’.
AC/DC is currently giving Eddie and the Hot Rods and the Sex Pistols (two of Britian’s [sic] primo punk rockers) a real run for the money [sic] and you should immediately fork over the price of this one just for the wonderous [sic] experience of hearing the 96 decibel delight: ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock ’N’ Roll’.)
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.
One of rock ’n’ roll’s most colourful figures in the 1970s was Sidney Drashin, whose company Jet Set Enterprises was a colossus of rock promotion in the southern United States.
Over his career Drashin promoted over 5000 shows, including Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and, most famously of all, Lynyrd Skynyrd. His kingdom was Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami and Tampa but Jet Set put on shows in about 30 cities around the Southeast and Southwest, including cities outside Florida.
Drashin got arrested in 1979 on a cocaine possession rap, stemming out of a 1977 drug bust that resulted in the arrest of Exorcist actress Linda Blair, who was dating Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington. At the time of the arrest she was attending the funeral of Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Says Drashin, who knew Blair: ‘She’d come down and get in trouble.’
Former AC/DC manager Michael Browning calls Drashin a ‘Jacksonville scoundrel’ in his autobiography, Dog Eat Dog, which greatly amuses the man himself. A more accurate description was made by Bob Greene in a piece for Audience magazine in 1972. Drashin was ‘a loud, frantic young man… who did not seem able to talk to another person without clutching that person’s arm’.
Not much has changed nearly 50 years later. Even retired, everything the man does is a million miles a minute. He types his name with a $ symbol for the ‘s’ in Drashin and lives in a condo at Ponte Vedra Beach outside Jacksonville.
‘Marketing is 90 per cent of anything,' he says. ‘The Rolling Stones are dog shit but they were well promoted.’
After making their state debut at the West Palm Beach Civic Auditorium (now the West Palm Beach Christian Convention Center), AC/DC made their second Florida appearance supporting REO Speedwagon at Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum on 6 August 1977.
REO Speedwagon was called the ‘world’s most boring band’ in Browning’s book, an ungenerous assessment for a band featuring an incredible lead guitarist (the late Gary Richrath) that would go on to record the outstanding single ‘Roll With The Changes’ a year later, one of the mainstays of American classic rock.
In August 1977, they were promoting the hit live album You Get What You Play For.
‘R.E.O. Speedwagon Is Gold And Exploding! CURRENTLY STORMING THE COUNTRY ON TOUR!’ screamed an Epic Records ad in Radio & Records of 5 August. Wrote Circus magazine: ‘For a band with no hype, little promotion and a big share of problems, REO has managed to maintain their pace through constant touring and perseverance doing the thing they love best – rock ’n’ roll.’
From Champaign, Illinois, they’d originally hit the road after buying a used limousine they had bought for $50. They played up to three towns a night. AC/DC had far more in common with REO Speedwagon than they liked to think.
Drashin is not sure, but thinks Lynyrd Skynyrd (with whom he ‘probably did a coupla hundred shows’) turned up to see the support act.
‘‘Skynyrd was our local band. I think Ronnie Van Zant came to the show and wanted to see AC/DC. The band showed up and I made ’em security guards, I think, I can’t remember that totally, I know I did it for the Stones one year, I made [Skynyrd] security. But I also think I did it with AC/DC.
‘They were kids. They liked to go to shows; they were pretty well known so I had to stick ’em behind security guards in the place between the risers.’
Members of Skynyrd have claimed to have jammed with AC/DC the following day, something I explore further in Bon: The Last Highway, as well as looking into Bon’s reputed friendship with late Skynyrd bass player Leon Wilkeson, the man Mark Evans once said Bon had in mind for his rumoured solo album.
Did Bon get his Confederate Battle Flag belt buckle from Van Zant? It's a tale that's been going around for years and I'll be examining that in another blog. Were members of AC/DC offered a ride on the plane that crashed in Mississippi? The short answer to that one is they wouldn't be needing to get from South Carolina to Louisiana if they were in the middle of playing shows in England. A lot of myths abound when it comes to AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
‘Skynyrd were maybe the craziest band of all time,’ says Drashin. ‘No one came close. Let me give you a couple of stories on them and you’ll get the drift. Ronnie was the leader, the writer and the singer. He was short, maybe five feet, he wasn’t much higher than that, but he was knockin’ on the door when [the rest of the band] wouldn’t come down to go to the shows and when they’d come to the door, he’d bust them right in the mouth.
‘Skynyrd were maybe the craziest band of all time.'
