This year would have seen Bon Scott’s 75th birthday. Bon – born Ronald Belford Scott – was the front man for AC/DC in the 1970s. He never made it out of that decade alive, or you could say he did…but only just. He’s been dead now for longer than he was ever alive – February 1980 was the last time he drew a breath. Death by misadventure. Poisoned by alcohol. He lived fast. So he died quick. Etc.
When young you celebrate these hooligans and the music is the key, but the stories of the associated madness are funny or fascinating, sometimes both.
When you’re older than the dead icon you just feel sad for the waste of a life.
But 75 years ago, Bon Scott was born. In Scotland. Where he spent his first five or six years. The family moved to Melbourne, then WA. Scott played drums and sang – he moved through a few bands including the group Fraternity. They cut two records and a few singles and 50 years on from their debut the music was finally reissued. So you can pick up a three-disc anthology of Bon’s very early years – pre-AC/DC. It is probably 2.5 discs more than you need. But the band Fraternity was not terrible.
Bon wasn’t the first singer in AC/DC. But he was the first singer that mattered. Dave Evans never really stood a chance – it’s just not a very rock’n’roll name. We know that because an Irishman also carrying the name Dave Evans decided to rename himself The Edge. And that worked out pretty well, as stupid as it is. He’s now and has forever been the guitarist in U2. They’re not very good. And they’ve been terrible for longer than they were ever bordering on great. But it really doesn’t matter – and take the critical high ground all you like, that Dave Evans is laughing all the way to the bank.
Anyway, the other Dave Evans was easily pushed aside and Bon became the singer in AC/DC in the mid-70s. In half a decade he helped to make the band. And the music from his era has been the bedrock of the group’s live act for the 40 years since his death.
It’s one of the great – weird – ironies in the AC/DC story that they would go on to release their greatest and best-selling album after Bon died. But that doesn’t mean he was easily replaceable. A
Old mate, Brian Johnson has a similar story to Bon Scott. Instead of being in WA, he was in Newcastle – the British one, not the Aussie one. Instead of being in a band called Fraternity he was in a band called Geordie. When he replaced Bon Scott people said nobody could replace Bon Scott. Some people have been saying it ever since – but Brian has kept the machine’s wheels turning. And he never went all petty like other poisoned chalice “Second” singers, never refused to sing the gems. Why would you? Sammy Hagar would sing some of David Lee Roth’s Van Halen hits, but he made us all hear some of his forgettable solo material during Van Halen gigs. And that still seems wrong to me. Johnson, no way. No Geordie also-rans. Just the best he could muster himself – and all of Back in Black counts, much of The Razor’s Edge and a few other hits in there as well – and all of the great songs from the Bon years. All of ‘em. Or as many as they could squeeze into a big stadium show.
I don’t remember all of the circumstances around me falling under the spell of AC/DC. But it’s cliched enough. I was 15. Or thereabouts. And a mate loaned me a tape. Told me something along the lines of how it might change my life. And it was a Bon Scott-era album. It was Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. And that’s still my nostalgic/sentimental favourite. There’s a great AC/DC song on almost every album, there are magic moments scattered throughout, and it’s a solid debate to be had as to whether Back in Black or Highway To Hell is the very best. Either answer could be correct. But I’m still going for Dirty Deeds as The One. Because it was the one that introduced me to an unforgettable sound.
(Well, actually, the song Highway To Hell was the first thing I ever heard by AC/DC and the first song I ever learned to play along to on the drums. It remains a blueprint).
I’ve fallen in and out of love with the band many times since I was 15. But there have always been a few constants. Malcolm Young’s meat-and-spuds rhythm guitar. His riffs. His songwriting. Angus Young’s tone and his assimilation of blues scales into a rock sound. He chews up blues and spits out the absolute best heavy metal blueprints. Phil Rudd’s engine-room drumming. I even included him in my series Drummers You Just Can’t Beat. (There’s an e-book you can buy if interested).
All of those things are equally important about this band. And they were never reinventing rock’n’roll – just doing their version of it. Just paying tribute to the sound and songs they loved. They found a genius formula and perfected it. They made the same song, and the same album over and again. And it worked. Because it was a good trick. And they were good at it.
But I don’t think it could ever have had any real cut-through without Bon Scott. He injected the best thing into the songs and the performances. Ribald humour. Dirty nods and winks. Juvenile poetry. Silliness. Cheekiness. Sauciness. Haughtiness. He’s the kid at the back of the class not listening to the teacher but still managing to charm them even as he’s being told off for the constant disruptions.
When I first fell under the spell of AC/DC it was Bon Scott’s big, obvious jokes and his filthy sounding swagger and his naughty schoolboy humour that most appealed.
And I can probably trace it back to what I consider to be one of the most influential poems I’ve ever heard. It had a propound effect on me, as a writer, a listener, and appreciator of fine words.
I’m talking, of course, about the lyrics to the song Big Balls. There were many great things about the version of the Dirty Deeds album I heard – the title track, obviously. And Jailbreak. Ride On. A couple of other songs too, sure. But it was Big Balls that I looked forward to. It was Big Balls that made me laugh. And perhaps I should be embarrassed about this, but it made me laugh again. And then again.
It’s not so much the lyrics as the delivery. Well, it’s the combination. That was Bon’s great skill I reckon.
I’m 15 again whenever I hear the demented “Ballroom” punning of this song. “My balls are always bouncing/My ballroom always full/And everybody comes and comes again…”
But there’s one line in particular that kills like the best comic doing the best stand-up.
“Some balls are held for charity/And some for fancy dress/But when they’re held for pleasure/They’re the balls that I like best”.
When Bon says the half line “But when they’re held for pleasure” he can barely hold in the giggle because he knows, erm, what’s coming. And he knows it ahead of us. And he’s, um, itching to tell us.
In 2021, this sort of puerile nonsense is swiftly cancelled on Twitter as soon as it rears its ugly head. But you can’t cancel over 200 million record sales.
So, today, I’m thinking a bit about Bon Scott. And how he was never going to make it much past the 33 (and a third) that he made it to. But if he had made it to 75 I’d be campaigning for Big Balls to win the Nobel Prize. Dylan was about that age when he snagged it. It’d be worth a shot.
I love AC/DC. And every now and then I still listen to their music.
For example, I was blown away by their last record. I don’t think anyone could have guessed it could be that good. And I finally got to see the band for the first time in 2010. And it was fine. Often amazing. But somehow they were even better in 2015. And by that time vital members had dropped out and popped off. But it seems you just can’t kill this band.