No speed limit: the story of AC/DC's Highway To Hell album

AC/DC
(Image: © Redfeans / Getty Images)

For Malcolm Young, AC/DC’s rhythm guitarist, it was always about the riff. And with one in particular, as soon as he came up with it in the early days of 1979, he knew in his bones it was something special. As he put it, with the kind of bluntness and vulgarity that had always defined the band’s work: “It stuck out like a dog’s balls.” 

This riff was perfect in its simplicity: the way it moved, in staccato bursts, reminiscent of Free’s All Right Now. And from it came arguably the most important song of AC/DC’s whole career. Its title started out as a joke, when lead guitarist Angus Young, Malcolm’s kid brother, described the band’s gruelling 1978 tour as “a fucking highway to hell”. And in the words, belted out by singer Bon Scott, was a signature statement of devil-may-care rock’n’roll attitude. 

Highway To Hell was the title track of AC/DC’s first million-selling album. In the UK it was the band’s first Top 10 hit outside of their native Australia. Most significantly, as Angus Young said: “That was the album that broke us in America.” 

All of this did not come easily. In the making of the Highway To Hell album, the band were under intense pressure from Atlantic Records in America to come up with a hit record. This led Malcolm and Angus to make one of the toughest decisions of their lives: dispensing with the services of their elder brother, George Young, who had produced all of AC/DC’s earlier albums with Harry Vanda, a former member, like George, of Australian group The Easybeats. There were even whispers around Atlantic that Bon Scott should be fired from the band, his hard-drinking lifestyle making him too much of a loose cannon and his voice deemed too raw and idiosyncratic for mainstream tastes. 

In the end, Bon proved the doubters wrong, delivering the performance of a lifetime on Highway To Hell, pushed on by Mutt Lange, the brilliant young producer who replaced George and Harry. What Lange got out of the band was exactly what Atlantic had demanded – a straight-up, no-bullshit hard rock record that was true to AC/DC’s roots, but with a cleaner edge. 

But while Highway To Hell was the hit record that elevated AC/DC to major stardom, it was also the last hurrah for Bon Scott. On February 19, 1980, less than a month after the Highway To Hell tour ended, the singer was found dead in London following a night of heavy drinking. The exact circumstances of Bon Scott's death would be the subject of conjecture for almost 40 years. 

There was always a toughness about AC/DC, in the music they played – the sound of Chuck Berry and Little Richard and the Rolling Stones jacked up to maximum volume and intensity – and in the way they carried themselves. It came from years of graft, sweating it out in the pubs and clubs of Australia, where bottles were thrown if a crowd could smell blood. No matter that the members of AC/DC were all short-arses, that Angus was teetotal and wore a schoolboy uniform on stage, and that bassist Cliff Williams, the band’s sole Englishman, was quiet and easy going. 

The other three had an edge to them: Bon with his jailbird tattoos, drummer Phil Rudd a surly hard nut, Malcolm the guy who ran the band with a rod of iron. It was in reference to these three that Angus once said: “If I saw them walking down the street, I’d run, you know? Probably liable to kill you.” He had his tongue in cheek, but the inference was clear: this was not a band to be messed with. 

The power of Atlantic Records was the irresistible force to AC/DC’s immovable object, and the friction between the two began long before Highway To Hell. “When we first came to England in 1976, the record company wanted to market us as a punk band,” Malcolm said. “We told them to fuck off!” 

In America it was worse. At a time when FM radio was dominated by soft-rock stars such as Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton, and the breakout hard rock act, Boston, had an immaculately crafted sound, AC/DC’s album of that year, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, was so rough and sleazy that Atlantic considered it commercially unviable and refused to release it in the US. 

When we first came to England in 1976, the record company wanted to market us as a punk band.

Malcolm Young

The band’s response was to double down with the following album, 1977’s Let There Be Rock, an exercise in overkill, recorded pretty much live in the studio, complete with wailing feedback and guitars wavering out of tune. It was much the same with 1978’s Powerage, its visceral rock’n’roll and gritty authenticity, in songs about heroin addiction and the dole queue, famously admired by Keith Richards. “The whole band means it,” he said, “and you can hear it.” 

AC/DC albums were selling well in other territories. In the UK, Let There Be Rock and Powerage had made the Top 30. In America, while Powerage sold 200,000 copies, double the figures for Let There Be Rock, it still only made No.133 on the Billboard chart. This was nowhere near enough to satisfy a record company that had Led Zeppelin on their books. But as a band that thrived on the road, AC/ DC had put in some hard miles all across the States, and from that, momentum was building. 

