Let There Be Rock: The Album That Saved AC/DC's Career
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
Christmas, 1976, summer time in Australia and, according to Michael Browning, their manager, AC/DC “have got the shits”. What’s more, they reckon it’s all his fault.
“It was very close to being all over,“ Browning says. “Things were progressing very well in London and Europe. We’d been through a whole thing with the Marquee where they broke all the house records. We'd done the Lock Up Your Daughters UK tour and the Reading festival. It was all shaping up really well.”
Having moved the band and their operation to London over the previous eight months - during which time their first UK album release, High Voltage, had served warning on an unsuspecting British music scene of the impending explosion of Antipodean rock coming their way - the band’s sudden absence from the domestic scene in Australia had left AC/DC’s live following there diminished. When Browning brought them back to Oz at the end of 1976 for what should have been a triumphant homecoming, they were surprised to discover that things had changed.
The young, mostly female crowd that had got to know them through regular appearances on TV shows like Countdown had deserted them in favour of stay-at-home poptastic local heroes like Skyhooks. Even the rugged, gig-going blokes who populated the thriving pub and club scene that AC/DC now found themselves back playing had developed a certain grudging attitude towards a band that had “buggered off overseas”, as Browning puts it. Even their hometown crowd in Sydney was diminished: when, after their return home, the band headlined the 5,000-capacity Hordern Pavilion on December 12, the place was barely half-full.
“It was a tough tour,” Browning says. “The group didn’t want to be doing it. I copped a lot of shit for making them do it. But it was a financial necessity. We had to do it to fill the coffers up to keep doing what we were doing in England and Europe. But try explaining that to a young rock’n’roll band.”
“Our grassroots guys stayed with us,” says AC/DC‘s then-bassist Mark Evans. ”But we got banned from a lot of gigs too. Angus was dropping his shorts, and we had a problem with the tour programme where there was a quote on top of my photograph which said: ‘I want to make enough money so I’ll be able to fuck Britt Ekland.’ That nearly derailed the whole tour.“
It wasn‘t all gloom. AC/DC‘s had released their second album, the wonderfully alliteratively titled Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, in the UK (it was their third in Australia), and while the band had yet to get a sniff at the charts in Britain, back home it had raced into the top five. Although even then guitarist and de facto band leader Malcolm Young found cause for complaint: their previous Australian album, T.N.T., had gone to No.1, why hadn‘t Dirty Deeds? What was wrong with everyone? But there was worse to come.
“In the middle of the tour, I get a phone call saying Atlantic Records in America didn‘t like the Dirty Deeds album,” says Browning. “That, in fact, they were going to drop the group from the label. And that’s when things got really bad.”
It had all been going so well up until then. Formed in Sydney by the guitar-playing Young brothers – Malcolm and younger sibling Angus – three years previously, AC/DC had survived serial line-up fluctuations, dodgy gigs in the outback where the punters showed their appreciation by hurling bottles at them, even image changes (the idea of Angus wearing a school uniform came from their mercifully brief glam period) to finally emerge triumphant in 1975 with the release in Oz of their first two, chart-bossing albums, High Voltage and T.N.T.
By then the brothers also had found the perfect frontman: Bon Scott, whose previous career had included forays into pop stardom with The Valentines (the 60s Oz equivalent of a boy band), hairy hippiedom with Fraternity (the Oz equivalent of The Band, at least in their own dope-smoked minds), and several months in jail as a teenager for fighting policemen and stealing cars (and unlawful carnal knowledge with a teenage girl).
Bon was once jokingly asked whether he was the AC or DC in the band. His reply was telling: “Naw, I’m the flash in the middle.” Shirtless, strutting, grinning like a wolf, his arms covered in tattoos, Bon was more than just the singer, he was the storyteller – all his best songs came from real life. “As soon as Bon came along you had the real AC/DC,” says Browning.
Suitably encouraged, AC/DC did what all aspiring Australian rockers had tried to do since The Easybeats (who included elder Young brother George on guitar) showed them the way when they took over the UK singles chart in the mid-60s with Friday On My Mind: they got the hell out of Australia.
“From the very first day I got the job in AC/DC, I was told we would be in the UK within the next 12 months,” recalls Mark Evans. “I thought they were dreaming. But, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.”
But their initial burst of momentum hit a wall at the end of ’76, when they returned to Australia for the tour that would prove to be their rudest awakening yet.
