It Was 35 Years Today That The Greatest Front-man in Rock History Died
It was sad, but honestly I didn’t think too much about it at the time having heard only some of AC/DC’s songs such as Let There be Rock, Highway To Hell and Touch Too Much. I was more into The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, E.L.O., Judas Priest, Van Halen, The Cars, Elvis Costello and The Clash and many other mainstream bands. But his death sparked an interest in discovering what Bon Scott and AC/DC was about.
Over the next year I would come to love AC/DC especially with the American release of Dirty Deeds in 1981, five years after it was released everywhere else. After that, I went out and bought all of the old AC/DC albums. To say I liked the Bon Scott version of AC/DC would be an understatement.
As the years have passed and I get older, I get more and more depressed that Bon Scott left us at age 33. It is hard to fathom he has been gone 35 years.
While not diminishing the passing of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison and countless other rock icons, Bon’s death along with John Lennon’s and John Bonham’s (all coincidentally in 1980) are among the greatest losses to rock music ever.
What Bon Scott would have gone on to do can only be left to conjecture, but I would venture to say he would have built upon the previous successes the band had finally achieved. My friends who had seen AC/DC live said Bon’s charismatic stage presence was palpable in person and it came through on film and video as well. With his unique voice and take no prisoners attitude when performing, the audience felt an authentic connection to Bon Scott.
In the six years Bon Scott was the lead singer for AC/DC he recorded six studio albums. It says a lot that from those six albums are where AC/DC have continually pulled half of their live set from.
Brian Johnson who replaced Bon as AC/DC’s lead singer has now been in the band for 35 years. Yet it is the specter of Bon Scott who still mesmerizes and commands a cult-like status among legions of AC/DC fans, many of whom were not alive when Bon Scott died.
The Rolling Stones may be the self-proclaimed greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world, but for a period of six years from 1974 until January of 1980 there probably wasn’t a hungrier or better live rock band than AC/DC.
The main reason for that drive to succeed was their dynamic front-man, lyricist and lead singer Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott.
From 1974 on, AC/DC pursued worldwide acclaim by relentlessly touring, first in their native Australia and then branching across the world, many times opening for other bands.
You could say AC/DC’s song It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock n’ Roll) is the most relevant autobiographical song in the history of rock. It shows Bon Scott’s clever nuances with words to accurately describe the trials and tribulations that faced AC/DC in their rise to the top.
Make you wanna cry
Lady do the hard sell
Know the reason why
Gettin’ ripped off
That’s how it goes
Playin’ in a band”
The band had honed to perfection their stage show from playing hundreds of dingy clubs and pubs. By 1978 they had risen to playing sold-out arena and stadium shows. AC/DC demonstrated perseverance and talent to win over every audience that saw them play.
Bon Scott would would only get a small taste of that worldwide adulation. Less than six months after playing in front of over 50,000 people at The Oakland Coliseum on July 21, 1979 Bon Scott would be dead.
The Final Tour and Bon’s Death
August 2, 1979 saw the release of Highway to Hell. This would be the first time that AC/DC would really crack American radio getting substantial airplay with the title track. The album hit number 17 on the Billboard charts and went multi-platinum.
Bon’s unique lyrics came to him in a stream of consciousness. He would carry around a portable cassette recorder and say whatever words came to him. He would play the words he said back to his mother. If his mother said something like, “That’s not very nice, is it?” That was Bon’s seal of approval and he knew he had come up with some good lyrics that would be used.
Bon said, “All of it comes down to frustration. Rock ‘n roll is the channel to give us all a vent to those frustrations. Lack of money, lack of women, lack of alcohol or whatever, rock n’ roll is just a damn good outlet for what’s hurtin’ inside.”
It’s those genuine feelings of Bon’s that come through in AC/DC’s lyrics. Interestingly, somewhere there may exist many of Bon Scott’s unrealized songs. In 1979, Angus Young described how Bon’s tape recorder and cassette full of ideas were stolen and never recovered.
