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.
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.
Miami-based Australian photographer ROBERT VALENTINE, whose real name is Robert Proudfoot, describes himself as ‘old friends' with the Young brothers, Angus, Malcolm and George Young.
‘I lived with the Youngs and their family in Burwood, New South Wales – 4 Burleigh Street – from about 1969 to 1972. So I kinda grew up with Malcolm and Angus, even before AC/DC.'
That was how Valentine got invited on the road with the band in America in the late 1970s and the early '80s. His candid snapshots – from 1978, especially – are valuable as they offer a rare glimpse into what it was really like backstage at an AC/DC gig before they became the biggest rock band in the world. Bon Scott appears in many of them.
‘I haven’t seen [the Youngs] now in about 25 years,' he says. ‘Just always been busy or not around when they were in town. I knew Bon. It was sad when he passed and now I'm sad about my good friend Malcolm in that condition.' [Malcolm has passed away since the interview was conducted. – Ed.]
But in the '70s and early '80s, the Burleigh Street boys were all still close, as these intimate photos reveal.
‘The guy with glasses [pictured below in the Powerage T-shirt] was our friend, Ian Baragry, who we all grew up with. He lived up the street from the Youngs in Burwood.'
Enjoy a selection of Robert's shots from Allentown (September 1978), Rochester (September 1978), Buffalo (October 1980) and Uniondale (October 1980) in the slideshow below.
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.
KEN SCHAFFER, inventor of the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS), an ingenious wireless transmitter first used by Angus Young in concert at The Palladium in New York on 24 August 1977, got to hang out with Bon Scott on four or five occasions in three cities. Bon even used a microphone version of Schaffer's wireless technology. Friend and confidant of the famous, best friend of Sting, one of the few people to have a song by REM written about him, he's one of the unsung heroes of classic rock.
‘I looooove Ken Schaffer!’ booms David Krebs, former manager of Aerosmith and AC/DC, over the phone from Malibu. ‘He’s a genius kind of guy.’
Such a genius that Schaffer once hooked up Krebs’s star client, Steven Tyler, to some electrodes to get him off heroin. He was paid $5000 for his trouble.
‘I thought was a great idea,’ sighs Krebs, ‘but it didn’t work.’
Schaffer remembers slightly differently when I meet him in the mid-Manhattan penthouse he’s owned since the 1970s.
‘I got Steven off of dope with an invention of mine that cures junkies. He used to sit here for two weeks for an hour a day with electrodes dangling off his ears. They thanked me on the Best Of Aerosmith album, but they spelled my last name wrong, the fucking assholes,’ he laughs.
In the same apartment, Schaffer entertained Angus Young.
‘Angus, on his first tour, with [then AC/DC manager] Michael Browning, they used to hang out here. Angus spent a fair amount of time here.’
So much so that Browning tried to get an apartment on the same floor. There’s a framed photograph of Angus with Schaffer in a glass cabinet where he keeps his most precious items.
Schaffer’s relationship with Angus was ‘like an older brother kind of thing, something like that… it was nice’.
Angus used Schaffer’s most famous invention, a wireless transmitter called the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System, in concert up until 1985 when he switched to another inferior digital unit. It would coincide with AC/DC’s darkest days creatively.
Says Schaffer: ‘From what I understand from the AC/DC “fan fans” he never sounded the same’.
The two lost contact.
Schaffer is a friend and confidant of some very famous people. He custom-built the Sardonyx guitar John Lennon used on Double Fantasy. Sting wrote the song ‘Russians’ for The Dream of the Blue Turtles album while watching Russian TV with Schaffer at Columbia University. (The restless and curious Schaffer, an inveterate Russophile, had invented a satellite tracking system to intercept Russian signals.)
But Schaffer ‘got barricaded everywhere’ trying to reconnect with AC/DC.
In 2014, however, he got his wish in Vancouver when Angus picked up a bunch of Schaffer’s wireless guitar units — now rebooted as the Schaffer Replica by his Italian-American friend Filippo Olivieri of SoloDallas.com — for AC/DC’s Rock Or Bust world tour.
He was told in a letter beforehand by ‘someone in management’ to ‘wash your hands, shake hands, 10 minutes, hand him the gift and get out’ but ‘in the end, everybody walked out feeling higher and better for it. [Angus’s wife] Ellen made dinner for us. The ten minutes turned out to be three and a half hours.'
In the mid-1970s, Schaffer had been busy on the New York social hustings since ‘paralleling’ out of handling publicity for clients such as Jimi Hendrix and Steven Tyler to becoming a full-time electronics inventor. It had been a hobby of his since the age of nine.
In the words of New York’s Village Voice, Schaffer was ‘hustling his latest invention, a cordless instrument system’ in hot Manhattan clubs such as Trax, frequented by John Belushi, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Mick Jagger, Al Pacino, Peter Frampton and Stephen Stills.
