From the Archive: AC/DC's Angus Young Discusses Bon Scott and the 'Bonfire' Box Set
Here's an interview with Angus Young of AC/DC from the January 1998 issue of Guitar World. To see the cover of that issue -- and all the GW covers from 1998 -- click here.
“By the way he carried himself, you really thought that Bon Scott was immortal,” says guitarist Angus Young of AC/DC’s late frontman. “He would drink like a fish, and when you saw him the next morning, he’d be no worse for wear. And you’d think to yourself, ‘How does this guy do this?’”
Bon Scott, a dyed-in-the-wool party animal, seemed immune to the ravages of substance abuse. So it came as a surprise to everyone -- probably to Scott himself most of all -- when, on February 19, 1980, after a night of heavy drinking, the singer choked on his own vomit and died in the back seat of a friend’s car. He was 33 years old.
Scott’s demise could not have come at a worse time.
After slogging their way up the hard rock ranks for the better part of the Seventies, AC/DC were poised on the brink of bona fide rock stardom. Their last album, Highway to Hell (Atco, 1979), had been their most successful yet: benefiting from the FM-friendly production of John "Mutt" Lange, it broke the group in the all-important American market, selling over a million copies in the States alone. The music for the band's all important follow-up, the album that was to become Back in Black, was almost completely written.
And then, with Scott's death, everything ground to a halt. The loss of a frontman, let alone one as charismatic and talented as the gravel-voiced Scott, would have been the death knell of most bands. AC/DC, however, decided to soldier on. "Malcolm [Young, AC/DC rhythm guitarist and Angus' brother] called me and said, 'Me and you will keep working on the songs that we had been writing. It'll take our minds off all of this,'" Angus remembers.
Eventually, Scott was replaced by ex-Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson. Back in Black, now a tribute to Scott, was completed. With Johnson's high-pitched growl in the forefront, the album that would become a true rock classic yielded such unforgettable anthems as "You Shook Me,'' "Have a Drink on Me" and of course, "Let Me Put My Love Into You."
Still, despite the fact that Johnson has been the band's screamer-in-residence more than twice as long as Scott held the post, and notwithstanding the success enjoyed by AC/DC during his tenure, there are those whose loyalty remains unflagging. It is true that he possessed a dark, scrappy allure, an unpredictable rawness -- a venom -- that Johnson, even if he wanted to, couldn't emulate. Of course, he also benefits from the mythical aura that only an untimely death can confer upon a rock and roller. Whatever the reasons, Bon's following remains strong. "For years our fans have asked us, 'When can we hear some unreleased tracks with Bon?'" Young says.
And so, to satisfy Bon zealots everywhere, and to recognize and remember their old mate, AC/DC have assembled Bonfire, a four-CD box set that celebrates Scott’s time with the band. Packed with Scott-era studio outtakes such as "Dirty Eyes,” the first incarnation of the now-classic “Whole Lotta Rosie," live recordings (the audio from the 1981 live concert film Let There Be Rock and a frequently bootlegged live-for-radio set the band performed at Atlantic Studios in New York) as well as Back in Black, Bonfire is a fitting farewell for a friend.
GUITAR WORLD: Why is this the right time for a box-set tribute to Bon, as opposed to any other time in the last 15 years?
ANGUS YOUNG: We had owed the label a box-type of thing for a while, so we went about and done a bit of hunting and scouring about -- a bit of FBI work, if you like -- and found some tracks that had not been released, and a couple of rare things. In New York, we found the Atlantic Studios performance which collectors have been asking for for a long time. Nowadays, people pay big money to bootleggers for that. So why shouldn't they pay us? [laughs]
Were the outtakes for the box remixed or simply remastered?
Some of the songs were remixed. But on the live material there were a few times where we had to say, "This may not exactly have the modern day sound, or be CD quality." Then again, I don't know if we ever were "CD quality," as a band.
Were your brother George and Harry Vanda, who produced all of your records up through Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap [Atco, 1978], involved in selecting and preparing the materials for Bonfire?
Yes, we were Iucky to have them. We gave them the tracks we'd found and asked them what they thought. They were the quality control when we made the old records, so it seemed fitting for them to do the same now. If a track didn't stand up, we would pass on it.
I must admit, though, that while we were digging through the material, a few times, even we were shocked at what was coming back at us off the tapes -- blown away. We felt humbled by our own machine.
What was the Atlantic Studios session like? Was it uncomfortable for you to play "live,'' without a real audience to feed off?
