Forty years ago today, lightning struck. Rolling thunder, pouring rain. Tropical wind thrashed the concrete cell blocks of Nassau’s Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. Imagine Malcolm Young waking in fright as Hell’s fury hit. Bon was really dead. A stranger was in their midst. So far from home. Everything was riding on this.
In those fateful weeks of 1980, he and his kid brother, Angus, reanimated a monster. Today, AC/DC’s Back In Black is one of history’s monolithic albums. In December, it clocked US sales of 25 million. Way more than any Beatles record. Bigger than Zeppelin or Floyd. In the rubbery registry of claimed global sales, it’s pipped only by Michael Jackson.
Watch above: some of AC/DC’s original members talk about the band’s Sydney origins. Featuring Mark Evans, Noel Taylor, Rob Bailey and Tony Currenti. Video by Tom Compagnoni.
But from a local perspective, those stats only begin to tell the story.
“It’s one of the defining records for Australian music,” says Maz DeVita of young Brisbane rock band, Waax. “AC/DC has done so much for the scene here; shone a light on Australian music. It’s the kind of record that everyone grows up with. It’s pretty much the best band that ever was, in terms of straight-up rock.”
It was her dad, another musician, who handed Back In Black down to her. For his generation, there’s a weighty story behind its classic black facade. The great Bon Scott was only weeks in his Fremantle grave when the Young brothers of Glasgow-via-Sydney rolled the dice with an English singer from Dunston, Lincolnshire, named Brian Johnson. Nowhere in the annals of rock has such an epic victory been plucked from the throes of grief and disaster.
Paul Barclay from the ABC’s Big Ideas program underscored the distinction in a recent Facebook conversation. “Is there another successful rock band who lost their charismatic lead singer, then continued – doing the same thing, playing the same sort of music – with a new lead singer, and became more successful than they were before?”
At the time of Scott’s death, AC/DC were on a roll. Their sixth album, Highway to Hell, and years of relentless touring had broken them into the US at last. Producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd consolidated a killer team. But under the suddenly grim circumstances, not missing a beat was some feat.
“I think it’s one of the most inspiring stories ever,” posted Melbourne musician Jeremy Gronow. Rock historian Ian McFarlane agreed. “It does have a certain mystique about it.” Singer Michael Simic, aka Mikelangelo, went one step further. “I feel they were channelling the spirit of Bon. It’s in his honour. That’s why it rocks. Despite the gaping hole he left.”
Ah, the wound. It can never heal. For all the universally acknowledged magnificence of Hells Bells, You Shook Me All Night Long, Back In Black, Shoot to Thrill and Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, it’s hard to find an AC/DC fan who doesn’t yearn with all their heart to hear Bon sing them instead.
Some want to believe that they have.
“I wish I had a copy of that tape,” sighs Buzz Bidstrup. He’d known Scott since the early ’70s in Adelaide. His band, the Angels, opened for AC/DC on their triumphant return tour of 1980 with Johnson out front. The mysterious demo cassette he heard, a few years later, “of Bon singing those songs … was played to me by someone who I woulda thought knew it was legit”, he insists. But he knows there are fake tapes out there, too.
In short, the provenance of this album’s miraculous conception remains hotly debated. All 10 songs are officially credited to Young, Young and Johnson, but fans are split on whether they can hear Scott’s wicked turns of phrase in the mix. Journalist Andrew Stafford is one who does on the comeback single, You Shook Me All Night Long, but not on the rest.
“Speculation about the authorship of this song has abounded,” he says. “It’s likely we’ll never know the answer, but I’ll just say that nothing either Johnson or the Youngs have written since has touched it.
I’ll just say that nothing either Johnson or the Youngs have written since has touched it.
Journalist Andrew Stafford on Back in Black.
“Bon understood the fine line between stupid and clever, being sexist versus being sexy, and mostly fell on the right side of it. He had a much defter knack for double-entendre. With Back in Black, instead we get a darker current of misogyny.”
Scott’s ghost looms larger by virtue of several strange questions in the story, unaided by the infamously tight-lipped AC/DC empire. Rumours persist that the late singer’s family receives royalties from the album. Why? How did an untried lyricist knock off 10 songs from scratch, weeks after joining the band? And as for the smoking gun – er, where have they buried it?
Scott’s famously missing notebooks of lyrics-in-progress were never much further from his hand, according to countless biographies, than the grog that killed him on the cold London night of February 19, 1980. The apparent fact that his flat was ransacked a few days later can only fan the flames of conspiracy.
