If you were to choose one song that most summed up the might and majesty of Bon Scott – who would have turned 75 this month – from all of the classic-stuffed catalogue of AC/DC’s early years, the choice is obvious. It’s not ‘TNT’. It’s not ‘Jailbreak’. It’s not ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ or ‘Let There Be Rock’ or ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’ or even ‘Highway To Hell’.
The ultimate Bon song is inarguably ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll)’. And that makes sense because really, is there a better rock song? That might sound like a rhetorical question, but the answer is no. No, there is not.
It’s a song that speaks to every musician who has ever lugged a drum kit into a venue or fallen asleep on an interstate white-knuckle drive to yet another non-paying gig. It’s an anthem for every globe-spanning rock star and every pub-gig wannabe, pricking the glamorous fairytale of rock stardom while simultaneously making it even more gloriously mythic.
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‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ was an immediate classic upon its release in 1975 and was the song that transformed AC/DC from an unknown Australian band into a global rock juggernaut the following year. Bigger hits followed, but this was the song that kicked the door open.
There’s another important legacy to the song which doesn’t get enough credit: the random bagpipe break. That came about thanks to producer George Young – Angus and Malcolm’s big brother, who was also a bonafide rock star himself thanks to his time in the Easybeats. He found out that Bon had been in a pipe band in his youth and immediately asked him to bust out some bagpipe magic on the song. Bon enthusiastically agreed – without telling George that he’d never played the instrument in his life as he’d been a drummer in said band. But he promptly got hold of some pipes and learned how to play them, because he was Bon Scott and of course he did.
This arbitrary decision was to have unexpected and far-reaching consequences for Australian music in the following decade, as two other stone-cold Australian classics subsequently added pipe breaks as a sly musical nod to ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’: John Farnham recruited four pipers to liven up ‘You’re The Voice’ in 1986, and the Church mixed a bagpipe (played backwards) into the swirling bridge of ‘Under The Milky Way’ two years later.
And then there’s the music video, which has a legacy of its own. It was knocked up on the cheap for Countdown, with the show’s regular director Paul Drane filming the band rocking out on the back of a flatbed truck driving down Swanston Street. (A short street near Swanston, also home to famed live venue Cherry Bar, was renamed ACDC Lane in tribute to its proximity to the clip.) And this means that the clip is technically the property of the ABC and thus the Australian public, which seems fitting.
‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ is a song with a rich legacy. Yet, AC/DC don’t play it live. Why?
AC/DC slowly chugging down one of Melbourne’s most recognisable drags, surrounded by members of the Rats of Tobruk pipe band: it’s an iconic image, and it has attracted more than a few copycats. On the plus side, it was recreated for the Save Live Australian Music campaign in 2010, with the Rockwiz Orchestra playing on a truck while thousands marched down Swanston Street to protest proposed changes to licensing laws for venues.
On the other hand, it’s been aped by bands attempting to capture some cheap magic-by-association: the Smith Street Band’s ‘Shine’, for example, where Footscray’s main drag didn’t quite offer the same grandeur as Swanston, while in their ‘Runnin’ Wild’ video Airbourne continued their career-long AC/DC worship by playing inside a big rig driven by Lemmy from Motörhead, with Los Angeles police hot on their tail.
All of that is to say: ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ is a song with a rich legacy. And yet, AC/DC don’t play it live, and haven’t done in over 40 years.
Why? Well, there are a few reasons.
Most importantly, after Bon’s tragic death in 1980, aged 33, his replacement Brian Johnson expressly declined to sing it, citing his love and respect for his late predecessor and insisting it would be disrespectful to perform Bon’s signature song.
And that’s genuinely sweet, but it has also been suggested that there were a few other more practical elements to the decision.
The story goes that the rest of AC/DC – especially the Young brothers – found the song a hassle to play live because they would have to tune their guitars to the droning intonation of Bon’s bagpipes. On record, for example, the song is played in the key of A, but the band had to tune their guitars up to B flat to match the pipes in the studio. Bon himself reportedly grew to find it a chore too, not least because his performances often left him with little breath to expend on the pipes.
The question was finally rendered moot when Bon left his pipes too close to the stage one night and the crowd gleefully tore them to shreds – which, to be fair, is a natural reaction to being confronted with bagpipes.
And without suggesting that ego might play a part in the choices of what songs go in the AC/DC set, it’s worth noting that ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ is unique in the band’s catalogue in that it’s a showcase for pretty much everyone except Angus Young. Bon’s peerless vocal aside, the song’s engine is Malcolm Young’s chugging chords while the rhythm section nail that just-behind-the-beat stomp ’n’ swagger.
Meanwhile, the lead guitar… um, does some tasteful licks. There’s no wild solo or killer lead riff. No other AC/DC song has so little Young and so much Scott, and let’s be honest: Angus hasn’t exactly shared the spotlight with any other member since.
Stage or no stage, however, ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ has a life all its own. And Johnson may have dodged a bullet by refusing to try to out-Bon Bon on the Bonnest song the band ever did. That vocal performance? Tell you, folks: it’s harder than it looks…