The obscure 1981 compilation album Brown Bags to Stardom was the result of a contest established the previous year by Honolulu radio station KIKI. 200+ Hawaiian high school acts competed for a spot on the LP, with nineteen ending up on the record. The highlights of Brown Bags to Stardom are the ramshackle contributions from teen rock bands Black Rose, and Brain Damage (Ha! Love the name!). “Rockin’ Roller” by Black Rose could pass for an AC/DC song—bonus points for the defiant lyrics about the contest—and is the vocalist a girl or just a very young boy? Brain Damage’s entry is an AC/DC song, a snotty, perfectly chaotic version of “Highway to Hell.” Sooooo great.
Those are KIKI DJs—not very mature-looking teens—on the cover.
As someone who considers himself something of a music scholar, who has worked in record shops most of his life, and writes about music professionally, I’m ashamed to admit that I only learned, like, JUST NOW that Bon Scott was not the first singer of AC/DC. I mean, I’m not an obsessive mega-fan or anything when it comes to the band, but I do own every one of their “classic era” albums from High Voltage up to Blow Up Your Video—even some of the Australian alternates. I feel like that’s enough of a level of fan commitment to make my ignorance about AC/DC’s early years unforgivable. Well, you learn something new every day. Hopefully you, like me, are also learning something new today.
Anyway, check out this footage of AC/DC from 1974. Here you have glam-as-fuck lead vocalist Dave Evans fronting the band, as well as drums by ex-Master’s Apprentices member Colin Burgess and bass guitar by ex-Easybeats member George Young (older brother of band co-founders Malcolm and Angus Young).
The band sounds a bit like The Sweet here.
The song, “Can I Sit Next to You, Girl,” was later re-recorded with Bon Scott on vocals for their Australia-only album T.N.T., released in December 1975, and on the international version of High Voltage, released in May 1976. The edgier Bon Scott version happens to be one of my favorite AC/DC songs of all time and if you were someone I dated in the 90s, you probably got a mixtape from me with that track on it.
Marvin Gaye’s signature silver platform boots made by Gaye’s wife, Janis, 1970s
As I’m sure many of the more academic readers of DM are aware, the history of guys strutting around in big heels goes all the way back to the Baroque period when it was considered to the calling card of a truly “masculine” kind of man. Oh yes. Wearing heels made you taller and being taller made one appear more menacing. And for men in positions of power or prestige, being intimidating was helpful with ensuring that you maintained your position in society. Aristocrats and elites like Charles II of England were often depicted in paintings wearing high-heeled footwear.
An early version of AC/DC with vocalist Dave Evans looking very glam (far left) with Angus (the only one not wearing heels) and Malcolm Young.
David Bowie, 1970s
Johnny Thunders and David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 1973
Plenty more platforms and manly man masculine high-heels after the jump…
There are few bands in the world that bring me as much fist-pumping joy as AC/DC. I was sadly just a touch too young to see the band perform with Bon Scott, but saw the band after Scott’s departure many, many times and the albums that make up their vast catalog have always been my “go to” records since my parents gifted me with Highway To Hell on Christmas in 1979.
AC/DC killing it live at CBGB’s, August 27th, 1977
Bon Scott racing across the tiny stage at CBGB’s
Bon Scott carrying Angus Young through the crowd at CBGB’s, August 27th, 1977
Show bill for AC/DC’s show at CBGB’s, August 27th, 1977
When the band played CBGB’s on August 27, 1977, they were a late addition to the bill that included The Dead Boys and the Talking Heads. The rabble-rousing Aussies were on a U.S. tour in support of their 1976 record, High Voltage and had just played a show at the Academy of Music opening for The Dictators, and really wanted to play the popular punk club.
Angus Young rocking the fuck out at CBGB’s, August 27th 1977
Bon Scott and Malcolm Young at CBGB’s August 27th, 1977
Phoenix, AZ classic rock DJ Paul “NeanderPaul” Marshall (oh, morning FM jocks, please don’t ever change…) has posted a supercut of over 120 (I sat and counted) examples of the suspiciously similar final seconds of AC/DC songs. The result is pretty great, and he posted it to the web site of his employer, KSLX FM:
So, you say to yourself; “Gee, a lot of AC/DC songs sound alike.” You’d be correct. Especially the *endings* to AC/DC songs.
