Let There Be Rock: The album that saved AC/DC's career
In 1977, AC/DC were on the rocks. The fans had deserted them, the media was crucifying them and even Bon Scott wasn’t safe from being fired. It was make or break time…
Christmas, 1976, summer time in Australia and, according to Michael Browning, their manager, AC/DC “have got the shits”. What’s more, they reckon it’s all his fault.
“It was very close to being all over,“ Browning says. “Things were progressing very well in London and Europe. We’d been through a whole thing with the Marquee where they broke all the house records. We'd done the Lock Up Your Daughters UK tour and the Reading festival. It was all shaping up really well.”
Having moved the band and their operation to London over the previous eight months - during which time their first UK album release, High Voltage, had served warning on an unsuspecting British music scene of the impending explosion of Antipodean rock coming their way - the band’s sudden absence from the domestic scene in Australia had left AC/DC’s live following there diminished. When Browning brought them back to Oz at the end of 1976 for what should have been a triumphant homecoming, they were surprised to discover that things had changed.
The young, mostly female crowd that had got to know them through regular appearances on TV shows like Countdown had deserted them in favour of stay-at-home poptastic local heroes like Skyhooks. Even the rugged, gig-going blokes who populated the thriving pub and club scene that AC/DC now found themselves back playing had developed a certain grudging attitude towards a band that had “buggered off overseas”, as Browning puts it. Even their hometown crowd in Sydney was diminished: when, after their return home, the band headlined the 5,000-capacity Hordern Pavilion on December 12, the place was barely half-full.
“It was a tough tour,” Browning says. “The group didn’t want to be doing it. I copped a lot of shit for making them do it. But it was a financial necessity. We had to do it to fill the coffers up to keep doing what we were doing in England and Europe. But try explaining that to a young rock’n’roll band.”
“Our grassroots guys stayed with us,” says AC/DC‘s then-bassist Mark Evans. ”But we got banned from a lot of gigs too. Angus was dropping his shorts, and we had a problem with the tour programme where there was a quote on top of my photograph which said: ‘I want to make enough money so I’ll be able to fuck Britt Ekland.’ That nearly derailed the whole tour.“
It wasn‘t all gloom. AC/DC‘s had released their second album, the wonderfully alliteratively titled Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, in the UK (it was their third in Australia), and while the band had yet to get a sniff at the charts in Britain, back home it had raced into the top five. Although even then guitarist and de facto band leader Malcolm Young found cause for complaint: their previous Australian album, T.N.T., had gone to No.1, why hadn‘t Dirty Deeds? What was wrong with everyone? But there was worse to come.
“In the middle of the tour, I get a phone call saying Atlantic Records in America didn‘t like the Dirty Deeds album,” says Browning. “That, in fact, they were going to drop the group from the label. And that’s when things got really bad.”
It had all been going so well up until then. Formed in Sydney by the guitar-playing Young brothers – Malcolm and younger sibling Angus – three years previously, AC/DC had survived serial line-up fluctuations, dodgy gigs in the outback where the punters showed their appreciation by hurling bottles at them, even image changes (the idea of Angus wearing a school uniform came from their mercifully brief glam period) to finally emerge triumphant in 1975 with the release in Oz of their first two, chart-bossing albums, High Voltage and T.N.T.
By then the brothers also had found the perfect frontman: Bon Scott, whose previous career had included forays into pop stardom with The Valentines (the 60s Oz equivalent of a boy band), hairy hippiedom with Fraternity (the Oz equivalent of The Band, at least in their own dope-smoked minds), and several months in jail as a teenager for fighting policemen and stealing cars (and unlawful carnal knowledge with a teenage girl).
Bon was once jokingly asked whether he was the AC or DC in the band. His reply was telling: “Naw, I’m the flash in the middle.” Shirtless, strutting, grinning like a wolf, his arms covered in tattoos, Bon was more than just the singer, he was the storyteller – all his best songs came from real life. “As soon as Bon came along you had the real AC/DC,” says Browning.
Suitably encouraged, AC/DC did what all aspiring Australian rockers had tried to do since The Easybeats (who included elder Young brother George on guitar) showed them the way when they took over the UK singles chart in the mid-60s with Friday On My Mind: they got the hell out of Australia.
