It’s 1977, and Britain is about to bow to a new band of hard rockers who are threatening to kick ass and claim the crown as true purveyors of rock music. And they were neither American nor British. Well, sort of British… out of Australia.
AC/DC have Scottish heritage, and when they climbed out of the gutter with their raw-edged hard rock, they took their homeland by storm, with the UK next on the radar. With two steaming albums already released here – Powerage and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, they were certainly on my radar.
They had a rough reputation to match their music, so it was with a bit of trepidation when it was suggested that I travel down to a gig in Cardiff with singer Bon Scott to see and interview the band. I met up with Bon, renowned as a man who liked his partying, at Paddington Station, a run-down excuse for a railway station in those days, in the little bar in a dark corner.
We were early, and Bon needed something to lift the jet-lag after just flying in from Australia, so what harm in a few drinks? A bourbon and a vodka with mixers, please. But one became two, two became three… and three became… er… something blurry.
“Nothing like a drink to get ya set for a boring train ride,” said Bon by way of welcome.
I suppose the record label should have taken the precaution of having a press officer ride shotgun, as our timings were pretty tight anyway to make the gig – and especially when we saw that had two minutes to find the platform and get on the train that would take us to exotic Cardiff.
We slapped down the last of the liquor and made a dash for the platform, to be confronted with two trains. Now, was it that platform or that one? We hastily discussed this and decided it was the one on the left. As the train shuttled out of central London, we settled in for the trip west, immediately inquisitive as to where the bar was…
Which was when we discovered that this particular locomotive was headed north, as opposed to the Welsh borders, and it would be 45 minutes before the first stop.
Scott wasn’t fazed in the least, like this happened regularly – and it probably did. We merrily resumed our alcohol consumption and by the time we reached our turnaround point, we were at least one-and-ahalf sheets to the wind.
Through an incoming alcoholic haze, we managed to work out that we could get a connection to Reading where we could pick up the train to Cardiff, but this was becoming an expedition for both of us.
Bon is a good drinking partner and good company, but doesn’t give away too much. He liked his drink (too much, as it sadly turned out). “I like drinking. It must be the Scot in me. As I often say, I’m a special drunkard – I drink too much”.
He loved the life that AC/DC gave him, at one stage on our journey confessing: “Dunno what I’d do without this band, y’know. I live for it. We’re a real down’n’dirty lot. The songs reflect just what we are – booze, wimmen, sex, rock’n’roll. That’s what life’s all about.”
It wasn’t the age of the mobile phone, so there was no one we could phone. Not that we had any numbers to call; Bon’s tour itinerary was in his bag, which had travelled directly on to the gig with the rest of the band.
Eventually, we got there. Central Cardiff those days was a mite under-developed, another neglected inner city. The Top Rank Suite reflected that depression. As we entered the dingy dressing room, bouncing off a few walls on the way, the rest of AC/DC were getting ready to go on stage, just waiting for the bold Bon to show up, as they surely knew he would.
“Awlright, lads,” he said to no one in particular. “We had a wee bit of a problem on the way and nearly ended up in Glasgow.”
Actually, AC/DC had been banned from Glasgow on this tour. The fall-out and outcry from the Sex Pistols’ shaming of Bill Grundy had repercussions way beyond punk, and the good folk who ruled Glasgow, remembering an earlier gig at the City Hall when AC/DC fans wrecked the place, promptly slapped a ban on them playing there.
Liverpool stadium, too, had barred them. “Never mind, they’ll open up again to us when they’re losing money,” Angus Young surmised pragmatically.
AC/DC at this stage were building a healthy reputation with British rock audiences. Powerage and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap had contributed to that, and the live performances were sealing the deal, though many fans didn’t know what way to take the ‘Angus Effect’, the guitarist playing in a schoolboy outfit.
Not that it worried the man himself. “Ah’ve always seen people like Chuck Berry duckwalking and Jerry Lee Lewis stripping off, so I decided I would wear the outfit for a bit of fun,” he told me après-gig. “If I went on stage like this [jeans and Tshirt], I’d look dumb. That outfit does me justice! I can pull the hat over my head and hide me face; I can show me knees; I can flash me arse. Me bum’s about the best side of me.”
I told him that I’d been talking to a fan earlier who was most disappointed he hadn’t flashed his posterior during the show.
