In this month’s Behind the Curtain, Steve Rosen details his encounters with AC/DC members Angus Young and Bon Scott at a jam-packed Day on the Green in 1978…
It is July 23, 1978 and promoter Bill Graham is presenting another installment of Day On the Green, the recurring concert series he has held at the Oakland Coliseum since 1973.
These are multi-act shows but differ from the concerts he’s staged at places like San Francisco’s Fillmore West and Winterland Arena. In those mid- and late-1960s gatherings, he would mix and match musical styles so you’d hear the MC5 kicking out the jams before flute-driven Jethro Tull took the stage or trumpeter Don Ellis blowing jazz riffs as a warm-up for psychedelic warriors the Quicksilver Messenger Service.
But the Day on the Green concert is a different animal. For these shows, Graham brings together bands of a like mind and on this particular summer day it is hard rock from both sides of the Atlantic. Les Pauls, SGs and Strats manipulated, manhandled and massaged like so many weapons. Marshall cabs groaning under the weight of colossal six-string riffs coursing through them.
This is Graham’s third show of the year and includes Pat Travers, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen and Foreigner. There are about 50,000 rabid rockers here today, all primed and pumped and just waiting for the onslaught of electric guitars they know is coming.
It is still early summer but the overhead sun is already beating down a steady rain of UV rays and escalating heat. Nubile female teens in tiny cutoffs and rock t-shirts frolic about in blissful oblivion. Bare-chested boyfriends like glorious human canvasses sporting multi-colored tattoos keep wary eyes on their sprightly female counterparts.
Fans are seated on the playing fields where the Oakland Athletics and Oakland Raiders normally play but the only balls being thrown today are the beach balls bouncing around high over the outstretched arms of playful concertgoers.
Similarly, the fortunes and careers of the bands here on this particular day have been rising and falling like those plastic beach balls. Some are on their way up, some are stuck in the middle and some are staring at the ground as it rushes up to meet them on their downward spiral. Opening act Pat Travers has released four albums by this date and won’t find real success for another two years when his Crash and Burn album comes out with the addictive anthem Snortin’ Whiskey.
The Travers album title is an apt description of what Aerosmith is experiencing at this point in their career: crashing and burning. Though they’ve recorded five remarkable albums and what many fans will ultimately think of as their most important body of work—Aerosmith, Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, Rocks and Draw the Line—the bad boys from Boston simply can’t get out of their own way.
(The following video is from a later Day on the Green concert in 1979)
They are snorting cocaine like human vacuum cleaners and the massive consumption of drugs is destroying both the creativity and fraternity of the band. A year after this concert, they will record three marginal albums—Night in the Ruts, Rock In a Hard Place and Done With Mirrors—during which time both Joe Perry and Brad Whitford will jump ship. But the two guitar players will return and in 1987 the band will enjoy a second renaissance with Permanent Vacation.
On the other hand, Van Halen is celestial-bound. Five months before this performance, the Pasadena quartet had released their first self-titled album. On it Eddie Van Halen rewrote the playbook for guitar players. Two singles from Van Halen have already come out—their cover of the Kinks’ classic You Really Got Me and Runnin’ With the Devil—and when both songs are performed during their set, the audience will howl like wolves in recognition. This is the band’s first tour and their first step to becoming rock legends.
(The following concert footage is from AC/DC’s 1979 Day on the Green gig at the Coliseum)
AC/DC has just released its fifth album titled Powerage and while they have experienced success over the course of their four previous records, they are nowhere near the legendary status they’ll achieve in the coming two years. Like Aerosmith, they have five albums in their catalog but the Australian band is still relatively unknown in the U.S. However, one year after this performance, Highway to Hell will come out followed by Back in Black in 1980. The Aussie five-piece will be crowned as kings of heavy rock and will continue to reign for the next 30+ years.
