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Beyond Bon: How AC/DC Survived Losing Their Frontman

There tend to be two types of AC/DC fans: those who know and love Brian ‘Beano’ Johnson’s searing screech, and those who know and love Bon Scott’s lascivious drawl. However, no matter who you favour in the driving-seat, from the moment you hear those distinctive power-chords and bone-crunching riffs, you know exactly which band you’re listening to.

But how does an outfit like AC/DC survive the greatest change that can happen to a band: the death of their frontman? For many, it’s the frontman that defines the sound: try and imagine The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger or Oasis without Liam Gallagher. And yet, against all the odds, AC/DC have achieved what ought to be impossible: remaining true to their fans with a different lead-singer at the helm.

The Land Down Under

Although they’re often referred to as an Aussie band, AC/DC’s roots are more complicated than that. Founding brothers Angus and Malcolm Young originally hail from Glasgow. In the Sixties, Glasgow was suffering from an economic downturn. Most of the shipyards, the city’s main lifeline, were either closed or closing, and unemployment was rife.

At the same time, Australia was still enjoying a post-war boom, to the extent that there weren’t enough workers to cope with its industrial resurgence. As a result, the Australian government launched a huge initiative to attract beleaguered Brits to its shores, offering potential immigrants the opportunity to travel down under for the princely sum of ten pounds per person.

It was against this backdrop that Malcolm and Angus, along with their six siblings, found themselves moving to Sydney, in New South Wales.

Big Brother

Music seems to have been a staple in the Young family. In a later interview, Malcolm said that “All the males in our family played, Stevie, the oldest played accordion, Alex and John were the first couple to play guitar and, being older, it was sort of passed down to George, then myself, then Angus.”

George was the first of the Youngs to take music beyond the living room. In 1964, he formed the Easybeats and recorded a string of Top 10 hits. After the Easybeats disbanded five years later, George served as one half of Vanda and Young, before eventually becoming a producer. However, it was his stint with the Easybeats that was to have a profound effect on his younger brothers, who both picked up their respective guitars and learned to play.

The Underground Connection

AC/DC – Angus Young Rocking the Guitar, Australia, 2015. Click on the image to find out more and buy this poster.

To most of us, Angus and Malcolm have always seemed to have been working together – but it wasn’t always the case. The first to gain his guitar stripes, Malcolm formed a band called The Velvet Underground – not to be confused with Lou Reed’s proto-punk outfit of the same name. A little later, Angus founded a short-lived band, going under the name of Tantrum.

When The Velvet Underground folded, the brothers decided to play together, with Malcolm on rhythm and Angus taking lead-guitar duties. The first incarnation of their new band featured Larry Van Kriedt on bass, Colin Burgess on drums and Dave Evans as the lead-singer. Musically, they tended to lean towards glam-rock, rather than the hard, bluesy edge that has since become their trademark.

It was around this time that Angus developed his stage outfit. Legend has it that he had tried out a number of looks, including a gorilla get-up, a Zorro costume, and a superhero suit, none of which seemed to fit the bill. His sister, Margaret, suggested his iconic schoolboy uniform after Angus came home from school and, without changing, went upstairs to practice his guitar. It’s now impossible to think of AC/DC without thinking of that demonic little pupil duck-walking across the stage, chopping out searing riffs. However, Angus was, initially, unsure of the idea: “At first, I didn’t know how it would go down, especially in Oz. Going down to the pub wearing it is not the plan. They are hard-core drinkers.”

Margaret also seems to have been instrumental in christening the band. According to which story you believe, she saw the words AC/DC on either her sewing machine or vacuum cleaner and suggested it as a name. The Brothers Young, without realising the implications of bisexuality that were to dog them for years, thought the electric reference suited the powerhouse sound they were developing, and AC/DC was born.

Changes

Like any rock band worth its salt, AC/DC went through a number of early line-ups, before Mark Evans took over bass and Phil Rudd was put in charge of hitting the skins. However, there was another major change on the horizon.
With their glam-rock phase firmly behind them, the embryonic AC/DC fully embraced blues-based rock. However, the feeling within the band was that Dave Evan’s voice was not quite up to the change in direction.

In 1974, AC/DC lost their first manager, Dennis Laughlin, despite building up a firm following and playing gigs most nights. After a gig at the Hard Rock in Melbourne, the promoter, Michael Browning, offered to manage the band. However, he was also unsure about Dave Evans’ role as frontman. At the same time, he hired a chauffeur to ferry the musicians between gigs, in the form of Ronald Belford Scott.

