AC / DC – Highway to Hell – Bon Scott’s Last Rock n Roll Stand

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Regular readers of Classic Metal Hawk may have seen The Hawk’s famous ranking of AC/DC numbers with the word ‘Rock’ in the title. That’s a post of which The Hawk is rightly proud, being a first on the entire internet as far as I know.

But if there’s one issue with that post, it’s that it forcibly excludes so many classic AC/DC songs where the band inexplicably decided not to use the Rock branding in the title. Well don’t fret kids – we’re gonna start putting the right with a new song blog, covering maybe the best of the rest – ‘Highway to Hell.’

Putting Them On The Map

‘Highway to Hell’ was the album intended to put AC/DC on the map. They’d done ok up until that point, with a string of albums through the 70s that did ok at home in Australia and also in Europe. But nothing great in the US, and that needed to change. The record company came up with the usual suggestion – record something more commercial and radio-friendly. And work with a producer who can make that happen.

The band weren’t happy about having to dump their long standing production team of George Young and Harry Vanda, but they felt pushed into a corner. The label hooked them up with Eddie Kramer – somewhat of a rock legend by this point after working with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and KISS – and they agreed to give it a go.

Kramer Calamity

Things did not go well from the off – the no-nonsense Aussies clashed with Kramer on pretty much every level. Here’s a flavour of the bad feeling via a quote from guitarist Malcolm Young to Guitar Legend magazine.

Kramer was a bit of a prat. He might’ve sat behind the knobs for Hendrix, but he’s certainly not Hendrix, I can tell you that much.

Malcolm Young

Collectively, they decided Kramer would have to go – after 3 weeks together in the studio, they’d written nothing so it’s not like things were even working artistically. Instead, they set their sites on the legendary Mett Lange. In 1978, Lange probably wasn’t quite the renowned rock production guru he would turn into in the 80’s with works under his belt like Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’.

Lange Love Affair

But he had already turned a few heads, including those of ACDC’s management, and they wanted him above anyone else. They crept into the studio one weekend behind Kramer’s back, knocked out half a dozen rough tracks and sent the tape to Lange. He agreed to work with them and they got on a plane to London.

They got the Mutt Lange treatment straight away. Accustomed to bashing out albums in 3 weeks or so, he kept them at it for the best part of three months, with 15 hour days very much the norm. The Hawk has covered in that Hysteria blog how Lange’s obsessive perfectionism meant that everything took much longer with him. He’d zero in on the sound of each instrument individually. Guitar solos had to be mapped out note by note.

You Want Vocal Harmonies…?

Even the vocals – Bon Scott was a famously gruff, no-nonsense individual, but found himself getting coaching on the correct breathing techniques in the singing booth. Backing vocals would create harmony instead of sounding like fans in a pub singing along. (Lange supplied some of the backing vocals himself, and his own classical singing training meant that this produced the right result – you know what they say, if you want something doing right, do it yourself.)

Listen to some of the results – like on ‘Touch To Much’, where the vocals are clearly elevated to a new level compared to previous recordings.

Back to Basics

But in spite of letting Lange rule the roost on most aspects of production, AC / DC were not about to let him mess with the lyrics too much. Seemingly, Bon Scott felt the lyrics on previous album ‘Powerage’ were too serious (yeah, I know!!), and that now was the time to get back to basics, with songs predominantly about pulling women and / or having sex with them.

It’s what they did best. Though actually, this includes the brilliant ‘Shot Down in Flames’, about trying but failing to partner up in a bar. The Hawk remembers hearing this at an Acca Dacca live show years ago (though sung by Brian Johnson) and it just sums up the style.

Out on the Town / Looking for a Woman / Gonna Give Me Good Love…

Highway to Hell Itself

One of the exceptions to the theme is of course the title track, ‘Highway to Hell’ itself, a somewhat more reflective and thoughtful number about how tough life can be on the road, especially for a young band without much money. Everyone from Judas Priest to Slayer has similar stories to tell.

Scott also had a particular Highway in mind when he wrote the lyrics – the Canning Highway back home in Australia, linking the cities of Perth and Freemantle and ending at the Raffles Hotel, one of his favourite pubs. Bon Scott obviously had a liking for most pubs – to you might think a Highway leading right to the front door of his favourite would not be particularly hellish.

