'Highway to Hell': The Story Behind AC/DC's Breakthrough Final Album With Bon Scott | Revolver

'Highway to Hell': The Story Behind AC/DC's Breakthrough Final Album With Bon Scott

Creative clashes, freezing rehearsal spaces, triumph and tragedy
ac/dc 1979 GETTY, Fin Costello/Redferns
AC/DC, 1979
photograph by Fin Costello/Redferns

It's been 44 years since AC/DC first emerged out of Australia with their raucous debut album, High Voltage, and it's safe to say that, in that time, the group has seen it all and done it all: released chart-topping albums and singles, gained induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, lost some key members under tragic circumstances along the way. But perhaps the most impressive notch on AC/DC's collective bedpost is this one: the fact that, on the list of all-time best-selling artists in the U.S., AC/DC is ranked 10th. Which means that Guns N' Roses, Metallica, Van Halen, U2, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones and countless other legendary acts are well behind AC/DC when it comes to all-time record sales in America.

But that's today, in 2019. In the late Seventies, things were quite different for AC/DC, and there was a hard road ahead of them before they could craft what would prove to be their creative and commercial breakthrough album, 1979's Highway to Hell.

Between the group's formation in Sydney, Australia, in 1973 — with an initial lineup consisting of Scottish brothers Angus and Malcolm Young on guitars, Dave Evans on the mic, Larry Van Kriedt on bass and Colin Burgess on drums — and 1978, the rough-and-tumble rockers released five full-length studio albums: High Voltage (1975), T.N.T. (1975), Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976), Let There Be Rock (1977) and Powerage (1978). The band — which by then had solidified into the now-classic unit of Bon Scott on vocals, Cliff Williams on bass, Phil Rudd on drums, and the brothers Young — kept up a fairly furious pace of recording and touring during those early years, and were certainly building a loyal fan base as evidenced by the steadily growing crowds and increased album sales each time out. But it wasn't enough — not for Atlantic Records, AC/DC's American record label, anyway.

By 1978, disco was still one of the dominant forms of music on the airwaves in America, and on the rock side slickly produced, danceable hits like Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" and Journey's "Wheel in the Sky" were topping the charts. Atlantic wanted AC/DC to achieve some level of measurable radio success in the U.S., and the band certainly wasn't going to do that with noisy, occasionally tasteless screamers like "Whole Lotta Rosie," "Riff Raff" or "She's Got Balls." Hell, the label didn't even release Dirty Deeds — which was recorded in early 1976 — in the States until a year after Bon Scott's death in 1980 because it considered the album commercially unviable.

The final straw for Atlantic came toward the end of 1978, when the label released AC/DC's first live album, If You Want Blood You've Got It. It had been barely six months since the release of Powerage, and with that album failing to produce anything close to a hit song, Atlantic was hoping that If You Want Blood would do for AC/DC what Alive! had done for KISS five years earlier — harness the group's unparalleled live energy into an album and pray that at least one song catches radio fire à la Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite," or Peter Frampton's live version of "Show Me the Way" from 1976's Frampton Comes Alive! If You Want Blood performed moderately well upon its release in November 1978, outselling the group's recent studio albums, but it quickly became apparent to Atlantic that AC/DC were never going to break big in the U.S. if they were allowed to continue writing music on their own terms and recording on their home turf of Sydney, Australia.

As far as the label was concerned, an intervention was in order. As the calendar flipped from 1978 to 1979, Atlantic Records senior vice president Michael Klenfner was on a plane to Sydney to meet with the members of AC/DC and devise a game plan for the group's next album, the follow-up to Powerage. Up until this point, all of AC/DC's records had been produced by the team of Harry Vanda and George Young, the older brother of Angus and Malcolm, and recorded at Albert Studios in Sydney — so when Klenfner suggested that, for this upcoming album, the band ditch Vanda and Young and work with an outside producer of Atlantic's choosing, tensions began to escalate. Vanda and Young had achieved considerable success around the world as producers, songwriters and musicians, but that didn't matter to Atlantic — the label wanted fresh blood in the AC/DC camp, someone who could take the group's raw blues-rock power and maniacal live energy and fine-tune it into something that would generate hit songs and more potent album sales.

As former AC/DC manager Michael Browning told writers Murray Engleheart and Arnaud Durieux in the 2006 book AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll, "George and Harry were pretty honorable about it. They could have been outwardly sort of pissed off. I'm sure they were. For an American record company to say you've got to change producers when they're sort of revered in their own country was a little bit of a slap in the face, I suppose. So it was very, very difficult. Malcolm and Angus didn't like it at all. They were very pissed off."

When it came to choosing a producer who could hopefully raise AC/DC's game to a higher level, Atlantic had one name in mind: Eddie Kramer. Kramer had been working as a producer and engineer since the mid Sixties, and his résumé boasted some impressive credits: Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and KISS, among others. Kramer headed to Sydney where he and the boys holed up in Albert Studios to record some demo tracks, after which they all flew to Miami to begin recording the album that would ultimately become Highway to Hell — or so they all thought. It took only a few weeks of working together at Criteria Recording Studios, Kramer's primary workplace, for everyone to realize that, despite how it looked on paper, this was not a match made in rock & roll heaven.

