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AC/DC: The plot to conquer the U.K.

Aussie metal upstarts in the 1970s, the long-running hard-rock combo set about its own British invasion and left people wondering if they were punk, glam or something altogether different.

“Hey, do you wanna go see a band that dresses like schoolboys?”

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“Not particularly.”

“They’re Australian.”

“Then definitely not.”

There wasn’t much to do in London in mid-1976. The history books get very excited about the last days of pub rock, and the first stirrings of what would soon become punk, but even the best of the pubbers weren’t playing every night, and the punks really wouldn’t be making their presence felt for another few months.

So you sat and you stewed, and you listened to the radio because it was cheaper than having to buy a new needle for your record player; and, every so often, something would leap out of the airwaves that made you pay attention.

The evening of June 21, 1976, was one such night, although I was elsewhere at the time, so it was left to a friend of mine to preserve the moment on cassette … an old hissy cassette that had a big-eared, pig-like Soundhog logo for a label, and which had already been taped over so many times that anything it played now sounded like muffled mush. Except for this. This leaped through the swamp with a clarity that tore your head off.

Embarrassingly, I don’t remember the friend’s name today. But I do remember what he played. Not because they dressed like schoolboys, nor because they were Australian. I remember because he told me that this was the group I’d passed up seeing the first time he suggested I accompany him to a show; had missed again the next time they played; and who were now creating such a stir on the streets that we’d be lucky if there was even room for us in the queue outside the club, let alone inside the venue itself.

They were called AC/DC, and they dressed like schoolboys. Or at least one of them did. But they sounded like the loudest, most exhilarating rock ’n’ roll band in the world.

They kicked out four songs on the John Peel show that night, an incendiary barrage with titles like “High Voltage,” “High Wire,” the Australian hit single “Can I Sit Next To You Girl” and “Little Lover.”

All were taken from the just-released High Wire album, and when you play back that tape today, or pick up the album itself, there’s no doubting that you’re witnessing the stirrings of something remarkable — a new breed of heavy metal, beholden to the noises that had gone before but warped and rewired around an entire new musical ethic.

State of confusion

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, though, slotting all our musical tastes into neat little boxes so there’s no mistaking which hat we need to wear with which T-shirt — “I’m a punk, you’re a mod, he’s a hippy, and that guy over there is an opera buff.”

Thirty-three-and-a-third years ago, things weren’t quite so cut-and-dried. There was a ferment on the streets, we’ve already established that. But with that ferment came confusion, as the music press raced to label the sounds that it knew were being made, but which simply didn’t seem to fall into any category they could think of.

Browse, if you have them handy, through some old issues of Sniffin’ Glue fanzine, the seminal photocopied Britpunk organ around whose terse pronouncements an entire musical movement was coalescing. Those first few issues, even Glue didn’t know what was or wasn’t punk rock, and if the voice of the streets wasn’t sure what was happening, what hope did anybody else have?

A year or so earlier, after all, the only people laboring beneath the punk-rock banner in the U.K. music papers were thegarage bands of ’60s Americana, and the crop of street-fighting crooners who’d begun riding in their figurative footsteps over the past few months. Patti Smith, of course, but also Bruce Springsteen, Nils Lofgren; anyone, in fact, who could rhyme “switchblade” with “Shopping Mall” and make it sound convincing. Now every new band that seemed a ragged cut above the run-of-the-mill was getting lumbered with the tag, and AC/DC were as ripe for the rebellion as anybody.

They certainly thought so. “We started the whole [punk] thing over there,” AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott told Australia’s “Countdown” TV series. “We played there before The Sex Pistols were even thought of.”

And while he did later concede that AC/DC’s audience was largely comprised of “people [who] … want more than someone up there screaming ‘anarchy’ and ‘rape,’” when some bright spark at their Atlantic Records label took to plastering copies of High Voltage with stickers depicting a safety-pin and the word “PUNK,” nobody heard AC/DC complaining. There again, they never heard Bonnie Raitt complaining either, and I distinctly remember sighting her Sweet Forgiveness album similarly adorned the following year. What a shock that must have been for any unsuspecting purchaser!

There was more. Among the manifold social causes that were bringing punk rock into focus that summer were the twin demons of homelessness and unemployment — demons that AC/DC seemed to know well.

“None of us have had our own places to live for the past two years,” Scott lamented during one U.K. interview. “I rented a flat here for eight months, but I was only there for six weeks. All we’ve got is our parents’ homes in Australia.”

“He’s always been of no fixed abode, and I’m in the flat above,” agreed guitarist Angus Young. “If you’re really wealthy, maybe you can afford to say ‘Whammo, I’ll have that block of apartments there.’ But I’ll probably end up with one of those police boxes at a city crossroads …”

It wasn’t only the Brits, and the band, that were confused, either. “Australia has punk bands too, y’know,” declared RAM magazine’s Anthony O’Grady at the end of 1975, and while the likes of the newly formed Saints and Radio Birdman might have hoped he was talking about them, no, he too was embracing Bon and the boys — “one of the few bands in Australia that deserves the tag of a real street-punk band ... putcha fists together in ominous slow handclap fashion for AC/DC!”

Okay, if you say so.

Stay tuned for part 2!

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