One night, before a gig, word got back to Dave Evans that his bandmates weren’t behind him. As a result, he refused to go onstage.

The story goes that Scott, who’d been eyeing up the position as drummer, came to the rescue and sang the entire set. Evans was swiftly given his marching orders and Scott was, vocally for once, driving the band.

The Bonny Scot

AC/DC – Malcolm Young Rocking the Stage, Australia, 2001. Click on the image to find out more and buy this poster.

Scott by name and Scot by nature, AC/DC’s unlikely lead-singer was born in Kirriemuir, in 1946. With the guns of World War II only having been silent for a year, life was hard and, over the next six years, only seemed to get harder. In 1952, a good decade before the Young family emigrated, the Scotts did exactly the same and headed for Australia.

From the outset, Scott felt like an outsider and the less-than-warm welcome he received from his peers only seemed to cement his desire to stay that way: “My new schoolmates threatened to kick the sh*t out of me when they heard my Scottish accent. I had one week to learn to speak like them if I wanted to remain intact. It made me all the more determined to speak my own way. That’s how I got my name, you know. The Bonny Scot, see?”

Bon, as he was now known, didn’t take to life in Oz easily. By the age of 15, he’d dropped out of school and was involved in petty crime, which resulted in getting arrested for stealing petrol. Even a career in the military wasn’t on the cards: he was rejected by the Australian Army for being ‘socially maladjusted’.

However, one thing he could do was sing and, in 1966, he founded his first band, The Spektors, serving as the drummer and, occasionally, as the lead-singer. While they failed to have any real success, the band did become finalists in Hoadley’s Battle of the Bands in Perth. After The Spektors disbanded, Bon joined a prog-rock outfit, Fraternity. Oddly, they too entered the Battle of the Bands and won. Importantly, it was during his time with these groups that Bon honed his song-writing abilities, which were to become a major factor for AC/DC.

Great Scott

By the early Seventies, Bon’s predisposition towards self-destructive behaviour was already starting to have dramatic consequences. In 1974, he got into a drunken row with some of the other members of Fraternity and, after hurling a bottle of Jack Daniels across the room, stormed off on his motorbike. Patently over the limit, he was involved in a serious accident that put him in a coma for several days.

When he recovered, he was without a band and decided to go and see a gig by an up-and-coming group, by the name of AC/DC.

That was the night that Dave Evans refused to go onstage and that was the night that AC/DC found its voice.

Highway to Hell

AC/DC – Australia, 2015. Click on the image to find out more and buy this poster.

Bon’s screw you attitude and defiant refusal to follow fashion trends was exactly what the band needed. With a string of minor convictions behind him and a propensity for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, Bon’s presence helped to give AC/DC a darker edge and establish them as ‘dangerous’.

In October of 1974, the band recorded their first album, High Voltage, in a matter of just ten days. The first pressing was limited to Australia and began the unholy trinity of Angus and Malcolm in charge of the music and Bon in charge of the words. The lead singles, High Voltage and TNT, brought the group instant acclaim and a growing army of fans, who enjoyed their balls-to-the-wall sound and innuendo-laden lyrics.

Over the next three years, the band released another Oz-only release, in the form of TNT, which was followed by Dirty Deeds Done Cheap, which made it into Europe. Let There Be Rock was the next from the cannon and, like the subsequent Powerage, achieved international success.

However, it was Highway to Hell that was to change everything. Recorded in London’s Roundhouse Studios, under the auspices of producer Mutt Lange, it put the band on the international map.

The musical landscape in the late Seventies was one of disco and the beginnings of the synth-pop movement that would eventually spawn hair-metal. However, Lange was keen to let the band do what they did best. According to Malcolm Young, “Mutt realized that we were a good band who could play their instruments, so he just let us go for it. The freedom was there. And we gave him freedom as well — we would try anything he asked of us. Mutt fit in really well with the band.”

Highway to Hell was released in 1979 and took the world by storm. It was the first AC/DC album to ‘break’ America and gave a voice to the teenagers who were becoming slowly disenfranchised with what the corporate music menu was serving up. AC/DC were at the height of their powers. Check out the Music Poster collection of prints, posters, and rarities for images of the band at full tilt.

The Death of Bon Scott

The band’s success meant countless tours, and these took their toll on the lead-singer. Bon always had a formidable capacity for booze, but the life of a rock ‘n’ roller saw it descending into alcoholism. In addition, he’d started dabbling in drugs, in particular heroin.

With Highway to Hell riding high, the parties were endless, and Bon soaked it all up.

