AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell' Turns 40: Musicians Reflect on the Final Bon Scott Album
With the July 27 release of Highway to Hell in 1979, AC/DC reached new heights of stardom. Replacing the Young brothers' older sibling George in favor of a young Robert John "Mutt" Lange behind the boards, the band utilized their new producer's high definition style to their utmost advantage. Kicking off with its pounding title track, Highway was ready-made for American kids already all hopped up on KISS, the Ramones and Cheap Trick. Songs like "Girls Got Rhythm," "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)" and the writhing closing number "Night Prowler" perfected the balance between Angus Young's blues-gnarling guitar work, the unstoppable rhythm machine of guitarist Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, and the roguish hooliganism of lead singer Bon Scott.
Sadly, Highway was the last AC/DC LP with Scott, who died the following February of alcohol poisoning. And while the great Brian Johnson's equally enigmatic presence and vocal delivery on 1980's Back In Black helped achieve arguably the most seamless transition of frontmen in rock history, Highway to Hell was pure lightning in a bottle; when Bon declares, "Hey Satan! Paid my dues playing in a rockin' band" on that famous song, he was rewarded with a permanent seat among the immortals of the art -- finding that rare off-ramp on the highway that leads right to Rock n' Roll Heaven.
Here is an elite squad of artists from all over the recording industry map whose travels along the Highway to Hell helped inform their own pathways to music.
Highway to Hell is one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. It's 41 minutes of maximum rock n' roll, all killer, no filler. Chuck Berry on speed. - Miles Zuniga, Fastball
Riff rock...no one's ever done it better. One of my favorite AC/DC stories is Angus talking about people giving them shit about making the same album 11 times, he was pissed 'cause they'd actually made the same album 12 times!
Highway To Hell has always been a staple on road trips...it's a masterpiece. But it was a late night after work a while back when I was living in Nashville that stands out most in my mind. I was driving home around 2:30 am and had the album blasting when an 18-wheeler started crossing over two lanes faster than normal. I wasn't sure if the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel or if he just couldn't see me in the far right lane, so I gunned it. Just when I thought I was in the clear, BOOM...he sideswiped the back of my car. I started fishtailing and went off into the grass, barely keeping control of my car. All the while, "I'm on a Hiiiighway To Hell." I got back on the highway and was flashing my lights...I was sure this guy was gonna pull over at the next exit. He started slowing down and put on his blinker...I was following him, but as the exit came, he floored it and kept on. "I'm on a Hiiiiighway To Hell."
I was completely out of gas, but "Girls Got Rhythm" came on and I figured screw it...I wasn't going down without a fight. I chased the truck down, memorizing the plates and numbers, flashing my lights, pulling up next to him, "Walk All Over You" in full swing, screaming out my windows, wildly gesturing for him to pull over. He looked at me like I was crazy. Eventually, I had to pull off cause I was gonna run out of gas, and I was already about three exits past home. I pulled into my place just as "Night Prowler" was starting...it was a thing of beauty.
