AC/DC: If You Want Blood...
A little more than 30 years ago AC/DC released what would become a watershed album for them: If You Want Blood...You’ve Got It. For a band whose reputation rested almost entirely on its legendary abilities as an ass-kicking, tit-squeezing, drink-guzzling live act, it was apposite that it should be a truly balls-out live recording that finally lifted them out of the hard rock ghetto they had ruled for so long and into the mainstream UK pop charts. Six months earlier, their fifth studio album, Powerage, had crept briefly into the UK Top 20 – kick-started by the appearance at No. 24 in the singles’ chart of the track ‘Rock’n’roll Damnation’. If You Want Blood… sealed the deal, reaching No. 13 in the UK charts.
Commercial breakthrough, though, is not the only reason why If You Want Blood… is now regarded as such a turning point in the story of AC/DC. Impossible to see at the time – not least when looking at life through the bottom of a whisky glass as singer Bon Scott tended to do – yet crystal clear now, from the perspective of Bon’s drink-related death just over a year later, If You Want Blood… marked the end of the glorious, free-for-all, early days of AC/DC. While their next album, Highway To Hell – the phrase guitarist Angus Young used to describe touring the US the previous summer – would both herald the beginning of the new, commercially monumental era of AC/DC, and become Bon’s epitaph.
The irony is that back in 1978 there was no more seemingly indestructible figure than the self-styled hard man born 32 years before as Ronald Scott in the small Scottish town of Kirriemuir. When his parents emigrated to Australia in the early 1950s, his new schoolmates nicknamed him ‘Bonnie Scotland’. Several playground fights later, that got shortened simply to Bon. Indeed, it was his ability to hit things hard that got him started in music; in the Perth Pipe Marching Band where he was the under-17 drum champion five years in a row before leaving school. Turned down by the Army for being "socially maladjusted,” by the time he joined up with AC/DC Bon had spent a short time in prison, been a hippy living on the streets of Melbourne, and gigged as a drummer then singer – "singers get more chicks,” he explained simply – in any number of short-lived groups (most notably, progressive rockers Fraternity).
Having started out as the band’s driver, when original AC/DC singer David Evans left after a row Bon was simply the nearest "biggest extrovert we knew”. For his first gig, recalled Angus, "He downed two bottles of bourbon with some coke and speed and said, ‘Right, I’m ready’. Next thing we know he was running around with his wife’s knickers on and yelling at the audience.”
As Angus’ guitar-playing older brother in the band, Malcolm later recalled, "Bon used to do anything. He’d go out Cray fishing with these really rough, redneck Aussies. And they all made him get these tattoos. Basically, if he didn’t get them he’d get the shit kicked out of him.” Angus laughed: "He used to say, ‘That girl’s not for you, Angus’. Then at the end of the night he’d go off with her himself.”
It was Bon’s determinedly down to earth character that would solidify the band’s musical approach; his storytelling, Chuck Berry-meets-Benny Hill lyrics the key to many of their early anthems, such as ‘The Jack’ - their sing-along paean to venereal disease; ‘Problem Child’ - an autobiographical recollect of his schooldays; and, of course, ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, the "true story” of a 20-stone Tasmanian who had attempted to pick Bon up with the line, "I have slept with 28 famous men.” Never one to shirk from a challenge Bon, who already had a girlfriend, awoke the next morning with his girlfriend on one side and Rosie on the other. "Twenty-nine,” she said as she opened her eyes.
"Seriously, Bon was the biggest single influence on the band,” said Malcolm. "When Bon came in, it pulled us all together. He had that real stick-it-to-’em attitude. We all had it in us, but it took Bon to really bring it out.” Or as Bon’s close friend, Rose Tattoo guitarist Mick Cocks later recalled, "Bon was one of the last true rock’n’rollers, a real person. It wasn’t a business to him, it was an addiction, something he had a gut feeling for. He lived it.”