I thought it would be “funny” to snag the endings of all the AC/DC songs that do the power-chord thingie. Little did I know how labor intensive the project would be.
On his Facebook page, Marshall promises that there are no repeaters, though that pledge is probably unnecessary—given that AC/DC have been around for over 40 years, have released 15 albums, and are celebrated for anything but stylistic diversity, I’m actually surprised that this is only 2 minutes and 39 seconds long.
I was recently listening to the excellent 2002 compilation When Pigs Fly: Songs You Thought You’d Never Hear. The album is a collection of “unexpected” cover songs by seemingly mismatched artists. For example, Don Ho doing “Shock the Monkey” and Herman’s Hermits doing “White Wedding.” Great stuff. But the best track is undoubtedly Lesley Gore’s version of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” with its soulful verses and “girl group sound” choruses.
Lesley Gore, one of the top female pop stars of the ‘60s, best known for “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me,” had a successful musical career from 1963 until her untimely death early this year.
Listening to Gore’s “Dirty Deeds” reminded me that Pat Boone had tackled similar “unexpected” AC/DC cover territory five years prior on 1997’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr Nice Guy album. Boone, whose career was basically based on being the safe, parent-palatable alternative to Elvis Presley, broke with the conventions of his fundamentalist fanbase on that album—a collection of heavy metal covers done in a Vegas style. Boone does a Rat Pack-inspired version of “It’s a Long Way to the Top.”
Pat Boone had a successful career as a singer dating back to 1954 where he, for the most part, recorded “safe for white people” versions of black artist’s rock and roll songs.
Both of these “rocking but not rocking” covers of AC/DC tunes are great. Which one would win in a face-off? It’s hard to say. Personally, I think “Dirty Deeds” is better source material than “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” but man, Boone’s arrangements on his cover are ace. For my money though, Gore barely edges Boone out—I’m a sucker for ‘60s female pop singers.
Can you make the call? Or perhaps you have a suggestion for a better “unexpected” AC/DC cover? Let us know in the comments.
Dan Rather’s career as a network news anchor was full of memorable moments, but perhaps the single most surreal incident was the time he had to report a crime in which he was the victim. He was walking to his NYC home on October 4th, 1986, when he was accosted and beaten on the sidewalk by men who pummeled and kicked him while repeating the question “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”
It was freakin’ weird, so weird that there were some who thought Rather had lost his marbles and made it up. Most doubts were squashed when a doorman who witnessed the incident and helped thwart the attack corroborated Rather’s version of events, and remaining doubts were put to rest 11 years later, when one of the assailants was at last identified, as an apparently unwell man who thought the news media was transmitting messages to him, and who furthermore was serving time for the 1994 murder of a Today show stagehand. By then, the phrase “Kenneth, what is the frequency” (interchangeably with the misquote “What’s the frequency, Kenneth”) had long since entered pop culture, becoming the title of a cool piece of music by Game Theory in 1987, and a very popular REM song in 1994.
As it turns out, there really WAS a Kenneth, and the incident may have been a monumental case of mistaken identity. Ken Schaffer was a music publicist turned inventor who, during what would turn out to be the tail end of the Cold War, found a way to use TVRO dishes to receive Russian television broadcasts from Molniya satellites, a system he installed at the Harriman Institute for Advanced Studies of the Soviet Union at Columbia University. He even enabled the broadcast of a full week’s worth of Soviet television on the then-embryonic Discovery Channel. An amazing and weird article I found on the SETI League web site illuminates Schaffer’s connection to the Rather assault:
Because Soviet TV broadcasts were generally unavailable in the U.S., the receiver Kenny set up at the Harriman institute drew a number of visitors. Some, such as English rock musician Gordon Sumner (better known as Sting), were there to learn about the arts scene behind the Iron Curtain. (One of the first adopters of a wireless guitar amplifier developed by Schaffer two decades earlier, Sting was moved by the Molniya viewing experience to compose his popular song “Russians,” sung to a theme from the Lieutennant Kijé Suite by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.) Some of the visitors were American diplomats, hoping to use the knowledge gained from the screen to ease international tensions. Others, including TV news anchorman Dan Rather, came to do what journalists generally do—learn about upcoming trends so they could later report on them.
