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Flashback: Bon Scott Owns the Stage With AC/DC in 1979

Singer, who died 40 years ago this week, got a Bay Area crowd banging their fists to “Highway to Hell” before the song had even come out

Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

Half a year before Bon Scott’s death, he was riding high with his AC/DC bandmates on the North American leg of their If You Want Blood Tour. On July 21st, 1979, that trek brought them to Oakland for an appearance at the megafestival Day on the Green, where they played the same day as Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, and Rush, among others. Judging by video of AC/DC’s appearance, though, Bon Scott had enough energy for the whole day.

During “Live Wire,” he writhes about the stage and leans into the mic, posing for the front row. At the start of the second song, he rips off his blue-jean vest and says, “Here’s a ‘Problem Child’ for you.” And midway through the set, he has the audacity to challenge the crowd with a new song from a record that isn’t even out yet: “Highway to Hell.” As the Young brothers kick into the main riff, so fresh it sounds a little wobbly, Scott sells it so hard that you can see the front row clapping along and banging their fists as he sings, “No stop signs, speed limit, nobody’s gonna slow me down.” Among other numbers, the rest of the set features “The Jack,” his steamy ode to STDs, and a hard-rocking rendition of Let There Be Rock’s “Dog Eat Dog.”

While the Aussie group had made a name for itself internationally throughout most of the Seventies, they had yet to make a real impact in the U.S. After Highway to Hell — less than a week after Day on the Green — they became superstars. The album contained the singles “Girls Got Rhythm,” “Touch Too Much,” and, of course, “Highway to Hell,” which made it up to Number 47 on the Hot 100 by December 1979. The LP made it up to Number 17 on the Billboard 200 and went gold by that Christmas and platinum by March 1980; it’s since been certified seven times platinum.

Scott never had the chance to enjoy AC/DC’s success fully. On February 19th, 1980, he attended a band rehearsal, played drums on a couple of songs that would appear on that year’s Back in Black, and later went out to a London club called Music Machine. That night he died of asphyxiation, choking on his own vomit after drinking too much. He was 33.

AC/DC recruited Geordie frontman Brian Johnson that April and finished up Back in Black shortly thereafter, releasing it in July 1980. “I was sad for Bon,” Angus Young said in a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone. “I didn’t even think about the band. We’d been with Bon all that time; we’d seen more of him than his family did.” Despite the sadness, Malcolm Young said he never thought about ending the band. “I thought, ‘Well, fuck this. I’m not gonna sit around mopin’ all fuckin’ year,’ ” he said. “So I just rang up Angus and said, ‘Do you wanna come back and rehearse?’ This was about two days afterward.” Angus countered, “I’m sure if it had been one of us, Bon would have done the same.”

Back in Black went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums in history — it’s since been certified double-diamond, recognizing more than 25 million copies sold. The sudden interest in AC/DC, though, inspired a renaissance for Bon Scott. The American release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, in 1981, was an immediate hit, making it up to Number Three on the Billboard 200. In 1997, the band put out a box set, Bonfire, which contained previously unreleased recordings Scott made with the band. It was also a hit, eventually going platinum.

“I remember [Bon] as a real professional and conscientious guy when we worked in the studio,” Angus once said. “He looked at it as his art. If we had a couple of days off, then he might go out and get a bit crazy. He had a great constitution. He was always the first one out of bed and always looked fit and healthy. He was a guy who really enjoyed life.”