Of course, there was more to AC/DC than just a few bawdy tales. There was the musical history – formed by Angus and Malcolm, two teenagers inspired by their older brother George who had already been a pop star in the mid-60s with the Easybeats, whose ‘Friday On My Mind’ had turned them into "the Australian Beatles” when it became a worldwide hit.
There was also the name – chosen by sister Margaret, pointing to the ‘AC/DC’ sticker on the family Hoover, and which Angus and Malcolm thought made them sound powerful, though not everyone in the glam-obsessed early 70s got the same impression, hence the band’s early bookings at gay bars. (A misunderstanding only cleared up after the bruisingly macho and heavily tattooed Bon joined.)
And there was the bizarre schoolboy uniform that Angus insisted on wearing onstage. Another suggestion from Margaret after he complained he couldn’t move freely enough onstage. Since 15-year-old Angus was still actually going to school at the time it seemed like a neat idea. Then the first time he wore it onstage "he became a monster,” said Malcolm, and that was it, he never wore anything else again. (These days the outfits are made by London tailor David Chambers, and come in every colour of the rainbow.)
Above all, though, there were the riffs. Big ones, fat ones, fast and slow ones. By the time they met Bon, Malcolm and Angus Young had already managed to come up with more memorable guitar riffs than most guitarists would summon in a lifetime. As that other renowned riff-meister, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi later remarked, when it came to guitar riffs, "AC/DC are the best – in their own way as classic a band as Zeppelin or Deep Purple.”
Ultimately, it was the combination of the two – Bon’s impish charm and the Young brothers’ lean-cut riffs, ably abetted by the pounding, keep-it-simple-dimples rhythms of bassist Mark Evans (replaced in 1977 by Cliff Williams) and drummer Phil Rudd – that made AC/DC so unique. And yet success for the quintet was anything but overnight, despite their early albums all going gold in Australia. "Having a big album in Oz is like having a big seller in Guernsey,” explained Malcolm, "It doesn’t pay the rent.”
Instead, the band set out in the summer of 1976 to make their fortune in Britain, where under a new worldwide deal with Atlantic their first two Australian albums (High Voltage and TNT) had now been repackaged as one release: High Voltage. With the Youngs, like Scott, having been born in Scotland, coming to Britain, Bon later told me, "just seemed the logical next step to take.” Renting a house in South London, "living together like the Monkees, except without the sun and lots of dope-smoking,” the band made an immediate splash opening for Back Street Crawler at the Marquee. "The next week we headlined it and the crowd was right round the block,” recalled Angus. Offered a residency, AC/DC at the Marquee became the hot London ticket of the summer of ’76. Prestigious opening slots on tours by T. Rex and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow followed, along with a spot at the Reading Festival. John Peel was an early champion and played both High Voltage (UK version) and early Australian import copies of their next album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap on his hugely influential Radio One show. Sounds magazine hailed them as the best thing since sliced kangaroo meat and sponsored a tour, and within weeks of that they were on their way for their first shows in America.
"It all happened so fast it seemed easy,” Malcolm told me years later. "Except of course it wasn’t. The shows were great but the stuff in between – the travelling, dealing with the press, the record company people and all that – it was a real eye-opener for us. And at the end of it we still hadn’t actually made any money, really.”
Fortunately, AC/DC was not the kind of band that needed tons of money to keep them going. The new Dirty Deeds album had been released in Australia in time for the band’s return that Christmas, and a follow-up, Let There Be Rock, was recorded in just a week, ready for release when the band returned to Britain in April ’77.
"Bands take years to make their albums now,” Malcolm observed when last we spoke. "Back then we were making them in days. Just go in, lay down the basic tracks live, all playing together in a room like at a gig. Add some backing vocals and crash, bang, wallop.” He chuckled. "I mean, there was a little bit more to it than that, I suppose, but not much!”
