“It was a very very long way to the top for AC/DC singer Bon Scott, and ended just before the summit.”
As vocalist with Australian hard rock band AC/DC, Bon Scott played a critical role in the band’s journey from suburban hotels to international stadiums. Unfortunately, Scott did not live to see that success, dying alone from acute alcohol poisoning in a Renault 5 in London in 1980. He was 33. Misadventure would be an accurate description of Scott’s life and death.
Bad Boy Boogie is a celebration of Scott’s life, providing fans with the story of his unlikely success. Its author, Jeff Apter, has written more than 20 music biographies, including a recent dive into the world of AC/DC alumni George Young (Friday on My Mind 2020), Malcolm Young (Malcolm Young 2019) and Angus Young (High Voltage 2018). Apter is a master at reassembling a musician’s life from the pieces left behind, bringing coherence to stories that often exist in fragments of recordings, YouTube videos, interviews, books, letters and the memory of fans.
With his broken teeth and tattoos, Bon Scott looked the part of the hard rock rebel. And while his off-stage lifestyle was personally destructive, his ribald public persona remained safe enough for primetime TV. Scott was once asked if he was AC or DC. ‘Neither,’ he grinned, ‘I’m the lightning flash in the middle.’ He was a brilliant addition to a band driven by three brothers that barely spoke in public.
Those with long memories knew that Bon Scott had been trying to succeed in the Australian music industry for a long time before he joined AC/DC in 1974. As Bad Boy Boogie makes clear, it was a very long way to the top for Bon Scott, who first stepped on stage in the mid-1960s in Perth.
Bon Scott’s first recordings were as backing vocalist with The Valentines. Dressed in matching satin outfits, The Valentines became a popular “bubblegum” act and won the Western Australia Battle of the Sounds in 1967. Their most successful single was a novelty song by Vanda and Young, My Old Man’s A Groovy Old Man. The follow up single Nick Nack Paddy Whack faded quickly. The Valentines played national tours, enjoyed regular TV appearances and had a drug bust to their credit before they broke up in 1970.
After The Valentines, Bon Scott dumped the satin shirts for a headband, grew a beard and moved to Adelaide. Scott was now vocalist (and occasional recorder player) in Fraternity, a serious country-prog-rock band. Their second single, Seasons of Change was a hit in Adelaide and they won the 1971 Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds.
Fraternity were lucky enough to be bankrolled by a fascinating young businessman, Hamish Henry. Henry was trying to build a music empire from Adelaide, launching a record label, and bringing Black Sabbath to Australia in 1971 to headline his Myponga Pop Festival. He hoped the investment in Fraternity would lead to international success. Unfortunately, it did not. In fact, 1971 was a peak for the band who tanked when they moved to the UK in 1973. Bon Scott worked odd jobs in the UK, and enjoyed a role as the band’s unofficial drug tester. Fraternity eventually lost the support of their benefactor and returned to Australia in 1974.
Needing money, Bon Scott took a job in an Adelaide fertiliser plant to get by. While drunk and riding his motorbike, Scott crashed and wound up in intensive care with broken bones and missing teeth. Following his release from hospital, he self-medicated with pot, mushrooms, hash cookies, basically anything he could find. He was cared for by his ex-wife and his mum. In 1974, at 28, it looked like his music career was over.
Scott’s luck turned when AC/DC dumped their singer after a tour in support of Lou Reed. Scott replaced him in the energetic young band, playing the pub circuit constantly and turning up regularly on TV. Songs like Jailbreak and It’s A Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock and Roll were safe enough for Countdown. Others weren’t. Apter says Scott “was fast becoming the best lyricist in rock and roll, a street poet of the highest order, who had no end of personal experiences to draw on for inspiration – some hard-won, others plain hilarious.”
Although he could be charming and mischievous, there was a darker side to Scott. At least one of his friends warned him to stop pursuing young women. In denial, Scott insisted they chase him. Apter quotes Scott directly: “This guy comes banging on my bedroom door, loud as hell, and I say to him, ‘Fuck off, I’m having a fuck’. Suddenly the door is crashed in and it turns out to be the girl’s father, and he finds me on top of his daughter, who I find is only sixteen years old. Needless to say, he beat me to a pulp.” Scott was in his late twenties when he lost more teeth in this attack. A number of other shameful incidents are hinted at throughout Bad Boy Boogie.
In March 1976, AC/DC travelled to the UK for their first international tour. Soon after, Scott was hospitalised with a broken jaw and more missing teeth following a pub bashing. He was not long in recovery and joined the band on an annual treadmill: touring Europe, the USA, back to Australia to record an album and do it again, building momentum as each year passed. On stage Scott was a vital and energetic figure, in tight jeans and often shirtless, he looked indestructible. Given his confidence on stage, his death was unexpected though not a surprise to those that knew him well.
Bon Scott always played the joker in the AC/DC pack, and as Bad Boy Boogie makes clear, he’d do anything for a laugh, and was always pushing the limits of his body. In the end, that lifestyle caught up with him.