It’s not a debate that will die soon. The reason it matters, at least for Australian fans, is that we want our guy’s role in the final victory adequately acknowledged. Never mind that Young, Young and Scott were all born in Scotland. As Murray Cook from the Wiggles and the Soul Movers testifies, “I saw them with Bon in 1975 and ’77. Pretty much no one came close to Bon.”
Australian writer Jesse Fink “spent six years writing two books on AC/DC: The Youngs and Bon: The Last Highway. Did I discover what happened to the notebooks? No,” he says. “That would be akin to finding the Holy Grail for AC/DC fans and change music history.”
That would be akin to finding the Holy Grail for AC/DC fans and change music history.
Author Jesse Fink on Bon’s missing notebooks.
Jeff Apter has written three books about the band, including Malcolm Young: The Man Who Made AC/DC and High Voltage: The Life of Angus Young. By his research, Scott only engaged with the songs that would become Back In Black at one jam with the Youngs in London, days before he died. “We’re just about ready for you, Bon,” Malcolm told him. “Maybe next week sometime.”
Fink doesn’t buy it. “AC/DC fans can hear Bon on that album,” he says. “The lyrics took a major nosedive in quality on subsequent albums and have never come close to matching anything from the Bon era. That tells you everything you need to know … Trust your ears.”
The fact that AC/DC’s hit rate went so clearly south after 1980 – their massive stadium shows of later decades comprised roughly 25 per cent Back In Black and maybe 50 per cent Bon Scott songs – is evidence of their fallen comrade’s long shadow.
“Think about their inspiration,” Apter says. “You couldn’t have had a greater inspiration than the poor guy who died and you want to make an album in his honour. It was the greatest motivation of all and every record since then was trying to recapture the magic of that. They never came close but … if you’re only gonna make one great album, it wasn’t a bad one to make.”
That said, given 40 years of hindsight, it’s fair to reflect on some uncomfortable truths about the culture and content that Back In Black epitomised. When conversation turns to the lyrics of tunes such as Given The Dog a Bone (sic), Let Me Put My Love Into You and What Do You Do For Money Honey, Maz DeVita of Waax audibly shudders.
“Sometimes I read into the lyrics a bit too much and I’m just like: ‘How did this ever get through?’” she says. “You can’t get away with those kinds of lyrics these days, that’s for sure … I don’t think ‘forgiving’ for those views is quite the right word, but I also figured out the context, I suppose. I think they really seemed to target the male audience.”
Sometimes I read into the lyrics a bit too much and I’m just like, ‘How did this ever get through?
Max DeVita of Waax on the sexist lyrics.
That’s an understatement worth unpacking. In the aforementioned Facebook discussion, the word “bogan” comes up more than once, sometimes wearing its endearing larrikin smirk but other times a little more hairy-fisted.
Martin Kennedy from All India Radio: “I despised Bon Scott’s AC/DC as a kid because all the local bullies and sharpies were into them and I was fresh meat for them. [Back In Black] came along at just the right time, at an age when most of those people had drifted away and I was old enough not to worry about it as much.”
Culturally acclimatised or otherwise, most musicians can agree that Back In Black’s triumph is about uber-disciplined sound production and playing. “The most complex yet simple, intelligent yet dumb album I own,” says the Living End’s Chris Cheney. “Every listen is another guitar lesson.” The Church’s Tim Powles waxes poetic about some mystical combination of hands and feet that only drummers could understand.
The Fireballs’ Matt Black and blues-folk guitar master Jeff Lang are just two who cut to every rock musician’s ultimate conclusion. Fair credit to Bon, Brian and everyone else, but this story is all about Malcolm and Angus — in that order. “Whenever I think of Malcolm Young,” You Am I’s Tim Rogers once memorably mused, “I seriously think that all is right in the universe.”
Malcolm left this universe, sadly, in 2017. Angus is reportedly soldiering on, despite slim-to-nothing chances of surpassing the biggest selling rock album of all time. But whatever conspiracy, debate and woke revisionism inevitably follows, the sound and story of Back In Black is likely to remain a beacon for as long as rock musicians exist.
Geelong-born Dave Stevens is a lifelong AC/DC fan with a more invested perspective than most. For him, whether or not those lost notebooks were ransacked during that Nassau hurricane 40 years ago, either literally or in spirit, has no meaningful bearing on the legend.
“I have two lives with Back In Black,” he explains. “It came out when I was 13. Everyone had it. It was the album of 1980 … but then when I was 22, I found out that Bon Scott was my father. So then I took another look at the album. And I took another look at AC/DC …
“Without the success of Back In Black and the subsequent rise into legendary status that AC/DC took,” he concludes, “there would be no Bon legend apart from the Australian hardcore fans and the few regional European and US audiences who saw him perform.
