The story of Bon Scott before AC/DC: prog rock, crashed motorbikes, and a violent goat named Archie
Before Bon Scott became a star with AC/DC, he sang with rising Aussie rockers Fraternity. Following the release of a new box set from the band, his old mates from those days tell their story
“He was up for anything, Bon. His nickname was ‘Ronnie Roadtest’, a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, rootin’, tootin’ rock’n’roll soldier. That was his public image. It was true of him too. But at the same time he’d be the guy going round in the morning asking if you wanted a cup of tea. He was a genuinely nice fella. He just happened to be a rock star. He had no pretensions. A decent bloke who loved to party.”
Sam See, guitarist and pianist with Australian prog/country rockers Fraternity, is reminiscing about the Adelaide band’s most famous member, Bon Scott, who sang and also played recorder (yes, recorder) with them between 1970 and ’73.
For years now, the memory of Scott has tended to overshadow the achievements of Fraternity. A slew of unofficial reissues that appeared following his tragic death in February 1980 have often been credited incorrectly to ‘Bon Scott’s Fraternity’, the band themselves a mere footnote in the larger story of AC/DC, with whom Scott would find fame and fortune after he joined them in 1974.
That history is now being corrected thanks to a new three-CD box set, Seasons Of Change: The Complete Recordings 1970-1974, on Cherry Red. It’s an intriguing tale that takes in the likes of Black Sabbath, Status Quo, Geordie, Cold Chisel and Jimmy Barnes along the way, although musically it’s a far cry from the hard driving rock that Scott would make with AC/DC.
The box set is very much a labour of love for 29-year-old Fraternity fan Victor Marshall, who has painstakingly pieced it together, unearthing a hitherto unknown treasure trove of Fraternity ephemera. Working alongside Fraternity’s early manager and head of Adelaide music set-up The Grape Organisation, Hamish Henry, Marshall has overseen the remastering of Fraternity’s two albums, the aforementioned Livestock, and 1972’s Flaming Galah, released respectively on the Sweet Peach and RCA labels.
The icing on Seasons Of Change’s sumptuous cake is a third disc, Second Chance, which updates the Fraternity story with long-lost session tapes and live recordings.
“Some of the pictures in the booklet I had never seen before, exclaims John Freeman, Fraternity’s drummer from 1971 to ’74. “The remastered audio is like taking a blanket off the speakers. It has been a labour of love for Victor to devote so much time and effort into it. Without him none of this would ever have happened. Everyone in the band is impressed.
“I think this is the first release since 1972 to actually represent our work properly. In the past, other people have put Fraternity compilations together without the band’s involvement. Victor has allowed the band to take part in the entire process every step of the way. Victor takes into account our thoughts and feelings on how the work should be represented. We couldn’t ask for a better set.”
“It was pretty much a dream come true,” enthuses Marshall, who has written the band’s official biography, due to be published later this year, and contributes in-depth notes and interviews to the accompanying booklet. “I met some of the band at the South Australian Music Awards, and then tracked down others, and wives and girlfriends. Through that I met Hamish, who’s quite a character. When he first showed me his archive he said I had about an hour to go through. Fortunately later on he gave me much more time.”
Seasons Of Change sheds light on a fascinating period for not just Bon Scott’s pre-AC/DC career, but also Australian rock music in general. The late 60s and early 70s is an era that tends to get overlooked. Seminal national Australian television music show Countdown, a major player in the development of the careers of bands such as Skyhooks, Sherbet, the Ted Mulry Gang and AC/DC, didn’t begin broadcasting until 1974, and there was no real media spotlight.
As the local music progressed from the crooners and rock’n’roll copyists of the 1950s, such as Johnny O’Keefe, through beat-inspired groups like The Easybeats and the early Bee Gees, a rock scene developed in which burgeoning acts such as Buffalo, Bakery, Chain, Blackfeather and Fraternity amalgamated the progressive rock, hard rock and country rock sounds drifting over from America and the UK.
Fraternity formed in Sydney from the ashes of 60s R&B pop group Levi Smith’s Clefs. At the same time, Bon Scott had been making a name for himself as one of two singers in Perth beat outfit The Valentines, the other being his close friend Vince Lovegrove.
The Valentines, who had moved to Melbourne, long the epicentre of Australia’s music scene, and who’d had hits with My Old Man’s A Groovy Old Man and Juliette, were on the verge of collapse. Bassist Bruce Howe, who spearheaded the departure from Levi Smith’s Clefs alongside guitarist Mick Jurd, keyboard player John Bissett and drummer Tony Buettel, was looking for a singer to enable him and Bissett to concentrate on their playing. Step forward Bon Scott – and his trusty recorder!
“What was getting really hard was for John and I to carry the singing on our own and playing as well,” Howe recalls. “I got better at it as the years went by, but it was very, very hard right then and there. When Bon got up to sing with us I just felt really relaxed again.”
The band were already a feature on the Sydney live circuit, and secured a deal with local label Sweet Peach. By the time the label pushed them into the studio to record a debut album, drummer Buettel had been replaced by John Freeman, who the band knew from his stint as a music journalist for Adelaide paper The News.