“Cos I didn’t take off me pants? Nah, I only do that when I feel like puttin’ shit on the audience. Some audiences you get are really rowdy and to shut them up, you just go, ‘Take that, ya poof!’ It’s just to shut them up, to quell them. I’ve been on stage, especially in Australia, and there would be guys there all night ribbin’ me and they’d be shouting, ‘Angus has no balls’. Until I eventually take off me pants and show ’em. Cos they’re gonna keep it up all night, so ya gotta shut them up pretty quick.”
I wondered (seems silly now) how long he would keep the gimmick up?
“As long as I want to. I like to go on lookin’ the part so that straightaway it’s something to look at. My thing is that I like to see somethin’ to get people away from drinkin’ and see what we’re doin’. It’s to keep people interested, not bored. Nah, I’ll never get embarrassed by it. The only time I get embarrassed is when you get a crowd that’s stone-cold silent; but that only makes us work harder anyway. We get them in the end. We always have.”
Many readers of this will only have seen AC/DC play in stadiums or festivals. If you can imagine that performance power cycled into a small gig in front of barely 1,000 punters, then you might get an idea of how lethal AC/DC were live in those early days. They were hungry and got the audience totally involved in their feeding frenzy.
At gigs in places like Cardiff Top Rank, it was tailormade for Angus Young and his antics. Like some crazy hard rock version of Rock Around The Clock, he dives into the audience and finds himself on the dancefloor, surrounded by a perfect circle of headbanging fans.
Somehow, Bon Scott makes it through the gig, but I suspect that the bout of booze intake earlier was part of a normal daily diet for him. When we get back to the Post House hotel, the drinking resumes. Up in Angus’s room, we’re back on the hard stuff, with Angus maintaining tee-total status.
But, then, whatever the constitution of his fibre is, he doesn’t need any artificial stimulation to get his highs! We have a good old banter about AC/DC making inroads in the UK, and how they naively expect that their new maxi-single – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, The Jack and Big Balls will get played on British radio.
They’re not filthy, Angus maintains. They’re intended to be funny. Bon takes another view: “Rugby clubs have been doing the same thing for years. Songs like that. The songs that won the Second World War were like that, with the chaps singing them as they marched into battle.”
“Look,” Angus pointed out, “there’s not much seriousness in it. It’s just rock’n’roll. Chew it up and spit it out. If you look at it this way, most of the kids in the street talk like that. It’s the language of the clubs that we heard when we started off in Australia; same when we came here, in places like the Marquee. Kids would be swearin’ their heads off. They don’t say, ‘Turn it up…’; they say, ‘FUCKING TURN IT UP!’ We’re as subtle as what they are.
“As far as radio stations go, you can turn on the radio and you wouldn’t like to hear your songs on the radio anyhow, cos it’s in there with Barry White playing his Love Unlimited bollocks. That’s a bit degradin’ for us.”
“Yeah, right,” comes the shout from the corner, where a slowly disintegrating Bon Scott suddenly perks up. “Like tonight’s gig, that was our sort of people. A lotta people get us wrong. A lotta people say that we can’t play. Fuck ’em. We get on and play down and dirty rock’n’ roll cos that’s what we do best.”
With that, Bon collapses, leaving his guitarist to pick up the thread.
“I’m not sayin’ that we’re that special. We just go on and play rock’n’roll with plenty of balls, plenty of meat, plenty of spontaneity. That’s our main thing. What makes our set different is that we have good songs and we play ’em well. A lotta bands can play the basics but they can’t play with quality.
“We can build a song at a 100 miles an hour and play it right at that speed. It’s got the right feel. The right… everything, whereas you got a lot of bands who just play fast and don’t give a fuck if they’re outta tune. Good songs are essential. In the old days, you had rhythm’n’blues; songs like I’m A Man, Chuck Berry’s Schooldays. You put songs from nowadays up against them and they’re nuffin’.”
While Bon sleeps his jet-lag and excess off in the corner, Angus and I go on about the public and press perception of AC/DC, specifically that there’s a danger that they could be seen as a hard rock version of Barry McKenzie [fictional Australian yobbo].
He bites back: “Well, we take it seriously to a point, but if everyone took it too seriously, we’d all be walking around with down faces and we’d all be living in the gutter. Bands who take themselves too seriously are fools, because they’ve taken it so seriously that they’re not allowing themselves to enjoy it. The bawdiness balances out with other things in our set but you’ve got to break the monotony.