However, by 1980, when AC/DC was going back into the studio to record their next outing, he was apparently considering quitting the band to try and concentrate on drying out and cleaning up.

On February 19th that year, after a day in the studio, Bon met up with some friends and went to London’s Music Machine Club. The finer points of what happened next are sketchy, but what is known is that he finished the night by getting into a friend’s car and passing out. His party-buddies thought it best to let him sleep it off and left him overnight.

When they came to collect the car the next day, Bon Scott was dead.

The official reports state alcohol poisoning as the cause of death, although there is some suggestion that he vomited in his sleep and choked. Later stories hint that he may have also taken heroin and the combination killed him or that hypothermia had a hand in it. He was 33 years old.

What Next?

AC/DC – Brian Johnson Singing On Stage, Australia, 2015. Click on the image to find out more and buy this poster.

The rest of the band were informed and left with a difficult decision: to carry on or break up.
For Malcolm, the decision was pragmatic: “I thought, ‘Well, f**k this, I’m not gonna sit around moping all f***ing year.’ So, I just rang up Angus and said, ‘Do you wanna come back and rehearse?’ This was about two days afterward.”

With his brother agreeing that “if it had been one of us, Bon would have done the same,” the two put the wheels in motion to find someone to fill Bon’s rock ‘n’ roll boots.

Johnson and Geordie

Brian Francis Johnson was born in County Durham, in 1947. The son of a coal miner and an Italian mother, he was a showman from the start. On joining the Scouts, he found himself taking part in various shows, appeared on television, in a live play and joined the local church choir, where his talent for singing was revealed.

In the early Seventies, Johnson sang with various bands, including the Gobi Desert Canoe Club, Fresh and The Jasper Hart Band. However, it was when he and members of The Jasper Hart Band went on to form Geordie, that he had his first taste of success.

Just like his soon-to-be bandmates, Johnson’s first foray into rock ‘n’ roll started out leaning glam-wards. Between 1972 and 1976, they released a string of singles, with entries into both the Top 40 and the Top 20. As Geordie’s popularity increased, they found themselves appearing on Top of the Pops, no less than 15 times.

In a twist of fate, Geordie became well-liked in Australia and the band gained a strong following in Newcastle, in New South Wales. By this point, their sound had found a harder, rockier edge, more in keeping with where Johnson’s path would lead him.

However, after a few false starts, Geordie fell apart and Johnson found himself back in County Durham, working in an auto-repair shop.

Back in Black

The auditions for AC/DC’s new frontman were held on April 1st, 1980, in London. Johnson remembers that “they had asked singers to come in and do a couple of songs. The smallest guy in the room stood up and walked towards me. Pulled out a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, because that is where I am from, and said, “There you go, mate, just make yourself at home.” The smallest guy in the room was Malcolm Young.

It wasn’t entirely happenstance that AC/DC called Johnson in. As it turns out, Bon Scott had seen him performing with Geordie, in the early Seventies. Bon was touring with Fraternity and opening for Johnson’s then band. Once AC/DC was formed, Bon told the story to Angus and Malcolm. In a later interview, Johnson said that, during that set “ I had a terrible case of appendicitis, and I went down on my side, kicking and going, ‘Ooh!’ But I kept on singing. Apparently, Bon told the boys, ‘I saw this guy Brian Johnson sing, and he was great. He was on the floor, kicking and screaming — what an act!’ Of course, it wasn’t an act. I was really ill.”

One month after auditioning, Johnson received the call, asking him to join AC/DC. Work resumed on Back in Black, with the new recruit taking lead vocals and even being asked to contribute lyrics:

“The first day, Malcolm gave me a little cassette and a legal pad. He said, “Okay, this is the first rough recording. Just give us some lyrics; see what you got.” And I said, “Do you have a title?” And he said, “Yeah it’s called ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’” I said, “That’s a f***ing long title.” He said, “Mate, take your time. We are going in all day to get some tracks.” And that is the man he was. He wouldn’t say, “I want some words tomorrow.” He would just say, “Sit down and see what you come up with.” Luckily enough, I came up with a whole song.”

Back in Black was released six months after Bon’s death and went on to become one of the biggest-selling pop music albums in music history

Although there are diehard Bon fans out there, the majority of AC/DC’s fanbase has taken Johnson under their wing and, for some, he is the only frontman for the band they’ve ever known.

What do you think?

Which incarnation of AC/DC do you prefer – and what’s your favourite track? Drop Music Poster a line and let us know. In the meantime, you’ll find a huge selection of AC/DC images in our collection. For those about to browse, we salute you!

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