Bon Scott's Pre-AC/DC Bandmate Shares Vintage Letters From Late Singer, Reflects on His Legacy
"I'm sure he would've been making an album of the great American songbook by now," says former collaborator Peter Head.
Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning on Feb. 15, 1980, just as AC/DC was beginning work on Back In Black, the album that made them arguably the biggest hard rock act in the world in the '80s. In the subsequent years, as songs like “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the title cut became ubiquitous anthems on classic rock radio, and AC/DC’s stature exploded. More than that, the legend of Scott and his vocals on several AC/DC classics -- “Highway To Hell,” “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “T.N.T.” -- grew as well.
In 2004, Classic Rock Magazine named Scott the greatest frontman of all time. It’s a sentiment that's shared in Australia, according to Scott’s longtime friend and bandmate in Mount Lofty Rangers, Peter Head.
“He’s just the most popular singer ever to come out of Australia. I don’t think America really appreciates how much he’s held in high regard in Australia,” Head tells Billboard.
A photo of Scott from his days singing with the Mount Lofty Rangers and sporting an Elvis shirt. “The Big E. was a hero to all of us," former bandmate Head says.
That could change in 2015 thanks to a new documentary, Looking For Bon. Narrated by David O’Hara (who’s appeared in The Tudors and The Departed), the film will explore Scott’s life from 1970 to 1974. That will be followed by a biopic with a script written by late Australian music pioneer Vince Lovegrove (who shared vocals with Scott in the Valentines in the '60s) and Angela Anagnostopoulos, focusing on his years in AC/DC. Among those spearheading the two projects is executive producer Shemori BoShae (American Federale), who’s put together a team that includes Michael Slifkin (Archstone), Naomi Krell (Kings Road Multimedia) and producer Damien Reilly, who will be overseeing the soundtrack.
“The purpose of the documentary is to chronicle what was a very creative period for Bon from 1970 to 1974 and give the viewer an insight into a very creative period of Bon’s life and to enlighten all on just how great a singer he was before he joined ACDC,” BoShae says.
Scott performing with the Mount Lofty Rangers. “AC/DC were the perfect people to give him full reign with his sense of humor and his outrageousness,” Head says of the singer moving on to perform with the hard-rock group.
Billboard spoke with Head about how this period in Scott’s life helped shape him for AC/DC.
Are there moments where you grasp how big Bon Scott was, or is this just your friend you made music with?
It’s really weird because he’s one of thousands of people I interacted with, but in hindsight, it seems he’s the most important musician I ever interacted with. When he joined AC/DC he had five or six years with them before he died and the rest of the world has only seen that. So they missed out on the Bon era, a lot of it, which is a bit of a pity because it’s the favorite one for Australians and the favorite one for me, too.
Tell us about the Bon era.
The Bon Scott I knew enjoyed listening to jazz, people like Ray Charles, all the black singers -- he loved black music. And also the Band, Robbie Robertson and all those people. He had quite a wide variety of tastes, but when I first met him in Adelaide he was with a band called Fraternity and the sort of music they play you’d only call progressive rock. It was highly artistic, they wouldn’t use Bon’s lyrics -- what he describes as his poetry wasn’t good enough for Fraternity. But his voice was fantastic, and the music he made with Fraternity a lot of people hadn’t heard. It was far more musical than AC/DC, but AC/DC were more entertaining on a gut level. When Fraternity played with my band, I just threw together a band called the Mount Lofty Rangers for a short time, and to make it easy, we basically concentrated on country and country rock because about 240 different people went through the band. Bon actually sang lead maybe a dozen times. But it meant I was in a constant state of rehearsing a different group of people. It was different every day and we did a hell of a lot of rehearsing and put in a hell of a lot of time. But it was an intense time and very creative time and we got a few of Bon’s songs realized that Fraternity wouldn’t use and probably AC/DC wouldn’t use, but we used with the Mount Lofty Rangers. And Bon actually wrote a couple of songs because he believed in the idea of the Mount Lofty Rangers, which was to basically get the best songwriters in Adelaide at the time and the best musicians and put them together and present something, which hadn’t been done before.
Scott was both an eclectic music fan who loved jazz, country and more, as well as a hard-working musician. “When AC/DC came along he knew this was his chance for the big time and he just grabbed it with both hands,” Head says.
