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Road to ruin: the story of Bon Scott’s final tour

Bon Scott onstage
(Image credit: Ross Halfin - RHP Ltd)

From the outside looking in, Bon Scott’s final tour with AC/DC looked like a victory lap. After years of slogging around the globe, propping up a band that had once been big in Australia but weren’t any more, had got biggish in the UK – two Top 20 albums, but nowhere chart-wise in America, where their label had been urging them to ditch their raucous singer – AC/DC were finally breaking through, against all odds, with their sixth album, Highway To Hell

From the inside looking out, however, Bon Scott’s final tour with AC/DC was one long suicide note. In an article for RAM, Australia’s premier music magazine, at the end of 1978, Bon had been unusually downbeat about his prospects of continuing much longer. 

Following a gig opening for Cheap Trick in Atlanta, Bon had changed out of the battered old denims he wore on stage and into an expensive leopard-skin coat, grabbed the bottle of Scotch that was always now waiting for him in the dressing room, and set off for his hotel dressed, as he put it, in his “wolf in wolf’s clothing” outfit; playing the part of rock star in the way everyone now expected of him: by “going for it”, by “getting out if it”, by saying “fuck it”. 

Sharing a taxi back to his ‘ritzy’ hotel, the Plum Tree Inn, the writer and Bon’s former bandmate Vince Lovegrove extracted an unexpected confession, as Bon told of how “tired of it all” he was. 

“I love it,” said Bon. “It’s just the constant pressures of touring that’s fucking it. I’ve been on the road for thirteen years. Planes, hotels, groupies, booze, people, towns. They all scrape something from you. We’re doing it and we’ll get there, but I wish we didn’t have these crushing day-after-day grinds to keep up with.” 

Vince recalled Bon talking about moving out to the countryside somewhere. “He said: ‘I’d like to settle down, live an ordinary life like anyone else and just play guitar’.”

The drunken, small-hours ramblings of a road-worn showman, perhaps. But there was a degree of yearning there too, Vince thought, which also fuelled the heavy drinking and drugging. Bon had given his all to these kids – AC/DC – but he was no longer a kid himself, and had grown more painfully aware of that fact with every mile they drove down the never-ending “highway to hell,” as Angus Young had taken to calling their 1978 US tour. 

Something, surely, would have to give. “I think maybe for Bon the timing was simply off,” recalled future Motley Crue manager Doug Thaler, then working as AC/DC’s American booking agent. “That final year of his life, the band was finally breaking through big. But by then Bon had almost given up, it seemed to me. On stage he was still the same amazing frontman he’d always been. But off stage something wasn’t right.”

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On paper, things had never been better. As well as their first multi-platinum international hit album with Highway To Hell, the band were also under new American management – a move that almost overnight took them out of the theatres and small halls they had been opening for UFO in, and up on to real game-changing shows, such as their third-on-the-bill appearance with headliners Boston at the 55,000-capacty Tangerine Bowl in Florida, and their fourth-on-the bill slot at the Mississippi River Jam II festival, headlined by Heart, in June. They followed that with a prestigious support slot with Journey.

Of course, there were still the usual Bon-sized bumps in the road. Opening for Canadian stars Triumph, at the 6000-cap Kiel Auditorium in St Louis, on July 1, Bon confronted Triumph singer Rik Emmet over a “misunderstanding” to do with a “lady friend” of Bon’s who, it turned out, had previously been a good friend of Emmet’s. When ungentlemanly comments were attributed to Emmett, Bon stepped in. Literally, in this case, resulting in Bon taking the stage that night with a large bandage wrapped around a big toe, having taken mercy on the rapidly retreating Emmet by aiming his boot at a backstage lamp instead. 

The Young brothers, boosted by their revived fortunes, hardly noticed. They were more focussed on the special July 4 show at the Winnebago County Fairgrounds in Illinois, where they were second on the bill to Cheap Trick. The first of several arena shows together, they were also the first AC/DC shows where they added the song Highway To Hell to the set. 

By the time the tour ended on August 4, with their first ever appearance at Madison Square Garden in New York, opening for Ted Nugent, Highway To Hell was starting to sell, and another 47 of their own arena-headlining dates had been lined up for September and October. The Young brothers felt they were well on their way at last. Bon, though, was in trouble.

In August, playing third on the bill at London’s Wembley Stadium, behind The Stranglers and The Who, things got off to an inauspicious start when Angus had to hold Bon back from “sorting out” The Stranglers. Although they were all older than AC/DC but posing as a notional ‘punk’ band, The Stranglers found it amusing to taunt Bon and the others for being ‘dope-smoking hippies’. With Bon set to “put those c**ts straight”, Angus had managed to hold him back, urging him to channel his anger into giving such a fiery performance that the haughty Stranglers would struggle to follow it. 