The years had honed them into an electrifying live act: Bon with the swagger of a gunslinger, Angus the lightning rod for the band’s high-voltage attack, and behind them the other three working away like a well-oiled machine. Their first shows in US arenas had come in late 1977, opening for Kiss at the invitation of bassist Gene Simmons after he saw AC/DC play in an LA club earlier that year. 

“There were lots of bands who played good rock’n’roll,” Simmons recalls now. “What struck me was this little lead guitarist who kept moving on stage like a wild man from Borneo, even between the blackouts. I was awestruck.” After this show, the giant Simmons took the little guitarist for a late-night meal at Ben Frank’s diner on Sunset Boulevard. “Angus ordered a hotdog and beans,” Simmons says. “And I remember he picked up the hotdog in his hand, minus the bun, and put it in his mouth sideways, because he had missing teeth.” 

After AC/DC’s four shows with Kiss, Simmons concluded: “Here was a band to be reckoned with.” And he saw something unique in Bon Scott. “Maybe because he came from a hard background, he was the antithesis of the pretty-boy lead singers of the time. Shirtless. Hard singing. Hard drinking. The voice was undeniable.”

In 1978, AC/DC toured with another leading American band, Aerosmith. At the Los Angeles Forum, a 15-year-old kid named James Hetfield was in the audience. Three years before Hetfield formed Metallica, he was witnessing his first rock concert. “I was a big Aerosmith fan,” he said. “But I had no idea that AC/DC was that cool. I went with my older brother, and I remember him pointing at Angus and saying: ‘That little guy running around was annoying!’ But I wanted to be that guy!” 

AC/DC’s live power was also noted by their peers. When the band opened 1978’s Day On The Green festival at the 80,000-capacity Oakland Coliseum in California, headlined by Aerosmith and also featuring Foreigner, Pat Travers and rising stars Van Halen, the latter’s guitarist Eddie Van Halen felt a jolt of fear as he watched AC/DC tearing it up. As he put it: “I was standing on the side of the stage thinking: ‘We have to follow these motherfuckers?’” Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore had a similar experience when AC/DC opened for Lizzy later that year. “In Cleveland, they blew us off the stage,” Moore confessed. “Fucking killed us.” 

For AC/DC, following Powerage with a live album was a no-brainer. For Atlantic it had the potential to be a breakthrough hit, as Kiss had done in 1975 with Alive! 

AC/DC’s live album, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, was recorded on April 30, 1978 at Glasgow Apollo, in the city where Malcolm and Angus Young were born and a two-hour ride from Bon’s home town, Kirriemuir. The album was explosive, from the first, frenzied notes of Riff Raff through to the hell-for-leather rampage of Rocker. But its success in the UK and France was not matched in the US, where it stalled at No.113. And it was in the wake of this disappointment that tensions between AC/DC and Atlantic Records came to a head.

In the first days of 1979, the company’s Vice President, Michael Klenfner, travelled from New York to Sydney to meet the band and hear the new material they’d been working on at Albert Studios with Harry Vanda and George Young. Klenfner’s position was clearly stated. Klenfner wanted to hear songs that could get on the radio in America, and there was nothing of that in the demos that George played to him.

George and Harry knew how to make a hit. They’d done so in the past with The Easybeats, and in early ’79 they had a worldwide smash with Australian singer John Paul Young’s disco-pop number Love Is In The Air. But with AC/DC it was different. They saw the band as Malcolm and Angus saw it: raw rock’n’roll, plain and simple. As George said: “It was always more important whether it had the balls. So if we had to choose a take where it was buzzing and all that, we’d go for that.” 

Klenfner wasn’t buying that. To get AC/DC to the next level, he believed that a new producer was needed. Eventually, after consultation with George, the decision was agreed, albeit grudgingly, by Malcolm and Angus. 

No time was wasted. In February, the band set to work at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, with Eddie Kramer, a producer with a big reputation and a proven track record. Born in South Africa, Kramer had served as recording engineer on some of the classic albums of the 60s and 70s, including the first three by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy and Physical Graffiti

More recently he’d produced three albums for Kiss. But within a few days of working together, it became apparent that Kramer and AC/DC were not a good fit. After he suggested that the band record a version of the Spencer Davis Group 60s hit Gimme Some Lovin’, Malcolm promptly called an end to the sessions.

