AC/DC’s Highway To Hell: The late 70s album was a formative influence on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal

By on April 14, 2016

Released in late July 1979, AC/DC’s Highway To Hell was the band’s infamous last album they’d recorded with their lead singer singer Bon Scott, whose official cause of death, cited as acute alcohol poisoning — another “Death by Misadventure” — in London in February of 1980. It was the band’s fifth internationally-released studio album and their sixth to be released in Australia, and you can hear all about what happened behind the scenes in AC/DC: Highway To Hell, A Classic Album Under Review, available now on our Night Flight Plus channel.

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Early in the doc and just before the album’s release, we see part of the band’s interview they did on July 16th, 1976, in London’s Covent Garden by a reporter for ABC’s “Countdown,” Molly Meldrum’s weekly nationally-broadcast Australian top 40 pop music show aimed at a teenage audience (which we told you about here), which also happened to be one of the first Australian TV programs to be filmed in color.

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Bon Scott, who is carrying a banana he later eats on camera during the interview (he also seems to be smuggling another banana in the front of his cutoff shorts) and the rest of band — guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams — made regular appearances on the show during that period before they started touring overseas, but their last appearance on the show (April 3, 1977) was their last TV appearance for more than twenty years.

Sadly, most of the shows from “Countdown”‘s early years (1974-1978) are actually missing now, due to the tapes having been wiped clean in order to be re-used by ABC, but you can watch the full AC/DC interview as a bonus feature on their Plug Me In DVD set from 2007, and you can see much of it here in this Under Review episode, released in 2008.

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This 76-minute Under Review documentary features rare and classic footage of the band performing songs from Highway To Hell, as well as interviews with Scott and guitarist Angus Young, and more interviews with people who worked on the record, like Tony Platt (who co-produced the album with Mutt Lange), friends of Bon Scott, like his former bandmate and longtime friend Vincent Lovegrove, as well as rock journos who help place the album in the context of the AC/DC discography, including AC/ DC biographers (including Clint Walker), Paul Stenning, Classic Rock magazine’ Jerry Ewing, BBC 6 Music DJ Jane Gazzo, and Total Rock FM DJ and AC/DC expert, Malcolm Dome.

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The focus here is, as you might expect, placed squarely on Bon Scott, who was born Ronald Belford Scott on July 9, 1946, in Forfar, Scotland. His family emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1952, when Scott was just six years old.

Growing up in Fremantle, in Western Australia, Scott dropped out of high school at age fifteen and often found himself getting into trouble in his teen years, even spending some time locked up at Fremantle Prison’s “assessment centre” before spending another nine months at the Riverbank Juvenile Institution.

He’d wanted to join the Australia Army after he was released, but was rejected for being what they termed “socially maladjusted.”

Scott eventually realized his passionate interest in music might give his life some direction, and so he joined a handful of bands, often as a drummer but usually focusing on lead vocals, ending up in a progressive rock act from Adelaide called Fraternity in 1970 before replacing Dave Evans as the lead singer of AC/DC on October 24, 1974.

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The band’s success with Scott as their frontman — he also seemed to be every bit the juvenile delinquent as brothers Angus and Malcolm Young, also born in Scotland and raise in Australia — propelled them into the heavy rock spotlight to be shared with bands like UFO, the Scorpions and Judas Priest, and powered by the success of several albums in a row, in particular 1978’s Powerage, which introduced to their audience a new template of thundering guitar riffs which would forever be associated with AC/DC thereafter.

It was their last album produced by Harry Vanda and George Young, and who had produced every one of their album’s since their 1975 Australian debut High Voltage.

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However, Atlantic Records — who licensed the band’s albums from Albert Productions — had rejected their 1976 album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (released later, a few years after Bon Scott’s death, in 1981), and encouraged them to start working with a new producer in order to achieve a more FM-radio friendly sound.

The band weren’t too keen on working with a new producer, however; Vanda & Young had produced all their albums recorded in Australia between 1974 and 1978, and Angus and Malcolm Young, the two mainstays of AC/DC, were George’s younger brothers, who felt a strong sense of loyalty to their older brother, and not having him at their side felt like losing a sixth member of the band.

However, they had recently signed with new management deal with Peter Mensch (who had helped develop the careers of Aerosmith and Ted Nugent) and everyone — Mensch, their record labels, and the band themselves — knew they were poised for big success in America if the right pieces fell into place and so they decided recording with a new set of fresh ears might be worthwhile, and they placed themselves in Atlantic Records hands.