What do you imagine Bon would have been doing musically had he lived?
I think he would have gone on to do a whole lot more. He did some outrageous things with AC/DC, like dressing up as a schoolgirl on stage, that served his sense of humor, which really came across. But he was a very serious singer as well and you don’t see a lot of that. If he would’ve gone on to bigger and better things I’m sure he would’ve been making an album of the great American songbook by now or somewhere where he could really showcase his voice. He had a lot more soul in his voice and blues, just feel, which he got from listening to people like Ray Charles and Nina Simone.
What else would surprise people about Bon?
He used to read books quite prolifically. We were exposed to high art in the sense that Hamish Henry, who was our manager with both Fraternity and Headband, also ran an art gallery, so we were mixing with the top artists in Australia -- not only musicians, but also artists, writers and we felt like we were part of the vanguard of intellectuals with our musical input. It felt like more than just rock and roll in the pub, we were trying to push the envelope in original writing. And we mixed up jazz, country, rock and roll, everything into one new form, we thought at the time at least. And the '70s were just a special time in Australia at least, where there was a band on every corner in both Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney and they were all playing original music. You just don’t get that anymore, you don’t get that anywhere in the world. It was a very special time, and very prolific time.
“This was taken by artist/photographer Vytas Serelis at the wedding of Bon and Irene in the Adelaide hills,” Head recalls.
Were you surprised by his transition into AC/DC?
No, I wasn’t surprised at all, because up until then I’d watched Bon try really hard with his band Fraternity, they went to England for a year and starved. In Adelaide they were playing maybe once a week, but making very little money, probably making a hundred dollars a week at the time. And most of the time he had to do some sort of day work to survive. One of the last times I’d seen him he’d just spent a day working for 12 hours shoveling shit on the back of a truck and that was serious hard work. He worked very hard in all ways to try and survive as both a musician and a person. Eventually it paid off for Bon because he had at least five or six years with AC/DC where finally he got a bit of reward for his efforts. When AC/DC came along he knew this was his chance for the big time and he just grabbed it with both hands. I wasn’t surprised at all because he was so frustrated by the end of that time that he had to find something and AC/DC were the perfect people to give him full reign with his sense of humor and his outrageousness. He just went for it and nobody would deny that he’d spent too long trying to be serious and getting nothing back in return. So AC/DC was perfect at the time and at the place.
“Bon was quite a prolific letter writer,” Peter Head says. “He wrote to his girlfriends and his wife and fan club presidents and his friends. He did spend a lot of time just writing. He always had an exercise book with him, always full of potential one-liners for songs. He never stopped thinking about writing songs.”
Bon also loved to have a good time, though, right?
On his last day in Australia, Bon went to visit two women in the Melbourne maternity ward, they both had children and he accepted them both as being his children. On the day he went to visit the women they were unknown to each other, he kept it secret. But that there are at least two kids in Melbourne that are his sons. I’m sure there are gonna be others that pop up claiming to be his kids and they might be, who knows. He was pretty prolific in that department.
“It's interesting, must've been about ‘73-’74,” Head says of this letter. “He talks about Fraternity playing at ‘Headquarters.’ Hamish Henry, our mutual manager, established four live venues in each corner of Adelaide, and called Headquarters north, south, east, and west. And Fraternity take a week to set up not one, but three PA systems in tandem, so that the audience heard it loud and clear like had never, ever been done before in the history of Adelaide."
What do you hope people get from these film projects?
He just had something which no other Australian singer has ever had. I’m glad to see that people recognize him 40 years later. But I think Americans don’t really recognize him yet and I hope this documentary and movie might show a bit more of him than has been realized in the past.
Do you remember the first time you realized how great his legacy had become?
It was a huge shock when I went to New York for the first time after not knowing that Bon had any effect on people outside of Australia. The very first time I went to New York I saw the Brooklyn Bridge and in huge letters was written, “Bon Scott Lives.” I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing.” It was just amazing to me to see that his determination finally paid off.
“Both Bon and I worked hard for years in our various bands, and sometimes together, but eventually we had to give up and say, ‘There's gotta be another way,’” Head recalls. “And along came AC/DC for him.”