Joe Elliott: supporting AC/DC taught Def Leppard the value of repetition

AC/DC onstage with an inset of Joe Elliott
Bon Scott and Angus Young onstage at Hammersmith Odeon in 1979, with (inset) Joe Elliott the same year (Image credit: Chris Walter/David Corio/Getty Images)

I’d been an AC/DC fan since I’d first heard them in 1976. AC/DC had this raw edge. They weren’t heavy metal, they were a blues band playing extremely hard rock. I saw them in 1977 at Sheffield University on the Let There Be Rock tour, and in ’78 at the Top Rank on the Powerage tour. So when Leppard opened for them on the Highway To Hell tour in ’79, it was just unbelievably exciting. 

They looked after us. We had good lights and sound, and we went down really well with their audience. There wasn’t much socialising, but the overall vibe of the two bands together was pretty damn good. It wasn’t that AC/DC weren’t friendly, we just never saw much of them. But the one guy who was really personable was Bon Scott. I remember we happened to be in the same hotel as them one night, we had four straws in one pint, and Bon threw a tenner down and said: ‘Here you are, lads! Go buy yourselves a round.’ Sadly I never had the chance to pay him back. 

We did four nights at Hammersmith Odeon. Less than a year later, after Bon died and Brian Johnson joined the band, we opened for them at the Palladium in New York. That was Brian’s first gig in America, ever, and I remember him and me standing outside the hotel and he was asking me for advice! ‘What am I gonna do, like?’ That was our only gig opening for AC/DC with that line-up. 

On the Highway To Hell tour, we watched them like hawks every night. We wanted to learn, and one of the big lessons was the value of repetition, which is a key ingredient to longterm success. Most artists don’t want to repeat themselves, but if you want to stay in the game you don’t change your set every night. AC/DC never changed their sound, their look or their work ethic.

They were the only band I can think of where the eye candy was not the lead singer. It was this schoolboy. A few other guitar players were more front-and-centre – Ritchie Blackmore and Michael Schenker. AC/DC had this great singer who was very charismatic, but most of the time all the eyes were on Angus. 

When you think about what Malcolm Young and Cliff Williams did on stage from a visual point of view, it’s almost comical how little they did. They just stayed rooted to the spot and held down an insane rhythm with Phil Rudd. The tightest rhythm section you’re ever going to hear. They left the other two to it – Bon looking cool, and Angus charging around like he was on coke but wasn’t. 

The Glasgow Apollo shows were the most memorable for me. The first night, I went up to the balcony when AC/DC went on. They started off with Live Wire, and that balcony… My god, I thought it was going to come down with all these people jumping around going bonkers. It was like a fucking trampoline! For a few minutes I was terrified. So I just fucking legged it. I watched the rest of the show from the side of the stage. 

Bon was an amazing frontman. Every night, he wore a sleeveless denim jacket, no shirt, and he was in good shape for a guy who drank so much. But it was the expression in his face that I remember most. He looked like he didn’t give a shit. I don’t mean he didn’t give a shit about being in tune or in time, he just had this facial expression that said he was living in the moment. And he really oozed confidence. He didn’t say much on stage, but he said it all in his lyrics, which were a bit nudge-nudge, wink-wink in places, but so cool. 

In those two weeks we were on that tour, I didn’t have any great conversations with Bon. But he was always jovial, confident, probably tanked up, and just funny to be around. 

It was massive shock when he died. I didn’t realise how bad Bon was. I didn’t know the extent of his drinking. I didn’t see him drink any more than we did. To me it was as shocking as if he’d died in a car crash. I just feel lucky to have had that experience of touring with AC/DC, watching the band, and watching Bon, night after night. It was a privilege.