AC/DC were considered a threat to many headlining bands. When AC/DC were trying to arrange the Highway To Hell tour, Foreigner, Van Halen and Sammy Hagar turned them down.
AC/DC’s Highway To Hell tour lasted from summer 1979 until the final show January 27, 1980 at the Gaumont Theatre (renamed in 1987 the Mayflower) in Southampton, UK.
After that show Bon Scott and the rest of the band took some time to rest and started preparations to record a new album.
On the night of February 18, 1980 Bon Scott went out to a party in Camden Town and was drinking with an acquaintance/friend, Alistair Kinnear. At the party they both had quite a bit to drink. Kinnear offered Bon a lift to his home at Ashley Court in Westminster and Bon accepted.
On February 19 at about 3:00 a.m. on the ride home Kinnear realized that Bon had slipped into unconsciousness. Kinnear tried to rouse Bon, but couldn’t and he took Bon’s keys let himself into his apartment. Kinnear telephoned Bon’s current girlfriend but didn’t reach her. So, Kinnear called his girlfriend Silver Smith, who happened to be a former girlfriend of Bon’s. She advised Kinnear that Bon passed out frequently and she gave him fatal advice to let Bon “sleep it off.”
In Alistair Kinnear’s own words from an interview with Metal Hammer magazine, “I then drove to my flat on Overhill Road and tried to lift him out of the car, but he was too heavy for me to carry in my intoxicated state, so I put the front passenger seat back so that he could lie flat, covered him with a blanket, left a note with my address and phone number on it, and staggered upstairs to bed. It must have been 4 or 5 a.m. by that time, and I slept until about 11.”
“When I was awakened by a friend, Leslie Loads. I was so hungover that I asked Leslie to do me a favor of checking on Bon. He did so, and returned to tell me my car was empty, so I went back to sleep, assuming that Bon had awoken and taken a taxi home. At about 7:30 that evening I went down to my car intending to pay a visit to my girlfriend who was in hospital, and was shocked to find Bon still lying flat in the front seat, obviously in a very bad way, and not breathing. I immediately drove him to King’s College Hospital, where Bon was pronounced dead on arrival. The Lambeth coroner’s report cited acute alcohol poisoning, and death by misadventure.”
According to Kinnear there is no truth that Bon choked on his own vomit or was found wrapped around the gearstick as many reports had stated.
In an interview in Sounds magazine guitarist Angus Young who had received the news of Bon’s death first said, “At first I didn’t believe it, but in the morning it dawned on me. It’s just like losing a member of the family, that’s the only way to describe it. Maybe even a bit worse ‘cos we all had a lot of respect for Bon as a person.”
Angus telephoned brother Malcolm who was irate thinking this was a joke. When he realized it wasn’t, he called Bon’s parents so they didn’t get the news over the television
The ultimate tragedy of Bon Scott’s death is that AC/DC were about to hit heights that were unprecedented. Bon Scott was at his best lyrically. His voice was stronger than ever. One too many nights of “misadventure” robbed the world of a singer and the band of their soul-brother.
Would the following 1980 album Back in Black have been even close to what it was with Bon Scott? We will never know. The album that Bon and the Young brothers had just started writing was put aside and all new material was recorded with new singer Brian Johnson. It could have been a disaster and Brian Johnson would have gone down as a footnote to one of the many times a rock band had failed to successfully regroup after a devastating personnel loss.
Back in Black went on to sell tens of millions of albums.
No one is sure of the exact number, but it is easily one of the five biggest selling albums of all time and it put AC/DC into a new stratosphere. It gave the band wealth that will continue to be generated for decades to come through publishing, performance and sales royalties.
What the music world lost with the death of Bon Scott is incalculable. The only thing we can do is to listen to the man himself and appreciate what he gave us during his short time on earth.
Below is a bootlegged video of AC/DC’s performance at the Oakland Colisuem on July 21, 1979. The quality isn’t great for much of the video but it is a unique chance to see the band playing as if you were in the audience. It captures Bon hitting all his notes perfectly and AC/DC blowing away a crowd that was primarily not there to see them, as the headliners were Ted Nugent, Aerosmith and Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush.