Australian Guitar - - Contents -

In this ex­cerpt from his fan­tas­tic new book, The Long And Wind­ing Way To The Top, An­drew P Street dives into the cre­ation and im­pact of AC/DC’s 1975 an­them, “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)”.

When The Easy­beats were chang­ing the face of Aus­tralian mu­sic, two peo­ple were pay­ing es­pe­cially close at­ten­tion: Ge­orge Young’s lit­tle broth­ers Mal­colm and An­gus. They wit­nessed the at­ten­tion their sib­ling en­joyed from uniquely close quar­ters, since their house was oc­ca­sion­ally un­der siege from fans – on one oc­ca­sion, An­gus even had to climb over the back fence to get into his own home af­ter po­lice as­sumed he was a fan and shooed him away – and pre­sum­ably reached the same con­clu­sion as gen­er­a­tions of homely men be­fore and since: “If I play the gui­tar, I will get at­ten­tion from girls.”

And it turned out they were good at play­ing gui­tar – very good, in fact. It came as a lovely sur­prise to Ge­orge when he re­turned from the UK in the early ‘70s and heard the band An­gus and Mal­colm had cre­ated, named af­ter the elec­tric­ity warn­ing on their mother’s sewing ma­chine. The boys weren’t great, but they un­am­bigu­ously had some­thing.

De­spite the meat-and-po­ta­toes rock AC/DC was soon to de­fine, they ac­tu­ally started off as a glam band in the Sky­hooks mould. In fact, the school­boy out­fit An­gus Young wore was but one of a range of cos­tumes the group adopted at var­i­ous times, as they went through mul­ti­ple lineup changes be­fore be­com­ing the lean rock ma­chine that took over the world. 1

You can hear the com­pe­tent, but ten­ta­tive early band on the sole sin­gle recorded with orig­i­nal vo­cal­ist Dave Evans, “Can I Sit Next to You, Girl?”, but it’s mainly in­struc­tive to il­lus­trate the evo­lu­tion that took place in the year be­tween that and “It’s A Long Way To The Top”. This was mainly due to the ar­rival of one Ron­ald Belford Scott – bet­ter known by the nick­name ‘Bon’ – who had been work­ing through many of Aus­tralia’s third-tier rock acts. 2

He was ini­tially con­cerned that the broth­ers were too young for a singer of his ex­pe­ri­ence, while they were con­cerned Scott was too old for their youth­ful rock en­ergy. Thank­fully, how­ever, their mu­tual reser­va­tions proved short-lived. The song’s par­ent al­bum, TNT, ap­peared in De­cem­ber 1975 and was in many ways the first “real” AC/DC al­bum. Scott had only joined the band two months be­fore they recorded

HighVolt­age in Novem­ber 1974, re­leased the fol­low­ing Fe­bru­ary, on which he had hastily added lyrics to mu­sic that w as al­ready com­pleted by the broth­ers Young.

But things moved fast af­ter Scott’s ar­rival: he stream­lined their sound, pro­vided the band with a front­man who was the charis­matic equal of their dervish gui­tarist and gave the band a lyri­cal point of view that was to de­fine them long af­ter his tragic death.

The other big changes be­tween TNT and HighVolt­age were that the band set­tled on the rhythm sec­tion that was to de­fine the Scott era – bassist Mark Evans and drum­mer Phil Rudd – and Mal­colm and An­gus Young set in place their per­ma­nent gui­tar dy­namic. There had pre­vi­ously been a de­gree of flu­id­ity to the Youngs’ part­ner­ship, but

TNT set the pa­ram­e­ters that were to be fol­lowed from that mo­ment on: Mal­colm played rhythm gui­tar, An­gus played lead, and that was that.

From the open­ing chords, TNT marked an enor­mous leap for­wards for the band – and they knew it. The ti­tle track, “High Volt­age” and “The Jack” all re­mained in the live set for the next thou­sand years, 3 but the in­dis­putable mas­ter­piece was the agenda-set­ting open­ing track: “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ’N’ Roll)”.