This story really doesn't have a point, but the trucking company denied it ever happened...but I know it happened cause that night my car got banged up, I was on a highway to hell, and I had the perfect soundtrack. – Casey Shea, Grand Canyon
Highway To Hell was the first album I tried to play drums to when I was first getting going. AC/DC seemed really forbidden and cool, so of course, I gravitated to it. My stepdad is a drummer so he recommended I try to learn all of Phil Rudd's drum parts to get a feel for the drums. I would try to play along and do a bunch of drum fills and my dad would come in and yell "NO FILLS!!!" It was an early lesson on the "less is more" approach, and I realized quickly how hard it was to keep things simple. The loud guitars paired with Bon Scott's maniacal voice was just what I needed to get addicted to rock n' roll. I remember thinking how scary Bon Scott's voice was when I was 11. On the album cover, they all look dead or possessed or stoned so of course I wanted to see what it was all about! Great songs! – Luke Mitchell, The High Divers
I was a punk in the early '70s, and because a lot of the "rock" kids in my school were into AC/DC I kind of wrote them off as some rock or metal type of band. It wasn't 'til later that I realized that AC/DC were way more punk than most punk bands could ever be. Years later, touring in Japan with The Exploited, Discharge, GBH and Charlie Harper (UK Subs) was also on the bus, when the question "what was the best gig you ever saw" went around the bus, the unanimous answer, out of the mouths of Wattie from the Exploited, all of GBH, Discharge and Charlie Harper was AC/DC!!! I shit you not!!! I think that puts some perspective on things, doesn't it? This was an absolute landmark album in so many ways and they are such a classic band, and this lineup was a life-changing force on earth, and we must thank them. You can put it on any day or night -- anytime and feel gooooood. - Harley Flanagan, Cro-Mags
Highway To Hell, I believe, was a pinnacle album that started the Australian 'pub rock' culture which was a culture that needed to be lived and experienced to truly be understood and truly appreciated. Right on the brink of the '80s the album paved the way for iconic pub rock bands around the country. The Bon Scott era changed the Australian music landscape and gave fans permission to raise their horns, scream their lungs out and feel the menacing energy and power of the band.
As a teenager we'd try to evoke Scott's spirit from the grave with late night Ouija board sessions. Born in the '80s and growing into my formative years in the '90s, the Highway to Hell era that ended Scott's legacy was a mysterious one for us as teenagers, but seeing it live through decades to come in pubs all around Australia where you'd hear the album played any given night of the week across the country, I began to gain a deep appreciation for what the album did for Australian rock n' roll. It literally gave us permission to rock before the band began saluting us for it!! The album is both nostalgic and life changing. – Ruby Boots
I am an unrepentant philistine and AC/DC are my favorite band. They eschew all of the values I least care for in music: artiness, mystique, innovation and moral posturing. At the same time, they embody all of the things I most value in music: directness, simplicity, fury and regression to the mean. That's Highway to Hell (among others). It is lousy. I am lousy. This is what I deserve. You either get this or you don't and though many millions do, I find myself trying to explain to the uninitiated what I mean and what they're missing. I've tried the food metaphor: "The simplest dishes are the hardest to pull off blah blah…" But, the analogy inevitably falls short. You don't poop in your food. Happy 40th! - Rick Froberg, Hot Snakes
AC/DC is like a gateway drug to rock n' roll. They never sold out, they never strayed from their sound and they somehow continue to reincarnate in more bombastic ways than ever. And that pick slide in Highway to Hell is why I play guitar. We salute you!!! – Whitney Petty, Thunderpussy
The most iconic feature of the band was Bon Scott's voice. Reminds me of home, and a game I used to play with my friends, Hold the TNT! You know the part when Bon Scott sings "Watch me Explode....." we would see who could hold "exploooode" the longest. I always lost.
