Friday, April 30, 2010

AC/DC's Highway to Hell

My contribution to the 33 1/3 Series with Continuum Books will be shipping very soon: a book about AC/DC's 1979 album Highway to Hell, the last recorded with the great Bon Scott. Here's an excerpt from the book's opening:
A gray October late-morning. Wheaton, Maryland. On the playground at St. Andrew Apostle School, Billy’s holding forth before a rapt audience of thirteen year olds. I’m one of them.
“Hey guys, my brother and I saw AC/DC,” he tells us. “I met Bon Scott.”
We know that the band will come to town again soon to rock Capital Centre, out in Largo. And we wonder: since Billy’s already shaving once a week and has an older brother who brings him along to rock concerts, will a backstage pass to one of the great party bands come next in the inevitable, lucky scheme of things? In our freshly minted teenage naiveté we can virtually inhale the sweat and the reefer as Billy talks to us. It feels as if we’re in the presence of divine fortune here, on the blacktop next to the dodge ball court and the basketball hoops and the swing sets, just feet away from the rectory where the priests live and write the sermons to which we’ll mentally undress the girls. Will Billy get to hang out in a smoky backstage, feel up the groupies, drink beer with Bon Scott?
As the Seventies came to a close, AC/DC was not yet a sonic institution firing oversized cannons from vast stages into seas of millions. The band’s seams were showing. They’d formed in Sydney, Australia, in late 1973, when twenty-year-old, Scottish-born guitarist Malcolm Young aborted an earlier band and roped in his kid brother Angus on lead guitar to round out a new lineup featuring Colin Burgess on drums, Larry Van Kriedt on bass, and singer Dave Evans. They debuted on New Year’s Eve at the Chequers Club in Sydney. Maneuvering among band defections, they ducked into EMI Studios and recorded their debut single “Can I Sit Next To You, Girl?,” and spent the remainder of the year raising their profile, gigging tirelessly, and enduring various rhythm section lineups with feet firmly planted on a bedrock of Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and loud, electric blues. At older sister Margaret’s cheeky suggestion, Angus donned a schoolboy uniform onstage in April of 1974, and in between tours and one-off shows taking them from divey gay bars and provincial dance halls to the Sydney Opera House (where they opened for Australian legend Stevie Wright), the band signed with Albert Productions, benefiting happily from record distribution through the mammoth institution of EMI. Their first single charted in Perth, in Western Australia. AC/DC were hungry.
In August, a wiry, affable hood tattooed with a risky past caught an AC/DC show in Adelaide in southern Australia, and he dug what he saw. Ronald “Bon” Belford Scott was like the Young brothers, a transplanted Scotsman, but a bit older and a little wilder, and already a veteran singer in several bands (the Valentines, Fraternity). In the midst of a brief stint as a driver, handyman, and general gofer for an old bandmate, Scott was asked to audition to replace Evans, with whom Malcolm and Angus had grown unhappy; he joined in September. In November, after relocating southwest to Melbourne, AC/DC swiftly cut their debut album, High Voltage; their second, T.N.T., was recorded eight months later. Melbourne local Phil Rudd stepped in as drummer, and over the next several years the band committed themselves to a Herculean diet of gigs, drinking, and writing and recording: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap was released in 1976; Let There Be Rock in 1977. By 1978, with English-born bassist Cliff Williams in the band and the classic lineup intact, they were reaping the benefits of their driven work ethic. Though essentially ignored in America, AC/DC was hugely popular in Australia, where their concerts had grown in size and intensity as their albums went gold. They’d made exploratory inroads throughout Europe and in England, and were boozily, noisily heading west.
To get the juices flowing here are two clips of the band in full-on, classic-lineup glory: "Sin City" from NBC's Midnight Special (1978), and "Highway to Hell" recorded in Arnhem, the Netherlands in 1979. Get your Bon on. (Best viewed in a new window; double-click the vid.)


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