“From the very first day I got the job in AC/DC, I was told we would be in the UK within the next 12 months,” recalls Mark Evans. “I thought they were dreaming. But, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.”
But their initial burst of momentum hit a wall at the end of ’76, when they returned to Australia for the tour that would prove to be their rudest awakening yet.
“They’d delivered Dirty Deeds before they went back, which I thought was pretty good,” says Phil Carson, the London-based chief executive of Atlantic Records and the man who signed the band to the label.
“I got Hipgnosis to do a cover for me on the cheap – a reject of somebody else’s cover. But the Atlantic A&R department [in the US] said: ‘We’re sorry, but this album actually doesn’t make it. We’re not gonna put it out and we’re dropping the band.’ And everybody was unanimous in this, by the way – everybody.”
Unable to see how this raw, still unknown young band was going to fit into the formats of the American radio stations then gorging on the soft rock sound of Rod Stewart, Elton John, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, even when Carson pointed out how well the international version of High Voltage had done in Britain and Europe, Atlantic’s New York boss, Jerry Greenberg, was adamant.
“So I said: ‘I think you’re making a very, very big mistake’,” recalls Carson. “But the drop notice was out; they were history. So I went to Neshui [Ertegun, co-owner of Atlantic with brother Ahmet] and showed him the sales figures that we’d got for High Voltage. They were not awe-inspiring but considering we’d only paid $25,000 for the album this was not so bad. There were 10,000 sold in Germany and 12,000 in England. Maybe it had sold 40,000 overall. It had certainly earned its $25,000 back. Neshui backed me up and I re-signed the band at that point. I managed to claw it back in. Thank God I did.”
Despite their precarious position, the band were typically bullish in their refusal to bow to the label. There was no question of them softening their sound to make it more palatable to the American market.
“No, no,” says Browning. “Malcolm’s attitude was the opposite. Total disregard for what Americans think. That’s been their attitude all the way along, which is what’s made them so sustainable and huge, just never ever really compromising in situations like that.”
Nevertheless, to be on the safe side it was decided the band should hurry back into the studio in Sydney and record a new album, before heading back to the UK. Thus, in January 1977, AC/DC entered Alberts Studios in Sydney, where all their records had been made up ’til that point, and spent two weeks recording what came to be known as Let There Be Rock.
“There was always a siege mentality about that band,” says Mark Evans. “But once we all found out that Atlantic had knocked us back the attitude was: ‘Fuck them! Who the fuck do they think they are?’ So from that point onwards it was: ‘Fuck, we’ll show them!’ We were seriously fucking pissed off about it. It didn’t need to be discussed. We were going to go in and make that album and shove it up their arse.”
The result would be the first utterly explosive AC/DC album.
Malcolm and Angus weren’t the only members of the Young family fired up by their ruck with Atlantic. The band’s task of sticking it to their international label was aided in no small measure by the presence of their elder brother George, who was working at the time as an in-house producer for AC/DC’s Australian label Albert Productions, alongside songwriting partner and fellow former Easybeat Harry Vanda.
“If anything, George was even more determined to prove the Americans wrong than Malcolm and Angus,” says Evans. “And I think they got it right.”
They certainly did. From the sound of a whisky-guzzling Bon counting in the intro to the swaggering opening track Go Down, a song about a real-life friend of his named Ruby (as in Ruby Lips, though her actual name was Wendy), known for her fondness for ‘lickin’ on that lickin’ stick’, to the frantic finale Whole Lotta Rosie, about another lady friend acquainted with the singer’s lickin’ stick – this one ‘weighing in at 19 stone’ – Let There Be Rock didn’t let up for its eight-track, 40-minute duration.
It sounded exactly like what it was. Written and recorded fast, before the vibe had time to fade, it was full of blood and spittle and anger and put-a-fuck-into-you fun, fuelled by cheap speed and cold beer, topped up with expensive whisky and at least a million cigarettes, some of them smelling distinctly ‘funny’. If Atlantic in America had been expecting something rather more in tune with the lukewarm milk of drivetime radio in the mid-70s, they were in for a shock.
