Bon Scott: The AC/DC Frontman's Real-Life Highway To Hell
Singer Bon Scott from Australian rock band AC/DC posed in a studio in London in August 1979. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)
Think of the great frontmen of rock history -- Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, and others -- certainly AC/DC's Bon Scott makes any shortlist. Or he would, if his career had been allowed to run its course, but Scott died just five years into AC/DC's existence. In the mid-'70s, AC/DC was a hard-rocking band out of Australia, perhaps the hardest rocking band the world had ever seen. It was loud, fast, and bluesy brand of rock 'n roll that had no interest in druids, Hobbits or horror-movie psychosis. AC/DC had no interest in power ballads or gothic mood pieces. They did straight-ahead rock songs about bad behavior, bad attitude, partying hard, playing loud, and plenty of sex and AC/DC's persona was essentially that of AC/DC's Bon Scott.
Scott is best known for a handful of hard-rock anthems, including "Highway To Hell," the title track off the 1979 album that would be his last. "T.N.T.," "Let There Be Rock," "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n Roll)," and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" are other highlights. AC/DC's biggest-selling album, and one of the biggest rock albums of all time, Back In Black, was made after Bon Scott's death, with a new vocalist -- if Scott had lived to sing on that album (or something like it), and the ones that followed, who knows where he'd rank? As it is, we're left with a partial resume -- just a handful of albums and real hits -- and one of the more disturbing rock star death-stories you'll ever hear.
A Scottish Rogue Down Under
Sadly, Bon Scott is more of a rock 'n roll trivia question than hero these days, and his death is hard to romanticize. It was more or less his own damn fault -- unless, of course, you believe the conspiracy theories, of which there are a few. What actually killed Bon Scott? It might have been asphyxiation, or it might have been alcohol poisoning -- it was most certainly "death by misadventure," in the coroner's words. It's a British legal term for dying by accident in the course of taking voluntary risks. In other words -- he didn't need to die. Let’s look at the maladjusted, misadventurous, hard rocking life of AC/DC’s first frontman, Bon Scott, on his highway to hell.
Ronald Belford Scott was born in Scotland in 1946, but his family moved to Australia when he was just six years old. As the new kid in a new school in a new country, Scott stuck out. His classmates made fun of his thick Scottish accent and threatened him if he didn’t learn to ‘talk right.’ Proud and defiant, that made Scott cling to his Scottish accent even more. Soon, the teasing subsided and his school chums gave him a nickname that would stick with him for life – the Bonny Scot, or Bon Scott.
Scott Was A Free Spirit
Bon Scott was always one to buck convention. He quit school when he was only 15 and took a series of odd odd jobs. He scraped barnacles off boats, delivered mail, bartended, and unloaded fresh manure at a fertilizer factory. He got a juvenile arrest record for theft. He had no education and no marketable skills.
Rejected By The Army
With no goals in his life, Bon Scott applied to join the Australian Army. Perhaps, he thought, the military would give him some direction. But it was not to be. The army rejected Scott because, as they said, he was “socially maladjusted.” Undeterred, Scott decided to embrace “socially maladjusted” as his personal mantra and live his life his own way.
Scott Had One Talent -- His Voice
Bon Scott had a strong, powerful voice that was ideal for the hard-rock music genre of the time. In 1966, he started a band called the Spektors and achieved some moderate success, enough to encourage him to keep pursuing an entertainment career. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he toured with several different bands, drank heavily, and lived a rock star’s party lifestyle.
Scott Cheated Death, Once
One night in 1974, Bon Scott had a big fight with some of the members of a band he had joined. Drunk and combative, Scott sped away on a motorcycle. Several miles away, he crashed the motorcycle and was seriously injured. He spent several days in a coma as his body healed from the trauma. The accident didn’t serve as a wake-up call for Scott. Once he recovered, he resumed his alcohol-fueled lifestyle and started looking for a new band to join.
Scottish Brothers In Australia Founded AC/DC
About this same time, two brothers from Scott’s native Scotland, Malcolm and Angus Young, were starting a hard rock band and in need of a lead singer. At first, it didn’t seem as though Scott was a good fit for the new band, to be called AC/DC. He was in his late twenties, several years older than the Young brothers. When they questioned whether Scott was too old to rock, he countered by asking them if they were old enough to rock. In the end, Scott joined the group and used his wild “socially maladjusted” attitude to build AC/DC’s reputation as a rowdy and raucous hard rock group.