“So that’s what happened,” said Angus. “We got up, gave it everything and turned the place upside down. We walked back in the dressing room afterwards, the room’s full of dope, and Bon goes: ‘Who’s the fucking hippies now, then, c**t?’” 

In the following weeks AC/DC played their first shows in Ireland: two nights in Dublin headlining at the Olympic Ballroom, an old-fashioned seatless dancehall famous for its raucous crowds, followed by two nights north of the border at Belfast’s Ulster Hall, where its 1,000-seats had been taken out to allow almost 2,000 standing fans to enjoy the show. In an era when the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ were at their height, the band’s hotel was surrounded by barbed wire and they were warned not to even think about going out exploring on their own. 

So Bon went out on his own. He later described the Irish shows as “the best we’ve done outside Scotland. Partly because they don’t get many bands playing there, I suppose, but mainly because they’re Irish – and fucking mental!”

By the start of September, as AC/DC began their first major headline tour of America, Highway To Hell had reached No.8 in the UK and was perched at No.17 in the US. 

“They’d done it, they’d cracked it,” recalled their then tour manager Ian Jeffrey. “Not that they’d seen any real money yet, but they knew it was coming and it’d already started to make a difference.” 

Their tour bus was upgraded to a luxury 18-seater with beds and bunks for 12, colour TV and state-of-the-art video and stereo equipment. Phil Rudd began demanding – and getting – a full-size Scalextric track in his hotel room at every tour stop. Still including only three or four numbers from the new hit album in their live set, headlining the Long Beach Arena in Los Angeles, which they did for the first time on September 10, they only half-filled the place. 

In New York, in October, they couldn’t even sell-out the 3,000-capacity Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. Across America’s heartland, though, they were monsters, selling out the 12,000-capacity James White Civic Coliseum in Knoxville, Tennessee; packing more than 13,000 into the 12,000-capacity Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina; running roughshod across Texas with Molly Hatchet hee-hawing in support. 

The only one of AC/DC for whom nothing much appeared to change was Bon Scott. He was now drinking more heavily than ever, and his ‘antics’ were becoming less funny and more desperate by the day – missing a flight from Phoenix because he stayed in a bar trying to score with a chick; travelling on Molly Hatchet’s broken-down bus, getting wasted on whisky and rye rather than “be bored’ on the largely teetotal AC/DC bus. 

He was also smoking dope non-stop and snorting cocaine. Others report seeing him “gobbling down pills by the handful”. Angus, who had always looked up to Bon even when he was at his most unreliable, began to openly fret.

Doug Thaler recalled: “At the time we were out there on the Highway To Hell tour, Bon was in rough shape. He was drunk most of the time, or sleeping it off so he could sober up and get drunk again. He was starting to have a real problem. “The last time I saw him [was] towards the end of the tour in Chicago, at the hotel in the afternoon. He was so drunk he could barely stand up. He didn’t acknowledge me. He had a couple of chicks with him and he was going over to the elevator, but he was in very rough shape for broad daylight. I know the guys were starting to have problems with him by that time because of that reason."

Years later, when Thaler was managing Motley Crue, one of the most notorious hell-raisers of their era, he would check the entire band into rehab. Back in 1979, though, he says “the idea of rock stars going into rehab hadn’t occurred to anybody yet. If you were hurting, you took a drink or a shot of something and you felt better. I don’t think anybody realised the lasting dangers of drink or cocaine.” 

It was the same story when, just four days after the end of the ’79 American tour, AC/DC arrived back in Britain for the start of their next UK tour, 13 dates that included multiple nights at the country’s biggest concert venues: two at the Apollo in Glasgow, two at the Apollo in Manchester, four at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, two at the Empire in Liverpool, one at the 10,000-capacity Bingley Hall in Stafford. 

By then, says Bernie Marsden, whose band Whitesnake were about to have their first hit album with Love Hunter, Bon’s drinking and drugging had made him “the talk of the town… legendary. I think you always knew that Bon was on that… self-destructive path. That if he didn’t pull it in at some point he would hurt himself. Those chasers – those quadruple Scotches – they’ve got to catch up with you.”

After the UK, they had played 29 dates across Europe, including 16 shows supported by Judas Priest, and 10 in France where Highway To Hell had gone to No.2. By the time AC/DC played their final show of the year, at Birmingham Odeon on December 21, they had been on the road for almost nine months without more than a couple of days off. 

You get a flavour of just how worn-out Bon Scott was in the film shot in Paris by French film makers Eric Dionysius and Eric Mistler, released a year later as the in-concert movie AC/DC: Let There Be Rock. Originally hired to make a promotional video, the two Erics eventually gathered enough footage for a full-length documentary, including backstage shots and brief snapshot interviews, over three days in Metz, Reims and Lille, before filming the whole show at the Pavillon de Paris on December 9.

