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A long way to the top.

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It might have been inevitable that, when the end came for AC/DC, it wouldn’t be pretty.

No band so surpassingly devoted to celebrating virility, violence and male potency could possibly have kept it up (Bon Scott would have been proud of that phrasing) much into middle age.

For a while they solved the problem in the most advantageous possible way — by taking five to eight years between studio albums. This allowed them to limit their personal appearances (should a man that age still be wearing a schoolboy suit?) while carefully ladling out their dwindling supply of Big Riffs.

In the past 18 months, the wheels have finally come off the wagon. One member of the band’s classic lineup was forced into retirement by dementia; a second was ousted after a string of criminal charges; and a third either jumped or was pushed out due to health issues.

It appears that a pieced-together AC/DC lineup — possibly including Axl Rose — will fulfill the band’s remaining concert commitments, after which senior remaining decision-maker Angus Young will hopefully turn to raising tulips.

Since the band doesn’t have much of a future, I decided to look at its past.

Specifically, I thought it would be fun to consult the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts to answer the kind of question that comes up from time to time around here: What U.S. radio station, and when, was the first one to put the music of AC/DC into regular rotation?

(The standard disclaimer applies: The ARSA database is not encyclopedic; it includes only airplay charts that people have saved and scanned in. But there are enough of those to make ARSA a worthwhile tool.)

As it turned out, the obstreperous Australians first got America’s attention via a classic ’70s path.

None of the band’s first three studio albums in the U.S. — High Voltage, Let There Be Rock and Powerage — show up on any Stateside radio charts in the ARSA database. (The Age of Disco was not overly receptive to three chords and an up-yours.)

Instead, AC/DC got its toes in the door using a well-known ’70s formula: Go onstage in front of a raucous audience and recut songs whose studio versions went nowhere, juicing them up here and there with stepped-up tempos, extended solos, between-song jive and other tricks of the performer’s trade.

For KISS, that formula produced Alive! For Peter Frampton, it yielded Frampton Comes Alive! For Bob Seger, it produced ‘Live’ Bullet.

And for AC/DC, it produced If You Want Blood You’ve Got It — a less celebrated (and less histrionic) document than those listed above, but enough to gain hitmaker status at San Francisco’s KFRC 610 in late December 1978 and January 1979.

Why San Francisco? Could be that AC/DC — which toured the States regularly in the second half of the Seventies — had caught some ears there with its performances.

(KFRC’s playlist does not otherwise betray much fondness for ragged hard rock. On the second chart, If You Want Blood sits between Toto and the Village People, with Linda Ronstadt, Gloria Gaynor and Santana in close proximity. So, who knows.)

AC/DC’s next studio album, 1979’s Highway to Hell, would turn them from also-rans to headliners. KFRC was on that one first and fastest too, and for quite a while; Highway to Hell stayed on the station’s top 10 albums list from mid-August until the last week of November. (Dayton’s WTUE, Columbus’s WNCI and Washington, D.C.’s WPGC were also early reporters on the album.)

These have all been album charts. The first U.S. radio station in the ARSA database to put an AC/DC single into rotation was Boston’s WBCN, which had “Highway to Hell” at No. 3 — trailing only Ian Dury and Lene Lovich — for the week ending Oct. 30, 1979. (That’s an odd playlist; is that some kind of long-ago joke?)

Most noteworthy to me is the chart action in Presque Isle, Maine, where the single hung in the top 10 for several weeks at the end of ’79 and beginning of ’80 on station WEGP. Presque Isle’s way out there at the end of the road, and I wonder if some small-town kids just old enough to hustle beer didn’t happen to be looking for an anthem at that time.

After that, everything got big and stayed big, until it started to go soft.

(It might have been inevitable that, when the end came for this post, it wouldn’t be pretty.)

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4 responses »

  1. I can’t explain the reasoning behind WBCN’s singles list in the fall of 79, but their album list looks pretty much like what we were playing on my college station at the time.

    Although “Highway to Hell” was popular, it was nothing like “Back in Black” a year later. Based on request calls to the station, we could have tracked the album continuously every day and a significant percentage of our audience would have been fine with it.

    Reply
  2. I didn’t listen to AM radio out here in San Francisco but to add on to your thought about why AC/DC was playing on KFRC in late 78 to early 79 they were the opening band at two of the “Day on the Green” shows in Oakland during the summer of 78 and rocked the hell out of the place. After that the Bay Area fell in love with them and wanted to hear more and more of them which might have helped push KFRC to play them to keep listeners happy.

    Reply
    • Interesting. Could that also explain why 107.7 “The Bone” sometimes seems to have all AC/DC format?

      Reply
      • One of the reasons I pretty much gave up listening to “The Bone”. There set list seems like 10 artists with AC/DC being the top one and the song list for most of the artists is short except for AC/DC and Led Zeppelin.

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