THE LONG AND WINDING WAY TO THE TOP
IN THIS EXCERPT FROM ANDREW P STREET‘ S FANTASTIC NEW BOOK, THE LONG AND WINDING WAY TO THE TOP: FIFTY( OR SO) SONGS THAT MADE AUSTRALIA, HE LOOKS 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
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...