The background story of one of AC/DC's all-time classics, ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, has become almost as inflated as the cartoonish stage prop that in recent years has appeared behind the band in concerts.
In a 2000 interview with Alan Di Perna in Guitar World, Angus Young said of the song's origins that AC/DC was playing in Tasmania ‘and the capital of Tasmania is Dar Es Salaam’.
AC/DC, with Bon Scott out front, played one concert in Tasmania in July 1975, five in February 1976 and three in February 1977.
On the 1976 tour, Bon supposedly was yanked into a random doorway by a ‘42-39-56’–proportioned woman while walking the streets after a gig: ‘She pulled him in and said, “Hey Bon, in here.”’
‘Rosie', as she would become known, was with another girl at the time and Bon went off with both of them to their shared room.
Continued Angus: ‘And he thought, “Hey, why not?”’
The story seemingly changes depending on the interviewer.
‘Bon has this fetish about big women,’ Angus told England's Record Mirror in 1978. ‘He used to party around with these two girls called the Jumbo Twins.’
In another interview with Sylvie Simmons, Angus calls them ‘the Jumbo Jets’.
In Phil Sutcliffe’s famous Sounds story from August 1976, ‘The Dirtiest Story Ever Told’, probably the earliest telling of what would become the Rosie yarn, Bon is placed as being with Malcolm Young in the band's dressing-room after a show. Malcolm describes Rosie as ‘Big Bertha’ and ‘the fat one. One pound under 20 stone.’ She has a friend with her who is ‘ugly but not that bad’.
Says Bon of ‘Big Bertha’, wryly: ‘She’d have broken my arm if I’d refused.’
By Angus’s account Bon the next morning ‘woke up sort of pinned to the wall’.
Now depending on what version of the story you read, Bon was Rosie's ‘29th' or ‘37th' celebrity conquest.
The late AC/DC roadie Pat Pickett, who supposedly organised the orgy that spawned the song – ‘Bon and a few other degenerates were standing around, cheering each other on’ – reported Bon being under a ‘huge pile of blubber lying there’ with ‘this little tiny arm with tattoos’ sticking out.
Bon’s own version, contained in an audio track on the Bonfire box set from 1997, has it happening at ‘a hotel’, thought to be the Freeway Gardens Motel in North Melbourne, where ‘this chick, Rosie, lived across the road’ and the band would go to parties there and she’d put it on Bon. (The band's former bass player, Mark Evans, has claimed Rosie was actually running a nearby brothel and had red hair, not the blond we're familiar with in AC/DC's stage prop.)
Said Bon: ‘She’s about six foot two inches tall, and like 19 stone 12 pound, like that was some mountain, you know.’
Eventually, he caved in.
‘She was so big she’d sort of close the door and put it on you… she was too big to say no to. So I just sorta had to succumb… I had to do it. Oh my God, I wish I hadn’t.’
Pickett, allegedly a friend of Rosie’s, named the location as Freeway Gardens, as did Mary Renshaw in her 2015 book, Live Wire.
Yet in over four decades since the song was written, no Rosie (if that is her real name; Mark Evans is not sure) has ever come forward, perhaps with good reason.
An attempt was made by The Advocate newspaper in Burnie, Tasmania, to locate her in 2006, with the search centred on Queenstown in the west of the island, but no Rosie materialised. The mayor of Queenstown thought she was from Wynyard, west of Burnie.
If Rosie is real, she's done a fabulous job of staying hidden from public view and/or her friends have done a similarly sterling job to protect her privacy and her dignity.
Heather Johnson, an ex-girlfriend of Angus Young, reportedly saw the event described in the song unfold and spoke to Rosie afterwards. There have also been unsubstantiated stories that Bon met Rosie again in Tasmania, but this time she’d lost a tremendous amount of weight.
This would seem unlikely. Bon was heavily touring North America, the United Kingdom and Europe between mid 1977 and when he died in 1980; not making unscheduled stops to catch up with old flames in Tasmania. If she met him again during AC/DC's three shows on the island in early 1977, she would had to have embarked on a hell of a crash diet for Bon to hardly recognise her.
From time to time, various fans have approached me to tell me Rosie is a real person, alive and living in northwest Tasmania, which may well be true, but my experience has been that those individuals who boast they know Rosie today never seem to come up with any details beyond what is already available on the internet or in books; they add nothing new to the story.
Statements have also been made by people claiming to be family members of Rosie's that she is now deceased. Again, this may be true. But in the absence of a photograph or single vital skerrick of biographical data, it's tempting to ponder if Rosie is just another of Bon’s road encounters creatively expanded into a tall tale and brought to life with the help of the Youngs’ guitars.
‘I just sorta had to succumb... I had to do it. Oh my God, I wish I hadn't.'
– Bon Scott
Apocryphal or not, ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ – which began life as the much looser, slower tempo 1976 recording ‘Dirty Eyes’ – is one of those rare pieces of rock music that is covered by everyone but still hasn’t been bettered and never will be. It’s a song that’s so stirring and powerful it could rouse the dead – a tribute to Bon's songwriting and the incredible band he fronted.
And Rosie, if you are reading this, I'd love to hear from you. If you've passed away, RIP and thank you for inspiring such an unforgettable track – whatever the truth of what did or didn't happen in 1976.
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.
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.