HITS OF THE DECADE – 1970’s

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Number 3. 

It’s A Long Way to The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll) (B Scott/A Young/M Young) – AC/DC 1975

 

William and Margaret Young (above with George) emigrated from the grim Glasgow housing estate of Cranhill (above right) to Sydney in 1963, George, Malcolm and Angus Young were part of the family of nine who relocated to Sydney’s Villawood Migrant Hostel (below) as “£10 Poms.”easybeats20Another brother Alex was a jobbing musician, with the group Grapefruit, who decided to remain in the UK. George went on to international success as rhythm guitarist with the Easybeats and subsequently in partnership with ex-Easybeat Harry Vanda (together below), became a recording and production team of tremendous influence at Alberts Music (Syd).easybeats1Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young formed AC/DC in 1973, Malcolm had performed with the Sydney band the Velvet Underground, but left to join his younger brother, to form a hard rock band that would become the most successful in Australian recording history. Their sister Margaret suggested the band’s name, after noting an electrical product warning, on the family’s sewing machine, she also suggested that Angus wear a school uniform on stage. Their older brother George was their mentor and a creative force in their evolution, they were a Scottish migrant family and clannish in their belief that AC/DC would become a world force in rock music.EasybeatsGeorge took his young brothers under his wing, he was determined that his siblings would not repeat the mistakes that had prevented the Easybeats (above) from realizing their full potential, they made their public debut in December 1973 at Cronulla’s Last Picture Show (Syd) and had limited success with their debut single Can I Sit Next to You, Girl. The brothers would then reveal the ruthless and driven nature of their commitment to future success when they sacked the incumbent front man Dave Evans, a Gary Glitter/Brian Connolly (Sweet)-style glam rocker.The sacking of Evans was brutal, Malcolm and Angus had already sacked two bass players, two drummers and two managers before that, and the current bass player (Rob Bailey) and drummer (Peter Clack) would both get their marching orders soon after. In 1974 there was no obvious replacement for Dave Evans when the Youngs scanned the roster of available talent at Alberts Music. William Shakespeare had a good falsetto voice but a cringeworthy image, John Paul Young was a pop balladeer without the necessary grit and mongrel in his voice, former Easybeats front man Stevie Wright was enjoying a peak in his solo career, despite ongoing issues with heroin addiction, and he did not want to join a band with George’s little brothers anyway, and then there was former Valentines/Fraternity front man, Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott.ACDC50The long-haired hippie from the Adelaide Hills did not wear shoes, favored bib and brace overalls, consumed industrial quantities of bourbon and weed daily, was 28 years old, about to divorce his first wife Irene Thornton (above), and still recovering from a near-fatal motorcycle crash, and he hadn’t had a hit with anyone for five years – not the most impressive CV!ACDC42But Bon was also a Scot, a tattooed, hard-living, raspy-voiced, gap-toothed, mischievous, magnetic, profane front-man, half cock-rock shenanigans, and half British music- hall comic burlesque, leeringly suggestive and endearingly cheeky at the same time, according to Mal and Angus, he was perfect for the job, and George agreed, the clan was now complete.Left to right below-Malcolm Young, Bon Scott, Angus Young, Mark Evans, and Phil Rudd.ACDC39Scott’s idol was Little Richard and he brought a similar flamboyance and theatricality to the group, his chemistry with the Young brothers was instantaneous, despite early reservations about the age gap, Bon was 28 and Mal and Angus were 21 and 19 respectively.

Where Bon was gregarious, trusting and generally good-humored, the Young brothers were suspicious, tight-lipped, combative, and dour, the trio represented the very essence of the Yin and Yang of the human dynamic in a rock band, but together they were magnificent, as long no one got offside with Angus or particularly Malcolm. The sibling rivalry which drove both Malcolm and Angus to surpass the fame of older brothers George and Alex, was only sublimated in respect of their own relationship, because they knew that together they could achieve something special.

Baby Please Don’t Go, an original hit by Big Joe Williams, which had been covered by Van Morrison’s Them as the B-side of their seminal R&B hit Gloria in the 60’s was the band’s next single and it became their first top 20 hit in March 1975. The Young brothers and Bon Scott teamed with a rhythm section of Rob Bailey (bass) and Peter Clack (drums), in a session produced by George Young, and his former Easybeats band mate, Harry Vanda. AC/DC memorably performed Baby Please Don’t Go on Countdown with Bon Scott in drag wearing a school tunic, twin pigtails, hoop earrings, falsies, makeup, tatts on show, smoking a ciggie, and playing the not-so- innocent schoolgirl to Angus’s schoolboy.

The band was still evolving and the more recognizable rhythm section of Mark Evans (bass) and Phil Rudd (drums) had yet to form, High Voltage was released in July ’75 with Tony Currenti on drums joined by the Youngs’, Scott and Rob Bailey with stellar bass guitar support from older brother George.ACDC46High Voltage became their first top ten hit, the sound was not yet the fully-formed riff rocking, anthemic assault of future releases but the template was cast –  the sing-along chorus, the call and response chant of “high” in the bridge at live performances and the antics of schoolboy-clad Angus – he wore the Ashfield High School uniform –  improvising manically whilst Bon Scott shamelessly leered into the cameras at their Countdown performances – would all become standard AC/DC burlesque. High Voltage was also unique in that big brother George had suggested the brothers write a song with the chord progression A-C-D-C, and they did, and to ensure that the song was at least three minutes in duration, Angus segued into a cover of Chuck Berry’s School Days towards the end of the recording.ACDC27It was Chris Gilbey, Albert’s A&R promotions manager, who added the lightning flash to the AC/DC logo, and also conceived the album title High Voltage, if a smart-arse asked Bon Scott if he was the AC or the DC in the name, the Captain Sparrow of Rock would reply that he was neither, because he was the streak of lightning in the middle.