Perhaps it was fate. At that time, AC/DC’s manager, Michael Browning, was sharing an apartment in New York City with ‘Mutt’ Lange. A South African expat like Kramer, Lange had recently scored his first UK No.1 as a producer with the Boomtown Rats’ Rat Trap. Browning presented Lange to Atlantic as the perfect candidate for the AC/DC job – a guy with a feel for rock music and a shrewd pop sensibility. Atlantic gave the green light, and in March Lange and the band got together in London. 

First, they rehearsed and fine-tuned the songs in a low-rent practice space with a dirt floor, and a paraffin heater to take some of the bite out of the winter chill. For the recording of the album they moved to Roundhouse Studios in Chalk Farm. Within the band there were reservations about Lange. Malcolm later said that if they’d known he’d worked with The Boomtown Rats, “we’d never have let him through the door”. But as soon as they got down to business, it was clear to everyone, Malcolm especially, that this guy knew what he was doing. 

Lange was painstaking in his attention to detail. In contrast to George and Harry’s relaxed approach, Lange placed an intense focus on tuning and rhythm. According to Tony Platt, who worked on the album as engineer: “One of Mutt’s things that he brought to AC/DC was how to really work a groove.” And with the vocals, Lange raised the bar even higher, coaxing the best out of Bon and also, as a strong singer himself, adding backing vocals to pump up the choruses. 

All of this was evident in the first number recorded for Highway To Hell, the album’s title track. Essentially, this was AC/DC as they always were. As Malcolm put it: “Just loud rock’n’roll, wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!” But with Lange working his magic it became something altogether bigger – a rock anthem to raise the dead. And once that was in the can, the other nine tracks came fast, with the whole album recorded in just three weeks. 

A handful of tracks were all about working a groove – Girls Got Rhythm, Shot Down In Flames and Get It Hot, the latter featuring a sneering aside from Bon at the expense of the big-nosed king of schmaltz, Barry Manilow. The more aggressive stuff was as hard and mean as anything on Let There Be Rock: Walk All Over You brutally effective in its slow-fast-slow dynamics, Beating Around The Bush was a white-knuckle ride like Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well played at double speed, If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) all piss and vinegar, its lyrics and title, same as the band’s live album, inspired by jokes made by Bon and Angus at the Day On The Green festival. 

As Angus recalled: “This guy from a film crew got hold of me and Bon and asked what kind of show it was gonna be. Bon said: ‘You remember when the Christians went to the lions? Well, we’re the Christians!’ Then the guy asked me and I said: ‘If they want blood, they’re gonna get it!’”

It was on Love Hungry Man and Touch Too Much that Lange’s influence was most prominent, his vocals pushed high in the mix, his pop smarts in play. Malcolm and Angus never much cared for Love Hungry Man, with its measured, almost laidback feel. They also had doubts about Touch Too Much, which was first demoed in 1977. But that track had everything that was great about AC/DC: the hard-punching rock’n’roll, and a lyric that was vintage Bon, as he eulogised a woman with a body like Michelangelo’s Venus, but with arms. And what Lange did with it was quite brilliant, gearing the sound for radio with clever vocal hooks and getting the band to ease back a little to make the funky riff really swing. 

There was, however, a sting in the tail. For all the rowdiness on the album, it ended on a dark note with Night Prowler, a tense, creepy blues song for which Bon adopted the persona of a murderous villain. Musically it was as powerful as the lyrics were grisly, and at the climax, as if to break the spell, Bon threw out something funny, quoting mock alien language from 70s sci-fi sitcom Mork & Mindy: “Shazbot! Nanu nanu!” 

Years later, Night Prowler would come back to haunt the band, when the song was linked to Richard Ramirez, the American serial killer known as The Night Stalker. Allegations made by Ramirez following his arrest in 1985 were cited in lurid newspaper headlines, one of which read: ‘AC/DC MUSIC MADE ME KILL 16’. Malcolm Young later voiced his contempt for Ramirez and for the media stories implicating AC/DC. “Your answer to that is: ‘Did you search his stomach for a McDonald’s?’” he said. “If you’re a wacko, you’re a wacko.” 

But in the spring of ’79, when the Highway To Hell album was completed, it was the title track, not Night Prowler, that had Atlantic Records rattled. “As soon as we called the album Highway To Hell, the American record company immediately went into a panic,” Angus said. “With religious things, I thought everywhere was like Australia. There they call them bible-thumpers, and it’s a limited species. Very limited. Christianity was never a popular movement. It’s that convict background!”

