Tuesday, July 28, 2015

AC/DC: A Legacy of Hard Rock, Hard Living and Hard Memories

The history of rock and roll is filled with stories of bands and artists whose careers in the music industry drove them to excesses which ultimately led to their own personal destruction. In fact, one could argue that more people have died of unnatural or mysterious causes while working in the world of rock and pop music than in any other profession outside of the military, organized crime or the porno industry. It's a lifestyle that encourages those who want to make a lucrative career by performing onstage or in the studio to go the extra mile by pushing everything to the limit with no regrets, exceptions or consideration towards the consequences of one's own actions.

AC/DC in 1977 (left to right): Malcolm Young-guitar, Bon
Scott-vocal, Angus Young-guitar, Phil Rudd-drums, Cliff

It was this lifestyle that was joyously reflected in the rock group AC/DC during Bon Scott's tenure as the band's lead vocalist and lyricist. Aside from the fact that the group featured two incredibly talented guitarists with a strong, working-class ethic (brothers Malcolm and Angus 
Young) , AC/DC's music and image epitomized (and, to a large extent, glorified) anti-authoritarianism and non-conformity, which in turn made them one of the most popular rock groups in Australia within a short period of time.

AC/DC's third album "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap". The
release of this 1976 LP sealed the group's popularity in Australia
and would help prepare them for their future success in the UK.

By the end of 1976, the band had moved to England and were expanding their fan base at the height of the punk rock era. It wouldn't take long for AC/DC to win over punks and headbangers with their brand of anti-establishment hard rock. The reason for this was two-fold: For punks, AC/DC's sound was much more refined than their punk rock counterparts like the Sex Pistols. For hard rock fans in the UK, AC/DC was a reminder of what rock music sounded like before progressive groups like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer had come along.  

By the Summer of 1977, AC/DC believed that they were ready to make their name known in the United States. The band recorded and released their fourth album entitled "Let There Be Rock", an eight-song masterpiece of raw, unadulterated power. The U.S. release of "Let There Be Rock" (the group's debut album in America) would also feature a remixed version of the song "Problem Child", which was released on their "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" album the previous year. The U.S. and European release would also feature cover art which included what would become the band's official logo.
Despite the initial release of "Let There Be Rock" in the U.S., American audiences were not as accepting to AC/DC as in Australia or the UK. The reason for this was simple: Unlike in other parts of the world, radio stations in the U.S. were hesitant about playing songs from hard rock groups because of disco's popularity at the time. Even bands and artists who began their careers in the hard rock genre found themselves having to compromise their careers by adding disco-themed songs and/or soft-rock ballads to their repertoire or risk facing obscurity by the late 1970s. For an anti-authoritarian, multi-watt, no-holds-barred rock group like AC/DC, such a musical climate would prove to be more difficult to conquer... 

Difficult, but not impossible.  

1978 would see AC/DC embarking on their first world tour to promote their fifth album entitled "Powerage". The album itself would be the band's first on Atlantic Records and would feature a much more polished sound than their previous releases. The album also featured the talents of new bassist Cliff Williams, who replaced Mark Evans following the release of "Let There Be Rock" the previous year.
Another significant change that can be heard on "Powerage" is the quality of lyrics from vocalist Bon Scott, which remains one of the more underrated aspects of this album. Put simply, "Powerage" is arguably AC/DC's best work under the production of Harry Vanda and George Young (Malcolm and Angus Young's older brother).
It was during this period that AC/DC would also be introduced to American audiences like never before by making their first televised appearance in the U.S. while performing live on the popular late-night series "The Midnight Special".

In 1979, AC/DC were finally gaining recognition in the U.S. with the release of their live album "If You Want Blood You've Got It" during the Fall of 1978. However, they still needed to release a studio album that would receive considerable airplay in America. It was decided that a change in production was needed in order to make this happen. The group left longtime producers Vanda and Young and looked for someone who would help in capturing every aspect of AC/DC's live sound and then bring it to the forefront in the studio. At first, famed Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin producer Eddie Kramer was brought in to produce the album. After that idea fell through as a result of constant arguments between Kramer and members of the band, a relative newcomer to the music industry named Robert John "Mutt" Lange was called in to produce the new album.
The album's title and songs would reflect the general direction that the band had been on at the time, and also the hope of having that direction change for the better. The title: "Highway To Hell". 

Lange's production techniques are clearly evident on "Highway To Hell", but in more ways than what has been already stated by others who have expressed their opinions of this album. For example, there's an ominous atmosphere to the title track and the last song on the album entitled "Night Prowler" which probably wouldn't have existed if Eddie Kramer or Vanda and Young had worked on them (legend has it that both songs were intentionally slowed down to create an eerie effect). Add to that an equally-ominous album cover which shows lead guitarist Angus Young portrayed as a sneering devil and holding a barbed tail that's pointing down towards vocalist Bon Scott, who's shown laughing while the other members of the band have serious expressions on their faces, and you have an LP that is all but guaranteed to stir up enough controversy to make an impact in a country like the United States.  
The band went on another world tour in 1979 to promote the album as a headlining act before it was even released, which is a clear indication of how confident AC/DC, their management and Atlantic Records were in the success of "Highway To Hell" once it became available in record stores in August of that year.

