Much of the secret history of Bon Scott is to be found in, of all places, Florida. Miami band Critical Mass features prominently in Bon: The Last Highway because of their great friendship on the stage and off with Bon in the early months of 1979.
During the writing of the book I went to Miami to meet rhythm guitarist and lead singer Michael Fazzolare, who spent a weekend with me and a group of other characters you'll meet in the book driving around Miami pointing out places he'd hung out with Bon during the five weeks AC/DC spent in the city preparing Highway To Hell, an album that ultimately would be Bon's last.
These included bars, rehearsal studios, recording studios, private homes and even hotel rooms. AC/DC would end up skipping Eddie Kramer and Miami for Mutt Lange and London, but they would leave an indelible mark in Miami. The full story of Bon's time in Miami has never been told and it's been my immense privilege to write it.
But unlike AC/DC, Critical Mass never conquered the world. Not for lack of talent or musicianship; just bad luck.
In the 2008 documentary Rock And A Hard Place: Another Night At The Agora, Fazzolare described the band’s sound as ‘power rock with catchy melodies’ and he was bang on; Critical Mass was doing Green Day – and doing it better – decades before Green Day ever came on to the scene.
Having formed in North Dade in 1974 and described by Good Times as ‘non-sweetened, heavy-handed, English-styled power pop aimed right at the bellies of the young male who goes for the hard stuff – Nugent, AC-DC [sic], Cheap Trick and a bit of new wave’, Critical Mass recorded their first and only album for MCA with late Yes bass player Chris Squire in England in 1980.
Managed by Sid Bernstein, the promoter who brought The Beatles to Shea Stadium, Critical Mass got coverage in Billboard, sold out the first pressing of It’s What Inside That Counts and had the 13th most ‘added’ album on radio in the United States the week of 3 October 1980, but they had stiff competition leading into Christmas that year with Bruce Springsteen’s The River, Lennon’s Double Fantasy and Steely Dan’s Gaucho.
According to lead guitarist David Owen, the band ‘hit a brick wall’ because of radio-programming consultant Lee Abrams, who was also Yes’s manager and went on to co-found XM Satellite Radio, for which he was chief programmer before its merger with Sirius Satellite Radio in 2008. Among other achievements, Abrams is credited with having invented the AOR rock radio format. On his blog, Abrams recalled the band as being ‘kind of a US version of the Buzzcocks thing. Real engaging. The guys were like The Three Stooges on acid… playful but decent musicians, but the sessions were a disaster. Part of the problem was that US radio wouldn’t accept that sound.
‘Kinda funny ’cause I was viewed as the guy who was responsible for the US radio sound back then. If we could do it over, we’d record in Miami, their hometown, outlaw all substances from the premises, get a US engineer and bore into doing what the band was capable of – which was Green Day in 1979.’
‘I loved the first record, as badly produced as it was,’ says Neal Mirsky, who was program director at WDIZ Orlando and WSHE Miami and produced the nationally syndicated Howard Stern Show in New York.
‘Critical Mass was great. The songs were great. They were a cross between The Beatles, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. I think “1964” should have been a hit. They had a couple of great songs on the album. Unfortunately the album was co-produced by Lee Abrams. In every market in America, the stations that Lee consulted, management wouldn’t let them air the record because they were afraid it would look like collusion: their consultant produced, now we’re adding the record. So the stations Lee consulted wouldn’t add it because Lee was their consultant. The stations across the street, the competition, wouldn’t add it because Lee produced it.’
Worse, says Mirsky, MCA Records was ‘a horrible label… they were the mid-chart label; they just couldn’t break a band at that time’.
Critical Mass broke up in 1982. When Phil Rudd left AC/DC in 1983, there was a hot rumour going around Miami that Phil had recommended Mike Barone, who had jammed with AC/DC during rehearsals for Highway To Hell, as his replacement.
But Barone says that is not true: ‘Let me put it this way: if AC/DC did [want me to audition], I didn’t know about it. It never happened.’
‘Critical Mass were a cross between The Beatles, Cheap Trick and AC/DC.'
– Neal Mirsky
A reunion followed in 1989 and in 2008 Critical Mass performed a benefit show with good friend Johnny Depp, a contemporary from Miami band The Kids. Since then, they have gone their separate ways. Laplume lives in Miami, Barone in Colorado, Owen in Gainesville and engineer/sometime guitarist Frank Prinzel in Tampa Bay. Lead singer and songwriter Fazzolare now works in an appliance store in Orlando but is still actively writing and recording music.
If any band deserves a critical rediscovery, a record contract and a second shot at stardom, it's Critical Mass.
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. Just click the title above (in red). You can like Critical Mass on Facebook.
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.
Jesse Fink is the author of Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC's Back In Black, which is available now. For more information about the book, click HERE or click the book covers below to be directed to editions in your preferred territory and language.