Bon Scott was the wildcard frontman for AC/DC who had a reputation for raucous partying – until one night the party went too far.
On the night of Feb. 19, 1980, Bon Scott, frontman for the Australian rock band AC/DC, climbed into the backseat of a parked car in London. Scott had always been a heavy drinker, even by rockstar standards. On this particular night, he’d been indulging his habit in a local club.
A bit worse for drink, Scott quickly passed out after his friends left him there to sleep it off. When they returned to the car the next morning, Scott was dead. Since then, questions about what exactly happened that night have persisted, challenging the legacy of one of rock’s most beloved bands.
So just who was Bon Scott?
Bon Scott: The Bonny Scot
Bon Scott was born Ronald Belford Scott in Kirriemuir, Scotland on July 9, 1946. When he was six, his family decided to move to Melbourne, Australia.
The new kid with a thick Scottish accent, Scott wasn’t popular.
“My new schoolmates threatened to kick the sh*t out of me when they heard my Scottish accent,” Scott said. “I had one week to learn to speak like them if I wanted to remain intact… 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?”
That determination not to live the way others wanted to got Scott into trouble as a young man. He dropped out of school at 15 and was eventually arrested for stealing gasoline.
After that, he was rejected by the Australian army and spent several years working odd jobs. But Bon Scott always had a powerful voice. And in 1966, he started his first band, the Spektors. Scott found some minor success in these early years touring with different bands.
In 1974, a drunken Scott got into an argument with members of the band he was playing with. After throwing a bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor, he took off on his motorcycle. Scott suffered a bad crash and was in a coma for several days.
By the time he recovered, he was looking for a new band. As luck would have it, a new band formed by two fellow emigrant Scotsmen, Malcolm and Angus Young, was also looking for a singer.
Bon Scott And AC/DC
Bon Scott signed on to AC/DC as the frontman when their previous frontman refused to go on stage. It was through Scott’s checkered past and rebellious attitude that the band could cement itself as a raucous, crude rock group. Scott, who had been rejected from the army because he was “socially maladjusted” brought that attitude into AC/DC. And it stuck.
But the stress of constant touring and performing began to wear on Scott. Prone to alcoholism, Scott drank heavily throughout this period. Meanwhile, their album Highway to Hell broke the US Top 100 chart, making AC/DC a major act almost overnight.
For the first time, Scott knew what it was like to have some money in his pocket. But success also strained his relationship with his bandmates. Scott’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics were always a part of the band’s chemistry, but he now found himself butting heads with Malcolm and Angus over how much credit he was given for his work.
After years touring with the band, he was tired of it. And on the cusp of success, he considered leaving for good so that he could get a handle on his drinking. He would never get the chance.
Bon Scott’s Mysterious Death
Scott was in London in February 1980 working on the upcoming Back in Black album. As usual, this meant nights of wild partying for him. On Feb. 19, Scott met a few friends at the Music Machine club in London. There, he drank heavily before climbing into his friend Alistair Kinnear’s car. His friends figured he just needed to sleep it off.
But when they found him still in the car the next morning, he was hunched in the back seat with the car covered in vomit. It was consequently speculated that the vomit had traveled into his lungs, choking Scott to death.
Scott wasn’t the first to die this way. Jimi Hendrix had died from choking on his own vomit ten years earlier. Nor would he be the last. John Bonham of Led Zeppelin would die in the same manner just a few months after Scott.
But the idea that a seasoned drinker like Scott would die after a few drinks seemed unlikely to many. As his biographer Jesse Fink wrote in a later account of his death, “He was a prodigious drinker. The idea that seven double whiskeys would put him in the ground seems a strange notion.”
Combined with confused reporting about the event, this fact gave rise to conspiracy theories. Some suggested that Scott might have been murdered by redirecting the exhaust from the car, possibly because the other members of the band wanted to get rid of him.
This is unlikely. Instead, drugs might have played a role in his death. Scott was known to use drugs like heroin and the people he was with that final night were known heroin dealers.
“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. 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,” Fink wrote.
Scott had reportedly already overdosed twice on heroin by the time of his death. Combined with alcohol, a third overdose could have killed him.
Back In Black
Whatever the cause of death, AC/DC had to pick up the pieces and move on. Bon was replaced by Brian Johnson. And AC/DC continued to enjoy success, especially upon the release of their album Back in Black which debuted just five months after Scott’s death.
Some speculate that Scott had written much of what’s featured on the album. An ex-girlfriend of his claims to have seen his journals and notebooks with lyrics to the infamous You Shook Me All Night Long prior to his death. Some felt he deserved credit for the album posthumously and not his replacement, Brian Johnson.
Scott’s body was returned to Australia, where his grave has become a shrine for those who appreciate the unique lyricism he brought to the band.
As Vince Lovegrove, one of the members of an early band that Scott played with said, “The thing I loved most about Bon Scott, was his almost unique self. What you saw was what you got, he was a real person and as honest as the day is long. To my mind, he was the street poet of my generations and of the generations that followed.”