Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Highway to Hell. This is a heavy-metal tune composed by Angus Young, Michael Young, and Bon Scott. We will start with a brief review of the career of their group AC/DC. We will next discuss covers of Highway to Hell by the groups Phish and Hayseed Dixie.
AC/DC and Highway to Hell:
The band AC/DC was initially formed by the Young brothers. Angus, Malcolm and George Young were all born in Scotland before their family moved to Sydney, Australia in 1963.
George Young became a member of The Easybeats, Australia’s first successful rock band. In 1973, Angus and Malcolm started AC/DC. The name was taken from the electricity notation “alternating current/direct current.”
Eventually the group chose a logo featuring a Gothic AC and DC. The slash separating them was replaced with a lightning bolt, as shown in the image at left.
The group went through various changes in personnel. However, by the end of 1974 they had added lead vocalist Bon Scott and drummer Phil Rudd; then in late 1977 the group added bassist Cliff Williams.
With their lineup settled, the group began to accumulate a cult following in Australia. Unfortunately, this group would remain together for just over two years before tragedy struck.
Below is a photo of AC/DC from about 1979. From L: Bon Scott; Phil Rudd; Angus Young; Malcolm Young; Cliff Williams.
AC/DC began as a glam-rock band. In their first incarnation, every member adopted a distinctive outfit. Lead guitarist Angus Young dressed up as an Australian schoolboy, a costume suggested by his sister Margaret.
Below left we show Young in his schoolboy kit, complete with felt cap, suit jacket and short pants, white shirt and tie. The other members of the band soon dropped their costumes, except for Angus. He has persisted to this day in the “schoolboy” getup, which has become his trademark.
In concert, Angus tends to move restlessly across the stage, reeling off blistering guitar riffs while running about like a hyperactive child.
Highway to Hell is one of AC/DC’s signature tunes. It describes a man who lives life to the fullest, on a freewheeling non-stop party.
Living easy, living free
Season ticket on a one-way ride
Asking nothing, leave me be
Taking everything in my stride
Don’t need reason, don’t need rhyme
Ain’t nothing I would rather do
Going down, party time
My friends are gonna be there too
[CHORUS] I’m on the highway to hell
On the highway to hell
Highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell.
No stop signs, speed limit
Nobody’s gonna slow me down
Like a wheel, gonna spin it
Nobody’s gonna mess me around
Bon Scott, Angus and Malcolm Young wrote the song while they were in the midst of non-stop touring as their rock band tried to hit the big time. The group was constantly moving from one venue to the next.
Highway to Hell was the first cut on the band’s 1979 album of the same name. The song, which begins with an iconic guitar riff from Angus, looked like it might become the monster hit that could send the group straight to the top.
At this time, the group were already big stars in Australia, and had a significant following in the U.K. Helped along by a few enthusiastic DJs, Highway to Hell began to get serious airplay in the U.S.
Tragically, Bon Scott died in London in Feb. 1980. He had been drinking heavily with a friend, and he passed out in the back seat of the car on the ride home. When the unconscious Scott could not be extracted from the auto, they left him overnight to sleep it off. Unfortunately, the next morning Scott could not be revived, and was pronounced dead at a hospital in London.
The members of AC/DC seriously considered disbanding, but then decided to replace Scott. They found Brian Johnson, who had been lead singer with the group Geordie. Johnson’s vocal style was highly reminiscent of Bon Scott, so he fit right in with the band. After Brian Johnson took over as lead vocalist, the group continued with essentially the same lineup for over 30 years.
AC/DC’s next album was Back In Black, which was issued as a tribute to Bon Scott. This became the group’s best-selling album ever, and contained hits such as the title track and You Shook Me All Night Long.
Back in Black made it to #1 on the U.K. albums charts, and climbed to #4 on the Billboard albums chart, where it remained for 2½ years.
So here is AC/DC performing Highway to Hell live. This took place in River Plate Stadium in Argentina in 2011.
This is some gen-u-ine AC/DC. Angus Young begins with a riveting guitar solo. Starting out slowly, he progressively picks up speed, producing some amazing runs and trills, several using only his left hand. This continues for over three minutes.
