BEATIN' AROUND THE BUSH: AC/DC re-issues and the Bon Scott Years

Music Features
BEATIN' AROUND THE BUSH: AC/DC re-issues and the Bon Scott Years
Dec 12, 2005, 18:15

illustration by Jim Blanchard ©

You never forget your first guy in drag, especially when he wears silver-blond braids, stubble on his chin, a schoolgirl's tunic and smokes during the guitar breaks. Within five minutes of seeing Bon Scott threatening his guitarist with a mallet on national TV, even my socially stunted 14-year-old mind figured out that our sojourn in Australia was going to be very different from home. It was then that Oz became a kind of Oz to me—a world of music, excitement, fashion, irreverence, and youth that wasn't circumscribed by the disapproval of uptight 40 through 60 year-olds who grew disenchanted with life around, say, 1955. And man, at the time, I needed that worse than a drowning man needs air in his lungs.

As much as they were indifferent toward it, my parents inadvertently got us hooked on pop culture. We had to wait a couple weeks to move into our temporary housing, so we stayed with a rock-crazed professor's family who'd been on sabbatical in our town back home a few years earlier. Between both families, there were nine kids, and to maintain their sanity, our parents parked us in front of the TV for hours on end. Fine with us—by day three we far preferred the company of the TV to theirs, or even each other. Stuff that only showed up on the Midnight Special in the States was running in prime time in Oz. Pop stars would pop in between re-runs of The Herculoids on kid's shows, while Gary Glitter and Elton John specials ran in prime time.

But it was the clips from Sunday night's Countdown that transfixed me. Hosted by drinking buddy to the stars Ian “Molly” Meldrum, Countdown was the Holy Grail. Along with the glammy likes of the Sweet and Queen, the show featured plenty of homegrown talent: Skyhooks with their wry camp and women's clothing; Sherbet (Sherbs to you) in satin bomber jackets and silk scarves; and dull-by-the-book cover artists like John Paul Young. (As much as I'd like to revise history, to the1976 me, Radio Birdman were only subway signs in Circular Quay station, and the Saints were either on stained glass windows or playing football in Louisiana).

AC/DC were a distant second to my beloved Skyhooks in my affections, but I still scrambled to catch them on TV and radio. On one level, I aspired to be as odd and caustic as the 'hooks, but AC/DC spoke to me in a more immediate way. Except for Bon, who was grizzled and scary in a tantalizing way I would only truly understand much later, the band all looked like my friends' burnout brothers in the fourth form (10th grade to us Yanks). Angus even wore a school uniform, which I understand didn't stay on very long when they played out. And while they were just as filthy as Skyhooks could be, they weren't self-consciously trying to shock. Their potty mouths and dirty minds were part and parcel of who they were.

The fun had to end sometime, and it was back to the piney woods for us after a mere 10 months, where our return felt like being thrown in a dunk tank of slush right after a plugged-in waffle iron. Nobody cared about a bunch of weird foreign bands that weren't on the radio, so I returned to my omega-female status in the high school circle. But although I disdained my beloved Aussie combos, the music-love remained. I carefully limned Stereo Review and Rolling Stone for the bands I should like (and read Circus on the sly for everything else). So, it was the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen for me. Still, even my new “respectable” musical taste didn't keep me from feeling like I'd lost a member of my own family when Bon passed away in early 1980. I felt like someone had cut a chunk out of my guts, at the same time I felt terribly disloyal.

Fortunately I woke up and started fumbling toward my own taste. The River and Runnin' On Empty hit the resale bins. But I wasn't out of the woods yet. In college, I felt I had to choose between punk and metal/hard rock. It was AC/DC or The Saints. And I chose The Saints. But it was a decision that really didn't have to be made—the more I started delving into the roots of Australian punk bands I loved, the more I discovered their metallic roots. Radio Birdman took me to Blue Oyster Cult, and feedtime sent me back to AC/DC. I listened to records I'd pooh-poohed the first time around—the U.S. version of Dirty Deeds, Let There Be Rock, and Highway to Hell. I rediscovered the telepathic interplay between Angus and Malcolm Young's guitars, the precise, simple grooves of the rhythm section, and the charisma of Bon Scott. Even as a teen, I could tell that Bon had the magic of making happiness seem urgent and fleeting, and the blues seem bearable. And he had a way of working in the pathos behind the merriment. In an Aussie chart hit like “Jailbreak,” there were issues of freedom and choice that were deeper than the average top-40 single. “He made it out/But with a bullet in his back.”