Even if the band had not been in such an angry frame of mind when they made the album, it’s unlikely that AC/DC would have taken any more care making Let There Be Rock. “All the albums I made with them were done in a two-week period,” says Mark Evans. “The songs were written in the studio; we never did a demo.”
If the three albums that came before it – High Voltage, T.N.T. and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – had an increasingly high quotient of brilliance, Let There Be Rock was the one where AC/DC truly found their place in the scheme of things, not least on the title track, a heartfelt ode to original, no-shit rock’n’roll as evinced by the fastest, most irresistibly hair-shaking piece of high-octane noise ever committed to what was still then just poor, weak vinyl. Elsewhere, Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be stood as AC/DC’s own Brown Sugar.
“If you’re a purist and like the guitars being completely in tune and things being completely studio-sterile, that song’s gonna kill you,” Mark Evans says of the latter, “cos the guitars are whomping all over the place out of tune. But it’s just got that nasty, gritty feel about it that says AC/DC.”
Indeed the whole album sounds like it’s on the verge of spilling over into total feedback. It was recorded live in one room. Mistakes were tolerated if the vibe was strong enough, the energy audibly crackling over the speakers on tracks like Overdose or Bad Boy Boogie.
Another Oz band, The Angels, had recently signed to Albert Productions and were also being produced in the studio by Vanda and Young.
“I watched Let There Be Rock be recorded,” says drummer Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup. “It was all to do with the feel, it wasn’t about perfection. They would play the riff until George said: ‘I think you’ve got the groove there.’ That might be five minutes, it might be 10. Remember, there’s no drum machines, no click tracks, no nothing. They’d just hammer at Phil Rudd.”
The only way the band knew how to record back then was simply to play as if they were doing a gig. “If Angus was recording a solo, he would be climbing all over the amps and rolling around the floor,” says Bidstrup. “That was part of what made George and Harry good producers – they could actually get the band fired up to be so excited about what they were doing that Angus would crawl around on the floor.”
The title song became the one AC/DC would end their set with for years to come. But, for Mark Evans, the real hero of the track was undoubtedly Phil Rudd. “Phil on that is just absolutely out of this world. We did two takes of it, and at the end of the first one I remember thinking: ‘That’s the end of Phil for a couple of hours’ But Phil said: ‘Let’s go again now.’ I thought the guy was gonna fucking explode. From my memory, I’m pretty sure they used the second take.”
Angus later recalled seeing smoke “pouring out of the fucking amp”, at the end of the LTBR take. “George is fucking screaming: ‘Don’t stop!’” The amp held out until the end of the song, when “it melted”. It was simply one of those albums, Angus concluded, “where it was all cooking”.
Rhythm and backing tracks were all completed in the first week. Bon, who’d be given cassettes of the mixed-down, vocal-less tracks which he then “scribbled words to”, did his vocals in the second week, during which Angus also laid down his guitar solos.
“Bon had this book he took everywhere with him,” Evans recalls, “full of song titles and ideas for lyrics. Bon would be locked away with his books, writing lyrics and fitting them to the backing tracks. Except, that is, on those days when you’d go in there and he’d done a bunk and didn’t come back for two days.”
Some of the new tracks, like Bad Boy Boogie, had previously existed in miniature form. “It was a title that was around and a riff that we’d messed around with a little bit maybe at soundcheck,” says Evans. “Others, like Whole Lotta Rosie, didn’t look like they were gonna happen at first.”
The idea of Let There Be Rock – indeed AC/DC’s whole career – without Whole Lotta Rosie is unthinkable. Originally called Dirty Eyes, the band initially struggled to make it work. The song only clicked after a week of work. And yes, the titular character was based on a real person.
“She was a Tasmanian girl,” Evans chuckles. “A massive girl. Bigger than the lot of us put together. There was a brothel out the back of the hotel we used to stay at in Melbourne, St Kilda, and Rosie used to run it. Then one day Pat Pickett, Bon’s best mate and our stage guy, came running in saying: ‘You’ve got to come and have a look at this! He’s fucked her!’ So I went in to Bon’s room, and you could see this massive fucking whale of a woman on the bed, and you could see a little arm sticking out underneath with tattoos on it. Pat said: ‘Look, he’s in there somewhere!’ She was a good sport, though, Rosie, a real good person to have around. I can’t confirm or deny whether Rosie was her real name, but we knew her as Rosie cos she had red hair.”
