“GIMME A BULLET”
This was the song that began my personal Conradian journey into the music of Bon Scott and the Young brothers. It opens my 2013 book, The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, as it was the song that, at a crucial juncture in my life, connected me with AC/DC on an emotional and physical level I’d never experienced before, and it made me a fan.
After the book came out in Australia, I gave a lift one night to Mark Evans, AC/DC’s bass player from 1975–77. We had just visited AC/DC drummer Tony Currenti at his pizzeria in Penshurst. My daughter Billie, Mark and I drove through the western suburbs of Sydney listening to songs off Powerage, Highway To Hell and Let There Be Rock. It was surreal: driving around midnight, AC/DC cranked up full volume like something out of Wayne’s World, with a guy who used to be in AC/DC in the back seat, singing along with Billie and me. I’ll never forget it.
I dedicated The Youngs to Mark, Tony and late Atlantic Records executive Michael Klenfner. Mark told me he’d gone away after reading The Youngs and re-listened to Powerage. He’d been in an adjoining studio playing with another band when some of it was recorded and George Young had even borrowed his guitar (as Cliff Williams had had visa problems entering Australia).
After re-listening to the album, Mark was convinced George Young had played bass on the album (there are previously unpublished photos in The Youngs from inside the studio of George playing bass with Angus and Malcolm). Perhaps that was why the bass on “Gimme A Bullet” was so good and so much notier than Cliff’s usual contributions. Some of the bass on the album could well be Cliff, who eventually arrived in Australia and went into the studio – his name appears on the album and the official line is that he was the bass player. Engineer Mark Opitz insists it was Cliff and Cliff himself says he played on the whole album. But, for listeners at least, whose bass playing finally ended up being used on each track in the final analysis is up for debate.
Listen to it yourself and decide. I've written a whole separate story about the bass on Powerage, which you can read here. There’s a history of George Young playing uncredited bass on AC/DC records. Personally, I think it’s one of their greatest songs, notable for the lack of a solo from Angus Young (though the great Filippo Olivieri aka Solo Dallas does a great version with a solo) -- and, as I write in The Youngs, it stopped me from doing something stupid at a weak moment. So it has personal resonance and significance to me; the best music always does. Powerage, 40 years old this year, is unquestionably the band’s masterpiece.
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.
Musical genius and sheer graft alone didn’t make AC/DC the biggest rock band in the world. It is also required the support, commitment and individual talent of key people behind the scenes.
1. MUTT LANGE
The perfectionist producer behind Highway To Hell, Back In Black and For Those About To Rock (We Salute You). AC/DC never sounded as consistently good as it did on those three key albums, Lange conspicuously improving background vocals (“Highway To Hell” a prime example) and bringing to the recording process a new emphasis on “space”. The dynamics on those albums have never been bettered and listeners agreed: Back In Black is the second-biggest selling album of all time. It wasn’t enough to save Lange from the chop. He was axed after For Those About To Rock (1981) and has barely said a word about AC/DC since.
2. GERARD HUERTA
The designer (or co-designer, according to Atlantic Records art director Bob Defrin) of AC/DC’s iconic logo: one of the great logos of all time, not just in rock music but also big business. Based on the letterforms of the Gutenberg Bible and inspired by a similar logo he did for Blue Öyster Cult, Huerta produced the logo for the US issue of Let There Be Rock in 1977 — for which he got a one-off fee. AC/DC went away and used another logo for 1978’s Powerage then came back to Huerta’s logo for If You Want Blood and Highway To Hell. It’s been used on anything to do with the band ever since. Huerta has not received a cent in royalties for its use in any of the band’s merchandising and is still waiting for his first phone call from a member of the Young family.
3. MICHAEL KLENFNER
A senior vice-president at Atlantic Records during the key years when AC/DC was trying to break in America, Klenfner (pictured with former wife Carol Klenfner and Pete Townshend of The Who) was regarded by many who worked with him at the record company as the band’s biggest champion. The support was crucial: AC/DC was at one point in danger of being dropped altogether. However his “bull in a china shop” manner didn’t endear him to some colleagues and ultimately would see him butt heads with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway To Hell. Klenfner wanted Eddie Kramer. Greenberg wanted Lange. Klenfner came off second best and was fired after having a verbal altercation with Lange’s manager, Clive Calder. Klenfner died in 2009.