Producing the band’s albums were George Young and his former Easybeats confrere Harry Vanda. "Keeping it in the family,” as Malcolm put it. The plus side of this approach was the duo’s obvious empathy for the band’s essential musical ethos, which was to keep things as simple and unpretentious as possible – an almost unheard of idea in the increasingly ‘progressive’ mid-70s mien of album-oriented rock. But despite both albums containing what were even then regarded as all-time AC/DC classics such as ‘Problem Child’, ‘Ride On’, ‘Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be’ and ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’, with neither Dirty Deeds nor Let There Be Rock exactly setting the world’s charts alight, Atlantic were beginning to wonder if this homespun approach was really the right one.
Behind closed doors, the powers that be at the label had already decided, in fact, that if the follow up wasn’t a hit they might have to step in and make some changes. Powerage was the first AC/DC album that Vanda, Young and the band had spent a prolonged – by their standards – period of time recording, and it was released to great fanfare in the summer of 1978. This time they did make it into the UK Top 20, and once again the album contained a handful of instantly loveable anthems in ‘Rock’n’roll Damnation’, ‘Riff Raff’ and ‘Sin City.’ But Powerage lacked what the suits liked to call "crossover appeal” – that is, while it went down a storm with the band’s hardcore followers, anyone not acquainted with the full-on AC/DC live experience was unlikely to be moved to rush out and buy it.
Needless to say, the band itself felt unmoved by such arguments. What did they care about people who didn’t go to their shows when so many were now queuing up to see them all over the world? Bon deflected criticism that the album was just more of the same. "Look what happened to the Rolling Stones,” he said. "They started looking for a new direction, going off on tangents, and they produced shit. And then the punk bands came along and scared ’em, and now you will notice, they are going back to producing what they’ve always done best – rock’n’roll. You progress, sure you do, but you move forward in the same direction. You do not shoot off on some tangent.”
On April 28, the band set off on their biggest UK tour yet. Their transition from club band to arena stars was fully underway. Straight after the tour it was off to Germany for two TV shows. Three weeks later they were in Amer¬ica. Between times, Bon and Cliff took a few days off in Paris together, staying with Trust, a French punk-metal band that had recorded a couple of AC/DC songs in French and been banned from French TV for singing ‘Love At First Feel’.
In America that summer AC/DC opened for Rainbow, Alice Cooper, Journey and Aerosmith. It was at this time that they got their reputation for being a bad support act – simply because they were so good at blowing away whichever headliners they were supporting. At the Summer Jam open-air festival in Chicago, they received the best reception of the day from a 40,000 crowd that had ostensibly come to see bill-toppers Foreigner, Aerosmith and Van Halen. Powerage may not have been getting much US radio play but the band was getting through nonetheless on a word-of-mouth level. So much so that by the time they played the Palladium in New York in August, opening for Rainbow, a large percentage of the crowd had come to see them rather than the headliners.
"When we first went to America I think you could count on one hand the radios that were playing rock music,” Angus told one reporter. "But the ones that were, were blasting our album. The mainstream music then was all very soft rock or disco, but what was good about it was the kids were all showing up in huge numbers at rock shows. It was almost like two worlds…”
Down in the Deep South, where they liked their rock hard, AC/DC had already reached headliner status, topping a bill at a 14,000-seater arena in Jacksonville, Florida, that also included Cheap Trick and Molly Hatchet. "I enjoy touring,” Angus told Sounds. "I do get fidgety if we have a day off, because touring is geared around twiddling your thumbs and getting ready for the show. If the show’s missing, the day just doesn’t feel right.” Bon agreed: "It’s sometimes a drag being in a different hotel every night but it’s not as bad as being stuck in front of a lathe every day of your life for 50 years. I am here and I am free and I’m seeing new faces every night and touching new bodies or whatever. It’s great, there’s nothing like it.”