After that, he powers into the iconic guitar riff that kicks off Highway to Hell. The crowd is already pumped up after Angus’ guitar solo; however, they go totally berserk as the band segues into Highway to Hell.
Brian Johnson’s gravelly voice is perfect for the lyrics, while the bass and drums accentuate the power of the song. Note the band’s “devil’s horns” trademark worn by Angus Young and several concertgoers, and the “horns” hand signs displayed throughout the audience.
Scenes of the crowd are incredibly powerful; they clearly show the visceral appeal of rock music. Quite frankly, I find the crowd scenes a bit frightening; it may not be totally safe to get a mob of people this pumped up.
By this point, Angus Young had removed his shirt, tie, cap and sports coat, leaving him clad only in his shorts. In earlier concerts, even the shorts would occasionally disappear, as Angus developed a reputation for mooning the audience.
In the rock-band parody movie Spinal Tap, a reporter notes that the band’s audience appears to be almost exclusively composed of 16-year-old youths. I was struck by how many in this audience appeared to be young males – would you say about 90%?
Well, AC/DC had quite a run. Much like the band ZZ Top, AC/DC found a groove and never deviated from it. They played the identical brand of hard-driving heavy-metal music throughout their career. As long as you brought your earplugs and a taste for head-banging music, AC/DC would not disappoint.
Along the way, they became rock superstars. They also became the model for a heavy-metal band. Dozens of groups that followed them copied many of the hallmarks of AC/DC.
The group has sold over 200 million records worldwide, and the album Back in Black alone has sold over 50 million. AC/DC were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
In recent years, the classic lineup of AC/DC has pretty much dissolved. In 2014, Malcolm Young was forced to retire due to the effects of early-onset dementia. In 2015, drummer Phil Rudd pled guilty to drug charges and to threatening to kill a former assistant. In 2016, Brian Johnson retired due to a crippling hearing loss, and later that year bassist Cliff Williams also retired.
But Angus Young continues on with a brand new supporting cast. So, AC/DC, we who are about to rock salute you!
Phish and Highway to Hell:
The band Phish was formed by a group of students at the University of Vermont in 1983. After a couple of early personnel changes, the Phish lineup settled down with guitarist and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman.
Below left is a photo of Phish in 1993. From L: Trey Anastasio; Jon Fishman; Mike Gordon; Page McConnell.
Phish were a jam band that developed a devoted group of followers. Much like the Grateful Dead, with whom they are most frequently compared, Phish became famous less by releasing best-selling records than from their eclectic and creative live sets, together with their legion of devoted fans.
A Phish concert frequently contains long, extended free-form jams, reminiscent of the Grateful Dead or Frank Zappa. The musical styles range from psychedelic rock to reggae and jazz, with some acoustic folk and bluegrass mixed in.
Phish gained fame with some of their more offbeat concerts. At one point they threw a beach ball into the crowd. Every time someone in the audience punched the ball, the band would play a note. On another occasion, after every song each member of the band would switch to play a different instrument.
Phish gained a reputation for devoting a Hallowe’en show to music from another group. And they sometimes let their fans vote to decide which group Phish would cover.
One year they played the entire Beatles’ White Album, while on another year they performed Quadrophenia by The Who. Following David Bowie’s death they played music from Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
Much like Grateful Dead concerts, Phish events attract hard-core fans of the band, who gather to share experiences with like-minded devotees.
With fans flocking to venues hours before they open, the concert is the centerpiece of an event that includes a temporary community in the parking lot, complete with “Shakedown Street”: at times a garment district, art district, food court, or pharmacy.
Most rock tours are meticulously scripted, so that every performance is exactly the same. However, Phish takes considerable pains to ensure that no two concerts are identical. As a result, a number of their fans follow the group from one venue to the next on tour.
Above left is a photo of a group of “Phish-heads” at a concert by the band.
By the late 1990’s, Phish were sufficiently well-known that the Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream company created a flavor in honor of their New England neighbors, called “Phish Food.” It consists of chocolate ice cream with marshmallow and caramel swirls and fudge “fish.”
Consistent with Ben & Jerry’s enlightened social conscience, significant amounts of the profits from sales of this flavor are donated to a charitable cause.
