Richard Purden

AS FAR as rock ’n’ roll redemptions go the return of AC/DC earlier this year was as close to the classic line-up as you’ll get short of raising the dead. The threat of permanent hearing damage had caused singer Brian Johnson to quit touring with the band in 2016 on medical advice. He was replaced by Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose for the remainder of the Rock or Bust tour. Long-serving drummer Phil Rudd also returned to the fold after headline-grabbing drugs charges. He also served an eight-month home detention sentence after threatening to kill a former assistant in 2014. Bassist Cliff Williams had also retired, suggesting AC/DC was now a “changed animal”. With the band’s engine room Malcolm Young having stepped down in 2014 due to ill health it seemed as though his brother Angus was the last man standing.

After suffering from dementia Malcolm’s passing at the age of 64 was announced in November 2017. His funeral proved to be a catalyst for the estranged members of AC/DC bonding again. Frontman Brian Johnson acknowledges that despite ill-health, personal problems and retirement there was something beyond the band that made it clear they would come together one last time to record Power Up as a tribute to Malcolm, who receives a songwriting credit on every track. His original motivation, ideas and disciplined riffs have driven the spirit of AC/DC’s 17th album since rehearsals began in 2018 much like they did when he started the band with his brother in 1973.

It’s not the first time AC/DC has overcome the loss of an essential band member: 2020 marks 40 years since the death of Bon Scott, their singer between 1974 and 1980 responsible for co-writing and singing the likes of Whole Lotta Rosie, Let There Be Rock and Highway To Hell. Back In Black, one of the highest-selling albums of all time, shifting over 50 million copies, was recorded as a tribute to Scott.

Just as AC/DC had reached rock’s top flight Scott suffered a grim end after being discovered dead at 33 years old inside a Renault 5 on a freezing cold night in East Dulwich, London. His demise was recorded as “death by misadventure” due to alcohol poisoning but the fact that he was discovered off the beaten track, had attracted questionable hangers-on and was living an untamed rock ’n’ roll lifestyle have caused many to ask questions, with a number of books and articles pouring over the circumstances of his final hours.

Just four years earlier AC/DC had arrived from Australia for their first gig on British soil. It was a last-minute arrangement at Napier College student union in Sighthill, Edinburgh, that had been arranged to allow the three Scottish-born members an opportunity to visit family before playing a showcase gig in London. Angus and Malcolm Young were born in the Cranhill estate in Glasgow’s East End leaving the city aged 8 and 10 to begin a new life in Australia on the so-called “ten-pound-pom-ticket”.

It’s those early Scottish roots that created a resolve in the brothers and their older brother George who had hits with his songwriting partner Harry Vanda, including Friday On My Mind in The Easybeats and later with Love Is In The Air. Malcolm Young reflected on those early Scottish roots in 1997: “We came from quite a poor family in Glasgow and the reason we went there [Australia] is because my dad was out of work. He was out of work for years. It was a chance. There were job opportunities, so the next thing we were all on our way.

“The reality is that when we got there we were put into an immigrant hostel. I’m not saying it’s bad but it was a very slim, bare necessities situation and it rained non-stop for six weeks with snakes crawling around the floor. We wanted to go home. But when we saw both our parents crying the night we arrived, we took strength from that to try and stick it out.”

Likewise, Bon Scott’s mother Isa and father Charles left Kirriemuir when Bon was six years old in 1953. Today in the town there are various tributes to the AC/DC frontman. My first stop in the Angus town is in Visocchi’s where staff are wearing black AC/DC T-shirts that feature the iconic red lettering and lightning bolt logo. Live albums are sold behind the counter along with ice-creams, pizzas and pasta.

The nearby Kirriemuir Art Gallery trades in Bon memorabilia from coasters and coffee mugs to fridge magnets and T-shirts along with merchandise celebrating Kirrie’s other famous son, Peter Pan. J.M Barrie’s much-loved creation feels like something of a support act to AC/DC’s eternally young singer and bawdy lyricist. Last year the Star Rock sweet shop sold Hell Balls as a 40-year anniversary tribute to Bon’s last album with the band, Highway To Hell.

After a short walk up the hill, I reach McGregor’s Land where Scott spent the first six years of his life. A memorial plaque to Bon behind Visocchi’s marks the spot where a tribute festival to the singer began nearly 15 years ago. By 2019 an estimated seven-thousand denim and leather-clad fans from around the globe had descended on ‘the wee red town’ to celebrate Bonfest, a three-day event celebrating the life of rock’s ultimate wild-man.

Bonfest organiser and chairman of the DD8 music charity Graham Galloway suggests: “When you look at the two eras of AC/DC, Bon’s is clearly the superior one. He’s the credible wordsmith and in the great Scottish tradition he was a story-teller, which he told in his songs; that’s what made him so relatable.”

The shared sense of Scottish identity between Scott and the Young brothers was a boon to AC/DC when joining in 1974. “Scottish roots meant a huge amount to him”, continues Galloway, “the nickname Bon was short for Bonnie Scotland, he had Scotland Forever with a Lion Rampant tattooed on his arm. He played the bagpipes and his dad was a piper in The Caledonian Scots Pipe Band of Fremantle where Bon began his music career as a drummer.”

As boys the Young brothers were keen Scotland and Rangers football supporters, the pair would attend a Rangers v Celtic game together in the late 1970s and Malcolm was a guest of the Ibrox club bringing his son Ross to a match and league trophy presentation in 2010. In the run up to the World Cup in 1978, the band wore Scotland tops during a performance at the Glasgow Apollo.

Bon Scott’s signature song It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll) featured him playing the bagpipes, the accompanying promo video presented the band performing the track on top of a flatbed trailer. It’s one of many Bonfest traditions that have boosted the popularity of the festival far and wide. Former members of AC/DC and a variety of visitors associated with Bon Scott have attended at the yearly event. Phil Rudd, from the current line up, visited in 2017.

“We had quite a few members of the band that year” says Galloway. “We had bass-player Mark Evans from the Bon-era over a few times. He said that after spending some time in Kirrie he understood why Bon was the person that he was because everyone was so friendly, which was very touching. We’ve had people very close to Bon, such as his brother Graeme, he was only meant to come for the day but stayed for a week. He was in the pub one night and we arranged for him to meet some cousins for the first time as a surprise. We also had Mary Renshaw who was a long-time friend and soul-mate.”

When a life-size bronze statue of the Angus born singer was unveiled in 2016 it made headlines around the world after a two-year crowdfunding campaign that was also supported by AC/DC. My trip to Kirrie ends with a visit to this striking monument of Ronald Belford Scott by John McKenna. The sculpture has proven to be a spur for the festival which has continued to grow in numbers.

Graham Galloway adds that “the whole town was on side, I remember getting home from the festival site that weekend in 2016 after having not slept for days. I sat down, had a dram and logged on to the community Facebook page. There was a sermon for the local Church of Scotland minister talking about what Bonfest meant to the town and how it exemplified all these wonderful things. I ended up sitting there in tears, it was such a lovely moment to realise it had been accepted by everybody and what it meant to people.”

The organisers of Bonfest are keen to get the festival up and running again as soon as possible. The 2020 event was cancelled due to the pandemic and next year’s now looks unlikely. AC/DC have suggested there will be a tour in support of Power Up as soon it’s possible. For the moment some will be satisfied with an album saluting another one of the band’s fallen heroes. Others will take the road to Kirriemuir and visit the hometown and statue of the charismatic poet piper who changed the course of rock n’ roll.

AC/DC’s Power Up is