Then there were the visitors from the shadow world, all wanting to know how Schaffer was pulling these elusive signals out of the ether. Kenny generally refrained from telling them, likely hoping to capitalize on his technology by keeping the details to himself. When asked about frequencies and modulation modes, he usually changed the subject.
On the October 1986 night Rather was attacked, he and Schaffer had just left the Columbia campus, where they had been watching Molniya video downlinks. “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” Rather was asked repeatedly while being pummeled by unknown assailants. Kenny Schaffer believes this was a simple (although painful) case of mistaken identity. The muggers followed the wrong man.
Unfuckingreal, right? We not only have Schaffer to thank (or curse, depending on your alternarock tolerance levels) for that astonishingly durable REM song, he was possibly the intended victim of the Rather beating, AND he’s complicit in that monstrous piece of crap Sting song. That last demerit, though large, is more than mitigated by the fact that Schaffer is also responsible for the monstrously awesome guitar sound on AC/DC’s early ‘80s albums. Did you note the mention in the quotation above of Schaffer’s wireless guitar amplifier? That’s a misnomer—Schaffer’s system was not an amp, but a transmitter/receiver.
The Schaffer-Vega Diversity System was an early wireless transmitter for guitarists. Its popularity blew up exponentially after its adoption by Ace Frehley of KISS, who’d been electrocuted during a performance in Florida, when his hand touching a metal guardrail completed an AC circuit with his ungrounded amp. Soon, many, many people began using Schaffer-Vegas (Frehley could easily have died, the incident was no joke), including Van Halen, the Stones, Bootsy Collins, and Frank Zappa. But the device’s moment in the sun came not from any live performance, but its use in-studio, really the last place anyone needs wireless anything.
A bit of oversimplified tech here: the Schaffer-Vega compressed a guitar’s signal before transmission, and expanded it at the receiver end, before feeding the transmitted signal to the amp. While it expanded the signal, it boosted certain frequencies that could tend to be lost to compression. So not only did the device wirelessly transmit a signal, it colored the guitar’s tone in distinctive ways, creating harmonic distortions, but they happened to be pleasing distortions.
Angus Young with Ken Schaffer. Photo: SoloDallas
And so it was that Angus Young of AC/DC began using wireless in the recording studio. Unable to satisfactorily record his ridiculous ball-crunching live sound, he soon resorted to the obvious move, and used his live rig:
George [Young, Angus and Malcolm’s older brother and first AC/DC producer] had suggested that I use the SVDS in the studio in 1978, then when Mutt Lange came in [producer of Highway to Hell, Back in Black, For Those About to Rock We Salute You], he asked me to use the same stuff that I was using for my stage sound, so we used the SVDS again.
The Schaffer-Vega’s unique compression/expansion/EQ scheme turns out to be THE key to AC/DC’s distinctively rich guitar sound, every bit as much as a late ‘60s Gibson SG and a late ‘70s Marshall amp. However, the units had to be abandoned in 1982, victim both to changing FCC regulations on wireless specs, and Ken Schaffer’s changing interests… changing interests which led to a Cold War satellite breakthrough, which led to a really famous reporter getting his ass beat down on Park Avenue. Nutty world, isn’t it?
There’s a happy ending for the Schaffer-Vega, though—this is the news item that got me down into this rabbit-hole to begin with, in fact: the device has been resurrected, redesigned by a company called SoloDallas from Schaffer’s original units and named the “Schaffer Replica.” An early run of the replicas is sold out, but not only is an updated version available, it’ll be featured at this week’s musical instrument industry exposition, Summer NAMM. It’s available both as a wireless transceiver and as a regular guitar pedal. To be blunt, both of the devices are spendy as hell, though either option is cheaper by far than a late ‘60s Gibson SG or a late ‘70s Marshall amp. Angus Young used the newly recreated gizmo on AC/DC’s likely farewell album, the well-received Rock or Bust, making it the first AC/DC album to feature one since 1983. (And I don’t want to goddamn hear about it if you don’t like AC/DC—you’re just wrong. I love them abidingly for the same reasons I love the Ramones and Lungfish: if you keep making more or less the same album over and over again for decades and I love that album almost every time, you’re on to something worthy.)