Like Van Halen, Foreigner is on a rocket ship to the stars. Their second album titled Double Vision has come out about a month earlier and contains the monster hit Hot Blooded. This is another in a long line of big singles presented on their first self-titled album including Feels Like the First Time, Cold As Ice, and Long, Long Way From Home. The band’s performance in Oakland is a veritable hit fest and it’s not hard to understand why they are the day’s headliners.
Which is why I’ve flown to Oakland in the first place. Guitar Player wants an interview with Mick Jones so I board a flight for the 57-minute journey from Los Angeles to the Oakland International Airport. A car picks me up and drives me to the Coliseum. There are various security checkpoints at the stadium and as you travel deeper into the inner sanctum—the vaunted backstage area—the interrogations become more pointed. Graham is a stickler for security protocol and anybody attempting to traverse the labyrinth of checkpoints is going to have to be part secret agent and part ghost.
Walking around to the rear of the arena where check-in is most probably located, I encounter my first round of scrutiny. “Why are you here?” security guard number one asks me. “To do an interview,” I say. “I’m with the press.”
“Which magazine? this slab of beef with a walkie talkie asks me.” “Guitar Player,” I respond. “No,” he says. “I don’t care what you do. Which magazine?” “Guitar Player,” I repeat. He doesn’t understand that Guitar Player is the name of a magazine. At this point, I’m feeling lost or more precisely caught somewhere in the seven outer rings of hell. If this is just the first level of security, I’m thinking to myself, I can’t even begin to fathom what’s behind door number two.
Even after I explain to him about my reason for being there and that Guitar Player is the name of a magazine and not a career choice, the look on his face tells me he still doesn’t understand a single word I’ve said. I want to ask him if his job description required anything more than the ability to breathe in and out but I’m certain the comment would only result in his outstretched arm grabbing me by the collar and tossing me 15 feet across the backstage area.
I bite my tongue and am about to continue in my description of who I am and why I’m there when a long, heavily tattooed and impossibly muscled arm is extended with a pointed finger extruding from the end of it. My eyes follow the tip of his finger and I follow it. It seems he is simply too bored to even bother with a nobody such as myself so he boots me on down the line.
Though this behemoth with a bad attitude has done nothing but given me a hard time, at least the questions he asked were relatively easy to answer. Even if his comprehension level fell somewhere between a troglodyte and a garden troll, I was still able to figure out what he was grunting about. Checkpoint number two would present its own set of indecipherable challenges.
I advance in the direction of the outstretched finger, which is pointing to a second gate literally just 50 feet away down a tunnel. I walk down this ramp and am accosted with the same question. “Why are you here?” the second bouncer asks me once again. Apparently this is Rule Number One in the Bouncer Book of Belligerence: Do not ask for a name. Do not smile. Do not appear to be human. Simply ask, “Why are you here?” “To do an interview,” I repeat. “No, why are you here? At this checkpoint.”
I’m confused. I feel like I’m in a battle of wits and losing. Losing to a creature I’m certain doesn’t know how to boil water. I continue on and provide what I think is a pretty damn good answer to his previous question. “Uh, because that guy down there”—and I literally turn around and point at the guy who’s just let me through his guard station—“told me to come here.”
My interrogator has biceps like mountain ranges and is becoming agitated and you don’t want to upset a man who looks like he might be missing a chromosome or two. He presses a walkie talkie to his mouth—cellphones haven’t been invented yet—and contacts guard number one.
I watch as he talks into his walkie. I can virtually read the lips of security beast number one as he mouths, “For an interview” in response to this second guard’s query of, “Why is this guy standing in front of me?” The second slab of beef in a black t-shirt emblazoned with SECURITY—maybe so he doesn’t forget who he is—across the back puts away his device and continues the interrogation. “You’re here for an interview.” The question has turned into a statement so baby steps are being taken in the right direction. “I am,” I say. “Who with? the border guard questions. “Uh, Mick Jones.” As if I didn’t know this question was coming, he inquires, “Who’s that?” “He’s the guitar player in Foreigner,” I respond. “Is that a band?” the Neanderthal mumbles.