"He didn't really fit in with us as a producer," said Malcolm Young in the April 2003 issue of Guitar World magazine. "We showed him the riffs for 'Highway to Hell' and he didn't quite get it. We thought, This guy's out of touch with what we are."

"And at the same time, I suppose any ideas that Eddie had didn't seem to inspire us," commented Angus in the same issue of Guitar World. "I don't know why, but he kept talking about pianos. Maybe he thought that a piano was an interesting thing for a rock and roll band. But that was the wrong word to use around us."

After working together at Criteria for three weeks and not even getting past the rehearsal stage, it was obvious to all that this mission needed to be aborted, pronto — and it took one serendipitous phone call from Malcolm Young to manager Michael Browning to make it happen. With Browning on the line, a clearly agitated Young broke the news to him that recording with Kramer was not going well, and asked Browning to get the band out of Miami. As fate would have it, at the time Browning was sharing a house in New York with a young hotshot producer named Robert John "Mutt" Lange, and Lange's manager Clive Calder. While still on the phone with Young, Browning turned to Lange and said, "Mate, you've got to do this record."

Lange was an accomplished producer at the time, having worked with mostly British artists like City Boy, Graham Parker, the Motors, Savoy Brown and Irish rockers the Boomtown Rats — and even though he didn't have the hard-rock track record of Eddie Kramer, Atlantic Records was very much in favor of having Mutt Lange man the helm for the recording of Highway to Hell.

After the Kramer debacle, the members of AC/DC were understandably gun-shy about entering yet another situation with a producer other than their longtime trusted team of George Young and Harry Vanda.

"We were very cagey about working with anyone new," said Angus Young in Guitar World's April 2003 issue. "At one point we thought, Is there someone out there, other than George and Harry, who can really do justice to our music? And in fact, some of the things we'd hear about what people were doing with records, we'd be like, 'Geez, that's too extravagant.' You'd hear about producers taking a band away for two years, putting 'em in some mansion. And that was something we didn't want. So we were pretty nervous."

With Mutt Lange now locked up as AC/DC's new producer, the real work on Highway to Hell could finally begin. The group was all too happy to leave sunny Miami and head off to cold, dreary London in early 1979 to meet up with Lange and get started. For the next two weeks, the band worked through all the new songs in a dingy rehearsal space that had no heat, save for a small kerosene heater, and a dirt floor. Winter coats were often worn during practice sessions. But that's exactly where Highway to Hell finally started to come together, and by the end of the two weeks, all the songs were fine-tuned and ready to be recorded — which was different from previous recording sessions, during which AC/DC usually spent time writing and rewriting songs in the studio until they were ready.

It was March 1979 when AC/DC found themselves nestled inside London's Roundhouse Studios with their new producer to begin what would be the most significant and critical recording session of the group's career.

AC/DC and Mutt Lange clicked right away, and their mutual respect for one another made the sessions for Highway to Hell go quickly and smoothly, with very few bumps along the way (aside from the occasional run-in with Scott over his vocal performance). The group had always recorded live in the studio, and Lange knew better than to suggest a different approach. "Mutt realized that we were a good band who could play their instruments, so he just let us go for it," said Malcolm Young in Guitar World. "The freedom was there. And we gave him freedom as well — we would try anything he asked of us. Mutt fit in really well with the band."

A few weeks later — after additional recording sessions at Chalk Farm Studios and then mixing at Basing Street Studios — the album was finished. In the end, Lange gave Atlantic exactly what it had wanted: an AC/DC record with well-crafted, catchy songs, fist-pumping choruses and a refined edge. The quality and energy of previous AC/DC albums was very much intact, but gone was the unhinged, chaotic, punk-rock element that Atlantic felt was holding the band back commercially.

Ten songs and barely 42 minutes in length, Highway to Hell is a masterwork of taut, precise songwriting and no-frills production — a start-to-finish listening experience that more than holds up today, 40 years since its July 27th, 1979, release date. The album is led by the title track, with its rousing, radio-friendly chorus, simple but effective opening riff reminiscent of the Free classic "All Right Now," and lyrics about living life in the fast lane. There's also the danceable "Girls Got Rhythm," the boogie-swing of "Walk All Over You," the quick-paced blues explosion "Beating Around the Bush," the concert staple "Shot Down in Flames," and the album's sexy, lumbering closer, "Night Prowler."

1979 was the year everything changed for AC/DC. It was the year they established what would become a highly fruitful relationship with Mutt Lange; the year they learned what they were truly capable of as songwriters and musicians; the year they learned that it was OK to leave their comfortable nest in Sydney and make music elsewhere in the world. They also learned what it was like to hit the bigtime in America, as Highway to Hell peaked at No. 17 on the U.S. album charts and was AC/DC's first platinum album in the States, selling more than a million copies.

Sadly, it would also be Bon Scott's last year on earth — by February 1980, the hard-partying, Scottish singer would be dead after drinking himself into oblivion, and AC/DC's suddenly flourishing career would be sent into a dark and depressing tailspin. Of course, they would eventually come back from the tragedy — back in black, to be precise.