But this is not so unique, it's not just something I've grown up with, he's someone all Australians grow up with. So it's hard to find a special, unique connection with the group, as they were there for the whole country to enjoy. We are all very proud of the band for putting Aussie Rock on the map. Even though they were born in Scotland, there is no doubting Australia's ownership of the one and only, Acca Dacca! – Zebedee Row, who played Robert Plant on HBO's Vinyl and leads his own group ZEBEDEE
It was the late '70s and I would always watch a TV program called The Midnight Special. One time they had AC/DC on and I thought 'what the hell is this? Who IS this? Who is this kid playing guitar?' This was at a time when I was moving on from bands like KISS and discovering different bands like Judas Priest and AC/DC. The first AC/DC record I heard was Powerage and "Sin City" was one of the songs I would play with this band that I was in at the time - I just loved AC/DC. When Highway to Hell came out, I thought every song on that record was great, there wasn't a bad song on the record from start to finish. "Girls Got Rhythm" is on that record, "Walk All Over You" became one of my favorite songs, "Beating Around The Bush" is on that record, and of course "Highway To Hell." It became an instant classic to me and I remember hearing about Bon Scott dying in the same way I heard about Randy Rhoads - on the radio, I think WLIR was the station I heard about it on. It was pretty sad to hear that Bon had passed away. I didn't know too much about the band at the time, they weren't featured in magazines like other bands were, so you had to really dig to find out anything about AC/DC. Highway To Hell became a classic, especially with its having been Bon's final record with the band, it was such an awesome send off even though no one knew it at the time. Highway to Hell is just classic AC/DC, everything about it, the production, the musicianship, it was their first record with Mutt Lang producing, it's just awesome, love it. – Charlie Benante, Anthrax
Highway to Hell is one of my favorite albums to get in trouble to. It lights a fire under my tush to put my bad girl face on and cause some trouble. - Davina, Davina & The Vagabonds
Highway to Hell is like Rock n' Roll 101 brought to you by five weird kids from Australia. This record is brimming with energy, alcoholism and a reckless disregard for societal norms. It sounds like a barroom brawl where everyone hugs it out at the end. It's the perfect example of the rule that there only needs to be one super sick musician in a band to make it great. Angus is super sick at guitar (the solo on "Walk All Over You" is downright belligerent), everyone else is just okay enough to play the songs right. And that's WHY it works. Bon Scott wasn't a great singer, he was a hilarious wild man with a crazy look in his eye. The drumming is some of the most pocketed rock drumming of all time and they're the technically simplest parts imaginable. This album would be their first without the Young brothers' elder, George, producing. Instead going with "Mutt" Lange after firing then legendary producer Eddie Kramer. Truly, it stands the test of time. – Kyle Bann, Slothrust
When I was in seventh grade I had a friend named Chris. We'd sit around his basement listening to albums and one of our favorites was Highway to Hell. He loved Bon Scott and could sing just like him - for a minute. Only a minute because Chris had Leukemia and his voice would dry up. Chris didn't live to hear the Back in Black album which would have suited him fine. Bon Scott was part of Chris' soul and therefor part of mine. My AC/DC covers album What's Next To The Moon was as much of a tribute to Chris as it was to AC/DC. In 2015 I finally got to visit Bon Scott's grave in Perth. It was an overcast, drizzly day at the Freemantle Cemetery and my band members and I were walking around, clueless as to where it was. We found a guy sitting on a lawn chair. He said "I know what you guys are looking for" and led us to the Bon's grave; a humble little gravestone with black stars leading down a pathway from Carrington Road. For those who haven't been there, you don't have to go through the main entrance on Leach Highway - The Highway to Hell - to find Bon Scott's grave. Look for the arched gateway on Carrington Road that says "Bon Scott." Bon was one of the best singers who ever lived. He could scream, sing the blues, write lyrics, and he had what very few rock singers have. A warm, soulful tone. - Mark Kozelek
AC/DC kicks ass. When I was 16 years old I got into some trouble with the law and the court shipped me off to a camp for bad boys in northern Montana for six months to correct my behavior. I landed in Kalispell, Montana in the dead of winter and was picked up by a grizzly looking mountain man in a snowstorm. We got in the truck and "Highway to Hell" was the first thing on the radio all the way to the ranch, and the last song I heard for six whole months. I've never gone that long without hearing a song, and that was in my head the whole time. AC/DC kicks ass. That song helped me get through that whole experience. - Jared Swilley, Black Lips
AC/DC was my introduction to adolescent boyhood. I was a complete failure as a tween-age girl. It was 1990 and my dad thought it would be a great a time to cut my hair an inch off my scalp so I would stop looking at myself in the mirror and win science fairs. This made me very unpopular with the Raina DeMarco-s and Nicole Marasco-s of suburban New Jersey. These were pre orange skin days where the required looked was aqua-net, hot pink lipstick, hammer pants and LA Gear High-Tops. I was a Barbie destroyer, who played in the dirt and ran chem experiments out of my room. I didn't stand a chance. I had to switch teams. Needless to say, I won the science fair that year and a statewide writing competition -- the latter of which my folks did not care much about.
