In 1976, three years after AC/DC burst onto the Sydney, Australia club scene, things were really starting to happen for the band. They signed an international deal with Atlantic Records and soon found themselves touring Europe, opening for the biggest bands of the day, including Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Kiss, Styx and Blue Öyster Cult. Their music—a lethal concoction of revved-up Chuck Berry and ultra-heavy hard rock—was now reaching a larger audience, thanks to a three-million-selling compilation album released in Europe (culled from the group’s High Voltage and T.N.T. albums). Later that year, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap was released in Europe and Australia (though it was held back from American audiences, who wouldn’t see it until 1981).
By 1977, the group had made the final tweak to their lineup, replacing bassist Mark Evans with Cliff Williams, who also joined guitarist Malcolm Young on backing vocals. Of Evans’ departure, the CEO of Epic Records—who’d worked as a booking agent for the band during the mid-’70s—later remarked that he knew Mark wasn’t going to last because “…he was just too much of a nice guy.” With the last piece of the puzzle in place, the group released the powerhouse live recording, Let There Be Rock, which showcased the AC/DC’s frenetic stage act. The group launched their first U.S. tour that year, as well, brutalizing U.S. audiences with Angus Young’s guitar pyrotechnics over the band’s unstoppable backbeat.
1978 saw the release of Powerage, which marked Williams’ recording debut with AC/DC. The album spawned the #24 hit “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation” and, itself, went to #26 on the U.K. album charts. With their career trajectory shooting skyward, the band brought in legendary producer Robert “Mutt” Lange for the Highway to Hell sessions. Released in 1979, Highway to Hell became AC/DC’s first album to crack the top 100 in America, eventually landing at #17. The album was the perfect combination of the Young brothers’ rocket-fueled Berry riffs, the propulsive rhythm section of Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, and on top of it all, the lecherous howl of frontman Bon Scott.
The group was riding a new high when 1980 rolled around. But soon after beginning work on their seventh album, tragedy struck. On February 19, 1980, Scott passed out in his car after a night of heavy drinking at London’s Music Machine club. The next morning, Scott’s friend, Alistair Kinnear, who’d left Scott the previous evening passed out in the car, went out to find the singer still in the car and unconscious. Kinnear rushed him to King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, where he was pronounced dead.
Beyond the human tragedy of a talented life cut short, Scott’s death also halted a group on a seemly unstoppable roll. After a steady seven-year climb from the Australian club circuit to the verge of worldwide megastardom, AC/DC suddenly faced serious doubts about whether they had any future at all. They even considered folding up shop and quitting altogether. After much deliberation, though, the remaining members of AC/DC decided to soldier on, believing it’s what Scott would have wanted. A number of replacement singers were considered, including ex-Moxy member Buzz Shearman, Terry Slesser of Back Street Crawler and Slade’s Noddy Holder. Then there was a bloke named Brian Johnson, who fronted the band Geordie…
“I remember the first time I had ever heard Brian’s name was from Bon,” Angus later told Bravewords.com. “Bon had mentioned that he had been in England once touring with a band, and he had mentioned that Brian had been in a band called Geordie, and Bon had said, ‘Brian Johnson, he was a great rock and roll singer in the style of Little Richard.’ And that was Bon’s big idol, Little Richard.”
Johnson—who, it turned out, was an avid AC/DC and Bon Scott fan—auditioned for the job by singing “Whole Lotta Rosie” and Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits.” He blew the band away and was given the job just a few days later—on this day in 1980. With Johnson on board, AC/DC finished writing the album they’d started with their fallen singer, and with Mutt Lange again at the helm, they recorded and released Back in Black, which would go on to sell over 45 million albums worldwide.
Over 30 years later, the band are still a musical juggernaut, with their recently concluded Black Ice tour becoming (at the time) the second-highest-grossing tour ever. Though the group still mourn the loss of the late, great Bon Scott, AC/DC continue to shoot to thrill hard rock fans around the world.