We had done this type of live radio broadcast thing before, in England and in other places. We just looked at it as if it was a live thing except that it happened to be in a studio. It was kind of strange in a way, because as we started playing, people started wandering in and an audience grew. We had cleaners and tea ladies coming in, wondering what the racket was all about.
But this radio broadcast must have been more high pressured than the previous ones, as in 1978, you were so hell-bent on conquering the United States' huge hard rock market, while Europe was already rather securely under your belt. It was a make or break situation.
I suppose the business people involved, the people who worked at the record company, felt pressure. But as a band, we were relatively care-free, because we knew that our live shows were our strong suit. Live shows and touring was where we were winning an audience more than anywhere else, because we always got the audience rocking, even as an opening band... and anyway, when you're young, you're immortal. You don't even think about things like that. I mean, when Bon met the head of our record company, he was literally pissing in a jar backstage at CBGB's! There was this industry bigwig wanting to shake his hand and he was peeing in a jar. The guy was like, "Do I shake his hand or what?"
By all accounts, Bon was a very outgoing, unaffected cat.
Oh, sure. Probably too friendly to a lot of people. He had no airs and graces about him, probably because he was a drummer at heart. When he got into music, that's what he wanted to do. In fact, when he joined the band, he said, "I want to play drums." And we said, "Well, Bon, we've already got a drummer. Your talents lie elsewhere." But he was a good drummer. It showed in his character, because he saw himself as just another member of the band. He didn't have this lead singer attitude of, "I have to be at the front, all the time. I'm the singer. I'm the star. I get the chicks."
So there was no friction between the two of you because you were the most visible member of the group?
No -- he would shove me forward! From the beginning, I always got shoved up to the front. See, when I first started to play, I was very shy, so Malcolm would sort of pull me forward. Then when I put the school boy suit on, I was so scared, standing out thereon stage dressed like a loony, that I finally decided that I had to start moving around. I figured, “I’m just going to keep on moving because I’m a target here.” Especially when we were playing in clubs and bars God knows where in the middle of Australia, it was much easier to dodge things like bottles if you didn’t stand in one place. I thought, “If you keep their visual interest and the guitar happenin’ and hold it all together, you might come out alive at the end of the night -- without the natives getting restless and saying, “Let’s spear that little fucker.”
You’ve often said that once you put on the suit and hit the stage, you become a completely different person, a man possessed. Bon seemed to share that split personality with you. Did the two of you feed off each other's energy?
Sure. He could get you sometimes. Some of the things he did, I would simply say, "Hey now, there's no way I'm doing that." He was very gymnastic for some reason, perhaps because of the way he was built, and he could easily climb up a P.A. tower and jump off it -- and he’d usually try and drag me with him! He’d be going, “Jump! Now!” My knees would be shaking and I’d say, “You’ve got to give me a few seconds to get my nerve up, man.”
Bon was almost 10 years older than the rest of the band. Did he bring any wisdom to the group that benefited you?
He used to always say to me, "Don't do what I do." He could go out and have a wild time. He certainly lived a full life. He partied -- he boogied, you know?
I suppose that's how he kept a balance. He could go somewhere and a demon would surface and he would be away, and then he'd be there and he'd be working. He never missed a show. There were a lot of times where people would be on tenterhooks, going, "Is this guy going to show?" And a couple of minutes before we were supposed to go on, the door would fly open and in he would walk and hit the stage. He was always dependable getting on the stage.
But not having your singer show up until five minutes before the gig must have put enormous stress on you guys…
Not really. We were all pretty much that way. If they told you to be there at eight o'clock, you made your best effort to be there. And if you didn't, whoever was there started. [laughs] I remember one night, the bass player and drummer hadn't shown up so me, Malcolm and Bon on the drums went out and we kicked off the night, and then the other two guys just sort of wandered on. People just thought that it was part of the act! [laughs] It was really all part and parcel of the seat-of-your pants life that we led early on.
Can you describe what the touring situation was like?
We didn't have fancy equipment or anything like that. Every guitarist I would cross paths with would tell me that I should have a flashy guitar, whatever the latest fashion model was, and I used to say, "Why? Mine works, doesn't it? It's a piece of wood and six strings and it works." Hell, if the drummer had a kit made up of different bits, who cared, if it fuckin' rocked, you know?
I mean, we were touring all around the world and Malcolm and I had only one spare guitar between the two of us. Malcolm took a Fender Telecaster that he knocked a hole in for a humbucker, and whoever broke a string first got it. If I broke a string, I got it and flipped it over to the humbucker; if he broke one, he just flipped it back to the single coil. We compromised on the string gauge for the spare guitar, 'cause Malcolm uses a heavier set than me, so we put on a heavy bottom and a wiggly top. Back then, we went on very bare bones, without big light shows or anything. It was just your instrument and you -- no fancy pedals or anything. You got on a stage and you fucked around.
