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AC/DC: Many Happy Returns To 'Highway To Hell'

Monday, 28 July 2014 Written by Graeme Marsh

Ready to feel old? Good. It’s 35 years since AC/DC released their breakthrough album, ‘Highway To Hell’. The record took the Australian upstarts and made them stars, but at a tremendous price. ‘Highway To Hell’ would be Bon Scott’s epitaph, a parting shot from one of the greatest frontmen of all time.

Born in Forfar, Scotland in 1946, Scott grew up in Australia after emigrating with his parents aged six. His climb to the top of rock ‘n’ roll’s ladder proved to be a long one, as he lurched from band to band and style to style en route to joining the group that he would complete in an almost symbiotic manner.

In 1964, Scott was playing with the Spektors, a Perth blues-pop quintet, often switching from behind the drum kit to lead vocals halfway through shows, with John Collins going in the opposite direction. A couple of years later, the Spektors merged with another Perth outfit, the Winstons, to form the Valentines. The band’s bubblegum pop sound brought Scott his first taste of success but they soon amicably split, undone by competing influences and differing opinions.

Scott’s next stop were folk rockers Fraternity, formed in Sydney in 1970. He recorded two records with the band - one psychedelic, the other bluesy - before being seriously injured in a motorcylce accident. The crash almost claimed Scott’s life, but resulted in a change in perspective. He quit the band, quit Adelaide and picked up in Sydney, where his path soon crossed a couple of brothers who had the makings of a shit kicking rock ‘n’ roll band.

AC/DC formed in late 1973, with Dave Evans fronting a band already featuring the competing guitars of Angus and Malcolm Young. He featured on Can I Sit Next To You Girl?, their first single and a glam rock stomp far removed from the dangerous, dirty vibe that Scott would later impart to the band. His appointment, in 1974, can now be looked back on as a seminal moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. If the Youngs’ riffs were the band’s brains, Scott’s vocals would become its beating heart.

Their debut album, ‘High Voltage’, followed in 1975 and was a moderately successful offering in their homeland, as was its follow-up, ‘T.N.T’, a year later. Further albums trailed in their wake, this time internationally released – ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ (1976), ‘Let There Be Rock’ (1977) and ‘Powerage’ (1978). Each collection was based heavily on the band’s MO: sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll. They had Australia on notice, but the US had yet to wake up to the band’s down ‘n’ dirty charms.

To that point, the family affair had extended as far as the production booth, where George Young was joined by Harry Vanda. The band liked the setup. Their management, eager to get a piece of that American pie, did not. Michael Kleffner, Atlantic’s A&R boss, told George that his time was up. The band’s manager, Michael Browning, discussed the decision with Metal Hammer in 2013. “It was obvious something had to be done,” he told the magazine. “George had been fabulous for them but he hadn’t been to America for years and American FM radio had a sound you had to experience to really understand.”

The label’s choice of producer was Eddie Kramer, an engineer with Led Zeppelin and producer on Kiss’s breakthrough ‘Alive’ record. The sessions, in Miami, did not go well. With mutiny in the air, and George Young a spectre, a change of approach resulted in another marriage of convenience that reshaped the band. Robert John “Mutt” Lange took the reins.

Eschewing the band’s fast-and-loose recording style for one based on precision, Lange reshaped and refocused their sound. Scott, like the Young boys, was corralled by this young producer, to everyone’s surprise. Ian Jefferey, the band’s manager at the time, also spoke with Metal Hammer about the recording process.

“Mutt took them through so many changes,” he said. “I remember one day Bon coming in with his lyrics to If You Want Blood. He starts doing it and he’s struggling, you know? There’s more fucking breath than voice coming out. Mutt says to him: ‘Listen, you’ve got to co-ordinate your breathing.’ Bon was like: ‘You’re so fucking good, cunt, you do it!’ Mutt sat in his seat and did it without standing up! That was when they all went: ‘What the fucking hell [are we] we dealing with here?’”

The album opens with the unmistakable three chord strokes of the title track, the electricity positively crackling. The first song that the band laid down for the record, it would become a foothold for beginners in the guitar playing world. It’s simple, straight to the point but absolutely killer. It’s AC/DC in a nutshell.

“Eddie seemed to know what he wanted from a sound point of view, but I think that, on the music side, he lacked input,” Angus Young told Guitar World in 2011. “He also really doubted what we were about. He used to point at Bon and ask: ‘Can that guy sing?’ 'Cause there would be Bon, barely able to talk, let alone walk, huddled in some alcove with a girl he had picked up hitchhiking that day! We'd say: ‘Don't worry, he can fucking sing, man.’ And then he thought I was a fool, just there for a bit of image enhancement.

“We wanted someone more in tune with what the band was, and we wanted someone who actually had ideas about the music. When Mutt heard the music, he said: ‘I can do this justice. I can do you guys justice.’ That's why we went with him, because he said the right things. We wanted someone who was still hungry, who wasn't Mr. Professional, who had been doing the gig so long that he was on automatic.”

Many of the tracks tackle the raunchy, lust-laden excitement Scott favoured, with Touch Too Much and its squealing guitar solo, the underrated Love Hungry Man and live staple Shot Down In Flames all following the familiar path. Scott continued to live the life while documenting it on record.

The album was the breakthrough the band had been waiting for, particularly in the US. It reached #17 on the Billboard Chart, but just a few months later, as they completed a UK tour and turned their attention to its follow up, everything was about to come screeching to a halt.

On February 19, 1980, following a characteristic binge and stop at London’s Music Machine club, Scott returned with a friend to a flat in East Dulwich. Having been left in the car to “sleep it off”, he was discovered the following afternoon and pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. His death certificate recorded a verdict of ‘death by misadventure’ caused by ‘acute alcohol poisoning’.

For a while the band faltered, unsure of whether to continue. They had songs ready and a will to fight on, something that most consider would have been Scott’s wish. His replacement would be Brian Johnson, whose throaty howl was close enough to his predecessor’s to keep the band’s identity alive but something all of his own.

“Well, first of all, he didn't walk through the door with any airs about him, and he seemed like somebody who would get along as a band member,” Young told Guitar Word. “We didn't even know that he was there to audition. He was sitting around, playing pool with a couple of our friends, thinking that they were waiting around to audition as well. Finally, Mal said: ‘What are you doing here?’ because there were other bands rehearsing in the building. And he said: 'I came down to audition for a singing gig.' He came, sang a couple of our songs that he'd been playing in cover bands, and had a damn good crack at them.”

Scott had been behind the kit as the Young brothers worked on new material, but vocal duties - not to mention a boatload of expectation - would now fall on Johnson’s redoubtable Geordie shoulders. His ability to step in under pressure cannot be underestimated in terms of his contribution to what happened next: ‘Back In Black’.

It’s a collection laden with tributes to Scott, from the all black cover to interpretations of specific songs, including the title track and Hell’s Bells. It also catapulted the rockers to legendary status just five months after their singer’s death, the album going on to become one of the most successful of all time. “We wanted a simple black cover” Young told VH1’s Behind The Music. “We wouldn’t have even done him justice in words, even the bell ringing in the beginning of Hell’s Bells was our little tribute.”

‘Highway To Hell’ will go down as Bon Scott’s finest hour, if arguably not AC/DC’s. But, without its existence and the enigmatic presence of Scott, ‘Back In Black’ would never have existed. Without that simple, yet brilliant riff from the band’s signature title track, countless other guitarists would never have even picked the instrument up. ‘Highway To Hell’ and Bon Scott, we salute you.


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