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.
CHARLIE STARR is the lead singer and guitarist of what I regard as the greatest Southern rock/country rock band playing today, Blackberry Smoke. They've recorded with AC/DC production alumni Mike Fraser and Brendan O'Brien and a lot of their harder edge songs have a distinctly AC/DC feel. They've covered 'Highway To Hell' on stage. He's a big Bon fan.
Bon's songs make up so much of the setlist AC/DC (what’s left of it) still performs. What do you think is special about Bon's songs?
They are special simply because they were so damn good. Bon was a gifted lyricist and composer of melodies. Just a natural, apparently. No one could turn a phrase like Bon at that time. Just genius use of double entendre and innuendo. Completely witty and confident.
What do you think Bon represents to you and other fans of AC/DC? A rock legend who lived for the day or a guy who even 37 years on from his death is still a bit of a mystery? Or something else? What spirit does he embody to you?
I’ve always been fascinated with Bon. His voice, songwriting, prowess as a frontman… the whole thing. Obviously, dying young can seem to deify most rock stars, but that’s not really the case with Bon. He didn’t carry himself like a complicated, tortured genius, but a fireball powerhouse who lived life to the hilt. People like him are the most influential to rock and roll musicians because he was frighteningly real.
Bon was a major Southern rock fan. What attracted you to Southern rock? The music itself, the people, the heritage, the rebel spirit? All of it?
The music and the freedom that those bands took advantage of. Funny that a single genre could contain elements of so many other genres. All the other stuff was cool, but it became ‘cartoonish’ after a while.
‘Bon didn’t carry himself like a complicated, tortured genius, but a fireball powerhouse who lived life to the hilt. People like him are the most influential to rock and roll musicians because he was frighteningly real.'
– Charlie Starr
What's special about the Southern rock of the 1970s and is it something you try to carry over in spirit and tone in your own music?
Those were just great bands who wrote great songs that will live forever. We really just aspire to do the same thing. I think we are lucky to enjoy a bit of the musical freedom they did.
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 around the world. Blackberry Smoke's new album, FIND A LIGHT, is out now.
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.