There was also another delightful little Bon ditty included on the original Australian and British and European versions of the album, but which the American record company put their foot down about: Crabsody In Blue, a wonderfully swinging blues song – half Ride On, half The Jack – based again on Bon’s own personal sexual history. To wit: ‘Well they move on down and they crawl around.’ Thirty-five years on, the humour may seem strained, even anachronistic. But at the time, Crabsody In Blue was positively anarchic. It certainly proved too much for the Americans (and eventually the Japanese record company too), who replaced the track with Problem Child, ironically from Dirty Deeds, the album they had also just rejected.
AC/DC’s fourth album, and their best yet, Let There Be Rock was released in Australia in March 1977… and barely made the Top 20 there. Reviews were equally dismal. The headline in Sydney newspaper the Sun read simply: ‘What a bore.’ Ian Jeffery was a London-based Scot who began working with the band as their tour manager that year. “That hurt them far more than America not getting their music,” he recalls of the reception that the album received in Australia. “The fact that their own country seemed to have let them down.”
The criticism stung them so much that it would be several years before the band deigned to return to Australia to tour. Instead they went back to London, where the sense of AC/DC versus the world only got stronger.
“When we were in London we would all go out,” says Jeffery. “Our pub was the Warrington in Maida Vale. Malcolm would even bring Angus to the Warrington sometimes. Angus would have lemonade or orange, but Malcolm would always start on pints and end up with a couple of stiff whiskies. That’s when you knew it was time to go home.”
But even in London, the tide seemed to be turning against them. Punk had arrived, and suddenly AC/DC were in danger of being swept under the rock-media carpet along with other ‘dinosaur’ rockers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.
The band were typically defiant. They were disdainful of the punks’ playing ability – “At least the Rolling Stones were competent musically,” Angus sneered – and their so-called rebellious attitude.
“The real punks were the [original blues] guys who had to fight from the beginning to get accepted,” declared Malcolm, citing Bon Scott as more of a wild man than Johnny Rotten could ever be. The band’s disdain for what they saw as an entirely artificial scene was further exasperated by incidents like the one when Malcolm stormed off the set after an Australian TV interviewer tried baiting him into saying something ‘outrageous’ – then found himself pursued by the show’s producer begging him to come back and storm off again so they could film it better.
When the NME tried to take AC/DC to task for playing to the crowd rather than ‘challenging’ them, Bon dusted them down. “These kids might be working in a shitty factory all week, or they might be on the dole,” he said. “Come the weekend, they want to go out and have a good time, get drunk and go wild. We give them the opportunity to do that.”
Legendary US critic and punk apostle Lester Bangs – in the UK on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine – declared AC/DC to be “so true to the evolutionary antecedents” of rock; their songs weren’t just about “hold-my-hand stuff, but the most challengingly blatant, flat-out proposition and prurient fantasy”.
The only truth for the band, though, lay out on the road. They began their biggest UK tour yet with a sold-out show at Edinburgh University, during which Bon called a halt to proceedings halfway through Dog Eat Dog, in protest at the heavy-handed way security was dealing with their admittedly out-of-control fans.
A single was released to coincide with the dates – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap b/w even older tracks Big Balls and The Jack – which Atlantic cleverly promoted with the slogan: “All radio stations are banned from playing this record.” It wasn’t true, but you couldn’t tell the difference, with only John Peel on Radio One choosing to ignore the ‘ban’.
On tour, the Young brothers would room together, and Mark Evans and Phil Rudd would room together. That left Ian Jeffery to room with Bon.
“Now that really was an experience,” Jeffery says now, chuckling ruefully. “The amount of times I would be in bed sleeping, and Bon would come in and be sitting talking to the TV, thinking he’s talking to me or whoever. I’d reach over and put the TV off and he’d go to bed.”