Bon was an extremely gifted lyricist. Did he often fine-tune and rework lyrics? It’s difficult to be simultaneously clever and smutty, which was his trademark.
I don't think that "smutty" is exactly the right choice of words. I believe that the politically correct term is “sexist.” Intellectuals like to put a tag on it and say, “these guys are out-and-out sexist."
I've always found there's a two-sided thing when it comes to lyrics: someone can call a song "Sexy Motherfucker,” and be accepted, and yet we've been writing all songs all these years, and while there may be the rare "fuck" in the lyrics there somewhere, it's all been quite clean cut. Still, people just make the assumption that we’re five guys who've just got our dicks in mind.
People have frequently commented that for all the notoriety and things we got involved in, we could have capitalized on our reputation and said, "Oh yeah, we’re a piece of nasty work." But why bother?
Before joining AC/DC, Bon had been in several very pop-oriented bands, namely the Valentines. Was his singing in that group completely different?
You can hear that it's his voice, but he always said that those bands wanted him to be not what he was, and that we were the first people who ever said, "Bon, sing how you want to sing. If you want to scream, scream.” There was a tendency at the time for people to want to homogenize bands and make things fit into the bag of whatever was hot at that time. And when Bon was starting out, in the Sixties, during the time of the Beatles, that practice was rampant. Those guys wore suits and, the next day, everybody was wearing one. I even think that I've seen Neil Young in a Beatle clone suit. It spread all over the world.
Bon always called the stuff that he was doing back then "bubble gum" music. In the Valentines, he was put there because he had a good voice, as opposed to the guy who was the actual frontman, who was there for the image. Bon used to say, "In that band, I was a rhythm singer."
It's rumored that, around the time of his death, Bon was a little disgruntled and alienated from the band, even to the point of considering doing a solo album.
Naw. He was looking forward to making the next record which was to become Back in Black, and he came down to the studio several times and played drums while Mal and I worked out the guitar bits. The week he died, we had just worked out the music and he was going to come in and start writing lyrics. So no, I wouldn't say that he was disgruntled. He was itching to go.
When Bon died, you must have been terribly bereaved. Did you possibly feel some anger as well, as his death placed the band -- all that you had worked so hard to build -- in jeopardy?
No. The first emotion I had was total shock. I mean, we knew things with Bon were wild and hectic, but they always were. It was not a situation that I perceived to be life-threatening. I know that a few times he came close to being ill. To top it all off he had asthma, so there were a couple of times when you'd think, "The guy's pretty sick. He should be looking after himself a little bit." But a couple of days later, he'd be fine.
I think feelings of anger and things like that don't even enter your head. And at the time of the death of anyone who's close to you, you just feel at a total loss and wonder what the hell it's all about. At the time of Bon's death, I was in shock for days. And then all the other things start going through your head. You start thinking, “Jeez, I should have been near him." But never anger.
If you had to pick the most outrageous -- and printable -- thing that you ever saw Bon do, what would it be?
Well, there's a lot to chose from. And at the time there were a lot of stories told to me by buddies of his about things Bon had done that he'd certainly never related to me. I remember a time when somebody said to him, "I'll give you 10 bucks if you leap out the window into that pool downstairs." Mind you, this was in an apartment building -- and he did it. I grabbed the guy and said, "Don't you ever fucking dare Bon to do something again." Accepting dares was Bon's favorite party trick. He had no fear when it came to things like that.
You could fill books with all the stuff he did in a normal week. Some people would say, "That's outrageous." Others would think that it was disgusting.
Can you describe Albert Studios, where you recorded all of your studio albums up through Dirty Deeds, and where most of the outtakes on this box were tracked?
I'll tell you, the room where we used to record got demolished, but I liked it so much that I would have liked to have taken the fucking walls with me and kept them. A guitar just came to life in there. It was a little downtrodden, but it had a great vibe, this energy to it. There were other, fancier, studios in the building that they tried to get us to use. We would go in for a couple of weeks, but it was too polished and clinical, so we would high-tail it back to the Iittle box.
Was everything recorded essentially live, with all the instruments in the same room?
Yeah, everything was around you. For separation, you threw a bit of carpet over the amps. Over the years we worked there, we had figured out where the mikes should be, and barely any fiddling needed to be done.
Bonfire shows the great contrast between the sound that the band had when you were working with the production team of Harry Vanda and George Young, and the more polished results you achieved with Mutt Lange. Why was the decision made to move away from the Vanda/Young team, which had produced such good results?
