After all, the band released the best-selling hard rock album of all time, Back in Black, with Brian Johnson as the singer and lyricist. But NIU professor Joe Bonomo says Bon Scott helped put the band on the path toward stardom. Bonomo makes the case in his book AC/DC's Highway to Hell, the final installment of our Summer Book Series.
Bonomo says the Aussie rockers were becoming a legend when they released their sixth album, Highway to Hell, in August of 1979. With Highway, Bonomo says, they finally got on American radio, reaching #17 on the Billboard charts. "Their long tours and all the hard work during the past decade had begun to pay off," he says, "which is part of the tragedy of Scott dying." Bon Scott died in February 1980 of alcohol poisoning.
Bonomo says Scott brought something to the band that no singer before him, or after, could bring. "It was a ridiculously larger-than-life personality and a sense of humor," Bonomo says. He notes Scott had trouble with youth detention services and arrests for petty offenses, but Scott didn't have a chip on his shoulder: "He brought a half-grin, a real love of life and a really funny way of looking at things." Bonomo adds Scott had a knack for a turn of phrase, which he used to great effect in his lyrics.
And Scott wasn't afraid to be the butt of a joke. In the song "Shot Down in Flames," he tries to pick up different women but fails. Bonomo writes:
The story's simple enough: the singer's at his second home looking for love when he sees a girl up against the jukebox looking "like she's something to sell." He asks her rate. She tells him to go to hell. Repeat self-mocking tale of a night striking out.
Bonomo insists AC/DC was a better band with Scott than with his successor, Brian Johnson. "Having lost Bon Scott, they lost that crazy, off-the-wall sense of humor that Brian Johnson could ape a little bit. But," Bonomo says, "he wasn't a naturally funny guy the way Bon Scott was."
Another detriment, Bonomo says, was the band's success in the 1980s. "When they moved to the stadiums, when they moved to the arenas, something essential was lost," he says.
Bonomo admits he's biased against bands that achieve great success, believing they "fall away from their better instincts." He believes that's the case with AC/DC. "They got a little lazy," he says. "Their albums became less powerful and less dynamic after Back in Black which is absolutely a great album."
For Bonomo, the arena-sized bookings, combined with the loss of Bon Scott, completed AC/DC's transformation to a worldwide institution instead of, he laments, "a great, funny, tight bar band."