“They’d delivered Dirty Deeds before they went back, which I thought was pretty good,” says Phil Carson, the London-based chief executive of Atlantic Records and the man who signed the band to the label. “I got Hipgnosis to do a cover for me on the cheap – a reject of somebody else’s cover. But the Atlantic A&R department [in the US] said: ‘We’re sorry, but this album actually doesn’t make it. We’re not gonna put it out and we’re dropping the band.’ And everybody was unanimous in this, by the way – everybody.”
Unable to see how this raw, still unknown young band was going to fit into the formats of the American radio stations then gorging on the soft rock sound of Rod Stewart, Elton John, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, even when Carson pointed out how well the international version of High Voltage had done in Britain and Europe, Atlantic’s New York boss, Jerry Greenberg, was adamant.
“So I said: ‘I think you’re making a very, very big mistake’,” recalls Carson. “But the drop notice was out; they were history. So I went to Neshui [Ertegun, co-owner of Atlantic with brother Ahmet] and showed him the sales figures that we’d got for High Voltage. They were not awe-inspiring but considering we’d only paid $25,000 for the album this was not so bad. There were 10,000 sold in Germany and 12,000 in England. Maybe it had sold 40,000 overall. It had certainly earned its $25,000 back. Neshui backed me up and I re-signed the band at that point. I managed to claw it back in. Thank God I did.”
Despite their precarious position, the band were typically bullish in their refusal to bow to the label. There was no question of them softening their sound to make it more palatable to the American market.
“No, no,” says Browning. “Malcolm’s attitude was the opposite. Total disregard for what Americans think. That’s been their attitude all the way along, which is what’s made them so sustainable and huge, just never ever really compromising in situations like that.”
Nevertheless, to be on the safe side it was decided the band should hurry back into the studio in Sydney and record a new album, before heading back to the UK. Thus, in January 1977, AC/DC entered Alberts Studios in Sydney, where all their records had been made up ’til that point, and spent two weeks recording what came to be known as Let There Be Rock.
“There was always a siege mentality about that band,” says Mark Evans. “But once we all found out that Atlantic had knocked us back the attitude was: ‘Fuck them! Who the fuck do they think they are?’ So from that point onwards it was: ‘Fuck, we’ll show them!’ We were seriously fucking pissed off about it. It didn’t need to be discussed. We were going to go in and make that album and shove it up their arse.”
The result would be the first utterly explosive AC/DC album.
Malcolm and Angus weren’t the only members of the Young family fired up by their ruck with Atlantic. The band’s task of sticking it to their international label was aided in no small measure by the presence of their elder brother George, who was working at the time as an in-house producer for AC/DC’s Australian label Albert Productions, alongside songwriting partner and fellow former Easybeat Harry Vanda.
“If anything, George was even more determined to prove the Americans wrong than Malcolm and Angus,” says Evans. “And I think they got it right.”
They certainly did. From the sound of a whisky-guzzling Bon counting in the intro to the swaggering opening track Go Down, a song about a real-life friend of his named Ruby (as in Ruby Lips, though her actual name was Wendy), known for her fondness for ‘lickin’ on that lickin’ stick’, to the frantic finale Whole Lotta Rosie, about another lady friend acquainted with the singer’s lickin’ stick – this one ‘weighing in at 19 stone’ – Let There Be Rock didn’t let up for its eight-track, 40-minute duration.
It sounded exactly like what it was. Written and recorded fast, before the vibe had time to fade, it was full of blood and spittle and anger and put-a-fuck-into-you fun, fuelled by cheap speed and cold beer, topped up with expensive whisky and at least a million cigarettes, some of them smelling distinctly ‘funny’. If Atlantic in America had been expecting something rather more in tune with the lukewarm milk of drivetime radio in the mid-70s, they were in for a shock.
Even if the band had not been in such an angry frame of mind when they made the album, it’s unlikely that AC/DC would have taken any more care making Let There Be Rock. “All the albums I made with them were done in a two-week period,” says Mark Evans. “The songs were written in the studio; we never did a demo.”
If the three albums that came before it – High Voltage, T.N.T. and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – had an increasingly high quotient of brilliance, Let There Be Rock was the one where AC/DC truly found their place in the scheme of things, not least on the title track, a heartfelt ode to original, no-shit rock’n’roll as evinced by the fastest, most irresistibly hair-shaking piece of high-octane noise ever committed to what was still then just poor, weak vinyl. Elsewhere, Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be stood as AC/DC’s own Brown Sugar.
“If you’re a purist and like the guitars being completely in tune and things being completely studio-sterile, that song’s gonna kill you,” Mark Evans says of the latter, “cos the guitars are whomping all over the place out of tune. But it’s just got that nasty, gritty feel about it that says AC/DC.”
