The Great Debate; Bon Scott or Brian Johnson

Did Bon Scott Know?

I was 10 years old when 33-year-old Bon Scott lost his life in 1980. After years of heavy partying, cigarettes, and bar life it was easy to predict Bon Scott would die young, but did Bon himself have a premonition he would die young? Did he know something the rest of the world didn’t know, and did he hand-pick his replacement?

When AC/DC released their fourth studio album, “Let There Be Rock.” The album was a testament to Bon Scott, a fierce lead vocalist and frontman. He was best known for his screeching vocals. Many said his vocals were a gift from the music Gods, but his ex-wife and lifelong best friend Irene Thornton chalked Bon’s vocals up to a freak motorcycle accident that almost cost him his life and would change his voice.

It’s hard to believe that 4 decades after Bon’s death, the debate continues about who was a better lead vocalist, Bon or Brian Johnson. The two are not even comparable in my book. Bon’s career ended before he could show the world what he was made of. None of us know the full potential of atypically surreal lyrics.

I can name at least six songs that left him unrated as an artist, starting with, “What’s Next to the Moon.”

In the mid-70s, AC/DC was in its peak years. The founding members were Malcolm and Angus Young. The two brothers were looking for a new lead singer. During conversation, Vince Lovegrove would recommend Bon Scott to the brothers. He would officially join the band in September 1974. Bon was several years older than the other band members, but that never affected them onstage or off. Instead, he introduced the band to the world and set the tone for what was to come.

Bon Scott performing with AC/DC in December 1979. Elfast, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, width by NewsBlaze
Bon Scott with AC/DC, December 1979. Elfast, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, width by NewsBlaze

Scott would perform on the band’s first seven albums: High Voltage (1975, Australian only release), T.N.T. (1975, Australian only release), High Voltage (1976, first international release), Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976, not released until 1981 in the United States), Let There Be Rock (1977), Powerage (1978), and Highway to Hell (1979).

Highway to Hell would reach the top 20 in the United States, and the band was on the verge of a major breakthrough.

On February 19, 1980, Bon was found dead after a night out drinking with friend and musician Alisdair Kinnear. Bon fell asleep during the ride home. Alisdair was unable to wake him so he let him sleep in the car. He found Bon unconscious in the car, took him to a nearby hospital and he was later pronounced dead. The news of his death shook fans around the world.

Brian Johnson

Bon’s untimely death would set the band in a tailspin. AC/DC briefly considered disbanding, could you imagine if that happened, but the Young brothers reached out to vocalist Brian Johnson after remembering how impressed Bon was with him after seeing him perform with Geordie?

Fans were torn by the news of Bon’s death but the thought of who would replace would leave time standing still around the world. As the anticipation grew over the new Back in Black album. How was Brian going to pick up where Bon left off? Some media sources were outraged, and they said the band had no future with Brian as the lead vocalist. Others stood in the shadows patiently waiting to hear what Brian had to offer. Most put him on the chopping block and said his career was dead before he got started. Some saw Brian as no more than a backup vocalist. Some claimed it was the demise of AC/DC. How was Brian Johnson going to fill Bon Scott’s shoes?

Brian came out fighting. He didn’t hold back. He showed the world exactly who he was and what he was going to do for the band’s future. His raspy voice packed a punch and fans couldn’t deny his natural, raw talent made him one of the best lead singers on the planet, if not the best in my opinion.

The album would be an instant success, but the two lead vocalists would have fans talking for years to come. Both Bon and Brian worked on the “Back in Black” album. Bon started it and Brian finished it.

Forty Years Later

Forty years later it remains one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Brain’s voice created a new lifeline for AC/DC and the band would become one of the best rock bands in the world. How do you top that?

The debate on who is better and where AC/DC would or wouldn’t be today if Bon didn’t die may continue for another 40 years but the reality is fans around the world were cheated by Bon’s death. Bon will always be remembered for his gritty voice, and his cheeky, flirtatious onstage presence. With just one smile or a nod, the crowd would go nuts. He will forever be remembered by fans as one of the greatest frontmen to ever grace the stage.

While Bon left the world all too soon, he left a memorable impact that will never be forgotten. A true legend gone too soon. The what-ifs and whys of his death will always be present in the world of Rock and Roll, but his iconic flirtatious, charismatic persona never dwindled. Sadly, like in an Elton John song, Bon — “Your candle burned out long before, Your legend ever did.”