The 18-date UK tour ended at London’s Rainbow Theatre on March 11 – the same day LTBR was released in Australia, along with their latest single there, Dog Eat Dog. Given the apathy with which they felt the Australian public and media now offered them, they grudgingly filmed a live performance of Dog Eat Dog at rehearsals for a special edition of Countdown hosted by Leo Sayer, but it was a desultory affair. Instead of his usual shirtless appearance, Bon looks as though he’s wrapped up against the London cold in a fur-trimmed jacket, while Angus has ditched the school uniform in favour of a stripy T-shirt. It had been a long day filming, during which the drinks had flowed freely and by the end of it everybody was simply in a hurry to leave.
In April they flew out for the start of a 12-date tour opening for Black Sabbath. It was supposed to be another step up the ladder – new equipment had been purchased; extra road crew hired to help them operate it – but instead it turned into yet another disaster. “All the gear was blowing up,” Angus complained of the first show, in Paris. “We played about 20 minutes then destroyed the stage.”
From that point on, relations between the two bands became strained – though, typically, Bon immediately hit it off with Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne, who later recalled being impressed by the fact that Bon wore brothel creepers on stage – as Ozzy then did too. “They were great to work with on the stage, and I thought I was the only guy that wore them,” Ozzy said.
But the tour came to a premature conclusion when AC/DC were sacked after an altercation between Malcolm Young and Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler. For years, the story circulated that Geezer had foolishly pulled a knife on Malcolm in the bar of the hotel they were sharing in Sweden, and that Malcolm had immediately reacted by flooring the hapless Sabbath bassist. In truth, it had only been a toy flick-knife comb. The result, however, was the same: AC/DC were on a flight back to London the very next day.
Kicking their heels back in the capital in May, Mark Evans was the next to feel the cold wind of change. Michael Browning called him to a band meeting at which it was announced they no longer needed his services. Evans says now he believes it was “a commitment issue. But then nobody could have been as committed to that band as the Young brothers were.”
According to Michael Browning now, it wasn’t commitment so much as a growing antagonism towards Evans from the brothers. “Angus had some personality issues against Mark,” says Browning.
Ian Jeffery suggests that Malcolm Young played a significant part in the decision. “Malcolm would be off the rails at any given time. I’ve seen the wrath within the band, let alone to people outside. If he thinks they’re not cutting it, or talking to somebody he didn’t know about… just anything, at any level.”
Browning confesses that when Malcolm Young summoned him to the meeting to discuss Evans, he suspected there was an entirely different problem.
“At first I thought I was getting the phone call to come around and talk about what we were going to do about Bon,” he remembers. “Bon was always fucking up, one way or the other. There was always a drama.”
Drama and Bon Scott just went together, his life an apparently never-ending roller-coaster. He’d gone from being a teenage borstal boy to playing drums in pub bands, then graduated from that to being second-banana singer in The Valentines, and then hairy minstrel in Fraternity. Everybody has a different memory.
The Angels’ Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup first met Bon in 1972. “He was a long-haired, recorder-playing hippie,” recalls Bidstrup. “He lived up in the hills and took magic mushrooms and smoked pot. I don’t ever remember him as being a hell-raiser, fighter guy.”
By the time Bon joined AC/DC in 1974, however, he was all but down-and-out, still recovering from a horrendous motorcycle accident – he’d been drunk and ridden the bike into an oncoming car – which left him in a coma for three days and broke virtually every important bone in his body, and was working scraping the barnacles off the bottom of boats for a living while sleeping on a couch at a friend’s place.
Three years on, he was seen as the ultimate hard man, the Aussie king of no-frills rock’n’roll. “Alcohol and drugs and hanging out with loose women – it’s all very good for the body and soul,” he bragged to one interviewer. But behind the brawling, gap-toothed, tattooed persona he presented to the outside world lay a 31-year-old man trying to make sense of his life and the strange, unexpected places it had taken him.