4. TONY CURRENTI
The drummer for every track but one on AC/DC’s first album, High Voltage, and the single “High Voltage” which came afterwards. Three Currenti drum tracks featured on the band’s first American release, High Voltage (1976), a combination of their first two Australian albums. Three Currenti drum tracks also appeared on the 1984 EP ’74 Jailbreak. Sicily-born Currenti was asked to join AC/DC but turned down the offer because he feared being conscripted into the Italian army if he travelled with the band to England. A friend of Bon Scott, Currenti has not been credited on any AC/DC albums and today runs Tonino's Penshurst Pizzeria in Sydney, Australia. After 38 years away from music, he returned to playing drums in early 2014 and now regularly performs with tribute bands in Australia, Italy, Spain and England. He’s a superb drummer: the Italian Charlie Watts.
5. PERRY COOPER
Klenfner’s lieutenant at Atlantic — indeed he came to the record company from Arista with Klenfner as a team in 1977 — head of artist relations Cooper was a popular figure with AC/DC and was the name on Bon Scott’s emergency-person-to-contact card, according to his daughter Renée. Cooper was a driver, along with Judy Libow and Barry Bergman, of the Live From the Atlantic Studios promotion in 1977, engineered by future Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake engineer Jimmy Douglass, that went out to American radio stations and helped get the band critical airplay before they broke with 1979’s Highway to Hell. Cooper remained close to the band after Bon Scott’s death in 1980. He died in 2005.
6. MARK EVANS
Bass player Evans is commonly regarded by fans as part of the “classic” line-up but was unceremoniously dumped before their maiden tour of the United States in July 1977. Between 1975 and ’77 Evans played live with AC/DC in Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe and on many of the original recordings that make up AC/DC’s “greatest hits". That wasn’t enough, though, for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When AC/DC was inducted in 2003, Evans wasn’t there to celebrate with them on stage, despite being initially invited. The Hall of Fame withdrew the invitation, claiming he was ineligible. Evans stills plays music – he recently joined Rose Tattoo – and runs a guitar shop in Sydney.
7. BILL BARTLETT
The first man to play AC/DC on the radio in the United States. Jacksonville DJ and program director Bartlett came to Australia as a foreign-exchange student in the early 1970s and got on to the mailing lists of Australian record companies. Bartlett took it upon himself to promote Aussie music on WPDQ/WAIV and not only gave AC/DC its first break on the airwaves well before they released their first American album, he also did the same for Little River Band. When Bartlett went to Seattle in June 1977 to become program director of KISW, he suggested to Steve Slaton that he play AC/DC. Claims that Slaton was the first DJ to break AC/DC on American radio should thus be treated with some skepticism.
8. DAVID KREBS
The co-principal of Leber-Krebs, the one-time management company of AC/DC, Aerosmith, Scorpions and Ted Nugent, the publicity-shy Krebs (pictured here with Adam Bomb) was absolutely pivotal in getting AC/DC important support slots for their roster of headline acts, especially Aerosmith. When Michael Browning was discarded as AC/DC’s manager in late 1979, Leber-Krebs underling Peter Mensch took over at the direction of Krebs, who had his hands full managing Aerosmith and Nugent. Mensch would go on to manage Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers and amass a considerable fortune but he cut his managerial teeth on AC/DC and by reliable accounts did a very good job. Again, it wasn’t enough for the Youngs. Both Mensch and Krebs were cut adrift by AC/DC and in my opinion it was a mistake. What immediately followed was a dark period creatively and financially for the band.
9. TONY PLATT
AC/DC has had a bunch of engineers over the years (the great Mark Opitz and Mike Fraser among them), but Platt probably stands tallest with credits on Highway To Hell, Back In Black and the underrated Flick Of The Switch (which he co-produced). It was the task of Platt to deal with the ultra-finicky, almost obsessive Lange in the studio and he must have had the patience of Job to do it without going mad. Platt was more into the “feel” of a take whereas Lange wanted it to be perfect. You can hear more of that “feel” on Flick Of The Switch and it’s thanks to Platt we have ripsnorters like “Nervous Shakedown” and “Bedlam In Belgium”. Whatever he did with Lange on their albums together (which also included Foreigner’s 4), they were an amazing double act.
10. HARRY VANDA
It might seem strange to nominate one half of Vanda & Young, the legendary Australian songwriters and producers who helmed a stack of classic AC/DC albums, but Vanda was an integral part of creating the Aussie rock sound with Angus’s and Malcolm’s elder and late brother George. It was there in The Easybeats, the band Harry played in with George and which gave the world the all-time classic “Friday On My Mind”. It was there in Marcus Hook Roll Band. It was there in Stevie Wright’s solo work. It was there in Rose Tattoo and The Angels. But with AC/DC they perfected it. What I love about early AC/DC is the groove: the handclaps and the percussion. That’s Vanda & Young all over. If Vanda’s name were “Young” he’d be a whole lot better known by fans outside Australia.
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.