That summer, as a reward, my folks sent me to Hindu Heritage Camp. Parag was my camp counselor. He was a metalhead Indian dude from North Carolina with the most bodacious accent. We had matching mullets and he introduced me to Headbangers Ball. That's where I saw my first AC/DC video. When I asked him "Why is that grown man dressed like a toddler?" He simply replied "Dude! Angus is GOD!" As a young Hindu tomboy with many gods to choose from, I accepted it.
Highway to Hell is such a standout album in the sense that it has the heavy no nonsense rock n' roll of classic AC/DC but it also roams into some dynamic territory where Phil Rudd does in fact change the drum beat. "Touch Too Much," "Walk All Over You," "Girls Got Rhythm" and "Night Prowler" are among my favorite tracks. This would sadly be the last Bon Scott record and hearing it back as an adult I realize that it was some of his best vocal work. I know times are changing and it's rare these days to hear lyrics so adamantly Sex Booze and Rock n' Roll, but I still enjoy throwing back some beers and longing for the attention from girls it seems none of us can truly obtain. -- Shilpa Ray
In 1979 I graduated to the hard stuff and never looked back. That was the year AC/DC's Highway to Hell came out and the whole album played in heavy rotation on our local FM rock station, WIYY. Every song was a strutting, swaggering anthem but "Touch Too Much" was my personal siren song. THAT particular track stood out like a giant throbbing boner and its hyper sexualized lyrics and pumping groove made me feel dangerous and scared and dirty. It was everything my Cheap Trick records were not. And I loved every second of it. My parents however did not, and it a fit of satanic (and perhaps sexual) panic, they banned the album from the house. Angus' devil horns, lurid sneer, and that long phallic tail gripped in his mitts was just too much for dear mum. Later I found the album hidden in between her classic and opera albums (a place she thought I'd never look!) and I smuggled it to school where my art teacher kept it safe for me in her classroom. So from there on out Fridays at 2:30 was my designated "Bon Time" where I got to listen to his final masterpiece and doodle away AC/DC logos and boobs. I'm still not good at drawing either but I hope to have something decent to show Bon when I finally meet him in the Promised Land. - London May (Samhain, Brutal Realty, Inc.)
I'll never forget the first time I put on the Highway to Hell album. The opening riff grips you in and doesn't let go. From top to bottom, this album is perfect and shows the true genius of Angus Young's guitar playing with Bon Scott's singing. - Scott Stone, The Jacks
Highway to Hell was released the year I was born. My first encounter with AC/DC was probably around 1986. My oldest brother had a Fly on the Wall t-shirt. The imagery immediately grabbed me and I was fixated on discovering their entire catalog. At first I just liked looking at all of the covers. Trying to emulate their classic font, but then I actually HEARD them for the first time. The album was Highway to Hell and I thought it was just about the coolest thing I'd heard. – Hayden Menzies, METZ
When I was a young impressionable child of about nine years old, I was already way deep into listening to vinyl as my dad had an excellent record collection and allowed me free reign to listen to whatever he had whenever I wanted. At around the same time a friend/neighbor of mine had access to his own dad's equally excellent record collection to which he also had unfettered access.
His dad's collection however, was a bit different than my dad's. It was darker, sleazier, heavier and more malevolent than my old man's. If my dad's records were 1960s, then my friend's dad's were 1970s. My dad had the Beatles, Dylan, CSN and Simon and Garfunkel. My friend's dad had Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and perhaps the nastiest record I had ever heard, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, from a bunch of what sounded like to my young innocent ears like a gang of borderline criminals from Australia called AC/DC. But borderline criminals with a wicked sense of humor ("Big Balls," "Love at First Feel") that to a nine-year-old suburban boy in the late 1970s was the aural equivalent of getting your hands on a Playboy magazine.