When I was working with Thin Lizzy in the late 70s I ran across two versions of Bon Scott. There was the guy who offered to buy everyone in the bar of the Marquee a drink, then settled down to regale us all with hilarious stories from his past. “My life’s like a toilet seat, mate,” I recall him saying to us. “Up and down!” Followed by that laugh, as dirty as a drain. Then there was the other Bon I met during daylight hours, hanging out at his on-off-on-again girlfriend Silver’s pad in London’s Gloucester Road. This one was quiet, would gently offer to make you tea, then roll a spliff and allow you to chill out and find your own level.
As Mark Evans says now, Bon Scott “had acquaintances everywhere, but very few friends”. This apparently extended to his AC/DC bandmates, who Bon had already begun to drift away from by the time LTBR was released in the UK in June ’77. Known to the brothers behind his back as “the old man”, the singer increasingly preferred his own company on the road.
“The Young brothers loved Bon, no two ways about that,” says Browning. “But Bon had that left-over hippie thing of smoking dope, dropping pills and all that sort of thing. You know, dope for the Young brothers was a big no-no. They hated being around people that were stoned or whatever. Alcohol was a different story, no problems there. But anyone stoned… Bon would have felt uncomfortable being with them in that sort of environment. So that was his trip. He used to go off and do all that stuff. They accepted it, no problems. He just sort of lived and travelled in a different world than they did.”
Quite literally sometimes, too. By the time AC/DC embarked on their first American tour, in July 1977, Bon had picked up the habit of travelling with the support band. “We opened for them for a few shows when they came to Texas and Bon surprised us by travelling to all the shows on our bus,” recalls Y&T singer/guiarist Dave Meniketti. “I think he thought our bus was just… funkier.”
“It became the usual thing,” says Ian Jeffery. “Half an hour to go to show time, and everyone wondering where the fuck is Bon. Next thing he’d turn up with 10 of his new best mates, all waving whisky bottles and smoking joints.”
According to Mark Evans, Bon felt isolated on the road. “We all had our moments where you thought, what the fuck am I doing here, you know? But Bon had been on the road maybe 10 years by then. Even with the success we all felt was coming, I think it wore a bit thin for him.”
For a while in 1977, the whole AC/DC experience had looked decidedly thin all round. That all changed with the international release that summer of Let There Be Rock. A relative flop in Australia, it became the first AC/DC album to enter the British album chart, reaching No.75. A new bassist, Liverpool-born Cliff Williams, had been brought in in time for their US tour, and suddenly it was all systems go again.
“There was generally a feeling of, let’s try and get this up to the next level,” recalls Browning. “Not in the sense where the group tailor-made a record to that end, more just on a business level. I managed to get some reasonably good marketing dollars put forward for that album. We got a little bit more aggressive in those terms, and it paid off.”
Although Let There Be Rock managed to make it only to No.154 in the US, it marked the start of a journey that, just three years later, would see AC/DC becoming one of the biggest rock bands the world would ever see. It was just a pity that Bon Scott wouldn’t be around long enough to see it happen. Interviewed on that first tour by New York fanzine Punk, which asked Bon for the meaning of his life, he answered: “As good a time and as short as possible.” It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nevertheless, as Phil Carson now says, Let There Be Rock became the turning point in the story of AC/DC. “They’d gone from almost down and completely out with Dirty Deeds, to back in the game big-time with Let There Be Rock. By the time they finally got to America with that album, Atlantic in New York had hired John Kalodner as an A&R man, and he got it that this was never going to be an act you made through singles and radio play. He came to see them play, and saw right away that that was the way this band was gonna break: by simply taking it to the people. And that’s really all they’ve done ever since.”
Well, not quite all, as Ian Jeffery attests. “Things stayed the same live – they were always brilliant on stage. But behind the scenes the story had only just begun, really.”
Although they could not have known it then, AC/DC had reached a high with Let There Be Rock – defiant yet innocent, determined yet guaranteed nothing, still hanging by a thread to their American record deal, yet full of belief in their mission – that they would never be able to repeat, no matter how they keep trying, even today.
“Those were definitely the days,” says Jeffery. “I was there when Bon died, and I was there when Brian Johnson came in and they finally achieved enormous success. And they did some great things after Bon. But not like when they were making albums like Let There Be Rock. I still hear songs from it now and go: ‘Oh boy, I wish I could go back right now and do it all again.’”