Revisiting these discs now that they've been gussied up is a treat. Sure, the band hasn't seen fit to include unreleased Australian cuts like their smoking cover of “School Days,” or their ballad “Love Song” as bonuses, and the liner notes disappoint. At best, they're drab statements of basic facts that take up room better used for archival photos, and at worst they're effusive kiss-assery.

Still, the band has thrown some bones to the fans. There are facsimiles of original cover art, so you can enjoy the cartoon of a dog pissing on a transformer on the Australian High Voltage, and the cartoon Angus flipping the Commonwealth bird from the original Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap. For those of you without Mac OSX Panther or better (again, I am punished for being on the cutting edge of technology), there's a wealth of promo material and live clips accessible by popping the CD in your computer and accessing Finally, praise Jehu, the band has resisted the temptation to re-sequence the discs after restoring them to marvelous clarity (I'm looking at you, Judas Priest. Thanks for fucking up the near-perfect programming on British Steel). More than any other group, the music contains the message, and here it is, presented very nicely indeed.

In some ways, the U.S. version of High Voltage, which combines the Australian Voltage and TNT records, is much better than the discs it culls. Voltage shows AC/DC straddling both the bubblegum and the hard rock worlds—their driving tunes were easy for the kids to parse, but Bon's scratchy, insistent voice and risqué lyrics made for adult fun. “It's a Long Way to the Top” is both a great road song and a shout-out to the Scots expatriate community that nurtured Scott and the Youngs. It should have sent a whole generation of kids searching for bagpipe practice chanters. And “Little Lover” and “Can I Sit Next To You?” are greasily lascivious tributes to their devoted, if rather immature female fan-base.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, the third Australian record, was only released in the States after Scott's passing to capitalize on the enormous success of Back in Black. In some ways it's a step back rather than a progression. They hadn't yet melded their bluesy Ron's side, Angus's Who and Stones love, and Bon's lusty autobiography into that tight, cohesive whole. It's got both deep blues and fluffy frivolity, but they don't combine them as well as they did earlier or later. “Big Balls” is silly scatological vaudeville—”Shaving Cream” with a rawer, nastier beat. But it's followed up by the shredding “Rocker,” crammed full of crazed, joyous Little Richard/Berry/Jerry Lee Lewis speed. And “Ride On” was one of the first warnings from Scott's pen that his hard partying life style wasn't quite the doped-up Xanadu that it seemed, but rather “another red-light nightmare on another red-light street.”

If Dirty Deeds felt like a little catch in their stride, it was the prelude to the record-setting triple jump of their final discs with Bon. They perfected a tight, hard sleek dark blues that seemed deceptively simple, but required major compromise to make flesh. Apart from Scott or Young stepping to the fore during the verses and solos, it feels like the band is joined on a cellular level.

Bon might have struggled with depression during his life, but he wasn't a depressive. He was quite the old-school Scots stoic when it came to his fate—he accepted the good with the bad. And no more so than on the exuberant, scorching Let There Be Rock, perhaps the purest, most finely distilled snarl of rock 'n' roll any band has ever produced. From the unison grind of “Overdose's” verse to the tight-jawed swagger of “Problem Child,” it's a brilliant case study of sublimating your ego to the service of the rocking whole.

Even though the Saints and Seedies (the nickname Australian insiders gave them) loathed each other, I'm not the only one who saw a parallel in their melding of garage rock and R'n'B for Rock. Clinton Walker notes in his excellent unauthorized band bio, Highway to Hell (Verse Chorus Press, 2001) that the bands were approaching a similar target from two wildly different directions: The title track, however, is a masterpiece; its extended instrumental passage enters a realm of pure white noise equaled at the time (ironically enough) only by the Saints' anarchic opus “Nights in Venice” from their first album.

As I became more familiar with rock history, I realized that Bon's writing style was shaped more by Chuck Berry and Little Richard than the Youngs' beloved Who and Stones. He remembered a world without rock 'n' roll and distilled its gestation into a succinct couplet:

The white man had the schmaltz The black man had the blues No one knew what they was gonna do But Tchaikovsky had the news