Here’s some killer footage of AC/DC live on The Midnight Special in 1978. Angus Young is SURELY using a Schaffer-Vega wireless setup here:
Someone on reddit recently spotted this fantastic shirt in Seattle—you can get it here on eBay for $23.99 plus shipping.
It’s an open question how many AC/DC fans know that “AC” stands for “alternating current” and “DC” stands for “direct current”—but for those looking to catch up, Tesla invented AC, and Edison backed DC. Tesla had previously worked for Edison. Tesla was a genius and died alone in a hotel room in New York; Edison was also a genius and died as rich as Croesus. Edison killed an elephant named Topsy to demonstrate the supposed dangers of alternating current, as depicted in a 2013 episode of Bob’s Burgers called “Topsy.” Tesla was a man made for our underdog-rooting and nerdy age. David Bowie played Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s terrific 2006 movie The Prestige.
On the flipside, science nerds, AC/DC is an Australian rock band. If you don’t already know that, you probably don’t really want this shirt too bad, do you?
But it took YouTube user Garren Lazar/Super G to see the possibilities in the rest of the animated Peanuts oeuvre. He has made a whopping 34 videos (!) using Peanuts characters to animate videos for songs by a variety of classic hard rock acts, as seen below. These videos are remarkably good—I especially like the use of Schroeder’s impressionistic “Pathétique” sequence, which was just waiting to be used for something like this. The Peanuts version of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”—24 minutes long, mind you—is especially mind-blowing.
AC/DC made their first TV appearance with Bon Scott (who replaced originally vocalist Dave Evans) on an Australian charts program called Countdown. The group decided to do the blues standard “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” the b-side of their debut release with Scott, as it was more popular than the a-side of the single. With brand new bassist Mark Evans in tow, the boys were backstage getting ready to go on, but their singer was nowhere to be seen.
With only seconds to go before taking the stage, Bon still hadn’t appeared. When he did, right at the last minute, he was dressed as a schoolgirl, complete with blonde wig, tattoos and a disturbingly short skirt. The band could hardly play for laughing and for Mark Evans it must have been an interesting introduction to what made AC/DC special. The look on (drummer) Phil Rudd’s face said it all. (AC/DC – Uncensored on the Record)
Scott was also sporting earrings, blue eye shadow and rouged up cheeks. It’s quite a performance. The unforgettable footage can be had via AC/DC’s Family Jewels DVD.
This is some Techno Viking-level shit right here, my friends (okay, maybe not as o-mazing as that, but a close runner-up). Dude plays flaming bagpipes to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” in Fremantle, Australia.
Let There Be Rock is a film version of one of AC/DC’s greatest concerts. Recorded during their Highway to Hell tour, at the Pavillon de Paris, France, on December 9th, 1979, this concert contains a great selection of some of the band’s best known early numbers (“Highway To Hell,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Whole Lotta Rosie”), together with stunning performances from an unstoppable Angus Young (only pausing for some oxygen) on guitar, and blistering vocals from Bon Scott.
01. “Live Wire”
02. “Shot Down in Flames”
03. “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”
04. “Sin City”
06. “Walk All Over You”
08. “Bad Boy Boogie”
09. “The Jack”
11. “Highway to Hell”
12. “Girls Got Rhythm”
13. “High Voltage”
15. “Whole Lotta Rosie”
17. “Let There Be Rock”
Tragically, 2 months after this concert, Bon Scott died, his body found in the back of car outside a friend’s house in London. His demise started the version of AC/DC we know today, with former Geordie singer, Brian Johnson on lead vocals.
I always thought David Niven was Scottish, mainly because this great, charming actor regularly claimed he had been born in the town of Kirriemuir in 1909.
Kirriemuir is known as the birthplace of Peter Pan author, J. M. Barrie, and AC/DC frontman Bon Scott. It is also famed for Walter Burnett’s Kirriemuir gingerbread, which I recall eating in thick buttered slices as a child, thinking this tasty treat was the very stuff Niven must have lived off as a bairn. Of course it wasn’t and Niven hadn’t been born in Scotland, rather he was a son of London, born in 1910. Still, it only added to his tremendous style and charm, which made me find him so likable as an actor and raconteur.