Here is Phish performing Highway To Hell in concert. Note that Trey Anastasio’s guitar has a unique sound. This is because his guitar is hand-made by Burlington, VT luthier Paul Languedoc. Languedoc also crafted electric basses for Mike Gordon, and he subsequently became the band’s sound engineer.
Phish rip through their cover of Highway to Hell, to great appreciation by their audience. This occurred during a concert in Lincoln, NE in 1995, at the height of the band’s popularity.
Both the audio and video are rather amateurish, but presumably this is some of the appeal of the group. Phish would frequently encourage their fans to make home-made videos or recordings of their performances.
At the turn of the century, on Dec. 31, 1999 Phish began a concert on a Native American reservation in Big Cypress, FL. The performance continued for 8 hours, ending at sunrise on Jan. 1, 2000.
Following that performance, and burned out from years of non-stop touring, the members of Phish took a 2-year hiatus. They returned to performing at a concert on New Year’s Eve, 2002, and shortly after that released a new album.
Phish continued to tour for another 2 years until they disbanded in 2004. However, in 2008 the group again resumed performing a few concerts, and appeared in a couple of festivals.
For the past several years, Phish has continued to tour, although at a much reduced pace from the height of their “jam-band” days. They frequently perform concerts on Hallowe’en or New Year’s Eve.
Some of their favorite venues are the Saratoga (NY) Performing Arts Center, Madison Square Garden (where they have appeared 52 times), and Las Vegas.
We hope that Phish continue their “long, strange trip” for many more years.
Hayseed Dixie and Highway to Hell:
Hayseed Dixie is a bluegrass band that features redneck versions of heavy-metal songs. The group hails from Appalachia, near the North Carolina – Tennessee border. They particularly focus on covers of songs from the Australian band AC/DC.
Initially, the group’s name was “AC/Dixie.” However, after a threat of legal action from the management of AC/DC, the group settled on the name Hayseed Dixie (“AC/DC,” “Hayseed Dixie” – get it? If not, try pronouncing “Hayseed Dixie” slowly and deliberately.)
Below is a photo of Hayseed Dixie performing at an HMV store in London, England in 2005.
The group formed in 2001, when they released their first album A Hippy Tribute to AC/DC. The group featured John Wheeler on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Don Wayne Reno on banjo, and Dale Reno on mandolin. I don’t know the name of the original bassist, as the group has gone through a few people on that instrument.
I would have guessed there would be a limited appeal for a band that played country versions of heavy-metal rock, but I would be wrong. Apparently at one time 3 of the top 15 albums in the Bluegrass playlists were by Hayseed Dixie.
I was even more surprised to find that Hayseed Dixie has achieved their greatest success in Europe! The group has appeared in European festivals for both hard rock and folk music.
Hayseed Dixie even founded a festival called Loopallu in the Scottish town of Ullapool (hint: spell “Ullapool” backwards). The group recorded an entire album of songs in Norwegian. They have also issued single records in Finnish, German and Spanish.
I’m impressed — in how many languages can you say “Yee-haw”?
Of course, given the group’s bluegrass association with AC/DC, it is no surprise that the band’s signature tune would be Highway to Hell. Here is Hayseed Dixie in a live performance of that tune.
This performance was at the Altamont Theatre in Asheville, NC in May, 2013. Lead singer John Wheeler tries to establish the group’s Appalachian bona fides by making snide comments about Texas.
The group then swings into the tune Highway to Hell. At first, it is shocking to hear iconic head-banging music being played on acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin.
Amazingly enough, the song appears to fit into a bluegrass format. The group races through the tune in truly energetic fashion. Don Wayne Reno blasts out a banjo solo, while Dale Reno strums away on mandolin.
One thing I remember from my bluegrass days was a penchant for embarrassingly bad puns. Continuing this dubious tradition, Hayseed Dixie released an album in 2015 titled Hair Down to My Grass. Believe it or not, the album spent 3 weeks at #1 on the U.K. Country charts.
A songwriter and comedian named Tim Wilson once wrote a song called Acid Country, that described his upbringing where he listened to both hard-rock and country music.
In that song, Mr. Wilson asserted “You can’t play Hendrix on a banjo.” This band seems to show that Tim Wilson was wrong! So, Hayseed Dixie, I hope you discover a never-ending series of hard-rock tunes that can be transformed into bluegrass.