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Bong! The inside story of AC/DC's Hell's Bell

Brian Johnson prepares to strike the bell
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images )

As the lights dim and curtains open, one of the most famous and iconic stage props of all time gradually descends from the ceiling. Above the audience’s din comes the tolling of a huge bronze bell, clouted by a man wearing a flat cap.

Slowly and precisely, the musicians lurch into the concert’s opening song. "I got my bell, I’m gonna take you to Hell," squeals the singer animatedly, "I’m gonna get ya! Satan get ya..."

As rock theatre goes, what we’re witnessing is pure, unforgettable genius. Indeed, the only way AC/DC could follow it with their next album was with a 21-gun cannon salute.

Weighing just over a ton, the band’s now legendary bell was manufactured in the UK for 1980’s world tour to promote Back In Black, their debut with new singer Brian Johnson. The idea of using it to preface the album and their shows came while working with producer ‘Mutt’ Lange.

“A phone call came from a recording studio [Compass Point] in The Bahamas,” recalls Steve Cake, whose father worked at John Taylor Bellfounders at the time, and is now employed himself by the same Loughborough-based company. “I was only a kid of course, but the situation made me come in and nose around.”

The band’s first choice of a bell that pealed the note of ‘C’ would’ve been twice as heavy, so they scaled it down. While AC/DC worked in Nassau, the Manor Mobile was sent to the midlands to record the album’s intro. According to fans of AC/DC minutiae, with the group’s own bell still being tuned, a similar one at Loughborough’s War Memorial was captured for posterity instead.

“Untrue,” insists Cake. “The traffic and birds chirping made that recording unusable. So the work [on the AC/DC bell] was speeded up, and what you hear on the album was definitely recorded at our factory.”

So now you know. Cake believes that the original bell – manufactured for £6,000 in 1980; it’d now cost twice as much – is still in AC/DC’s possession, despite various rumours to the contrary.

“Someone said they saw it in a shop window in Sydney, but we think that some fibre-glass copies must have been made,” he reveals. “When the band play live, the bell swings out over the crowd. You couldn’t possibly do that with something that weighs a ton.”

It’s hard to believe the group would ever sell their pride and joy, especially when one considers that guitarist Malcolm Young later commissioned JTB to mould him a smaller replica (pictured above). “I believe he used it to replace a candelabra at his Hertfordshire house,” divulges Steve.

When Classic Rock readers learn the above, it could initiate a whole new line in merchandising. Indeed, Steve states that anyone visiting www.taylorbells.co.uk will find themselves in luck.

“We can make anything that people want,” he confirms, “so long as their money’s the right colour."

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 82, in June 2005.