“It’s like Liberace… he can’t get up and play Beethoven all night so he bends a little. It’s like if you got Beethoven and Bach and brought all those classical people back for a concert on TV one night and on the other channel you had the Lone Ranger, it’s guaranteed the Lone Ranger would pull the biggest ratings because it’s entertainment rather than pure boredom all night!”
Eh? I think he’s making a point about ‘serious’ bands, in defence of AC/DC’s rawness.
“I don’t know anybody who’s gone to see any of those serious bands who’ve enjoyed it. They may say it was great, that the music was good, but somewhere during that set they were bored and were too scared to admit it. If I went to see somebody that was ‘musical’, I’d yawn my head off. I’d end up walking out to the bar. Bands like Yes would be a bore to see, unless they had some Sheila strippin’ off.
"Well, even then, Hawkwind done that! That shows ya what they gotta resort to and yet people take them seriously. Yes would probably come on with a fantastic light show. I’ve never seen them, but they probably use a light show to cover up that they’re bored and their music is borin’, and they’re not makin’ people jump!”
This is what I would call a rant, so we continue. Bon is obviously sleeping with one ear on alert because when I suggest that maybe AC/DC are indulgent too, he’s on me like a flea.
“With rock’n’roll self-indulgence, the audience gets off on it,” he slurs. “With a Yes self-indulgence, the audience is sittin’ out there baffled. They don’t know what the fuck is happn’n.
“When you’re playin’ clever stuff, you’re being selfindulgent and expectin’ the audience to cop what you’re playin’. In rock’n’roll, which is what we play, you’re givin’ the audience what you’re doin’.”
With that, Bon slides back into his stupor again, so I mention to Angus that there can’t be many bands that he does like.
“I was never interested in modern-day sorta music,” he says. “I get off on all the old stuff – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee, swing records, Louis Armstrong and stuff like that. All the other stuff seems poor in comparison, even the production. You put Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti on and put the wildest thing from today next to it and it sounds timid in comparison.”
That’s what they call progress, Angus, I suggest. “Well, they musta progressed the wrong way. I’ll tell you when it stopped getting’ good – when the Rolling Stones put out Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Street Fightin’ Man. Past that, there’s nuthin’. Led Zeppelin and all that have just been poor imitators of The Who and bands like that. That’s when I reckon it stopped. The rest I wouldn’t even call progressive.”
Angus, it seems, is off again. And I swear that Scott is smiling in his sleep as he listens subconsciously.
“Guys like Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin, all those guys should be playin’ jazz. And they wouldn’t even get a good run in those bands, because there’s guys that’ve been playin’ that stuff for 50 years and would blow them off. People like Beck shouldn’t even be thinkin’ of callin’ themselves rock’n’roll, they’re into a different thing. Get them off. Put them all away.
“You get a guy nowadays to come out on a piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, kickin’ the fuck outta his piano and rippin’ his shirt off, and I guarantee that within a few years the guy would be one of the biggest things going. If I could play the piano I’d be doin’ it!”
Sounded all a bit anachronistic, I felt. Surely AC/DC weren’t advocating rechurning old stuff? No, Young emphasised, not rechurning – reinventing.
“It’s not repeating. It’s about just playin’ what’s always been there. A good song, well played, well arranged and well presented, wild and excitin’ for a rock band. The rest aren’t rock’n’roll – they’re wrong to call themselves that. They’re just little hip things, Yer punk ting. That’s just a hip thing. It’s nuffin’.”
And lest he’s leaving anyone out, Angus saves his last blast for the biggies – Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. The first time he heard Zeppelin play ‘real’ rock’n’roll, he said, was on their fourth album, specifically on the track Rock And Roll.
“I’ve seen that band live and they were on for three hours. For two-and-a-half hours, they bored the audience and then at the end they pull out old rock’n’roll numbers to get the crowd movin’. That’s sick. They’re supposed to be the most excitin’ rock’n’roll band in the world, them and the Stones, and they’re not playin’ it.
“The Rolling Stones get up and play soul music these days, and this is supposed to be rock’n’roll. Leave that to the people who do it best, the black people. If the Stones played what they do best, they’d be a helluva lot better and they’d probably find themselves at ease.”
And so we leave Angus with that, swearing that AC/DC will never wander down that route, and they will always be true to their roots. Meanwhile, on the bed, Bon gently snores and dreams of another day in AC/DC paradise…
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 115.