Angus was now wowing the crowds with his new toy – a cordless guitar. He would climb onto Bon’s shoulders, soloing while running through the crowd. At the Whisky A Go Go in LA that summer they ran right out the door and had to buy tickets from a tout to get back in when security refused to believe who they were and what they had just done!
Australian writer and TV producer, and another of Bon’s oldest friends, Vince Lovegrove joined the band on tour that summer and later wrote in RAM: "Very impressed, I was… ritzy hotel, the best looking groupies I’d ever set eyes on. I mean, it was the real thing. I thought, if anyone deserves it, Bon does… He said he’d make it and he was making it – in style.”
Beneath it all, though, Bon admitted to Lovegrove that he was "getting tired.” He had been on the road for so many years now, he said: "Planes, hotels, groupies, booze, people, towns, they all scrape something from you.” Lovegrove concluded: "He set a fast pace, the old Bon, but if you dug deep enough, you found an accumulative exhaustion that threatened to sap his upfront energy.”
The 14-week US tour continued right through September, before the band returned to Britain. There would be just six days off before the start of the next British and European tour. It wasn’t just Bon feeling the strain now. Drummer Phil Rudd also began to crack under the pressure but the tour was too important and according to one insider, "they just propped Phil up and made him perform.”
With Powerage having long slipped from the charts, Atlantic had originally intended to cash-in on the band’s increasing live popularity by releasing a greatest hits album called 12 Of The Best – the kind of top-drawer, all killer, no filler collection, they argued, that the band had patently failed to deliver so far. But again, the band argued against such crass commercialism and a compromise was eventually reached with the suggestion of a live album. That way, the boys argued, you’d get all the big numbers on one album, just like a greatest hits, but also a taste of what the band was actually like live – where they always did best.
It was a cunning plan that paid big dividends. If You Want Blood… You’ve Got It – replete with a cover shot of Angus impaled on his own guitar as Bon leers over his shoulder – became the album that paved the way for AC/DC’s ultimate international breakthrough the following year.
Though they didn’t know it yet, it would also be the last AC/DC album to be produced by Vanda and Young who, according to the gatefold sleeve notes, worked on tapes recorded "during Australian, UK and American tours.” In actuality, the bulk of the album came from the band’s show at the Glasgow Apollo the previous April. That huge roar which you can hear before the first encore of ‘Let There Be Rock’ is the crowd’s reaction to seeing the band return to the stage all wearing Scottish football shirts.
The autumn ’78 tour of the UK that coincided with the release of If You Want Blood… took up the latter part of October, 16 dates in 18 days that culminated this time with two sold-out nights, on November 15 and 16, at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Atlantic threw a party backstage after the first night’s show where Bon got so drunk, according to Melody Maker writer Steve Gett, he "needed the stomach pump before getting to his feet again.” Speaking on the phone the next day to the Herald in Melbourne, Bon denied the success was having any significant effect, though. "All that has changed is my intake of alcohol,” he joked, "I can now afford to drink twice as much.”
Speaking later that same day to the US magazine, Circus, however, he warned: "There’s been an audience waiting for an honest rock’n’roll band to come along and lay it on ’em. There’s a lot of people coming out of the woodwork to see our kind of rock. And they’re not the same people who would go to see James Taylor or a punk band.” The suggestion: AC/DC’s time had come. Never mind what the radio was playing or the critics were currently favouring, look at the size of the crowds that were now coming to see AC/DC play. It was a prophetic interview.
The plan after that had been to take Christmas off in Australia, then begin working on the next album. But a storm was brewing. Atlantic had decided the band needed a new producer to take their albums to the next level. What’s more, history now tells us they were right. Just six months after If You Want Blood… the band was back in London working with Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, the producer who would help gift them Highway To Hell, an album that would go on to sell more than six million copies in the US alone – but would also be Bon’s last.
A new era was about to begin in more ways than one, though it was an era which would never quite satisfy those of us that were lucky enough to experience those early heady, pure rock n roll days.
But that’s another story entirely…
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