1979 promotional ad for "Highway To Hell" 

For the first time in their careers together, AC/DC were beginning to achieve international recognition as major players in the genre of hard rock. Both "Highway To Hell" and "If You Want Blood You've Got It" had earned the band gold records by the end of 1979. As U.S. audiences were growing weary of disco and light-rock artists, many of them were beginning to discover what bands like AC/DC were providing as an alternative, and that was high-volume party music without all of the excessive frills and drama.

However, the constant touring and the growing popularity of being in AC/DC would take its toll on one of the group's most recognized members.

Bon Scott in January of 1980, one of the last-known photos taken of
him before his death

While taking a break from writing lyrics for the band's follow-up album to "Highway To Hell", Bon Scott and a friend named Alistair Kinnear decided to visit a local club in London called "Music Machine" on the night of February 18, 1980. While at the club, Bon had ordered seven double whiskeys and drank them. Afterwards, Scott and Kinnear left "Music Machine" in Kinnear's car. According to Kinnear, Bon had passed out in the passenger's seat by the time they had arrived at his flat. After unsuccessfully attempting to wake him up, Kinnear drove Scott to his home in King's College during the early-morning hours of February 19, 1980 and left Bon in his car to sleep off his drinking spree at the club. 

Sadly, it was the last time that Kinnear or anyone else would see Bon Scott alive again. He was 33 years old.

During the late-evening hours of February 19, 1980, the tragic news of Bon Scott's death from alcohol poisoning was becoming an international headline in the world of rock music. Those who had seen AC/DC in concert only months before were now wondering if the band would continue on. The band's founding members Malcolm and Angus Young were wondering if AC/DC should even continue on. It was during this time that some critics within the music press decided to let their hostilities towards the band be known by attacking Bon personally for his behavior onstage and off. 
After Scott's funeral in Australia, the decision was made to keep the group going in his memory. AC/DC wouldn't just return after losing Bon Scott. They would return with a vengeance.    

"Mutt" Lange, whose production of "Highway To Hell" was successful for the band, would return to work on the follow-up to "Highway". On July 21, 1980 (less than six months after Bon Scott's death), AC/DC would release their most successful album to date; the ironic-yet-hauntingly titled "Back In Black". With its grim, no-nonsense jacket cover, new lead vocalist Brian Johnson and relentless sonic attack, "Back In Black" would prove to be a fitting tribute to Bon Scott. It would also prove to be the one hard rock album that signaled the official demise of disco, especially within the United States. All anyone had to do was drop the needle onto side one on his or her stereo and hear the mournful bell tolls which open "Hells Bells" to know that disco music's popularity was being laid to rest because of this album. Given the fact that disco was the one form of music that prevented AC/DC from reaching success sooner within the United States, songs like "Hells Bells", "Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" and the album's title track were appropriate anthems to announce the end of the disco era in North America.

With the success of "Back In Black" in the U.S. came the inevitable popularity of the band's earlier work with Bon Scott. The first example of this was the 1980 release of the concert/documentary film entitled "Let There Be Rock" in theaters, which chronicled AC/DC's December 9th 1979 performance at the Pavillion De Paris in Paris, France. This was also due in large part to Atlantic Records' decision to re-release AC/DC's album catalog, along with the release of "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" in North America during the Summer of 1981.

The first official AC/DC box set was released by Atlantic
Records in 1981 and features vinyl LP versions of "High
Voltage", "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and

 In 1984, Atlantic also released "'74 Jailbreak", a compilation of songs from the band's first three albums which were not featured on the re-releases. 

Although AC/DC would never match the commercial success of "Back In Black", the band continues to be recognized as one of the greatest and most influential acts in the history of rock music. In recent years, AC/DC's popularity has even generated interest in several touring cover bands who only perform AC/DC's songs onstage. 

Hell's Belles performing live

One of the more popular AC/DC cover bands is the all-female group called "Hell's Belles", whose lead guitarist Adrian Conner performs in a schoolgirl uniform and, like Angus Young, does a striptease act which is complete with her mooning the audience.

Keeping it real: Hell's Belles' lead guitarist Adrian Conner

In the forty years since the release of their debut album "High Voltage", AC/DC has proven to be a band whose no frills brand of hard rock music remains an international force to be reckoned with. Despite the recent absence of rhythm guitarist and founding member Malcolm Young, the group continues to record albums and perform live, which is a testimony to their determination to finish what they have started.