1978's Powerage, the record written in a hurry after Let There Be Rock, does have a rushed, let's-get-this-shit-on-tape-and-head-out-for-a-beer quality to it. Many folks underrate this record—there's a grim grind to it, and it's easily the most pessimistic of AC/DC's albums. (It's scarce wonder Red House Painters guitarist Mark Kozelek mined three Powerage songs for their barely concealed pathos on his 2001 Bon Scott tribute What's Next To The Moon.) At the same time, it shows Bon at both his funniest and most agitated. “Riff Raff,” he shrieks “I do it for a laugh,” but you have to wonder how much mirth is left in the band after years touring the States and Europe in rundown rental cars, and flopping at seedy motels. In fact, the high point of Powerage might be the strangely neglected “Down Payment Blues” with Bon's pointed comments on the irony of being the toast of the rock press while you're eating tuna and cashing welfare checks. With an eye for detail that Chuck Berry would be proud of (assuming the old bastard has any capacity to be proud of anything), Scott power-nails the point right to the wall while the rest of the band digs their heels into a massive groove:

I'm living in a nightmare, She's living in a wet dream I'm driving in a Cadillac And I can't afford the gasoline      

Grueling as they were, those tours were starting to reap rewards. The late 70s were still capable of producing regional hits, and California's expatriate Australians and native sun-worshippers clutched them to their bosoms, and Florida (where even Skyhooks found favor on their sole American tour) treated them like minor deities. Still, the rest of the States were still resistant to their sweaty charms.

So in a messy executive power struggle, AC/DC completely severed ties with the Albert and Vanda camp, going with young producer Mutt Lange, and the Leber and Krebs management team. A successful move, but the band's move toward a sleeker, American-styled hard rock shocked me at first when I first heard Highway to Hell in 1979. Still, when you hear the opening chords of of the title song, which still thrill after hundreds of listens, you know they made the right choice. I personally think there's a couple of duff cuts on the disc. “Night Prowler” slogs turgidly and “Love Hungry Man” drags its love-sick ass around the room with a lethargy that led the Young brothers to wisely dropkick it from the canon soon afterward. But the hard-swinging “Girl's Got Rhythm,” and the frantic “Beating Around the Bush,” polishes up Rock's mania to a blinding sheen. And “Shot Down In Flames,” which opened Side Two on the vinyl, kicks as hard, as well, “Hell.” A fine first step to international stardom, but it also unfortunately had to work as a final legacy. Still for its small flaws it holds together infinitely better, than say, 1984's cobbled-together outtakes disc, Jailbreak '74, a five-song EP mostly notable for the fan-beloved “Jailbreak,” and for the insane cover of Big Joe Williams' “Baby, Please Don't Go.” Which I think is a fitting place to end my journey with the band.

I've always admired AC/DC's guts for continuing after Bon's death, in the wake of trauma that can derail the most tough-minded bands for decades. They've never tried to replace Bon, and most fans have accepted Brian Johnson unconditionally—he gets the mechanics of Bon's leathery squalling right. Still, as an interpreter of lyrics, he's stiff and humorless. Not that the words are anything to write home about—he's content to rehash rock 'n' roll road clichés in a ham-fisted manner as to make Scott's sleaziest lyrics seem like P.G. Wodehouse. Still, I have a friend who says that Johnson is the perfect foil for Young—he feels that when Angus didn't have to compete with Bon anymore, he was able to blossom as a guitarist. I can see that—I recently heard the intro of “For Those About To Rock” for the first time in many years, and boy, talk about a riff that some bands could milk for decades. “Money Talks” is tough power-pop that most of the Yellow Pills crowd would have died to have written.

But contrast “Talks” with something like Powerage's “Sin City.” “Talk's” vaguely observational lyrics about French maids and money trading just feel like time filling until Young starts playing guitar again. On the other hand, “Sin City,” which covers similar turf, oozes a desperate longing for pleasure and success. You can practically see the drool glistening on Scott's lips as he sings about “Lamborghinis/Caviar/Dry Martinis/Shangri-La!” And that's why I'll always be in the Bon camp. Like so much of AC/DC, it's cliché made real thanks to a wealth of vivid detail and good humor—the tall tales of giggly teenagers, greedy promoters, loud bands, and Reubenesque groupies make it all ring true.

Rock on you snaggle-toothed bastard, wherever you are.

PS: The new collection of AC/DC vids, Family Jewels, is essential viewing if only for the full disc of Bon-era performances. Let There Be Rock, and Jailbreak are halfway decent concept videos, before there was such a thing, and try to watch the rambunctious performance of “It's A Long Way To The Top” on a flatbed truck driving through downtown Melbourne, with three dignified pipers standing guard at the rear, without grinning 'til your face hurts. And “Baby, Please Don't Go” is possibly more twisted than I remembered it. And that's saying a lot because I thought there was a dry-humping scene between Bon and Angus that never happened!

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