The Schaffer-Vega Diversity System promised musicians – vocalists and guitarists alike -- it would ‘eliminate the gruesome possibility of on-stage electrocution’.
Schaffer brought his first wireless microphone, which he’d invented in 1975, to Trax and ‘I handed it to [John] Belushi, who was there with Dan Aykroyd, they were The Blues Brothers, and they would stand on top of the bar and do a set with the wireless. Nobody had ever seen, you know, running around like that kind of shit. They went up the stairs to the street, ’cause Trax was downstairs in the basement, still singing and doing shit. We had a lot of bands doing stuff like that.’
He says he personally delivered ‘seven, ten units’ to Atlantic Studios over on 60th Street between Broadway and Central Park West. The Rolling Stones got their hands on them.
‘There’s Woody and Keith, Wyman and Jagger. They were so freaked out over having this wireless on their guitars and shit that they had the humpers [roadies] put the amps in the windows facing the street and they all went downstairs into the street and The Rolling Stones were walking up 60th Street.
‘It’s a short block. They were walking up and down that short block to Central Park to Broadway to Central Park to Broadway, playing, and the sound would come out of the second-floor windows. Nobody noticed. Not one car slowed down. I mean, only in New York. Man, the fucking Rolling Stones walking down the street [laughs].’
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic would do a similar thing on 60th Street.
The first actual delivery of the wireless transmitter (some free prototype units) was to Jeff Lynne of ELO at a ‘blimp hangar’ in London, where the English band was doing rehearsals, because ‘they were such fans of what my vision was’.
But the first commercial order came from Kiss in 1976. Gene Simmons came over to Schaffer’s apartment and Schaffer did his pitch, talking up the staging possibilities of his new invention.
‘Gene’s looking at me like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He was not interested. The staging possibilities did not trigger his imagination at all.’
‘The Schaffer Vega Diversity System promised musicians – vocalists and guitarists alike -- it would “eliminate the gruesome possibility of on-stage electrocution.”'
One night three weeks later, close to midnight, Simmons called from Lakeland, Florida.
‘You still doing the radio guitar thing, Kenny?’
‘You still doing that? We gotta get some.’
‘Well, gee, what happened, Gene?’
What had happened is that guitarist Ace Frehley, on top of a multi-level stage made out of metal pipes at the Civic Center on 12 December 1976, had held on to a pipe and been severely electrocuted. He’d fallen and had to be revived with oxygen.
‘Guitarists get shocks all the time,’ says Schaffer. ‘Poor Ace got knocked out. So Gene ordered a bunch of ’em… but it was for safety, not for staging whatsoever.’
Wireless technology has gone on to transform the rock business but Schaffer has not wildly profited from it.
‘I didn’t patent the wireless guitar. My greatest asset and my greatest liability is I make the best fucking thing money can buy. And I don’t look at the taxi meter on the price.’
Schaffer produced only small quantities of his product, which sold for US$4400 a pop -- a lot of money in the 1970s.
‘I just did things that supported my own, like, fascination and shit.’
But he discovered it complemented the tone of Angus’s famous cherry-red Gibson SG; a pleasant accident.
‘It just does some amazing shit to the sound of a guitar -- and to a bass, holy crap.’
Any kinks in Angus’s transmitter, of course, would be ironed out. There would be no more on-stage electrocutions for Angus when AC/DC performed..
‘I work up so much sweat I’ve had dozens of shocks when I’ve stood on amps or tried to pick up a can of Coke off one and found the amp, the can and me all stuck together and shaking,’ AC/DC’s enigmatic lead guitarist told UK music newspaper Sounds in 1977. ‘In Detroit just before I got [Schaffer’s] radio [transmitter] I was booted all over the stage by shocks whenever I touched Bon [Scott] or got near a cable. But with this thing there’s no chance of getting hurt.’
The rest is history. Today, an AC/DC concert without Angus and his wireless guitar is unthinkable.
‘I've heard conjecture that [Bon's cause of death] was drinking or that it was something else.'
– Ken Schaffer
‘When [Schaffer] finally got it fixed right he ran round the club jumping on tables, then ran out into the street shaking people’s hands and yelling, “It works, it works.” He’s an absolute nutcase.’
As for Bon, he was a prodigious drinker, obviously?
‘Ee-er, yeah,' he told me. ‘Well, I mean, I’ve heard conjecture that [Bon’s cause of death] was drinking or that it was something else.’
Can you elaborate?
‘You know, blah blah blah. I have no first-hand knowledge of it.’
But he did personally deliver an SVDS unit to Angus in Glasgow in 1978 and ‘I went to a bar with Bon and Malcolm… somehow I remember Angus being there too. I’m not a big drinker but I can do a single malt. One shot of whiskey and I woke up in my bed at the hotel. I had no idea how I got there. Apparently the guys carried me, whatever the fuck [laughs]. That’s the last I remember of that trip… as far as I know, Bon and Malcolm got me back to the hotel.’
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.
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.