– Sidney Drashin
‘I said, “Ronnie, you gotta stop it. It’s a terrible habit to have a beat-up band playin’ with blood drippin’ outta their nose.” He said, “The monkeys, if they don’t listen to me, I’m gonna beat the shit out of em.” That’s how crazy he was. Just because they were late to come down and get in like, not a limo even, a SUV or a van, in Memphis one time.
‘They would also knock on my window at two in the morning and beg me to give ’em some champagne and I’d go down to the kitchen, I wouldn’t let ’em in the house, and hand it to ’em out the window and off they went. They were great kids, though. They were a lot of fun; they were brilliant at what they did.
‘AC/DC took over Jacksonville almost as big as Skynyrd. It was really close. The Beatles were one thing, the Stones were something else, but AC/DC was from Australia. They weren’t part of the English invasion. They came from… it was almost like the moon. It was so far away, Australia, it added a cachet to it, an extra round of dynamite.
‘AC/DC came from... it was almost like the moon.'
– Sidney Drashin
‘AC/DC’s stage show was something no one had ever seen at a time that was perfect. [Booking agency American Talent International’s] Jeff Franklin was brilliant at recognising talent and when I called him and started telling him about ’em, he knew he had the right handbill. The [Jacksonville] kids hadn’t seen anything of that stature. I loved the band. The money was fine. I mean, let’s be realistic. Money’ll change the time of day in downtown New York. But it wasn’t the money. It was the thrill of it all.’
As for Wilkeson, who died in a Ponte Vedra Beach hotel room in 2001, Drashin says he was ‘easily’ as crazy as Van Zant but ‘he had a little old lady’s heart’ and was a ‘great guy’.
It could just as easily have been a description of Bon.
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. Sidney Drashin's book RINGLEADER OF ROCK SHOWS is available through Amazon.
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.
38 Special’s ‘Caught Up in You’ (1982) is one of my all-time favourite songs and videos. The first time I heard it, the first time I saw the clip, I thought it was the perfect good-time American rock-pop song and I don't feel any differently about it today – it’s still a track that instantly gets you moving and makes you feel great.
Growing up in Australia we didn’t really hear much of 38 Special – if any of the band's music – on the radio. So the joys of the band came to me in my mid-30s while listening to car radio in the States. Interestingly for me, AC/DC and 38 Special had played together on a bill at the Masonic Auditorium, Detroit, 27 August 1977, with Johnny Winter headlining.
JEFF CARLISI was 38 Special’s lead guitarist that night and played with the Jacksonville (FL) band from 1974–1996: the classic line-up. He spoke to me about playing on the same stage with a young and hungry AC/DC on its first tour of the States. 38 Special's debut self-titled album (below) had just been released that May on A&M Records.
What do you remember of the Masonic Auditorium gig in Detroit?
I remember sitting with Angus and Bon back at the hotel bar. They seemed a bit bummed out because they were not well received by the audience. I thought they were great even though they probably shouldn't have been on that bill. I don't remember much of our conversation (all of us being well pissed, not to mention Bon's heavy accent). I do remember us having a good laugh about all of us being 'newbies' and if this is what we should always expect.
‘Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience.'
– Jeff Carlisi
Did you get the sense they were trying to blow you off the stage?
I never felt that AC/DC was trying to blow us off the stage, even though that's what we [musicians] all try to do. It's part of our DNA. They seemed more to be doing their job.
Did anything about Bon's drinking strike you as out of the ordinary?
Drinking? Hmmmm... I suppose we all drank a good bit back in those days. Bon was quite pissed but I assumed it was due to being depressed from the poor response from the audience. I felt bad for him and Angus as well. However, they were super nice guys and very personable as well. I was shocked to hear of Bon's passing as we all are when we lose one of our brothers. At that time I had no idea that his alcohol consumption was a problem. Again, very nice people. I think they appreciated a shoulder to cry on.
What do you think of AC/DC today without Bon?
I still love the band as much as ever. As a matter of fact my friend Brendan O'Brien works with them as their producer and I've spent some time with Brian Johnson at a few racetracks talking about cars. I was introduced to Brian by our mutual friend Brian Howe.
Lastly, I’m a huge admirer of 38 Special and especially your outfit in the video for ‘Caught Up in You’. What happened to those threads? They should be on exhibition in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Thanks for being a fan – especially of my wardrobe! Ha! My wife had a bed quilt made for me years back. It was made up of all my favourite shirts from all the years of touring. That shirt lives!
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 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.