The 1976 lineup of AC/DC, L to R; Phil Rudd, Bon Scott, Mark Evans, Malcolm Young and Angus Young (chained to the desk).
“Bon was the biggest single influence on the band. When he came in, it pulled us all together. He had that real “stick it to ‘em” attitude. We all had it in us, but it took Bon to bring it out.”
—the late Malcolm Young on AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott and his impact on the band.
To be precise, the footage in this post of AC/DC playing a live gig at St Albans High School in Victoria, Australia in 1976 is 42 years old. And, as you might have hoped, there is a good bit of rock and roll mythology associated with it, especially when it comes to one of the songs they performed to a rabid teenage audience, “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll).” The song was written by brothers Angus and Malcolm Young with help from vocalist Bon Scott and first appeared on their 1975 album T.N.T. produced by George Young (RIP) and his Easybeats bandmate, Harry Vanda. It was also one of the first bonafide rock songs to include bagpipes competing with guitar riffs for attention, though the 1968 jam from Eric Burden and the Animals “Sky Pilot” was likely the first—but I’m sadly no expert as I skipped all of my “Bagpipe 101” classes in college. Now, let’s get to what is undoubtedly the best thing to ever happen to a bagpipe, Bon Scott, and AC/DC virtually combusting on a stage at St Albans High School in Victoria, Australia in 1976.
A few weeks ago the footage in this post was making the rounds all over social media, though it appears to have originated on a Facebook page dedicated to the roving teen gangs of Melbourne, Australia active during the 60s and 70s, the “Sharpies” or “Sharps.” In the raw, nearly six-minute-video we get to see riotous black and white footage of AC/DC slamming through “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” with Bon playing his trusty bagpipes. But was he? Forget those meddling kids, solving this caper requires the sleuthing skills of someone with a dangerous mind. And as luck should have it, I happen to have one.
A very young Bon Scott decked out in traditional Scottish dress.
Like the Young’s, Bon Scott was Scottish by birth (he and his family moved to Melbourne when Bon was six) and indeed had prior experience with bagpipes, having played the drums in a pipe band as a youth—a position he held shortly for AC/DC as well after graduating from being their roadie/driver. Scott’s skill with the bagpipes has been disputed in several books about the band, such as AC/DC FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the World’s True Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, and a book authored by former AC/DC bass player Mark Evans, Dirty Deeds: My Life Inside/Outside of AC/DC. According to Evans, Bon honed his bagpipe skills in the studio while the band was recording T.N.T.. The idea of using bagpipes in “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” was the suggestion of elder Young brother George. In this piece of video footage of the band being interviewed at the Mascot Airport in Sydney on April 1st, 1976 for Australian TV show Countdown, Bon quipped that since he had played a “bit of recorder” before (with prog rock outfit Fraternity), he figured he could also “play” the bagpipes. Scott also reached out to bagpiper Kevin Conlon inquiring about purchasing a set of bagpipes as well as enlisting Conlon to teach him how to play. Here’s Conlon recalling the day in 1976 he got a phone call from Bon Scott before the band shot the notorious video for “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll”:
‘‘I got a call from Bon, and he didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who he was. He wanted to buy a set of bagpipes and have a few lessons. I told him they would cost over $1000 and it would take 12 months or more of lessons to learn how to play a tune. He said that was fine and came down for a few lessons, but as we were only going to be miming, he just had to look like he was playing.’‘
The Bon Scott pipe-plot THICKENS! Now it’s time to discuss theories as to why Bon stopped bringing his precious bagpipes out on stage—and the band’s eventual omission of bagpipes—live or otherwise—during “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll).” First of all, the challenge began when it took the efforts of Mark Evans, Phil Rudd and Malcolm Young to get Bon’s bagpipes to work after laying out $400 bucks for it, a virtual fortune for a touring band in 1976. Even with his recorder experience and help, Bon just couldn’t seem to get the hang of playing the bagpipes well enough. Then, George Young got the idea to loop in recorded and edited bagpipe music (all of which is noted in Martin Popoff’s book, AC/DC: Album by Album), over the PA during the song, which didn’t help Scott much. This led to a loud argument backstage between Bon and Mark after a gig which concluded with a frustrated soundman taking the bagpipe cassette and “smashing” it against a wall.
Numerous sources have also cited an incident at a show in 1976 where Bon’s expensive pipes were destroyed by fans after he put them down for a breather. The demise of Bon’s bagpipes was very likely a contributing factor in the decision to omit the instrument from their live shows, replacing it with a hot solo by riff king Angus Young. In the coming years, the face-smashing autobiographical anthem would all but disappear from their setlist. Following Scott’s death in February of 1980, the band, along with new vocalist Brian Johnson decided to stop performing “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” live—and most AC/DC fans agree the decision had much to do with Johnson wanting to respect his predecessor’s holy legacy. So, the question remains; is Bon Scott playing the pipes in the footage below? It’s tough to tell for many reasons, such as the somewhat challenging vantage points the video is being shot from, and the shaky sound quality of the footage. However, if you listen carefully, it does sound like he is—and I say this as his interludes are (maybe) too sporadic to have been piped in over a PA without it sounding completely inauthentic. I can also say with confidence this was not the show where Bon’s bagpipes were destroyed—though it is one of the very rare occasions, perhaps the only one, where Bon was videotaped playing them live with AC/DC.
Footage from 1976 below as well as a few images of Scott and his bagpipes, below.
Malcolm Young and Bon Scott from the band’s television appearance on Aussie show ‘Bandstand’, February, 1976 lip-synching “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll). In the video, Scott hilariously strums his bagpipes while surrounded by a bunch of chicks.
A photo of Scott carrying his bagpipes and a can of Coke in Sydney. Photo credit Philip Morris.
A photo of the eight-foot, almost 1,000 pound statue of Bon Scott with his bagpipes that stands in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland.
Footage of AC/DC playing a live gig at St Albans High School in Victoria, Australia in March of 1976.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Bubblegum’ version of Bon Scott performing ‘Nick Nack Paddy Whack’ with the Valentines in 1969
Blistering footage of Bon Scott’s final TV appearance with AC/DC
Glamtastic footage of AC/DC *before* Bon Scott
Big Balls: Rarely seen, intimate photos of AC/DC taken back in the 70s
Blistering footage of a young AC/DC blowing the roof off the sucker in 1978