The RNR Globe looks back at the Australian hard rock icons’ final album with original singer Bon Scott
In early 1979, a five piece rock band from Australia, led by the guitar-playing Young brothers Malcolm and Angus backed by a rhythm section of bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, and fronted by a fiery, flamboyant Scot transplant (as were the Youngs) named Bon Scott, were teetering on the edge of worldwide superstardom—but stuck on exactly how to catch fire. They were eminently ready as instrumentalists, songwriters and as a band. They’d paid their dues, done the time, been road dogs, and most importantly, toured the world including America.
Like most musical acts in their position the answer was to somehow fashion a knockout album. By 1979, the band had released five albums, four studio and one live, all on the Albert label in Australia and all of them produced by the team of ex-Easybeat members Harry Vanda and George Young, the latter being the older brother of the AC/DC Youngs. While the band’s previous 70s albums had charted in Australia and the U.K., the band’s American label Atlantic Records thought that a change in producers might provide that elusive spark in the States.
But firing a brother proved to be no easy feat for the band and a futile first attempt at recording with famed Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer was a complete disaster. A change in managers and the arrival of producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, followed by three months in the Roundhouse Studios in North London and suddenly, they had their masterpiece.
With the exacting Lange being hyper-vigilant about the album’s professionalism—guitars in tune, vocals on point, solos coherent—Highway to Hell eventually came into sharp focus. Easily the tightest, most polished and well-played recording to that point in their career, it’s clear from just the iconic title track, which starts with crunchy guitar chords before Rudd sets the right tempo, followed by Scott’s devilish lead vocals and the entire group on backup vocals—a new wrinkle at the time—that a leap had definitely been made. Engineer Tony Platt captured it all in crisp, amazingly detailed sound for a hard rock record. What had once simply been a blunt force, one that only knew how to land sledgehammer blows, now reveled in smoothing the rough edges of their audacity and playing with confident precision. The album became the band’s first million seller in the USA, eventually going seven times platinum (7,000,000,000 copies)
While the production helped, the core of the album’s success lies in the best batch of original tunes they’d ever written. Although sex, women and the joys of being in an altered state are limits of Scott’s lyrics, they fit the material perfectly, never more so than in the wonderous rush that was Side One of the original LP: “Highway to Hell,” “Girls Got Rhythm,” “Walk All Over You,” “Touch Too Much” and “Beating Around the Bush.” In “Girls” the rolling, hip-pumping rhythms are lascivious and truly irresistible. A slow grinder, “All Over You,” is a vocal showcase for both Scott and the band. “Touch Too Much,” often mentioned as the highpoint of the band’s recording career, with Angus Young’s snarling rhythm guitar and incisive solos as well as the tune’s loud-soft arrangement is certainly one of the band’s most intricate songwriting experiments. Led by its fast, repeated guitar figure, “Beating Around the Bush” is the band at its naughty best—again with classic solos from Angus. In the past most of these tunes would have descended into a jam and then abruptly ended. Lange’s ear for hooks and successful way of convincing the band to up their game changed all that. While Side Two did not scale these same heights, it had its moments with tunes like “Shot Down in Flames,” “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” and the infamous, “Night Prowler,” whose subject matter of serial killers, combined with the cover art showing Angus complete with horns and a tail, convinced simple-minded puritans that the band was advocating for Satanism.
With a convincing strut, high howl and penchant for rascally inventions like his final words on the album, “shazbot, nanu, nanu,” (from Mork and Mindy), Bon Scott was a force through the entire record, the last he’d record with the band before he died alone in a car on a London Street, probably of asphyxiation or alcohol poisoning in 1980. Though the band’s next album Back in Black, recorded as a tribute to Scott climbed even higher on the American charts than Highway, it’s the earlier record that remains the band’s finest 41 minutes and 40 seconds in a recording studio. Blessed with a title that Atlantic Records hated, forty years later it remains both their creative highlight and the blockbuster that made them superstars.
VIDEO: “Highway To Hell” live on Countdown, 1979