I went to see The Who, and I came away an AC/DC fan. AC/DC kicked the shit out of them.

Thunder's Danny Bowes

In America, where Christian morality was more entrenched, Highway To Hell was a controversy waiting to happen. 

Before the band headed back there in May for a tour with high-flying British rockers UFO, Angus and Bon met with Sounds writer Phil Sutcliffe at a London hotel. And it was during an interview, conducted in the early afternoon, that Sutcliffe first sensed that Bon’s drinking was becoming a serious problem. Sutcliffe had met the band many times before, and he, like so many others, was immediately drawn to Bon. 

As he recalled: “Bon was so eccentric and yet so down-to-earth. On stage he was like a pirate, sort of leathery and macho. And wherever he was, he made people feel good.” This day it was different. According to Sutcliffe, Bon “didn’t know where he was”, so drunk he could barely string together a coherent sentence. 

When Sutcliffe asked him about the new album and the role of Mutt Lange, Bon replied, laughing: “Well, bottom line, cobber, to answer your question, he was instrumental in getting me to project myself… in a different area to that in which I’d been projecting myself before. Like.” How Sutcliffe described this exchange in his Sounds feature was telling: “Bon teetered along these grammatical circumlocutions like a drunk choosing to test himself on a white line.” 

And in one observation there was a chilling prescience: “Oddly enough,” Sutcliffe wrote, “there does seem to be some truth in Angus, and perhaps the whole band, having taken Bon in hand in almost fatherly fashion although he’s much the oldest of them at thirty-three. Bon remains the one they feel they have to keep an eye on.”

By the time Highway To Hell was released, on July 27, another member of AC/DC’s inner circle was gone, Michael Browning having been dismissed as their manager and replaced by Peter Mensch of the Leber-Krebs organisation, whose clients included high rollers such as Aerosmith and Ted Nugent. Everything was moving fast. The band jumped from the UFO tour straight into another with Cheap Trick. In the UK, Highway To Hell was an instant hit, blasting to No.8. In America, where so much was riding on it, the breakthrough at radio finally came when the album’s title track was released as the first single. 

Just as Atlantic had anticipated, Highway To Hell incited outrage from America’s so-called ‘moral majority’, not only for its title but also for its cover image, a group shot in which a sneering Angus sported devil horns and, for added effect, a forked tail. 

Angus laughingly recalled: “In America you had guys in bed sheets and placards with prayers on picketing the gigs. I said: ‘Who are they here for?’ And they said: ‘You!’ We heard all that stuff about Highway To Hell – that if you play it backwards you get these satanic messages. Fucking hell, why play it backwards? It says it right up front: Highway To Hell!” What Gene Simmons heard in Highway To Hell was a band reaching its peak. “I loved the songs,” he says. “I loved the vibe.” 

While the album was connecting with a mass audience in America, AC/DC’s profile in the UK rose further with a show-stealing performance opening for The Who at Wembley Stadium on August 18. Among the 60,000-strong audience was Danny Bowes – then a 19-year-old carpet fitter who sang in a London-based rock band called Nuthin’ Fancy, now the singer in Thunder. “I went to see The Who,” Bowes says, “and I came away an AC/DC fan. Bon Scott’s approach to the audience was very direct – your ass is mine! And really, The Who didn’t stand a chance. AC/DC kicked the shit out of them.”

Another victory soon followed. On September 5, while AC/DC were back on the road in America, a significant milestone was reached. Highway To Hell became the band’s first gold record in the US, with half a million sales. “It was the first sniff that things were really going to happen for us,” Cliff Williams said. 

On October 26, just five days after the last US date, they began a UK tour at Newcastle Mayfair. The support act was a young British band that Peter Mensch was soon to be co-managing – Def Leppard. For Leppard singer Joe Elliott, who had just turned 20, this tour was an experience he would never forget. 

On the second night, at Glasgow Apollo, the place where If You Want Blood You’ve Got It was recorded, Elliott went up to the balcony to get a good view of AC/DC. What he got instead was a near-death experience. “When they opened up with Live Wire, the bass pumping, I swear that fucking balcony was moving twelve inches,” he recalls. “It was like an earthquake. The people were going so nuts I thought the balcony would collapse.” 