“As AC/DC rose, so did the rightful legend of Bon Scott and for that, we all need to thank Angus and Malcolm who kept the train running when nearly all of us would have thrown it in, in tears. And Brian, who never sought to emulate, never thought to usurp, and most importantly, never missed an opportunity to spruik about how great Bon Scott was.”
AC/DC’s Back in Black was released in July 1980.
A guide to AC/DC’s high voltage Sydney
The AC/DC pilgrim’s trail is long. Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott was born in Forfar, Scotland. The tombstone of “the world’s greatest rock’n’roll legend” is in Fremantle Cemetery in Western Australia. Melbourne’s AC/DC Lane, commemorating that iconic Long Way To The Top video on Swanston Street, is another popular selfie destination for the rock backpacker.
Angus and Malcolm Young, meanwhile, both drew their first breaths in Glasgow. But as a band, AC/DC was indisputably born and bred in Sydney.
- Villawood Migrant Hostel: Before becoming an immigration detention centre, the Villawood Migrant Hostel provided accommodation for recently arrived European immigrants. This was the first stop for the Young family after arriving from Glasgow in 1963.
- 4 Burleigh St, Burwood: This was the Young family residence from 1965 until 1977. Easybeats founder George Young was living here when Friday on My Mind became a worldwide hit (causing police to block off the street after the house was mobbed by crazed fans). His brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young, lived here at the time they formed AC/DC.
- Burwood Public School: This is where Angus first wore a school uniform.
- Ashfield Boys’ High School: Angus and Malcolm Young attended in the late ’60s.
- Erskineville Rd, Newtown: Now the Newtown Gym, this was the rehearsal space where the original line-up practiced for their first gig, and where the band decided to name themselves AC/DC.
- Chequers Nightclub, Goulburn St, City: Now a massage, spa and sauna centre, this was the premiere Sydney nightclub in the ’60s. AC/DC played their first gig here on December 31, 1973.
- Hampton Court Hotel, Kings Cross: The band played several residencies here in 1974. Also the location of the first known recording of the band.
- Rockdale Masonic Hall: Credited with an early gig with Bon Scott as vocalist.
- Victoria Park Pool, Camperdown: Angus wore his schoolboy outfit onstage for the first time in April 1974.
- The Hordern Pavilion: AC/DC played their first big concerts here in 1974, including support slots for Lou Reed and Black Sabbath.
- The Sydney Opera House: AC/DC were the first rock band to play in the main concert hall of The Sydney Opera House on June 9, 1974, as a support for Stevie Wright.
- EMI 301, Castlereagh St, City: Original location of EMI’s 301 studio, where AC/DC recorded their first single.
- Cronulla Theatre: Now a cinema complex, the old Cronulla Theatre was a live music venue in the early ’70s and was the location of their first video clip, shot by the ABC in 1974.
- Albert Studios, King St, City: The building is no longer there, but 139 King St was the location of Albert Studios. AC/DC’s first five albums were recorded here.
- The Bondi Lifesaver, Ebley St, Bondi Junction: Now a carpark, this was the location of one of Sydney’s most celebrated live music venues in the ’70s. AC/DC played numerous shows here, including Bon Scott’s final Sydney show with the band in July 1977.
- The Kirk, Cleveland St, Surry Hills: This is the church where AC/DC shot their video clip for Let There Be Rock.
- Haymarket, City: AC/DC played a gig here as part of the Festival of Sydney on January 30, 1977. The concert was immortalised in a recording which has re-surfaced as countless bootlegs and radio broadcasts.
- The Sydney Entertainment Centre, Chinatown: Demolished in 2016, The Sydney Entertainment Centre was Sydney’s premier large concert venue when it opened in 1983. This was AC/DC’s regular stop on the Sydney leg of their 1988, 1991, 1996 and 2001 world tours.
- ANZ Stadium, Homebush: In 2010, AC/DC played three nights in a row here in front of a total of 213,045 fans. This was the attendance record for stadium shows in NSW until Ed Sheeran surpassed that in 2018.
- St Mary’s Cathedral, City: The funeral service for Malcolm Young was held here on November 28, 2017.
- Tonino’s Pizzeria, Penshurst: This is where you can have a pizza made for you by Tony Currenti, who played drums on AC/DC’s debut album High Voltage. Memorabilia adorns the walls.
- Onkaparinga House (also known as Cockroach Castle), East Balmain: The Sydney home of Malcolm Young.
-with Tom Compagnoni
Michael Dwyer is an arts and music writer