As a show­case of what AC/DC now was and would be for decades to come, this was a mas­ter­class in ev­ery re­gard. The driv­ing force is Mal­colm Young’s pump­ing chords, which gives Evans loads of room to throw in lit­tle runs and riffs on bass (which Vanda and Young turned down in the mix: there was a def­i­nite Young-bias in all the al­bums that the duo pro­duced for the band), while Rudd sits just ever-so-slightly be­hind the beat, giv­ing the song a swag­ger that per­fectly com­ple­ments Bon’s vo­cal.

It’s also re­mark­able to note that An­gus Young, the planet’s pre­mier histri­onic gui­tar wiz­ard, is in­cred­i­bly re­strained on the song. There’s not re­ally a gui­tar solo per se – just a se­ries of tasty licks act­ing more as punc­tu­a­tion than as text. But the song did have one stroke of ut­ter ge­nius that more than made up for the lack of fran­tic fret­work: bag­pipes.

The Youngs hailed from Glas­gow, while fel­low Scot Scott was born in For­far and lived in Kir­riemuir be­fore his fam­ily moved to Aus­tralia, so the idea of pipes be­ing a stir­ring ex­tra el­e­ment to give the song some oomph was etched into the band mem­bers’ cul­tural DNA. It was Ge­orge Young’s idea, hav­ing been told that Bon had played in a pipe band as a teenager.

It was a great idea, ex­cept for one fairly im­por­tant prob­lem: Bon didn’t play bag­pipes in said band, in which he had been a drum­mer. Be­cause he was Bon Scott, though, he de­cided that the ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion was to learn to play bag­pipes. So that’s ex­actly what he did – and he played them live for the next few years, too, un­til he put his pipes down on­stage too close to the au­di­ence, who promptly ripped them apart in what seems like a very nat­u­ral fight-or-flight re­sponse to be­ing con­fronted with bag­pipes. 5

Mu­sic aside, there are Scott’s lyrics, which are among the most meta in rock’n’roll his­tory: a song by a work­ing rock band about how much it sucks to be in a work­ing rock band, per­formed with ut­ter con­vic­tion and tri­umphant, de­fi­ant joy. AC/DC might have been dis­missed in cer­tain cir­cles as be­ing dumb mu­sic for dumb peo­ple, but this was sear­ingly clever stuff.

The song was ac­com­pa­nied by a per­fect video clip that had been knocked up for Count­down: the band per­form­ing the song on the back of a truck edg­ing its way down Mel­bourne’s Swanston Street with the massed pipes of the Rats of To­bruk march­ing with them.

It harkened back to a more in­no­cent, less pub­lic-safety-ob­sessed

time, as ev­ery band who at­tempted to shoot a sim­i­lar clip would dis­cover to their con­sid­er­able le­gal cha­grin.

“It’s A Long Way To The Top” was the band’s big­gest Aus­tralian hit, crack­ing the Top 10 (a feat they wouldn’t ac­com­plish again un­til af­ter Scott’s death by mis­ad­ven­ture on Fe­bru­ary 19th, 1980). 6 It’s also been cov­ered lit­er­ally dozens of times, by ev­ery­one from W.A.S.P. to The Wig­gles.

De­spite this be­ing one of the band’s sig­na­ture songs, AC/DC didn’t touch it live af­ter Bon’s death. There are two schools of thought as to why this is: one is that new front­man Brian John­son felt that it was Bon’s sig­na­ture song and re­fused to sing it as a sign of re­spect to his fallen pre­de­ces­sor. An­other, more mun­dane ex­pla­na­tion is that bag­pipes are a bas­tard to tune (the band played the song in A ma­jor live, but on record, they’re tuned up half a step to B flat ma­jor to match the in­to­na­tion of the pipes) and go­ing through fid­dly tun­ing at ev­ery gig was more trou­ble than it was worth.

In any case, the song was and re­mains the de­fin­i­tive ode to the rockin’ arts, and was the tune that set AC/DC’s course to world dom­i­na­tion, as well as ce­ment­ing Aus­tralia as the true home of no-non­sense rock.

Speak­ing of which, there was an­other band get­ting ready to change the world up in Bris­bane: and buddy, that’s a lot harder than it looks...

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