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By 1978, AC/DC had released five albums internationally and they’d toured their home country Australia and Europe extensively (their 1976 tour was dubbed the “Lock Up Your Daughters Summer Tour”) and their 1977 tour of America (with virtually no FM radio support) had revealed to them that they were ready to rock a much wider audience in the states with a successful charting album, and so in 1979 Atlantic paired them up with South African-born producer Eddie Kramer, who was something of a legend having worked with both Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, among many others.

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They worked with Kramer at Criteria Studios in Miami, a studio Atlantic Records had regularly used to record their roster of artists in the 1970s, through a connection with Tom Dowd, a leading staff engineer/producer with the label.

Groups like the Bee Gees had recorded some of their biggest hits at Criteria, but the band didn’t get on very well with Kramer, who had wanted them to record a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s early 1967 hit “I’m A Man,” which had charted in the top ten of both the UK Singles chart (#9) and an edited version had charted on the Billboard Hot 100 (#10), but AC/DC weren’t interested in recording songs made famous by other bands.

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After just three weeks in Miami, they parted ways with Kramer, and were then paired up by Atlantic with another South African — from the country of Zambia — a no-nonsense rising star producer named Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who had produced the Boomtown Rats #1 hit “Rat Trap,” as well as other bands, although he wasn’t yet known for some of his biggest production successes, Foreigner’s 4, and Def Leppard’s Hysteria, both massive hit albums).

In his book Highway to Hell, one of the writers who appears in Under Review, Clint Walker, writes,

“The band virtually moved into the Roundhouse Studios in Chalk Farm, spending the best part of three months there. That, to start with, was a shock to AC/DC, who had never previously spent more than three weeks on any one album…Sessions for the album – 15 hours a day, day-in day-out, for over two months – were grueling. Songs were worked and reworked.”

There was to be a new emphasis, under Lange’s direction, on the band’s lyrics, which were shifting away from the comical and flippant turns of phrases and concentrating now on basic garden-variety rock themes, with a further emphasis on Cliff Williams’s backing vocals while solidifying AC/DC’s signature sound: slabs of loud, pounding riffs and grooving backbeats.

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Highway to Hell was released on July 27, 1979 in Europe (August 3rd in the U.S. and November 8 in Australia) by Albert Productions, who licensed the album to Atlantic Records for release outside of Australia.

Propelled by potential singles like “Girls Got Rhythm,” and the instant-classic title track, the album swiftly went on to become AC/DC’s first American million-seller, and their first to break the US Top 100, eventually reaching #17. It is today the second-highest selling AC/DC album behind Back In Black (1980), and vaulted the group into the pantheon of great hard rock acts, proving to be a formative influence on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands emerging in the late 70s, like Saxon and Iron Maiden.

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The band were truly enjoying a new level of success when tragedy struck. On Wednesday, February 19, 1980, 33-year old Bon Scott was found dead in a car parked on a street in London.

The car belonged to a man named Alistair Kinnear, who had driven Scott home after a night drinking heavily in The Music Machine, a club in Camden Town, but Scott’s girlfriend wasn’t at home at the time and he thought it best to drive the lead singer, who had passed out in his car, over to his house. There he found he wasn’t able to bring Scott inside, as his body was too heavy for Kinnear to carry, and so he left Scott in his car overnight, beneath a blanket, in order to let him sleep it off.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Scott had apparently vomited in his sleep and choked to death, and his death adds its own hue and texture to Highway To Hell, their last recordings with Scott on lead vocals, which you’ll learn more about when you watch AC/DC: Highway To Hell, A Classic Album Under Review on our Night Flight Plus channel.

Bonus Track: Have you ever wondered… “What does it sound like if you string together the end of every AC/DC song ever made?”

Well, a couple of guys named Mark and Neanderpaul decided they would find out the answer. There’s a Soundcloud link posted here: Lazerhorse.org

Lazerhorse:

“They took the dying moments of every single AC/DC song ever recorded and lovingly stitched them together into a weird crochet of crashes and chords. I don’t know how long it took them, but it must have been a labour of love, and I assume there were times when they really wished they hadn’t bothered starting. On the plus side, what they have given the world is a wonderful insight… well, perhaps ‘insight’ is too strong a word.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
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