I was a tiny bit older when AC/DC got a bit of polish and more career traction when Highway to Hell was acquired by my friend's dad, but shortly thereafter AC/DC lost their beloved lead singer. My friend, his dad, and I all assumed that we'd never hear from them again.
Then, in or around 1980, my friend's dad had bought a new (?!) AC/DC album with a NEW (??!!) lead singer. The cover was all black, which was cool, and the sheer sonic attack of the album was overwhelming. From the opening church bells, to the massive sounding guitars and drums, to the indelible songwriting, everything about this album screamed "HUGE, MASSIVE, BIGGEST HARD ROCK ALBUM OF ALL TIME!!" If "Hells Bells" made the hairs stand up on my arms, and "Back in Black" blew my hair back, then "You Shook Me All Night Long" made me want to be in a rock band. A very, very loud rock band. Now. Immediately. Which is what I did back then and never stopped doing. – John Cusimano, The Cringe
The first time I heard the album, Highway to Hell, I was 12 years old. Not only was it the baddest thing I've ever heard, it decimated my previous notion of how bad something could be. Bon Scott seemed to view his journey to Hell as a career opportunity, a promotion of sorts and Angus Young's guitar playing... I mean, there's nothing else to say about Angus Young's guitar playing. The record struck me as a fresh new quintessence rock n' roll rebellion on a scale so lavish that you needed a real live church bell to herald its arrival. – Chris Barron, The Spin Doctors
First time I ever got laid I had Highway to Hell on the cassette player in my 78 Pontiac Le Mans. -- Jimbo Mathus
In my formative years as a guitarist and songwriter AC DC's formula for constructing a song had a huge impact on me. Highway to Hell was the album where it all seemed to fall into place for them. You could tell the years of touring and playing together sharpened the thinking process of the band. Sticking to the major notes in their songs gave me as a player the freedom to explore and expand my own style. Straight hard rockin' blues, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and anthem type choruses made for a great combination. - Bobby Gustafson (ex-Overkill, Satan's Taint)
It was the late '70s. I lived in an apartment complex in Corpus Christi, Texas. I was seven years old. Most kids my age played with Hot Wheels cars and kickball. But I befriended the pot smoking teens twice my age...because they had the records and vinyl was my drug of choice. I distinctly remember my buddy traded a KISS record for Highway to Hell. The cover art was just the coolest. These cats were TROUBLE. Stoned off their ASS, and Angus with the horned hat and holding his devil tail. One listen to Bon Scott's voice, aged-leather; soaked in equal parts rot-gut whiskey and jail-cell moonshine, was enough to take it over the top. Happy 40th to Highway to Hell..... the antithesis ...the polar opposite.... of "Stairway to Heaven." - Devon Allman
My first real impact from AC/ DC came from watching Beavis and Butt-Head, a show that aired on MTV every week. Butt-Head — one of the characters — wore an AC/DC shirt and at the end of most of the episodes, they would always feature music videos while the characters would sit on the couch and make fun of them. But when AC/DC was featured, the characters would sit at the couch and headbang to the song. That was the first time I really started getting into the music of AC/DC. I was always amazed at Bon Scott & Brian Francis Johnsonʼs vocals, and how high they were able to stretch their range. Very empowering and totally badass. – Cameron Graves (Kamasi Washington)
Highway to Hell: I can easily write something in depth, collegiate, and introspective about this record. How it had shaped my artistry and changed the evolution of rock n' roll etc... but to be honest, listening to this record was the first time in my life I ever listened to music and was honest to god turned on! Finally, I realized what it meant to play music from a completely primal place, and I knew right then and there I wanted to be able to create that feeling in everyone who listened to my music too! For it is equally as important to evoke that feeling as it is to inspire creativity. But plain and simple, listening to "Touch Too Much" I felt like I could handle anything - like I was on top of the world (not a feeling I experience too often in my life). – Veronica Swift
You can have Highway to Hell without Back in Black. But you can't have Back in Black without Highway to Hell... - Dallas Thomas, Pelican