I look at his face to see if he is joking. He is not. In fact, I’m not even sure if he knows how to smile. This is quickly becoming a daze on the green. At this point, I figure all is lost. If this Cro-Magnon with a clipboard doesn’t even know who Foreigner is, what chance do I have in making him understand they’re headlining the show today and that is precisely why I’m here?
Understanding and comprehension are traits of the higher animals and the jury is still out on this prehistoric pituitary gland with the jutting brow.
We continue our verbal jousting for another 15 minutes at which point he steps aside and allows me entrance to the backstage area. He never believes who I am, why I’m there or what a Mick Jones is but there is too much information coming in and his brain is close to short-circuiting. I can see it in his eyeballs—they are filling with blood and spinning around in their sockets—and like some sort of prehistoric lizard with slow-closing eyelids, he simply closes his eyes as if the mental encounter was too much and points.
I have outwitted the witless. He never asks for my contact or even takes a second glance at the bag I’m carrying. I could have been some crazed fan with some nasty business in my pouch but he lets me pass with barely a second thought. Making my life miserable is his first priority—the safety of thousands of fans is somebody else’s problem.
Slightly frantic and short of breath, I compose myself. Sotto voce I intone, “It’s cool, dude. You’re OK.” and venture into the backstage area. It is arranged with picnic tables and the various band buses surrounding a common area. As I’m wandering around and trying to locate my contact from Atlantic Records—the publicist who set up the Mick Jones interview—I hear someone calling my name.
I go into survival mode and think, “This is impossible. Nobody knows I’m here except the girl from the record company and she doesn’t know what I look like. Can it be that one of those prehistoric security guys has followed me back here into the inner compound? Has the scent of fresh blood awakened him from his slumber so that even now I am just seconds away from becoming his next big kill?” Then I remember that I never even told either of those beasts my name so I momentarily relax.
I turn slowly see a familiar face and relax. It is my good friend Neil Zlozower, famous rock photographer. Festooned with cameras like bandoliers, “Zloz” saunters over and says hello. He is there shooting the festival and he wants me to meet someone. He ushers me to this section of the backstage area that has been set up with basketball hoops in case anybody wants to work on their free throws. I see a lanky guy shouldering a black-and-white Stratocaster and know immediately who it is.
Neil introduces us though we’ve already met. I say hello to Eddie Van Halen and he gives me a hug.
I walk back into the main compound and find my liaison. She directs me to Foreigner’s trailer and I greet Mick Jones. There are staff people and crew coming in and out and it is way too hectic and noisy to conduct an interview. Mick says, “I have an idea.” We walk over to this small parking lot adjoining the main backstage area and retreat into the back of a limo. It is virtually silent in there as Mick closes the door though you can hear the distant thunder of drums and guitars seeping inside.
I can see people walking by the windows of the black limousine and gazing in. Nobody knows me but many of them see Mick Jones and raise clenched fists in recognition. The Foreigner guitarist talks about working with Spooky Tooth, George Harrison and Peter Frampton. After an hour we exit the limo and Mick saunters off to ready himself for his headlining performance.
As I’m walking back to the main backstage area to get something to eat—by now it is late afternoon and my head is throbbing from the airplane ride, my encounter with the gargantuan gatekeepers and just the general craziness of the entire day—the Atlantic Records girl pulls me aside. “Do you want to interview AC/DC?” she asks. I can tell by her tone of voice that she wants me to say yes. As I noted earlier, AC/DC is still a virtually unknown entity in America and I hardly know anything about them. I am so hungry now my stomach is making sounds like a caged lion but I agree.
She guides me over to an empty picnic table. While sitting there, I watch in mouth-watering jealousy as media, crew and guests gorge on barbecued chicken and potato salad. I’m about to run over and grab a plate when the record company girl returns with this very short man walking beside her.
She introduces me to Angus Young, lead guitarist for AC/DC. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, he looks like he is 12 years old. On a good day if the wind is blowing in the right direction, I am 5’6”. Angus is barely 5’4” and makes me look like a basketball player.
