The Making of AC/DC’s Back in Black

The Making of AC/DC's Back in Black

AC/DC went through a fair few changes in its lineup before the mid-1970s without really having much effect on the band’s performance or overall reception. Instead, reputation and how certain band members — and even producers — meshed with each other factored heavily into who founders Angus and Malcom Young decided should stay and who should go. For most of the the band’s career leading up to Bon Scott’s arrival on the scene in 1974, they were popular in Australia (and gaining popularity elsewhere) but never quite managed to capture audiences in the U.S.

Part of the band’s appeal was their image, as AC/DC garnered a reputation as crude, loud, and combative with lyrics loaded with double entendres. The band's generally rowdy disposition also allegedly made them difficult to get along with for anyone outside the band — and reportedly pretty difficult to get along with for those inside the band as well, according to erstwhile frontman Dave Evans.

Evans joined the band in 1973

Evans joined the band in 1973, and though music biographer Eugene Chadbourne described him as an incredibly talented rocker, it wasn’t enough to cut it with AC/DC (and Malcom Young in particular). One popular theory is that Evans’ image was too glam for AC/DC, and his glittery hit “Can I Sit By You, Girl?” apparently didn’t help matters. But Evans told a different story to the Flight 750 Radio Show. Malcolm was reportedly jealous of Evans’ popularity with women since Malcolm didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, and Evans believed that further disagreements were fueled by the band’s manager mismanaging the their funds as well.

“...the manager, we all thought he was doing the wrong thing by us as far as money was concerned because we were doing a lot of shows — major shows in Australia; sometimes two or three shows an evening — and we were absolutely flat broke. We were pooling our money together to buy hamburgers and French fries… So I left the band," Evans said in that interview.

He later told Ultimate Classic Rock it was a “relief” to finally be done with the pressure.

The drama didn’t stop AC/DC from looking for a new singer while performing around Australia, though. Ultimately, Bon Scott would be that singer and the one who eventually helped solidify AC/DC’s image and popularity.

Scott had an inside advantage with AC/DC

According to Scott’s ex-wife, Irene Thornton, Scott had an inside advantage with AC/DC. He’d formerly played with both The Valentines and Fraternity, which is where he met Vince Lovegrove. Lovegrove knew Malcolm and Angus Young’s older brother George — once Australia’s “biggest pop star,” Thornton says — and recommended Scott to George Young after his siblings parted ways with Evans (however it happened).

But that’s quite a different story from Scott’s usual version of it. Scott often claimed that he found work as a driver after Fraternity folded, and he ferried AC/DC back and forth from hotels to gigs. Then the late vocalist had his Cinderella moment where the band happened to need a singer, and Scott offered his own modest talents.

Either way, their first big act together that Thornton knew about was in September 1974 at the Pooraka Hotel in Adelaide, Australia. Lovegrove was there with George Young, and AC/DC was playing without a singer. Lovegrove encouraged Scott to go onstage and sing, and he eventually did. Thornton recalls it as a perfect fit. "The band was loud, unapologetic rock that nearly blew your head off, and Bon’s voice just clicked right into it.” What Thornton didn't realize was that this was actually part of the act. Despite Scott driving for the band, his ex-wife said she didn’t know her husband had already auditioned for and played with Malcolm and Angus Young weeks before the September event.

New level of energy

But she was right about Scott “clicking” with the band, and he developed a reputation as a gifted — but volatile and troubled — songwriter.  He added a completely new level of energy and attracted more attention to the band than ever, partly thanks to his electric personality on stage. Whether it was spontaneously ripping his clothes off or leading the band in as-of-yet unreleased performances of new tracks, Scott took AC/DC’s reputation as loud and unpredictable to a completely new level — to the point where a 1976 ad billed them as “The most outrageous heavy metal group in the world.” AC/DC’s 1979 Highway to Hell tour was their loudest and most energetic tour yet — as well as the most expensive, since the band kept destroying their instruments and roughing themselves up.

Scott’s off-stage antics played no small part in boosting the band’s appeal too. Though Malcolm Young later said otherwise, Scott was known to be a heavy drinker. Other bands AC/DC toured with recounted Scott using a pretext of friendliness as an excuse to enter their dressing rooms and drink all of their booze. Scott also allegedly had a voracious sexual appetite, leading to the occasional bust-up where Scott ended up worse for wear after a girlfriend’s relatives got involved. But even all of that only added to AC/DC’s appeal.

There may have been another possible side of Scott’s excess the band didn’t make quite as public, though. On February 19, 1980, allegedly after a night of heavy partying, Scott died in his car. The official line was that Scott died from acute alcohol poisoning, but biographer Jesse Fink presents another case in Bon: The Last Highway, claiming that Scott died of a heroin overdose.

Brian Johnson was putting his life back together

Meanwhile, former Geordie band member Brian Johnson was putting his life back together after a failed music career. There are differing accounts for why he tried leaving music behind him — one was because the contract Geordie signed with Red Bus Records meant the band itself saw very little profit while another was that he just needed to get his life back in order. Either way, Johnson had no intent of getting back into music and decided to pursue his dream job of working with cars instead.

Obviously, that didn’t last.

Even during Bon Scott’s funeral, Malcolm and Angus Young were pondering the band’s future. Chick Scott (Bon’s father) told the brothers they needed to look for a new singer immediately because it’s what Bon would have wanted. Two days later, the brothers began playing through a handful of songs written before Scott’s death, and they started the audition process shortly after.

