Let There Be Rock
AC/DC @ the 'Dillo
Austin defines itself as a musical wellspring, but 31 years ago, up from Down Under came a bubbling crude mostly unknown on Western shores. AC/DC, an Aussie hard rock quintet making its name at home and in Europe, played its first American concert in Downtown Austin at the famed Armadillo World Headquarters, July 27, 1977.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Earl Johnson, lead guitarist for veteran Canadian rock group Moxy, whom AC/DC opened for that day. "The vibe was there. Everyone knew they would break."
AC/DC's debut in Sydney, Australia, came on Dec. 31, 1973. In little more than two years, the band's first three albums – High Voltage, T.N.T., and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – had made all the touring inroads necessary. Their American debut happened summer 1977, in support of Let There Be Rock, released a month before their Austin show.
"I was trying to get AC/DC down here for some time," claims Jack Orbin, president of San Antonio-based Stone City Attractions, which promoted the show. "The underground radio station here [KMAC-KISS FM] had been playing AC/DC, and I loved them. They stood out.
"So I went searching [for] how I could get them in the United States."
For the rather modest sum of approximately $1,000 a show, Orbin booked AC/DC for four shows in Texas at the end of July 1977. That price indicates the band's level of exposure in the States. "I'd never heard of them before," admits Johnson, whose Ridin' High album had been getting enough airplay so that the Armadillo was full on a Wednesday night.
"Heavy rock bands were new to the area," recalls Al Rendon, a San Antonio photographer at the concert. "Everyone was there to hear Moxy, and then there was this weird Australian band opening up that nobody knew anything about. AC/DC stole the show.
"Angus Young drove into the crowd and was carried for as far as his guitar cord would allow him to go," continues Rendon. "He was literally walking on people's hands."
AC/DC had made four albums by July 1977, though only two, High Voltage and Let There Be Rock, had been released in the United States. These two LPs were variations of the same Aussie titles and didn't contain the exact same songs. As a result, listed as the closing song of the Armadillo set, on www.ac-dc.net, is a cover of Big Joe Williams blues staple "Baby Please Don't Go," which wouldn't be officially released to American audiences for another seven years. The Austin show was also one of the first concerts bassist Cliff Williams ever played with AC/DC.
"What I remember most was on the way from the Holiday Inn to the Armadillo – there was a 30-foot-tall tire by the side of the road," chuckles Williams. "Those things stick out."
Williams had debuted with AC/DC a few weeks earlier for some Sydney club dates, replacing Mark Evans. In Sydney, the group had been billed as the Seedies and Dirty Deeds, so it could be argued that the Austin show was Williams' first concert with "AC/DC." Williams had previously played with Home and Bandit, bands he describes as "English country." One of the guitarists in the latter act, Jimmy Litherland, had contacts in AC/DC and arranged Williams' tryout, which included the song "Live Wire," the first song played at the Armadillo.
"The guys were great. They made me feel right at home," Williams says of the tour and becoming a part of the band. "It wasn't any kind of a chore."
Williams was also the only member of AC/DC who had ever been to the United States before, touring the Northeast with Home in support of Al Stewart in 1974. He moved to the United States permanently in 1980 after marrying his wife, Georganne, a Colorado native.
Johnson remembers fans filled the Armadillo for the concert, paying $5 to see rock & roll history being made. The two bands followed the show up the next day by adding Rex to the bill for another packed house at the 6,000-seat Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio.
"Everyone was pumped," remembers Williams. "Everyone was real receptive. In those days, the crowd could get in touch with the band."
Corpus Christi followed on Friday, but ticket sales were sluggish in Dallas Saturday night, as the bands hadn't received much radio airplay there yet. For Moxy's guitarist, Dallas was memorable for an incident involving AC/DC frontman Bon Scott.
"We were getting liquored up in my hotel room," explains Johnson. "But after a while, I wanted to go to bed and asked Bon to leave. He refused. So I had to pick him up and literally take him out of my room and hand him to Malcolm Young!"
"They were true rock & roll spirits and made it fun," echoes Orbin.
The success of the first Texas shows and subsequent success in Florida a week later convinced Atlantic Records to keep AC/DC signed.
"It was tenuous," says Williams of the band's future at the time.
It wasn't tenuous for long. Less than a year later, AC/DC returned to Austin, this time in support of Powerage. On July 6, 1978, they sold out Willie Nelson's Austin Opry House with Yesterday & Tomorrow (later Y&T) supporting.
"They were so good live, we brought them back to headline," offers Orbin. "It's unheard of to sell out an arena after special-guesting a few months earlier. That just doesn't happen."
Though Moxy and AC/DC never played together again after the four Texas shows, the two share a historical note in that when Scott died in 1980 due to acute alcohol poisoning, the Aussies scrambled to find a new singer.
"After Bon died, they contacted Buzz Shearman, our vocalist, about replacing [Bon]," claims Johnson, "but Buzz never went through with it."
AC/DC returned to Austin in 1979, 1985, 1988, 1991, and 1996.
Last summer, Williams joined Brian Johnson, who succeeded Scott as AC/DC's vocalist; Steve Luongo; Mark Hitt; and opening act Joe Lynn Turner in touring the U.S. for a series of charity events sponsored by the John Entwistle Foundation's Classic Rock Cares program. The Fla.-based Foundation provides instruments and lessons for underprivileged children through libraries. To Williams, it was a chance to relive the days when AC/DC played clubs like the Opry House.
"Our band has been on a permanent vacation, as Aerosmith might say," admitted Williams at the time. "We're shooting to get back on the road in 2008."
Moxy, meanwhile, played the South Texas Rock Fest in July.
Based in "Brian" Johnson City, Tenn., Marky Billson has covered everything from the NFL to U.S. Senate races, all while carrying in his wallet the snapshot of meeting Brian Johnson for the first time 18 years and 19 AC/DC concerts ago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.