But what he lacks in height is compensated for by an adrenaline-fueled personality. Angus is animated, loud, energized and even sitting at the table, he seems to be moving faster than anyone around him. It is precisely the persona you see onstage as he zips around like a schoolboy on speed, hunching over his guitar as if in prayer and then falling to the floor in some sort of insane supplication.
As he sips on a beer, I set up my pathetic little cassette player, unwind my cheap plug-in microphone and try to collect my thoughts. I’m unprepared for this and barely have a clue what I’m going to ask. I try and remain calm and in control but it doesn’t help. All I can think about is, “I am starving. What the hell am I going to talk about?” My mind is a blank as somehow the words come tumbling out.
I ask him, “How do you feel about the Powerage album?” He tells me, “I think it’s f—kin’ great. We spent a lot more time on this one. A lot more people are listening to the band than what they’ve ever done before.”
I know a studio question is always safe and ask, “What’s it like when you record in the studio?”
Angus says, “They get me and they strap me to a seat and then say, ‘Go play.’”
Angus is funny and isn’t taking himself seriously. This isn’t so bad. We continue talking for a few more minutes when this unbelievably drunk guy comes stumbling over. He is bare-chested and there are tattoos running up and down both arms. A huge beer held aloft in his right hand spills over the table and hits the microphone. At this point I’m ready to explode. I have established some kind of rhythm with Angus and here this obnoxious loudmouth comes over and totally wrecks the groove. I’m just waiting for one of the security detail to remove him when he sits down next to Angus.
My mouth falls open and when Angus says, “This is Bon,” I almost swallow my tongue. Bon Scott. The singer in AC/DC. I thank the heavens that I didn’t say something to him like, “Dude, I’m doing an interview with Angus Young. Leave us alone.” I could have said that. Thankfully I didn’t.
Bon hugs his guitar player and is all smiles. He is pinned to the gills with alcohol and still covered in a sheen of sweat from his earlier performance. Everybody in the compound recognizes him and there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement of, “Yes, this is Bon Scott. Yes, he drinks. No, we can’t stop him.”
This is rock and roll. This is backstage at a huge stadium show where excess is a way of life. Nobody is going to tell Bon Scott to stop drinking.
On this beautiful day, he is tossing back beers like a practiced alcoholic and ready to rock and talk. Bon is actually very sweet and lives for AC/DC. Though he can barely stand and his speech is seriously slurred, he wants to be part of the interview. I ask him, “How has the band changed from the earlier albums?” Bon says, “The band has a lot of rawness and it progressed but it hasn’t lost its feeling. People criticize us because they say we can’t play. I hate bands that go above people’s heads you know? You know musically they’re trying to put shit on an audience—they’re not going with ‘em, they’re going against ‘em. A lot of people take us wrong.”
I toss out another question. “Did you know about guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page?” Angus watches as Bon pours more beer down his throat and says, “Yeah, they’ve been ripping me off for years.”
Running out of questions, I throw out this one. “How do you feel about punk bands? Any sympathy for them?” “None,” says Angus. Putting down his can of beer for one second, Bon adds, “What’s a punk band?” It’s an hilarious response.
I’m happy I am wrong in initially sizing up Bon Scott as nothing more than a loutish and sloppy drunk. He is charming, affable, and fragile though he wants you to believe he’s invincible. He is an alcoholic and it will consume him but it doesn’t define who he is—at least it didn’t on that very memorable day over 36 years ago.
We speak for another 10 minutes and then Bon and Angus wander off into the proverbial sunset. It is a terrible and tragic irony that the band will enjoy their biggest success following Scott’s death.
On the Back in Black album, AC/DC will become superstars on the back of new singer Brian Johnson. It is cruel and unfair but there it is. Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott will finally stop drinking on February 19, 1980 when he passes out from a night of serious alcohol consumption. He will die at age 33 but in my story that never happens. He simply walks off into the distance with his arm around the shoulders of his very good—and smaller—friend.