In doing deep research for Bon: The Last Highway, poring through the archives of yellowed press clippings in various public libraries including the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, what became immediately apparent to me was that while the media in Australia, the UK and western Europe had fallen under the spell of the talented Australians reasonably early, the mainstream American music press never quite got AC/DC until the 2000s.
Certainly Bon Scott never received the critical kudos he deserved when he was alive. (Today, of course, it is very fashionable to call yourself a Bon fan.)
AC/DC was variously described, narrowly, as ‘a prototypical heavy-metal band’ with ‘songs that focus on sex, violence, and the occult packaged in live-action album covers’ or ‘blues-based, displaying few of the Baroque influences that strongly affected most heavy metal bands’ or ‘known for crude, rowdy, and sometimes juvenile lyrics that celebrate excess, trangression, and communal bonding, delivered through very hoarse, sometimes screaming, vocals’.
In 1992 Rolling Stone magazine, America’s most powerful music publication, even rated AC/DC’s 1978 masterpiece, Powerage, ★★½ out of a possible five. Mark Coleman was the unfortunate reviewer. Not something he is going to live down quickly.
But, even so, there were occasional (albeit rare) signals of appreciation of what Bon had contributed to the band and what was missing after his death, even as early as 1980. Billboard, reviewing an AC/DC/Def Leppard double bill in August that year at New York’s Palladium, said Johnson ‘couldn’t quite match Scott’s throttled wail which in the past gave this Australian quintet its menacing edge… without Bon Scott, lead guitarist Angus Young carried the burden of entertaining the crowd.’ Robert Palmer in the New York Times wrote, ‘Mr Scott has been adequately replaced by Brian Johnson’ but added that he ‘looks and sings something like a potential homicidal longshoreman’.
Richard Harrington in the Washington Post was similarly underwhelmed: ‘Johnson’s singing style left much to be desired.’
Milwaukee Sentinel’'s Terry Higgins, reviewing Flick of the Switch in 1983, was bang on the money: ‘Every album AC/DC makes with new singer Brian Johnson makes it clear that without the personality and energy of Scott, the band will never be the transcendent experience it once was.’
By the 1990s, the gloves were off for Johnson. Bon had never seemed better. Mike Floyd in the St Louis Post-Dispatch had clearly had enough: ‘How much longer can the world endure the gnarl of vocalist Brian Johnson, who’s never matched up to the late Bon Scott (the guy he replaced in 1980) and who for about 10 erosive years has sounded more and more like an angry squirrel with nut shells stuck in his throat?’
Or this from Michael A. Capozzoli, Jr. in Pennsylvania’s Observer-Reporter in 1996: ‘AC/DC is a prime example of what’s wrong with rock music today. Their work was at one time vital and interesting; they pioneered the hard rock/heavy metal invasion of the mid-’70s. However, when lead singer Bon Scott passed away more than 16 years ago, AC/DC lost their originality.’
In my view, he was right.
‘I like Brian because he always tips his hat to Bon in interviews, and rightfully so, but for singing, Bon had the feel,’ Dennis Dunaway, the original bassist for Alice Cooper, told me during the writing of the book.
Bon had more than the feel. For me, the greatest incarnation of AC/DC died with him on 19 February 1980.
BON: THE LAST HIGHWAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BON SCOTT AND AC/DC'S BACK IN BLACK is available 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.