When AC/DC First Arrived In London (and nobody cared)
"There were about 30 people in the audience, but the band didn’t seem to care."
In the early weeks of 1976, AC/DC were inside Albert Studios in Sydney, cutting tracks for their third album. As the band worked on this new material, both the High Voltage and T.N.T. albums had been certified triple gold in Australia.
That April, the band was to perform its first live dates in Europe – beginning with a UK tour as the opening act for Back Street Crawler, the group led by former Free guitarist, Paul Kossoff. But on 19 March, during a flight from Los Angeles to New York, Kossoff, one of the great guitar players of his generation, died as a result of a pulmonary embolism, caused by intravenous drug use.
With that tour cancelled, AC/DC would head to London uncertain of when the first gig would come. Despite this, they had the album finished – its title, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – and spirits were high as they bid farewell to their home crowd with a show at the Bondi Lifesaver club in Sydney on 27 March. Reportedly, it was during this show that Angus first performed a party piece that would become a regular occurrence at AC/DC gigs – the guitarist pulling down his shorts and baring his ass to the audience during ‘The Jack’.
Within days of the band’s arrival in London there was trouble. One evening, Bon Scott returned to a pub in Finchley where he had once served behind the bar during the time he spent in London with the band Fraternity. He became embroiled in a fracas and was knocked out cold after one local man smashed a pint glass over his head. On the following day, during a band photo shoot, the singer wore sunglasses to conceal two black eyes. On a darker note, it was also rumoured that during those first days in the city, Bon was hospitalised following a drugs overdose. If there was a warning in what had happened to Paul Kossoff, it was lost on Bon.
There was also tension within the band as they kicked their heels in London, itching to get on with the business of playing live, but soon they had a venue and a date locked in. AC/DC would make their UK debut at The Red Cow, a pub in Hammersmith, on 23 April. One of the few people who witnessed this event was Malcolm Dome, who was at the time a student, and later went on to become a rock journalist who interviewed Bon several times in the late 1970s. What he saw that night in AC/DC and their singer was unforgettable.
“I knew a little about the band before the gig,” Dome says. “I had heard the Aussie albums, and I’d read a small story about them in Sounds. There was a bit of a buzz about them – this new Australian band that suddenly appeared. What I was expecting was a pub rock band – an energetic, fun rock’n’roll band.
“The Red Cow was an old-school boozer. It was very bare inside, with the venue room at the back, which could hold maybe 100 people. AC/DC played two sets that night. For the first set there were about 30 people in the audience, but the band didn’t seem to care about that. They really went for it. It was an electrifying performance. Their whole attitude was: we’re going to entertain every goddamn one of you; we’ll make sure you never forget us; and you’ll bring your mates next time. And the reaction from everyone there was just, bloody hell!
“Angus was a live wire, jumping all over the place, on the stage and off. Bon was just so cool and charismatic. Angus and Bon really were a great double act. They were both such characters and they complemented each other. They never got in each other’s way. You could feel that Bon was very much pushing Angus to the front – to get all the attention. And the other three were so bloody good – just an incredible rhythm section.
“They played nine or ten songs. The power in ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ and ‘High Voltage’ was phenomenal. And as soon as they finished, Bon walked off the stage and straight to the bar. He’d taken his shirt off during the show and didn’t bother to put it back on. He just put a towel around his neck, strolled up to the bar and said to a few people standing there, ‘Right, who wants a drink?’ It was a case of, ‘I’m buying you all a drink and I expect you to buy me one back.’ Which was fair enough. I talked to him. He was really affable, very happy to be in England, and very much Bon the bon viveur. He was great.”
In the hour between the band’s two sets at the Red Cow, many who had witnessed the first set rushed out to a phone box to call their friends and tell them they had to see this band. The audience had doubled by the time AC/DC were back on stage. “There was a real buzz in the room,” Malcolm Dome says. Word of mouth was spreading fast.
On 30 April, a week after the first show at the Red Cow, the new version of the High Voltage album was released in the UK and Europe. The US release followed on 14 May. The band went on to play a residency at the Marquee, the famous Soho club where so many legendary rock acts had performed – Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who.