High Voltage, Powerage, Flick of the Switch, Live Wire, Heatseeker, TNT and Thunderstruck were all songs that would exemplify the AC/DC fascination with the metaphorical link between electric power and horizontal folk dancing, and as Harry Vanda once observed, “the best way to get a performance out of Angus was to get a couple of chicks in the studio”. Bon Scott’s bawdy lyrics certainly caused Ted Albert conniptions, and he was particularly offended by the lyrical content of several early songs, She’s Got Balls a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Bon’s wife Irene, and The Jack, but ultimately both were recorded without change or censorship, by the avuncular Ted.

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The rise of the hard rock powerhouse that AC/DC would become,  was initially the work of Vanda and Young who shaped the raw energy of the fledgling band within the context of the hard rock that they had been writing and producing for such local acts as the Colored Balls, Buster Brown, the La De Das, and Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, at Alberts Music. By 1975 the band had relocated to Melbourne and were living in the red light area of Landsdowne Road St Kilda East, and they regularly gigged at the huge suburban beer barns around the city – Mathew Flinders (Chadstone), the Waltzing Matilda (Springvale), the Ringwood Iceland Skating Rink, Southside Six (Geelong) and the Station Hotel (Prahran).

It was clear that  in Angus and Malcolm Young the band possessed talented bluesy, lead and rhythm guitarists and in Bon Scott the flashy sleaze of a front-man who could imbue a song with the right amount of innuendo and carnality necessary to connect with the fans. It’s A Long Way To The Top  was the opening track on the High Voltage album, it was Bon who also came up with the name of this song, and the great lyrics which autobiographically reflected his rock and roll life up to that point “Gettin’ robbed/ Getting’ stoned/ Getting’ beat up/ Broken bones/ Gettin’ had/ Gettin’ took/ I tell you folks/ It’s harder than it looks…”

The song captured the honest, straight ahead, uncomplicated, deliberately primitive sound that would characterize future AC/DC songs, better for not being as lewd, lascivious, or misogynistic as some future AC/DC outings and certainly unique among their records for the inclusion of a Bon Scott bagpipe solo.

Kevin Conlan belonged to a pipe band called the Rats of Tobruk when one day he got a call from Bon Scott, who asked him a series of questions which indicated that the caller had no idea how to play the bagpipes, for example – “can I learn to play them in three weeks (no it takes about eight months), “can you do tricks with them like throw them in the air and continue playing” (I wouldn’t recommend it).” ACDC47Kevin Conlan’s band recorded the bagpipe solo on this song at the ABC’s Ripponlea Studio (Melb.) and a monochrome video, conceived and produced by Countdown’s talented Paul Drane,  memorably shows them accompanying AC/DC in a performance of the song on the back of a flatbed truck, wending its way down Melbourne’s Swanston Street to the delight of lunchtime office workers. The video was an homage to the Rolling Stones, who had performed Brown Sugar live on the back of a similar flatbed truck as it wended its way down New York’s Fifth Avenue about nine months before, it was a sensation when shown on Countdown, and the next day It’s a Long Way to the Top was released and became the band’s third top twenty hit.

 

The rhythm section of Mark Evans (bass) and Phil Rudd (real name Phillip Hugh Norman Wischke Rudzevecuis) (drums) was now in place and their metronomic riffs and beat perfectly complemented the Young brothers’ guitar pyrotechnics and Bon Scott’s lyrics, which he disarmingly described as “rude poems”.ACDC38It’s A Long Way to the Top has become an iconic and much-loved Australian song, the potent alchemy of Vanda and Young producing, mentoring, cajoling, and extracting the power chords and recognizable riffs from their talented charges, would come to shape and characterize both the AC/DC sound and the Alberts sound in the future. Their unique riffing would echo down the years with Rose Tattoo (below left), the Angels (below right), and the Choirboys and be imitated by such international rock acts as Status Quo, Aerosmith, Metallica and Sepulchra.

The record too proved to be irresistible, as “Acka Dacka” took the song to #9 in December ’75, it was also acknowledged by APRA as the ninth best Australian song of the 1926-2001 era, and when a series of tribute concerts for Australia artists from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was staged early in the 2000’s,  it was naturally called Long Way To The Top.ACDC51Initially they were scorned in the USA and panned by Rolling Stone magazine, the self-appointed arbiters of hard rock credibility, whose critique of the High Voltage album by Billy Altman opined “Those concerned with the future of hard rock may take solace in knowing that with the release of the first U.S. album by these Australian gross-out champions, the genre has hit its all-time low. Lead singer Bon Scott spits out his vocals with a truly annoying aggression which, I suppose, is the only way to do it when all you seem to care about is being a star so that you can get laid every night. Stupidity bothers me. Calculated stupidity offends me.”ACDC41But without deviating too much from the formula set with High Voltage, AC/DC would go on to sell over 200 million albums and now sits comfortably inside the list of the top ten biggest-selling rock acts of all time., and belatedly pick up their only Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2009 for War Machine. Key to the collage of AC/DC lead singers below, left to right – Dave Evans, Bon Scott, Brian Johnson, and Axl Rose.ACDC43

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