In it, Bon looks every one of his 31 years, his gaunt face framed by more hair than he’d allowed himself since he’d first cut it short when he joined the band. The vibe is: he no longer gives a fuck what anyone else thinks. Although he smiles for the camera and appears to put on a fair show for the French audience, the poses are not even ironic, merely rote, the inevitable plastic white cup full of whisky glued to his hand. His movements are stiff, as though moving in pain. 

Hooking up with his friend from Trust, vocalist Bernie Bonvoison, the two travelled together by train to each date. “We talked about doing something together,” Bonvoison later recalled. “I was thrilled.” 

Nevertheless, he admitted he was shocked to sit with Bon one morning while he knocked back three double whiskies in quick succession. By the time they had arrived in Paris, where the show was to be filmed, Bon had lost his voice. 

“They had to call a doctor to him, Bonvoison said. “When the doctor left, Bon poured himself a large whisky and Coke and made a toast to ‘Doctor Whisky!’” When the tour broke for two weeks, Bon was so floored that he slept for most of the 26-hour flight home to Australia, where he would be spending the Christmas holidays, waking only to guzzle as many free miniature bottles of Scotch and bourbon as he could stay awake for.

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Back in Sydney, Bon looked forward to three weeks off before returning to Europe for nine final shows in January. He intended to make the most of them. With money coming in, the Young brothers had bought houses in England. Bon splashed out on a new motorbike, a red Kawasaki Z900, with a top speed of 135mph. He would ride it without a helmet, fuelled by another night’s heavy partying, thundering around Bondi beach as though he didn’t have a care in the world; or maybe somebody who just didn’t care any more. He also rented a flat, in O’Brien Street, the first time he’d been able to afford the luxury of living alone. 

Because of Highway To Hell, AC/DC were news back home again and Bon revelled in the attention, doing newspaper interviews and lapping up every drop of adulation at every pub and club he got blotto in. One of the big nights out he had was with another old musician mate named Peter Head. “We went out, bought some booze, got some dope and went to a party,” Head later recalled. Bon told Peter how sick he was of leading the rock star lifestyle. “He said what he really wanted now was to settle down and have kids.” 

The next morning, the two of them awoke “with women whose names we couldn’t remember”. Bon didn’t stick around long enough to discuss it. “He suddenly got up, walked out, and I never saw him again.” Bon’s most significant visit, though, was the one he paid over the three-day Christmas weekend to his parents’ home in Perth, the first time in three years he had been back to see the family. Like everyone else, Isa and Chick couldn’t help noticing how much their son’s drinking had escalated. But as Isa put it: “You didn’t tell [Bon] what to do. I never went too far. I just said I didn’t like him drinking. But you get to that stage they don’t listen to you.”

Flying back to London in January 1980, Bon Scott didn’t feel rested so much as spaced out, Sydney already seeming more like a dream. The bike and the new flat, though, had at least given him a glimpse of what might be. The first thing he did when he returned to a snowbound England was get his own place in London: a portered mansion block, Ashley Court, in Morpeth Terrace, a short walk from Buckingham Palace. He ‘borrowed’ bits of furniture from an old girlfriend. 

Forty-eight hours later he flew to Cannes, in the south of France, where AC/DC were being presented with French gold records for both and Highway To Hell and their earlier live album If You Want Blood, plus British gold and silver for Highway To Hell. AC/DC then played seven more dates in France and two in England. 

The last show of Bon Scott’s last tour took place on a freezing cold Sunday, January 27, 1980, at the Gaumont theatre in Southampton. This, though, was a significant occasion for Bon in another way: the night he began a new and intense romance with a Japanese girl named Anna, who Bon had been introduced to earlier that day while having lunch at tour manager Ian Jeffrey’s flat. Anna was an old friend of Ian’s wife, Suzie. 

When Bon and Ian left for the drive down to Southampton that afternoon, Suzie and Anna went with them. Returning to London in the early hours, Anna spent her first night with Bon at Ashley Court. The very next morning, he took her in a taxi to her flat in Finsbury Park where he told her to grab her things and bring them back with her to his place. 

Years later, Anna would remember Bon was ‘like the sweetest gentleman’. She certainly received a great deal of his attention over the next three weeks. When, on Wednesday February 6, AC/DC were filmed at Elstree Studios, miming to their new single Touch Too Much, for broadcast the following night on Top Of The Pops, Anna went with Bon. The rest of the band were bemused but not out of sympathy with him, grateful for the steadying effect Anna seemed to have on their singer, who claimed to have given up whisky in place of sake, small hot flasks of which Anna would serve him at home while he rolled joints and lolled about on cushions. 

It wasn’t true – in fact, Bon was drinking and drugging more than ever, the sake merely added to his list of must-have consumables – but it’s telling that Bon felt the need to project that idea to others. “Bon just wanted to go home,” Ian Jeffrey said ruefully. “It’s just a shame it took him so long to find one.”

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.