By John Raptis
In June 2016, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that AC/DC’s classic Back In Black album had sold 22 million copies in the USA alone to that point (and 50 million worldwide!) making it the best selling hard rock album of all time next to Led Zeppelin IV. What is astounding to take into account is that five months before the release of the album, the band’s enigmatic and gloriously boisterous lead singer Bon Scott was found dead in a parked car in London.
Never one to turn down a drink, Bon Scott had every reason to be in a celebratory mood on the evening of February 18, 1980. The band were one of Australia’s biggest musical exports, having cracked the English and European markets and made it big in the USA with the brilliant 1979 release Highway to Hell. The recording sessions for that album’s successor were just about to begin. In early February, the Young brothers, Angus and Malcolm had met up in a rehearsal studio in London (‘E-Zee Hire’) to begin some pre-production work on the new album. As the duo were churning out new riffs on their guitars, in walked in Bon Scott who asked the duo if he could play drums for them whilst working on the new tunes.
In the ensuing jam session the trio worked on songs that later became Have A Drink on Me and Let Me Put My Love Into You.
At the end of the session, they decided to meet back in a week. Bon said it would give him time to come up with lyrics for the songs. Bon Scott said his goodbyes and left the studio. It was the last time Angus and Malcolm Young would ever see him.
A few days later, Bon was dead.
On the evening of February 18, 1980 Bon Scott went out to catch a few bands and have a few drinks with his friend Alistair Kinnear. The pair took Kinnear’s Renault to the Music Machine in Camden Town where they wound up getting completely wasted on Scotch Whiskey, with Bon allegedly drinking quadruple shots straight from a tall glass.
At the end of the night Kinnear drove the passed-out singer to his apartment. Bon was completely out cold in the passenger seat and unresponsive to Kinnear’s efforts to wake him. This had happened many, many times before and Kinnear called Scott’s girlfriend Silver Smith for some advice. She told Kinnear to take some blankets down to Scott and to let him sleep it off in the car.
The next morning when Kinnear went down to his car, he found Bon twisted around the gearshift and cold to the touch. Bon Scott was pronounced dead on arrival at Kings College Hospital; the coroner’s final verdict was ‘Death by misadventure: acute alcohol poisoning.’ The coroner also found that he had asphyxiated on his own vomit after his neck twisted in the night. At the time of his death, the international press made false accusations about a drug overdose. While Scott did have previous interludes with narcotics (which included a heroin overdose in 1975), no traces of illicit substances were found in his system by the coroner. Bon was 33 years old.
Then, on Wednesday, February 20, the news reached Angus, Malcolm and the rest of the band who were stunned and shocked to their collective foundations. The mourning was not only for Bon Scott but also for AC/DC. Many speculated that this was the end of the band, with the blow of losing such a key member meaning they would never recover.
Scott’s body was flown to Fremantle, Australia for burial. His father took the Young brothers aside and urged them to continue with AC/DC. “It was Bon’s dad who more or less convinced us to get back into it,” Angus recounts. “He said to me and Malcolm, “Listen, Bon always loved what you two guys did. It was the first time I ever saw him truly happy and loving what he was doing. I’m sure if something had happened to one of you two guys that Bon would have carried on. You guys should get out there and find someone, and just keep going.”
“Our management at the time, they kept recommending singers, asking if we wanted to see anyone or listen to them,” Angus remembers. “But Malcolm kept saying to me, ‘We’ll do it when we feel we’ve got all our music together. The rest can wait!’ We didn’t want to be rushed into anything. We knew we were never gonna find a clone of Bon; we wanted someone who would be their own character.”
Enter Brian Johnson. Legend has it that an AC/DC fan in Chicago sent AC/DC’s management a tape of Brian singing in his band Geordie. The tape came with a note suggesting that Johnson would be an appropriate replacement for the deceased Scott. Producer Mutt Lange who’d produced Highway To Hell heard the tape and agreed.
“We were looking for someone who was just like ourselves,” Angus explains. “Someone who could have a laugh and could tell a joke.”
“The first song we did was Whole Lotta Rosie, because I love that song and I used to do it with Geordie,” Johnson recalls. “I was a huge fan of Bon Scott – a real sleazy voice!”
“We’d done a few tracks with Brian in rehearsal and recorded it,” Angus remembers. “When we sat and listened to it later, we knew he had a great voice and could work with the material we had.” On April 8 1980 – just over six weeks from Bon’s death – Brian Johnson was introduced as AC/DC’s new lead singer.
A week later – the Back In Black recording sessions began at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas.
“We knew we were going to call the album Back In Black even before we began recording,” Angus says. “Malcolm and myself pretty much agreed that we wanted the cover black, as reference to Bon.”
And in tribute it stands forevermore…