Brian Johnson was always the top pick for Scott’s replacement for a couple of reasons, with the first being that the late singer himself recommended Johnson. He’d seen Geordie perform one of its music-and-comedy acts before — where Johnson gave a Little Richard impression and ended up flailing around on the floor, which Scott thought was hilarious (when really it was due to acute appendicitis). Johnson's presence could already be felt in the band, as he also inspired what would become one of Scott’s signature moves of carrying the band’s guitarist around on stage. Apart from the Scott connection, Highway to Hell’s producer Robert “Mutt” Lange also knew of Johnson and recommended him to the band.

He only agreed to the audition because he landed another gig

But that wasn't enough for Johnson to skip the audition process, and getting back into music just wasn’t at the top of his list of things to do. Instead, he told Classic Rock that he only agreed to the audition because he landed another gig, a short jingle for a Hoover ad, and decided he may as well do both.

He recalled what happened in London's Pimlico Studios to Rolling Stone following Malcolm Young’s death in 2017: “The smallest guy in the room stood up and walked towards me. Pulled out a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, because that is where I am from, and said, ‘There you go, mate, just make yourself at home.’ It was Malcolm.”

Even though the Youngs wanted Johnson in the band before he auditioned, the vocalist still managed to impress them even further with his audition choices. Everyone else before him, he said to Classic Rock, chose “Smoke on the Water” for their auditions while Johnson opted for Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits.” Apart from being relieved at finally playing something else, the Youngs were apparently pleased with Johnson’s originality and exposure to other styles.

On the rather un-auspicious day of April 1, 1980, AC/DC announced Brian Johnson as Bon Scott’s replacement. Due to the timing, Johnson had to convince his friends and family it wasn’t actually an April Fool’s prank.

The next thing to do was to pick up where Scott left off, and that meant recording another new album. After some preliminary writing, AC/DC headed off to the Bahamas to create a record. It may have allegedly been to take advantage of tax breaks by recording offshore, but sound engineer Tony Platt told Classic Rock it also helped the band bond quickly.

The Classic Rock interview notes that there was some concern about the actual making of the album as well. The band needed it to be a success thanks to Highway to Hell essentially cleaning out their coffers, and they were willing to take anything Johnson wrote and add it to the existing song ideas AC/DC planned to use as a Scott tribute. All of this — writing, recording, bonding — was moving along very quickly while the band still had no idea how well their fans would receive Johnson.

AC/DC - Hells Bells

There are several varying stories about memorable moments in the songwriting process behind Back in Black, but the most common is probably how "Hell’s Bells" came to be — which has a touch of Cinderella in it too.

As the story goes, Johnson was stuck with a bad case of writer's block. He ran into a figurative wall after writing three songs — including “Back in Black” — and one version of the story is that he was in bed one night as a storm rolled in. Mutt Lange knew Johnson was troubled by the speed of recording, so he came up to see if Johnson was okay.

Johnson said he'd already written three songs at that point and was "fucking running out of ideas" when Lunge said they'd be working on "Hells Bells" one night. According to Johnson, what happened next was a literal bolt of inspiration — but not for him. A clap of thunder sounded outside, heralding the approach of a tropical storm. Lange called it rolling thunder and immediately told Johnson to write it down. Then Johnson took over.

"The fucking rain came down in torrents, you couldn’t hear yourself. And I just went: ‘Pourin’ rain!’ And the wind whipped up – ‘I’m comin’ on like a hurricane!’ I was gone" he recalled. The rest of the song quickly followed and was finished that night.

But Johnson told Dan Rather in The Big Interview something very different, where inspiration strikes him while Lange is a casual passerby instead of the one encouraging the ideas. In this version, he'd written five songs already, and Lange noticed Johnson seemed stuck one morning at breakfast. He commented on the thunder, and Johnson took it from there:

"I went, ‘Rolling thunder, pouring rain, coming on like a hurricane.’ I mean, I was literally giving a weather report!"

And that weather report ended up as "Hells Bells."

Whatever the story, it clearly worked. After some back and forth with the label, who thought all black for the cover was just too much (so they compromised with a grey border), Back in Black released on July 25, 1980 — not even six months after Scott’s death — and ended up becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time. 

Speculation about how Bon Scott died

But some question whether or not it should have been so easy for AC/DC to replace their lyricist and crank out a brand-new album that not only meets the standards of their previous works but even surpasses them? For the band's historians like Jesse Fink, it all leads back to speculation about how Bon Scott died.

The inconsistencies and vague accounts surrounding Scott’s death sare enough to fill a novel — in fact, that’s what Fink did — but it boils down to one major theory. As stated earlier, Fink claims Scott died of a heroin overdose, but apparently he wasn’t alone, and the timing differed from the official account. While Fink doesn’t suggest Scott was murdered by any means, he does remark how strange it is that the postmortem narrative AC/DC promoted tried presenting Scott as clean, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

More importantly for the story of Back in Black is how involved the deceased vocalist was in the development process. The Youngs presented Back in Black as their tribute to Scott, but Fink notes an interesting development following Scott’s death: Scott’s home was broken into shortly after he died, and his notebooks containing lyrics and song ideas were never recovered in the property search.

Of course, this is all conjecture. It’s not impossible that AC/DC and Brian Johnson could have  developed Back in Black on their own in such a short time. The band created what would become Highway to Hell very quickly, but there’s also nothing to suggest Scott didn’t pen songs later included in Back in Black before he died, with the Youngs beginning to work on them after his funeral. Between the combination of the band needing success at the time, (with Scott’s writing always serving them well before) and Johnson’s own creative struggles during the process, there’s always the possibility that Back in Black was Bon Scott’s last album after all.