Indeed the whole album sounds like it’s on the verge of spilling over into total feedback. It was recorded live in one room. Mistakes were tolerated if the vibe was strong enough, the energy audibly crackling over the speakers on tracks like Overdose or Bad Boy Boogie.
Another Oz band, The Angels, had recently signed to Albert Productions and were also being produced in the studio by Vanda and Young.
“I watched Let There Be Rock be recorded,” says drummer Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup. “It was all to do with the feel, it wasn’t about perfection. They would play the riff until George said: ‘I think you’ve got the groove there.’ That might be five minutes, it might be 10. Remember, there’s no drum machines, no click tracks, no nothing. They’d just hammer at Phil Rudd.”
The only way the band knew how to record back then was simply to play as if they were doing a gig. “If Angus was recording a solo, he would be climbing all over the amps and rolling around the floor,” says Bidstrup. “That was part of what made George and Harry good producers – they could actually get the band fired up to be so excited about what they were doing that Angus would crawl around on the floor.”
The title song became the one AC/DC would end their set with for years to come. But, for Mark Evans, the real hero of the track was undoubtedly Phil Rudd. “Phil on that is just absolutely out of this world. We did two takes of it, and at the end of the first one I remember thinking: ‘That’s the end of Phil for a couple of hours’ But Phil said: ‘Let’s go again now.’ I thought the guy was gonna fucking explode. From my memory, I’m pretty sure they used the second take.”
Angus later recalled seeing smoke “pouring out of the fucking amp”, at the end of the LTBR take. “George is fucking screaming: ‘Don’t stop!’” The amp held out until the end of the song, when “it melted”. It was simply one of those albums, Angus concluded, “where it was all cooking”.
Rhythm and backing tracks were all completed in the first week. Bon, who’d be given cassettes of the mixed-down, vocal-less tracks which he then “scribbled words to”, did his vocals in the second week, during which Angus also laid down his guitar solos.
“Bon had this book he took everywhere with him,” Evans recalls, “full of song titles and ideas for lyrics. Bon would be locked away with his books, writing lyrics and fitting them to the backing tracks. Except, that is, on those days when you’d go in there and he’d done a bunk and didn’t come back for two days.”
Some of the new tracks, like Bad Boy Boogie, had previously existed in miniature form. “It was a title that was around and a riff that we’d messed around with a little bit maybe at soundcheck,” says Evans. “Others, like Whole Lotta Rosie, didn’t look like they were gonna happen at first.”
The idea of Let There Be Rock – indeed AC/DC’s whole career – without Whole Lotta Rosie is unthinkable. Originally called Dirty Eyes, the band initially struggled to make it work. The song only clicked after a week of work. And yes, the titular character was based on a real person.
“She was a Tasmanian girl,” Evans chuckles. “A massive girl. Bigger than the lot of us put together. There was a brothel out the back of the hotel we used to stay at in Melbourne, St Kilda, and Rosie used to run it. Then one day Pat Pickett, Bon’s best mate and our stage guy, came running in saying: ‘You’ve got to come and have a look at this! He’s fucked her!’ So I went in to Bon’s room, and you could see this massive fucking whale of a woman on the bed, and you could see a little arm sticking out underneath with tattoos on it. Pat said: ‘Look, he’s in there somewhere!’ She was a good sport, though, Rosie, a real good person to have around. I can’t confirm or deny whether Rosie was her real name, but we knew her as Rosie cos she had red hair.”
There was also another delightful little Bon ditty included on the original Australian and British and European versions of the album, but which the American record company put their foot down about: Crabsody In Blue, a wonderfully swinging blues song – half Ride On, half The Jack – based again on Bon’s own personal sexual history. To wit: ‘Well they move on down and they crawl around.’ Thirty-five years on, the humour may seem strained, even anachronistic. But at the time, Crabsody In Blue was positively anarchic. It certainly proved too much for the Americans (and eventually the Japanese record company too), who replaced the track with Problem Child, ironically from Dirty Deeds, the album they had also just rejected.
AC/DC’s fourth album, and their best yet, Let There Be Rock was released in Australia in March 1977… and barely made the Top 20 there. Reviews were equally dismal. The headline in Sydney newspaper the Sun read simply: ‘What a bore.’ Ian Jeffery was a London-based Scot who began working with the band as their tour manager that year. “That hurt them far more than America not getting their music,” he recalls of the reception that the album received in Australia. “The fact that their own country seemed to have let them down.”