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On This Day In Music… February 19, 1980: Bon Scott, 'Greatest Frontman of All Time' Dies

The AC/DC singer and legendary hellraiser's final hours remain the subject of controversy and conspiracy theory

bon scott
Source: Youtube / AC/DC

Bon Scott was on the brink of global success with AC/DC before his tragic early death.

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On February 19, 1980, the body of AC/DC singer Bon Scott was found slumped in the back of a Renault 5 in a suburban street in East Dulwich, south London. He was curled around the gearstick; much of the interior of the tiny car was covered in vomit.

He was declared dead on arrival at hospital. The coroner’s report concluded he had died of “acute alcohol poisoning” and classified it as “death by misadventure”. He was 33 years old and AC/DC were on the cusp of becoming the biggest hard rock band in the world.

Forty-four years later, exactly what happened that night remains the subject of controversy and conspiracy theory.

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Scott was born Ronald Scott in Forfar, Scotland in 1946 and moved to Australia when he was six years old: he later claimed he was given the nickname “Bon” after schoolfriends mocked his Scottish accent – in the sleeve notes for the 1997 AC/DC box set release Bonfire, he is quoted as saying: “No-one railroads me, and it made me all the more determined to speak my own way. That's how I got my name, you know. The Bonny Scot, see?”

After a chequered youth that saw him drift through a series of dead-end jobs, run into trouble with the law (for stealing gasoline) and be rejected from the Australian Army on the grounds of being “socially maladjusted”, he fronted and played drums for a number of bands before meeting fellow Scots-Australian brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, and in 1974 joined their band AC/DC. In a later interview with Mojo, Angus declared, “[Scott] molded the character of AC/DC... Everything became more down to earth and straight ahead. That's when we became a band.”

Through the following six years and six albums, AC/DC grew into one of the most exciting rock bands in the world – largely down to the charisma, stage-presence, extraordinary vocal and sheer sense of danger brought by Scott. In 1979 their sixth LP, Highway to Hell, smashed into the British album charts at No. 8, and the U.S. Billboard 200 at No. 17; and in early 1980 the band began recording in London for what would become the follow-up, Back in Black.

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On the evening of February 18, Scott took a break from the studio and hit the town.

Already known as a wild drinker, he went to a club called the Music Machine, in Camden, apparently with a friend called Alistair Kinnear. Speaking to the London Evening Standard a few days after his death (as reported by Classic Rock), Kinnear said: “I met up with Bon to go to the Music Machine, but he was pretty drunk when I picked him up. When we got there, he was drinking four whiskies straight in a glass at a time.”

Later that evening, Kinnear said he drove the singer back to his flat in East Dulwich. Unable to rouse him, he left him sleeping in the car, and went to bed.

“I just could not move him,” Kinnear told the Evening Standard, “so I covered him with a blanket and left him a note to tell him how to get up to my flat in case he woke up.

“I went to sleep and it was later in the evening [of February 19] when I went back out to the car, and I knew something was wrong immediately.”

Kinnear says he called an ambulance, and Scott was taken to King’s College Hospital in nearby Camberwell, where he was pronounced dead – apparently from the effects of alcohol.

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acdc highway to hell
Source: Albert Productions / Atlantic Records

'Highway to Hell' was AC/DC's first album to break into the Billboard 200.

But not everyone is convinced the truth is that simple. Biographer Jesse Fink spent years researching Scott’s death, and in his book Bon: The Last Highway, he claimed darker influences were at work. “He was a prodigious drinker,” he wrote. “The idea that seven double whiskeys would put him in the ground seems a strange notion.”

Fink contested that it was not only alcohol that killed Scott, but that the hard-living rocker had also experimented with heroin.

“When he got to London the in thing was snorting smack, that was flooding London at the time, and it was brown heroin and very strong,” he wrote. “All the characters linked to Bon in the last 24 hours of his life were allegedly associated with heroin. Heroin was a recurring theme in his death.”

Debate still rages over exactly what happened in Scott’s last hours, and Fink concedes today that his investigations have not proved popular with AC/DC’s fanbase.

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“For suggesting Bon used and died from combining alcohol and heroin, I’ve been subjected to all manner of verbal and written abuse, even death threats,” he writes on his blog. “Speaking first as Bon’s biographer and second as a fan of his music, I, like so many admirers of Bon’s genius as a rock performer and lyricist, want to know the truth of how his life ended. The world needlessly lost one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time; a flawed hero, but a hero all the same. When the truth is told, it’s only then Bon truly can rest in peace and we can stop writing articles about how the life of a 1970s rock superstar ended so horribly.”

Bon Scott was interred in Fremantle Cemetery, Australia on March 1; exactly one month later Brian Johnson was announced as the new singer of AC/DC. On July 25 Back in Black was released – it peaked at No. 4 in the Billboard 200 and topped the charts in the U.K., and has gone on to sell an estimated 50 million copies worldwide.

In a 2004 issue of Classic Rock, Scott was ranked number one in a list of the "100 Greatest Frontmen of All Time”.


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