Bon Scott Led AC/DC To The Top Of The Charts
With Bon Scott as their frontman, AC/DC released several hit albums in the late 1970s. Under Scott’s tenure, the group released “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “TNT,” “It’s A Long Way to the Top,” “Highway to Hell,” “Let There Be Rock,” and “Whole Lotta Rosie.” The band was a major act in Australia and was making inroads in Europe and U.S. markets.
Scott Was Working On AC/DC's Next Album. Or Was He?
At the beginning of 1980, the band was in London, planning to record the album that would follow Highway To Hell, which had broken into the top 20 on the U.S. album chart. It was very early in the songwriting process; on February 15 Scott sat in on drums as the Young brothers were working on two new songs. Whether Scott wrote any of the songs on the group's next album would later become a hotly-debated issue among fans.
On February 18, Scottmet some friends at a bar called the Music Machine and began drinking. Scott was a habitual heavy drinker so it was not uncommon to see him down whiskey all night. Scott went home with the acquaintances, but passed out in the passenger seat of the Renault they were driving. They left Scott there in the car, parked in front of 67 Overhill Road in the East Dulwich neighborhood of London, to sleep it off.
Scott Was Found Dead The Next Morning
The next morning, when his friends returned to check on the rocker, they found Bon Scott slumped over in the vehicle covered in vomit. The 33-year-old singer was dead. Conspiracy theorists speculated that Scott was murdered, but in all likelihood, his death was far less glamorous. He most likely choked to death on his own vomit, just as Jimi Hendrix had before him and as John Bonham of Led Zeppelin would do a few months later. The official cause of death was listed as “acute alcohol poisoning” causing “death by misadventure.”
AC/DC’s Band Members Had Decisions To Make
Malcolm and Angus Young and the other members of AC/DC were shocked by the death of Bon Scott and were forced to make a decision: Do they replace Scott with a new lead vocalist or disband the group? They chose to continue building on the success that Scott established. With the blessing from Scott’s family, the Young brothers began looking for a new frontman.
Brian Johnson Joined AC/DC
When Brian Johnson was picked to join AC/DC, he knew he had some big shoes to fill. He and the band went to the Bahamas to record the Back in Black album, which was released seven months after Scott’s death and was dedicated to him. Back In Black was a huge seller, going to #1 in five countries and reaching #4 in the U.S. It turned out to be the kind of album that listeners recognize as an instant classic, and continues selling for years and years. To date it has sold over 26 million copies worldwide, and is the third biggest-selling album ever (behind Michael Jackson's Thriller and The Eagles' Their Greatest Hits). The Back in Black album helped to show the world that the group could bounce back from the tragic and sudden loss of their lead singer and continue his “socially maladjusted” legacy.
Questions Linger About Bon Scott's Death
Because of his persona, lifestyle, and the recordings he left behind, Bon Scott has achieved mythical or heroic status, among hard-rock fans and particularly in Australia, where he is memorialized in various ways.
Did Bon Scott write Back In Black?
Some fans believed that Scott had actually written some of the material that was credited to Johnson, including the hit song, “You Shook Me All Night Long.” They stated that Scott should have been posthumously named as a writer and contributor on the album. The band has said that they decided not to use anything Scott had written, because they didn't want to profit off him after his death. Still, many fans believe Scott and his surviving family members were purposely denied royalties that would have accrued from Back In Black.
What kind of "friends" leave a passed-out guy in a car?
Scott loved to party -- more than the rest of AC/DC. He ended up going out with friends and acquaintances, people his bandmates didn't always know, and that he might not have known too well. He'd drink with anyone who'd go along for the ride. Who exactly was with Scott on his last night, and what happened to this person or persons, is murky. Reports at the time said his name was Alistair or Alisdair Kinnear, and he told newspapers that he was physically incapable of moving Scott, so he covered him in a blanket and left him there. According to an investigative piece at Louder.com, Kinnear disappeared soon after the incident, and has never been heard from since.
Was Bon Scott doing heroin?
Scott was a big drinker, while many of his peers on the hard-rock scene were getting into heroin. He was constantly surrounded by heroin, but is said to have abstained. Was that a lie? Some accounts claim that Scott's death was actually a heroin overdose, although the coroner's report doesn't support that theory.
The last question is more about taste, and less about theories -- it's just something AC/DC fans and hard rock fans have always debated and will continue to debate:
Which is the better AC/DC? The Bon Scott version or the Brian Johnson version?
Wander onto any rock and roll message board, and you'll find a discussion thread on this topic -- and good luck getting a consensus answer.
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