By Jay Luster
In the fall of 1978, AC/DC released an electrifying live album called If You Want Blood You’ve Got It. The album cover was a blurred picture of their sensational lead guitarist Angus Young, and lead screamer Bon Scott, in a classic rock and roll stage pose with a bloody Young impaled through the chest by a guitar neck. The macabre and compelling picture symbolized the band’s leave it all out on stage attitude, and though it wasn’t the first album they’d released in the United States, it was the record that brought the band their highest notoriety to date.
Much the way the 1976 album Live Bullet chronicles the first part of Bob Seger’s career, If You Want Blood is the exclamation point punctuating the end of AC/DC’s earliest era. For the uninitiated, this record unflinchingly summed up what this band was all about dating back to its most humble beginnings in Sydney, Australia in 1973. Perhaps it was the bold album jacket, and stellar live recording that brought curious kids to the shows, or maybe the band had just worked hard enough, and long enough for word of mouth to finally catch up with them? No matter the reason, that autumn, AC/DC became one of the must see acts in North America.
Throughout their career, they were always a fairly straightforward, albeit very loud, rock and roll band, with a surprisingly robust dedication to the blues. While Bon Scott’s voice, at times, shrieked like it was being dragged behind a car, the guy behind the wheel, Angus Young, wore schoolboy short pants, jacket, and billed cap, and played with a frenzied abandon reminiscent of Dave Davies on those early Kinks power rockers. Behind Scott and Young were one of the most powerful rhythm sections in rock history. Malcolm Young, Angus’s older brother, was one mean, and wholly underrated, rhythm guitarist. He was accompanied by Cliff Williams on bass and Phil Rudd on drums. Their first five records all charted very high in their home country of Australia, Scotland, the Young’s birthplace, and Europe, but up until If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It, they weren’t well-known in North America.
That was about to change.
The following summer the album Highway to Hell showed up in stores, and was a giant step forward for them. The song writing, playing, and production were all higher quality than anything from their past, but it maintained the same dynamic drive, spontaneity, and good humor of their earlier studio offerings. The opening guitar riff on the title track is as powerful as The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and as catchy as “All Right Now,” by Free. Though it peaked at a somewhat disappointing 47 on the charts, it was nonetheless, a wildly popular party song during the late summer, and fall of 1979.
Band management hoped it would have broken into daily radio rotation, but with its references to hell and its thematically violent under-toe, it played sparingly in many conservative markets. The kids, on the other hand, recognized great hard rock when they heard it, and the album, delivering on that promise eventually peaked at #17 on the chart’s a few months later.
The record’s finale is a straight-up four-chord blues number called “Night Prowler.” Accented by Angus Young’s elongated, and quivering guitar leads, Scott’s menacing vocal creeps darkly through the same dangerous alleyways as The Doors, “Riders on The Storm.” While clocking in at over six minutes limited this jewel’s airplay, it did make it onto the radio in places like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. “Night Prowler,” “The Girls Got Rhythm,” and especially “Highway To Hell,” were harbingers of the future, pointing the way forward to their follow-up Back In Black album, which became the fifth best-selling album of all time.
Over the decades, AC/DC was occasionally vilified in many of the same ways as Ozzy Osborne, and Alice Cooper. Images of hell, and violence tend to frighten people, but much like the humor baked into Cooper’s music, Bon Scott comically adding, “shazbat, nanu nanu,” from the Robin Williams TV show Mork and Mindy, at the end of “Night Prowler,” is a wink at the audience letting them know this is all in good fun.
Sadly, it was the last sound committed to record by Scott. During a freezing cold February morning in 1980, he passed out in his parked car and died. His cause of death was listed as acute alcohol poisoning, and considering how far the band had come, their future was now in quite a bit of doubt. In many cases, when the singer dies, the band dies too, or at least suffers creatively.
Eventually they concluded Bon Scott would want them to continue and they found a guy named Brian Johnson in a pub, as Angus Young put it, “screaming his brains out,” and made him their new singer. It’s Johnson’s voice that helped make the rest of AC/DC’s career Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame worthy. Interestingly, sandwiched between Back In Black and the next Johnson led album, For Those About To Rock We Salute You, they released, as a tribute to Bon Scott the record Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap in North America where it sailed up to #3.
The five albums, from If You Want Blood to For Those About To Rock, turned AC/DC from a thunderously loud band doing clubs and school auditoriums, into genuine arena rockers and certifiable, multi-platinum rock and roll royalty. However, it was Bon Scott’s voice that introduced AC/DC’s music to American audiences, and the song “Night Prowler” best exemplifies Scott’s power.
During the mid 1980’s, a Los Angeles based serial killer, claiming to be a Satanist, named Richard Ramirez, dubbed the “Night Stalker” by the press, claimed the song as one of the inspirations for his crimes. In the span of a year, Ramirez murdered at least 13 people, and when he was caught, not only was he wearing an AC/DC T-shirt, he claimed to have been inspired by “Night Prowler.” The band was understandably horrified by Ramirez’s claim.
The negative press coverage couldn’t have come at a worse time. It served as one of the catalysts for the US Congress holding hearings on violent lyrics, and themes in rock, and rap music. Between that, and the Night Stalker Murders, an enormous amount of unwelcome, and in many cases unfair attention was paid to the band. Even their name, which, in reality, refers to the electrical terms Alternating Current and Direct Current were said by the crusading Parents Music Resource Center to be an anagram for “anti-Christ.”
It further didn’t help matters when L.A. Detective Gil Carrillo said at a news conference that, “one of the pieces of evidence left behind (by Ramirez) was a hat bearing the letters ‘AC/DC’ on it.” While solving the murder spree was quite understandably of paramount importance, once he asked for leads of suspicious people wearing AC/DC hats, thousands of false leads were generated, while also putting an intense spotlight on the band and their music.
“It just sickens you, you know,” Brian Johnson later told VH1. “It sickens you to have anything to do with that kind of thing.” Eventually, the furor died down, and the band got back down to the business of making great, mostly blues-based music.
Since then, they’ve released many albums and singles that have all reached deep into the record charts establishing themselves as one of the most successful and longest running acts in music history. In 2003 the Young brothers, Cliff Williams, Phil Rudd, and Bon Scott, and Brian Johnson, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.