One of those Marquee shows was reviewed by Melody Maker’s Harry Doherty, who stated: “They’re a good boogie band, with apparently no pretensions about being anything else. Judging from the wild reaction of their audience, they could slip comfortably into Status Quo’s shoes.”
Certainly, there were similarities between AC/DC and Quo, in the heavy boogie numbers they played, with Malcolm Young a rhythm machine like Quo’s Rick Parfitt. What the members of AC/DC could never understand was why their band was repeatedly described in the British music press as punk rock.
Speaking to me in 2003, Malcom said: “When we first came to England in 1976, the record company wanted to market us as a punk band. We told them to fuck off!” Malcolm also recalled other heated exchanges from that time. “You’d get these punks having a go at us,” he said. “And Bon would go, ‘You better shut up or I’ll rip that fucking safety pin out of your fucking nose!’”
The band’s UK tour kicked off at Glasgow’s City Hall, in the city where the Young brothers were born. It was named the Lock Up Your Daughters tour after a line from the song ‘T.N.T.’. The 12 June issue of Sounds carried a major feature in which the tour was billed as “a rampage across Britain under the Sounds banner.”
This feature, by Geoff Barton, was a detailed portrait of the band and their lifestyle. Barton met up with the band at the house in Barnes before travelling with them in a van to a gig at a club called the Porterhouse in Retford, Nottinghamshire.
In his description of the house, you could almost smell the place: “Cosy, if cluttered – cigarette butts and half-finished drinks are strewn liberally about its interior.” His description of the five band members equally vivid: “The first thing that strikes you about the band is their smallness – they’re all around five feet four inches; the second is their fresh-faced and bright-eyed appearances.
On closer inspection, however, you find that, although the skin is smooth enough, it looks a good deal older than it should do: the eyes are glazed more than shiny. On the road wear and tear, without a doubt. Bon Scott, the oldest and most well-worn of the five.”
The show in Retford drew an audience of around 100 people. The songs they played that night included ‘Live Wire’, ‘The Jack’, ‘High Voltage’, and a version of ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ featuring Bon on bagpipes.
Most evocative of all was the way Barton described Angus on stage: “He begins rushing up and down like a lightning streak – as the music gathers speed, so it acts as a series of electrical stimuli to the young lad. Ultimately, he falls to the floor and there, still holding his instrument, turns a full circle, crab-like, on his back in the grime, twitches violently, and then hits the final note of the evening with such force you expect the stage to cave in and see the whole band disappear in a cloud of dust.”
The Lock Up Your Daughters tour ended at London’s Lyceum Theatre on 7 July, and ahead of the band’s appearance at Reading Festival on 29 August, another Sounds writer, Phil Sutcliffe, predicted big things for AC/DC – only this time, there was no reference to punk rock.
“What I think AC/DC are going to do to heavy metal,” Sutcliffe wrote, “is crack it and tilt it sideways.” Describing AC/DC as “a completely physical rock’n’roll experience,” he stated: “The two Youngs’ music is like a forge in a black night beating heat and energy together into something almost beautiful it’s so strong. And Bon Scott’s lyrics, well, they got balls.”
In this feature there was also a comment from Bon that would become famous. “They say to me are you AC or DC?” Bon said. “And I say, ‘Neither, I’m the lightnin’ flash in the middle.’”
Phil Sutcliffe’s support for the band would prove hugely influential, and he, like so many others, was immediately drawn to Bon. As he recollected, “Bon was so eccentric and yet so down-to-earth. On stage he was like a pirate, sort of leathery and macho, but in a comic way. Wherever he was, he made people feel good. And he attracted girls because he was a load of fun – you could tell that girls thought, what a laugh it would be to roll around in bed with him.”
In seven months, the band had worked their way up from the Red Cow pub to the Reading Festival and the Hammersmith Odeon. When AC/DC finished their UK tour in Oxford on 15 November, it was mission accomplished.