On every other night of that tour, Elliott and the other members of Def Leppard watched AC/DC’s performances from the side of the stage. “We learned so much from them,” he says. “The presentation, the high energy and the communication with the crowd. Bon was a master at it. Shirt off after three songs, lots of sweat, controlled aggression in the voice. He didn’t look like he was trying. He was like a tap – you just turn him on. He was born to do it."

As Elliott remembers it, Bon was equally impressive off stage. “Meeting your heroes can be disappointing,” he says, “but not with Bon. He was great to us. He wasn’t a pretentious prick. He was a natural talent. And there was always a sparkle in his eye and a shit-eating grin on his face. He was at that moment in his life when every light was green. One night he walked into a bar in his cutoff denim jacket and saw we had no money, so he stuck a tenner in my hand and said: ‘Here, buy yourselves a drink. Give it me back later. See you down the road.’ And he wasn’t just being flash. Bon wasn’t like Keith Moon, swinging from the chandeliers. He liked a drink, but he wasn’t just a wild man.” 

Leppard drummer Rick Allen also has fond memories of that tour, and of Bon in particular. When they played at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on November 1, Allen celebrated his sixteenth birthday, and his tender age was reflected in the gift he received from Bon. “He came in to our dressing room,” Allen recalls, “singing Happy Birthday in that strange Australian-Glaswegian voice, and gave me a big bowl of Smarties. That was his funny way of showing me some love.” 

On November 11, AC/DC headed to Europe with Judas Priest as support act in place of Leppard. A show at the Pavilion de Paris in the French capital on December 9 was filmed for the concert movie AC/DC: Let There Be Rock, which was scheduled for a theatre release in 1980. But as the tour neared its end, Bon suffered a freak injury, pulling a muscle in his leg during a drunken play-fight with one of the band’s roadies after a gig in Nice. He managed to get through three dates in England during the runup to Christmas, but two more had to be postponed. 

Bon flew alone to Australia to enjoy Christmas in the sunshine, see his parents and look up some old friends. By this time, sales of Highway To Hell were close to a million. But for Bon, going back to the place where his long journey to rock’n’roll stardom had begun, there were mixed emotions. Even in this moment of victory, there was sadness in him.

Bon Scott had created his own mythology with words he sang in 1976: ‘I’m a rocker, roller, right-out-of-controller.’ He was known as a hellraiser and a womaniser; a charmer, for sure, but a man who could use his fists if necessary. And yet, for all his machismo, he was a complex man, a dichotomy revealed in the first two blues songs that AC/DC put on record. 

The Jack, from 1975, had Bon singing about the things he’d picked up from sleeping around. As a self-described “toilet-wall graffitist”, the words came easily to him. But with Ride On, from ’76, he sang of the loneliness of the road, the downside of the rock’n’roll life. Interviewed in 1978, he said: “I’ve been on the road for thirteen years. Planes, hotels, groupies, booze, people, towns, they all scrape something from you.” 

While in Australia in those last days of 1979, he paid a visit to his ex-wife, Irene, who was six-months pregnant. No matter how high he was riding with AC/DC, and for all that he was numbing himself with booze, here was a vision of how his life might have been if things had turned out differently. 

Soon after his return to London in January 1980, the Highway To Hell tour concluded with eight shows in France and two in England. The last single from the album, Touch Too Much, was released in the UK on January 25. It was not a big hit, peaking at No.29. But for Joe Elliott, whose band went on to make their greatest albums with Mutt Lange, Touch Too Much was just about perfect. “It’s funny,” Elliott says, “because as Mutt said to me later, AC/DC couldn’t stand Touch Too Much. They thought it was too poppy. But I thought it was the best song on the album.” 

The final night of the tour, at the Gaumont Theatre in Southampton on January 27, 1980, turned out to be Bon Scott’s last stand. What he left behind with Highway To Hell, his last testament, was one of the greatest rock albums of all time. And just as Malcolm Young had known they were on to something big from the moment that riff stuck out like a dog’s balls, so Bon had known it too. 

On August 4, 1979, a week after Highway To Hell was released, AC/DC had performed for the first time at New York’s Madison Square Garden, opening for Ted Nugent. That night, like most nights, they had the audience up out of their seats from the get-go. Backstage after the show, Bon had boasted to Hit Parader writer Andy Secher: “This is gonna be one of the biggest bands rock’s ever seen. Give us a year or two and we’ll sell this place out ourselves.” 

Bon was right. Unfortunately he never lived to see it happen.