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AC/DC: The plot to conquer the U.K. Part 3

AC/DC were hits in Australia, but the band's name meant nothing anywhere else in the world. By 1976, it was time for them to broaden their horizons, starting with the U.K.

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Recorded in 10 days, High Voltage was released in Australia in February 1975. It was a great album, but it was tentative, too; a lot more basic than the band was capable of, and a lot more one-dimensional.

Malcolm Young explained, “For a while, before we got AC/DC together, I went off rock and roll a bit. Like me and Angus, we were into jazz chords and progressive music — the real complex timing change things.”

It was only a passing phase, but there were moments throughout High Voltage where you could hear the pair bursting to really let fly. But there were others when they truly let fly, including a storming blast through the old blues rocker “Baby Please Don’t Go.”

That became the band’s first hit single, and one of the earliest pieces of surviving footage of AC/DC captures an appearance on “Countdown” in April 1975, rocking through “Baby Please Don’t Go” with Angus in trademark schoolboy outfit and Scott dragged out as a pigtailed schoolgirl.

It was not a look he would persist with; already, the band was aware that the androgynous glam scene which then dominated the local charts was either on its way out or in need of being pushed out. They saw themselves as the force that would do the pushing.

By the time AC/DC came to shoot a promo clip for the “High Voltage” single (written for but not included on the LP) a couple of months later, with their name in neon bulbs above them, Scott was blackclad and sleeveless, a T-shirt-and-denim look that he would retain for much of the rest of his life, and their only concession to glam was to admit that the groupie-girl object of “Little Lover” might have a poster of Gary Glitter on her bedroom wall. But there was a bigger one of Bon Scott alongside it.

Touring throughout the year, one of AC/DC’s biggest breaks, strangely, was the gig they didn’t play. Recruited at the last minute to headline the Sunbury festival, after headliners Deep Purple pulled out, AC/DC were then left to cool their heels when the British band decided to play after all. Cue a welter of uninformed press declaring that AC/DC had deliberately refused to perform, followed by a welter more as the band’s side of the story came out into the open.

Angus told RAM, “What happened after Deep Purple finished, their roadies are getting Purple’s gear off and while we’re setting up, one of the Purple roadies gets hassley with Michael Browning, our manager, telling him we can’t go until Purple’s gear has been cleared ... which will take y’know, something like five hours. So then there’s a brawl, and we cancelled y’know. They wanted to put us on next day ... but we said, ‘Up yours’.”

By the end of 1975, AC/DC had finally arrived at a permanent lineup, as bassist Mark Evans and drummer Phil Rudd arrived just in time for work to commence on the band’s second album, TNT. And this was the set that would cement their reputation.

A re-recorded “Can I Sit Next To You Girl,” and the anthems “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll)” and “Live Wire” were the obvious hits. But “The Jack” was the song that hit every jukebox in town, a slow, filthy, syphilitic (“jack” is Aussie slang for a certain STD) blues fueled by Scott’s most leeringly lascivious vocal, and a mood that oozes grinding lechery.

Not a song to play on your first date, but when Atlantic released it on board a U.K. EP in January 1977, it brought AC/DC plaudits even from those listeners who had finally figured out that they weren’t quite punk rockers.

Scott explained the song’s genesis, and it was as dissolute as one would hope.

“We were living with this houseful of ladies who were all very friendly, and everyone in the band had got the jack. So we wrote this song, and the first time we did it onstage, they were all in the front row with no idea what was goin’ to happen. When it came to repeatin’ ‘She’s got the jack,’ I pointed at them one after another.”

Haha. But there was more.

“One time I had the jack and this girl wanted f**kin’ and she was so ugly I figured, shit! Nobody else would have her so she wouldn’t spread it. But when we’d finished she went next door to Phil and gave it to him. And a few weeks later, she sent him a doctor’s bill for $35 for the cure. Well, next time she came to a show, I got her up onstage in the middle of ‘The Jack’ and explained how she’d got it wrong, and it was me owed her the money. On mike that was.”

Charming lads.

Dirty deeds

TNT sold over 100,000 copies in Australia, without the band’s name meaning an iota of anything elsewhere around the world.

It was time to broaden their horizons, beginning with a worldwide record deal that tied them to Atlantic and a U.K. tour that would kick off in April 1976. A muddy black-and-white bootleg quality film shot at a high school hall in St Albans, Victoria State, captures AC/DC on the eve of their departure, in March 1976.

In his striped T-shirt, Bon Scott now looks like a young Alex Harvey, as well. Gaze beyond him, however, into the screaming, keening audience that seems to stretch back as far as the eye can see, and it is clear that AC/DC had climbed as high as they could at home. The band arrived in London on April Fool’s Day.

AC/DC’s third album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, had already been recorded by the time the band left for London, an even more astonishing record than its predecessor, and an even more mischievous one.

AC/DC had never shied away from controversy in their songwriting; “One of the problems with High Voltage,” Malcolm admitted while that disc still sat on the Australian new releases rack, “is the words. There’s a lot of dirty words in the songs which they can’t play on straight radio — like on one line there’s the word ‘climax’ — as in sex. And you can’t have a climax on radio — it just ain’t done. Wouldn’t want to corrupt the kids y’know.”

But rather than retreat into realms of less controversy, in the hope of courting even wider success, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap would chase them to the limits of bad taste. The Sex Pistols might have thought they had the monopoly on obscenity and smut, but even they never recorded a song called “Big Balls” — sample lyric, “my balls are always bouncing to the left and to the right, it’s my belief that my big balls should be held every night.” Of course, the song is about nothing more obnoxious than a high-class party. But try telling that to a club full of denim-clad rockers, all of whom are determined to inform the world that they, too, have big balls.

AC/DC’s assault upon the innocent hearts and minds of the United Kingdom took place on three levels. First there was a single, predictably pulling “It’s A Long Way To The Top” from TNT — who, after all, can resist a rock song with bagpipes? Then came an album, titled (like their Australian debut) High Voltage but confusingly shedding all but two of the songs from that set, “Little Lover” and “She’s Got Balls,” in favor of the lion’s share of TNT. But it was on the road that the real magic took place.

AC/DC made their UK debut at the picturesquely named Red Cow in Hammersmith, a public house that held no more than a couple of hundred people, and that was all AC/DC needed right now. But a month or so later, their gigs were squashed-and-standing room only, and a month after that, you needed to check your ribcage at the door before even venturing into the band room. In the meantime, they ground their way around the London pub-and-club circuit, occasionally sticking a nose above the parapet to play a better-heeled show but terrifying all comers regardless. Some bright spark had the idea of pairing them for a clutch of gigs with Back Street Crawler, as that band tried to repair itself following the death in March of guitarist Paul Kossoff. The headliners never stood a chance.

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