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.
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.
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.