The Red Cow was an unpretentious West London boozer-cum-venue, with a reputation for supporting young bands. The action took place at the back of the pub, in a sweatbox of a room with an official capacity of 250 and toilets that were in a constant state of disarray due to a stream of people clambering in through the windows to avoid paying to get in. It was here, on April 23, 1976, that AC/DC played their very first show outside Australia.
At the time, the British music scene was in a state of flux. Pub rock was thriving, though punk was beginning to assert itself. A look at the Red Cow’s listings for April 1976 shows what was going on at the grass- roots level: Bees Make Honey, among the best of the pub rockers, were playing, as were Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Some gigs cost 50p to get into, others were free.
AC/DC’s British debut was one of the latter. Their two albums, High Voltage and TNT, were only available on import in the UK and any buzz was confined to the country’s more clued-up rock fans. The band may have been stars back home in Oz, but there was work to be done overseas.
Their label, Atlantic, knew it had to start small. They put the band in a shared house in Richmond, South London, which would be their base for the next few months. And it was why they’d booked the low-key Red Cow for their first UK gig.
As was standard, the band played two sets, with a brief interlude in between. Before the first set, their prospects looked unpromising. Barely 30 people were in the back room – a mix of fledgling punks, student types and the odd long-hair, the usual mix for the time. Nobody really knew what to expect as the band ambled on stage. Angus was instantly the focus of attention. Word was out that he dressed as schoolboy, but tonight he actually looked like a 12-year-old who had skipped homework to play. As soon as they launched into Live Wire, all bets were off. The set was short – just seven songs – but it was instantly obvious that the band were a cut above the usual pub rock fodder.
Afterwards Bon came to the bar, chatting to a few of us who had hung around. He even bought everyone a drink – or rather got them gratis from the bemused barman – then disappeared with two girls.
By the second set, word had got around and the place was packed. The band clearly thrived on the audience’s buzz, and their own energy levels rose even further. By the end, any worries about Britain being a tough nut to crack had evaporated. Such a flying start gave the band a huge injection of confidence.
Later that month, they embarked on the legendary Lock Up Your Daughters pub tour, complete with nightly Angus lookalike competitions. They spent most of 1976 on the road, graduating to small theatres and halls, such as the Lyceum Ballroom in London. The interest around them snowballed, helped by the fact that they attracted the attentions of both punk and metal fans.
The band’s last UK gig of that year was in Oxford on November 15, after which they returned to Australia for a triumphant homecoming tour. The naysayers who had said they’d come back with their tails between their legs had been proved wrong. The only way for AC/DC from here was up.