The story goes that there was a black-spot intersection not far from the Raffles with a steep downhill, which caused many a car wreck back in the day by drivers heading home after one too many cold ones. So a Highway to Hell for some, certainly.

Bon Scott’s Spirit

Scott also used the lyrics to capture that love of the rock n roll lifestyle that goes through so many of the songs. The fierce independence of life on the road, struggling to get a break, but never even thinking of doing anything else.

Askin’ Nothing / Leave Me Be / Takin’ Everything in my stride

But obviously, the memorable part of this song, the thing that elevates it to greatness is that opening guitar riff in A major. So simple, yet so memorable – listening to it is like slumping into your favourite old armchair after a tough day in the office. It just feels right.

Highway to Hell? Must be about (ahem) Satan?

Inevitably there was some controversy with the song – it had the word ‘Hell’ I the title, see, and they were a rock n roll band, so were great candidates to be Satanists. You don’t have to spend too long studying the lyrics to see that there’s nothing very occult going on here – but still the record company were ambivalent about using the song as the title track for the album, and sure enough ‘concerned parents’ turned up to picket some of their shows.

Night Stalker

The protesters got something else to get their collective teeth into a few years later when American serial killer Richard ‘Night Stalker’ Ramirez was on the prowl in California between 1984 and 1985 when he killed at least 15 victims.

Ramirez claimed to be an AC / DC fan, even leaving a hat with the band logo at one of his crime scenes – one of his favourite numbers being ‘Night Prowler’. That’s right – a song about a stalker, liked and much listed to by a serial killer.

The band say the song is actually about a boy sneaking into a girl’s bedroom at night when her parents are asleep – climbing up a drainpipe or something – thereby keeping with the album’s sex themed content.

But look, whichever interpretation you prefer, The Hawk reckons that other aspects of Ramirez’s upbringing might have had more of a bearing on his crimes than his choice of music. His severe alcohol and drug use from age 10, for instance. Or the time he witnessed his brother gun down and kill his wife following an argument.

On the other hand, he yelled ‘Hail Satan’ in court, and showed off a pentagram carved into the palm of his hand. Surely a heavy metal influence at work. Don’t you just live for the controversy.

Success Goes Global

Whatever, the noise around that topic did not diminish the success of either the album or its lead song over the years. Critics and fans went crazy. It topped out in the US chart at number 17 – being the first of their albums to chart anywhere in that country – and built on previous success in Europe. For instance, when ‘Highway to Hell’ was released as a single in Germany, it spent fully 45 weeks in the chart there.

British newspaper The Guardian has the song at #7 in their all time ranking of AC / DC songs. (This is quite a boring ranking, please note, without any special features like The Hawk’s – but still, having the song in the top 10 is surely the minimum it deserves.

It has featured widely in movies and video games. You already know that The Hawk is a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so let’s plug this clip from Iron Man.

Bon Scott Checks Out

This album was also, sadly, as good as it ever got for Bon Scott, who died in 1980 only about 6 months after it’s release. After a night out at a London club, he slept in  a friend’s car and was found dead the next morning at the age of 33. An inquiry by the Coroner’s office found the cause of death to be acute alcohol poisoning, though there’s been plenty of speculation over the years that heroin also had a part to play.

But Scott was a hard drinking, hard partying dude, and went out on his shield, so to speak, a committed adherent to the rock n roll lifestyle right to the end. It mean that he missed most of AC / DC’s ‘superstar’ phase, which would now take off in earnest. But maybe that part wouldn’t have suited him so much anyway.

His Highway to Hell ended on Overhill Road in East Dulwich. At the time, it was a run-down neighbourhood in south east London, though like the band, it has since become somewhat gentrified, with the addition of posh food markets and gastropubs. Bon Scott would probably hate the place if he saw it now. So with that in mind, let’s play out with the 80s East Dulwich version of Highway to Hell. Not the prettiest, but this is how it should be.

That’s the story of ‘Highway to Hell’ – The Hawk hopes that this starts to correct the omission of so many AC / DC classics in his top 20 ranking. Tell us what you like most about it in the comments below.

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