To Harry and George, AC/DC was their baby. They worked with us from the beginning and showed us everything. But when we started touring around the world and gaining a foothold in different markets, the powers-that-be began to get more involved, and suggested that we try someone else. At the time George said, "Look, these guys want to try someone else. And for you, it's good. You'll gain experience."
The label hooked us up with all these hotshot producers, and all these guys would do is walk in a room and say, "Put some fuckin' echo on here and echo on the guitar and reverb on the drums…" And we were like, "That's it? That's your idea of production?"
Wasn't Eddie Kramer [Kiss, Jimi Hendrix] one of the producers you were "introduced" to?
Eddie seemed to know what he wanted from a sound point of view, but I think that, on the music side, he lacked input. He also really doubted what we were about. He used to point at Bon and ask, "Can that guy sing?" 'Cause there would be Bon, barely able to talk, let alone walk, huddled in some alcove with a girl he had picked up hitchhiking that day! We'd say, "Don't worry, he can fucking sing, man." And then he thought I was a fool, just there for a bit of image enhancement.
We wanted someone more in tune with what the band was, and we wanted someone who actually had ideas about the music. When Mutt heard the music, he said, "I can do this justice. I can do you guys justice." That's why we went with him, because he said the right things. We wanted someone who was still hungry, who wasn't "Mr. Professional" who had been doing the gig so long that he was on automatic.
It's true that, at the time, Mutt was not the super-producer he went on to become.
No, he wasn't. He had had a bit of success with a few things on the pop side, but he was a bit green when it came to the rock thing. Every now and then he would get a bit poppy, and we would say, "Fuck that. We didn't come half way around the world to be in a teenybopper band." We were never a band that girls really fucking screamed at, anyway! We were always conscious not to fall into that trap.
Your solos on the records you did with Mutt [Highway to Hell, Back in Black, For Those About to Rock] are more structured and, above all else, shorter than those on your earlier records. Did you initially feel resentful of Mutt for putting restraints on you?
Not really, as I understood what his objective was. I can compare it to when Malcolm or George would sit with me and we would do solos: I would tell George, "I'll work out a bit for these sections," and George would go, "No, just go. Fuck the bum notes if it's cookin.'" George was looking for energy, for the nice surprise. With Mutt, the operative was more to put it into a structure and keep it neat, so he'd keep going at you until it was right.
Sometimes, though, it was a useless exercise. He'd run off a few tracks with different ideas, and then he would come to you and say, "Well, what were you playing in the beginning? Let's go back to that." [laughs]
There were times where we would simply put a stop to it and say, " It's simply not us, Mutt.
We've got to keep it raw and dirtier for us to get what we want on the tape ." He was good in that sense. If you weren't happy with what you were hearing back, he would work with you. Mutt was never dictatorial. But as a band, we had a very strong idea of what we wanted to walk away with at the end of the day, and we wouldn't settle for anything else. And even today, if Malcolm is standing there -- because he works with me all the time -- if he goes, "Yeah," that matters more to me than the opinion of the guy who may have produced 20 Platinum albums.
Just before AC/DC and Mutt were to enter the studio to record Back in Black, Bon died. How was the decision to replace him and keep the band going made?
At first, we just put a block on the phones so that we didn't get managers ringing up and people saying, "What's going on? What are you doing?"
Finally, we got together with the guy who was managing us then, and he said, "Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to continue on or do you want to call it quits?" We said, "Well, we've written these songs. We should at least try with them." And from that decision came the need for a singer, because none of us sing -- maybe a backing vocal or a grunt, but no more than that. The only thing we didn't want was somebody who was going to clone Bon, because that couldn't be done.
What was it about Brian that got him the gig?
Well, first of all, he didn't walk through the door with any airs about him, and he seemed like somebody who would get along as a band member. We didn't even know that he was there to audition. He was sitting around, playing pool with a couple of our friends, thinking that they were waiting around to audition as well. Finally, Mal said, "What are you doing here?" because there were other bands rehearsing in the building. And he said, "I came down to audition for a singing gig." He came, sang a couple of our songs that he'd been playing in cover bands, and had a damn good crack at them.
In many ways, Bon sounded nastier and more sinister than Brian does. Do you think that Back in Black would have been as successful as it was if Bon had sung on it?
I think so. It might have been a little different with Bon, but basically, the music had been finished before he died. The bulk of the tracks were the same.
Are you working on another studio album?
Yes, Malcolm and I have been writing since we came off the road about a year ago -- strumming away, as usual.