Bon Scott was found dead on Feb. 19, 1980. The AC/DC frontman had been out drinking with friends – but the casual evening took a terrible turn as Scott passed out in his car, and ultimately choked to death on his own vomit. He was only 33 years old.
“For us, it was like losing a member of your family,” guitarist Angus Young said in a subsequent interview. “It’s very, very difficult to go through something like that. Not only is it your friend, it’s also somebody you’ve been working with all that time.”
AC/DC had been a band on the rise throughout 1979. Highway to Hell, their seventh album, had truly put them on the map, especially in America. The accompanying tour had also proved to be a huge success. On Jan. 27, 1980, the final show of the Highway to Hell tour took place at the Gaumont Theatre in Southampton, U.K. This would also prove to be Scott’s last show.
Just over three weeks later, Alistair Kinnear – a friend who had been out with Scott – discovered the body. “I left him in the car and rang his doorbell,” Kinnear remembered later. “I was unable to wake Bon, so I rang Silver [Smith, a former girlfriend of Bon’s]. She said he passed out quite frequently and that it was best just to leave him to sleep it off.” Kinnear said he put the seat back, so Scott could lie flat.
The next morning, Kinnear says he discovered that his friend was still in the car – but not breathing. Kinnear rushed him to King’s College Hospital, but Scott was pronounced dead on arrival.
In some corners, the evening’s events have remained up for debate. Also at the bar that fateful evening with Scott was original AC/DC drummer Colin Burgess, who said he remembered “us leaving and he was alright – like he wasn’t drunk at all. And we went home, and the next day he’s dead! To me it’s just a really, really strange thing.” Elsewhere in the same talk for author Murray Engleheart’s band bio AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll, Burgess added: “I can definitely say, to this day, that when we left, he was definitely not drunk at all.” What remains certain: One of the most dynamic frontmen in rock ‘n’ roll history was gone.
AC/DC had already begun working on songs for the follow up to Highway to Hell, and Scott was due to join their on-going sessions the very next day. In April 1980, AC/DC hired Brian Johnson as their new singer, and finished the songs. Contrary to popular myth, there are no tracks in the vaults with Scott’s vocals on any of the material that followed on Back In Black.
Ultimately, the album would end up being a tribute to Scott. “We wanted just a simple black cover,” Young told VH-1’s Behind the Music. “We wouldn’t have even done him justice in words. Even the bell in the beginning of ‘Hell’s Bells’ was our little tribute.”
Released in the summer of 1980, Back in Black went on to make AC/DC international superstars, and remains one of the biggest selling albums of all time.