“Fraternity was influenced by prog artists such as King Crimson early on, which is why the first album Livestock has some prog-rock style songs,” Freeman explains. “But we quickly became heavily influenced by other acts like The Band; a lot of our songs developed a country/folk sound. Later we added new members John Eyers on harmonica and Sam See on slide guitar and piano. Our manager, Hamish Henry, purchased the band new equipment when we moved to Adelaide, and that also changed the band’s sound.”
1971 was a big year for Fraternity. Not only was their debut album Livestock released, but they also scored a minor national hit with the single Seasons Of Change, and at the beginning of the year they appeared alongside Black Sabbath, Daddy Cool, Billy Thorpe And The Aztecs, Company Caine and Chain at the Myponga Pop Festival.
It was another step up for the band of whom Vince Lovegrove, writing for Australian music paper Go-Set, would say: “Together this six-piece group will broaden the horizons of pop in Australia.”
“The album didn’t sound anything like we did live,” Freeman says now. “Those studios were pretty primitive at the time.” “I wasn’t into recording Livestock at all,”
Howe sniffs. “We owed Sweet Peach because they spent all that money on us, sending us up to putting us up in a house.”
Rough around the edges the Livestock album might be, but it is not without charm. Raglan’s Folly, a song inspired by the Charge Of The Light Brigade, Mick Jurd’s Grand Canyon Suites, Jupiter Landscape and an enterprising cover of the Moody Blues’ Question play the prog-rock hand, while the jaunty title track and the excellent Somerville show an adeptness at Little Feat-style country rock.
Above it all, Scott’s pre-AC/DC voice soars, although the impish character that would soon make itself much more well known is present. Several of the songs from the debut would be rearranged and re-recorded on Fraternity’s second album, the brilliantly titled Flaming Galah. The same year, the band also moved lock, stock and barrel into a farm in Aldgate in the Adelaide Hills.
“Initially the entire band lived there, but after a while Bon and Bruce moved back to the city where John Bissett lived with hisfamily,” says Freeman. “The property at Aldgate was large, with a lake, and cottage where Mick [Jurd] and his wife Carol lived. There was a violent goat called Archie, and sometimes John Bissett’s dog Clutch. Bon would often ride (or crash) his Suzuki 250 bike around the property.”
Fraternity rounded off an excellent year in some style, by winning the national Hoadley’s Battle Of The Sounds’s competition, in which they pipped Sherbet in a gig at the Melbourne Festival Hall. The prize would finance Fraternity’s new album, and offer the band the opportunity to visit the UK. But what should have been the major step to stardom would ultimately be their undoing.
Sherbet founder member Sam See, already a friend of the band, joined Fraternity in 1971, bolstering the line-up to a seven-piece for Flaming Galah. Although he didn’t perform with them at Hoadley’s, he has definite ideas that the course of action Fraternity took after their victory in the competition was not the right one.
“It didn’t have a hope, in retrospect. A beginning-of-the-end moment,” he says. “I often say I was in Fraternity in 1971 and for twenty-three years in London in 1972. It was the longest year of my life. Australians weren’t very popular there in those days. We had a terrible year. The band lost its mojo.”
“We could have remained in Australia, but we took the risk and attempted to achieve what every Australian band dreamed of – overseas success,” says Freeman. “Although times became tough and we didn’t achieve the outcome we had dreamed of, I still look back at our time in England with fondness.”
The highlight of a trip that would prove to be the undoing of the band was supposed to be supporting Status Quo. In reality it was the trips to Germany, where they supported UK glam-rock band Geordie, that left a more lasting impression.
“We played with Quo in Bournemouth,” See recalls. “We arrived in our bus and we’re sat waiting outside the venue, and these two Bentleys pull up and it’s the Quo, dressed in King’s Road finery. We’re being Aussie bogans, laughing at them, and we do our show and we’re like: ‘Follow that.’ And of course when it’s their turn they turned the rest of the PA on, changed into their denims and annihilated us. They were fantastic.”
It was as a member of Fraternity that Scott stumbled across the man who would later replace him in AC/DC: Brian Johnson, the singer with Geordie.
“It’s odd isn’t it,” See says, smiling. “They were friendly blokes. He was a bit younger than the rest of them. Of course no one ever gave it any thought until years later.”
The pressures of relocating to England began to take their toll on the band. Bissett and See quit, the others briefly changing their name to Fang in the hope of broadening their appeal to the glam-rock crowd. It didn’t work, and by the time the band members returned to Australia in 1973 Fraternity were effectively done.
Scott would hook up with the Mount Lofty Rangers, during which time he was hospitalised after a fateful motorbike accident, which eventually led to him getting involved with AC/DC (he’d previously met older Young brother George while a member of The Valentines). John Freeman would drum during Scott’s very first jams with Angus and Malcolm Young.
Fraternity performed, on and off throughout the 70s and 80s, sometimes under different names such as Some Dream and Mickey Finn, with later line-ups featuring a youthful Jimmy Barnes and his brother John Swan from Cold Chisel.
Now the spotlight has landed back on the band’s achievements, there’s talk of a 50th-anniversary celebration this year, COVID permitting. But it’s still the memory of singer Bon Scott, the lovable larrikin who became a world-famous rock star, that evokes the fondest memories for his former Fraternity bandmates.
“He looked everyone up on his last trip to Australia before he went back to London,” See recalls. “I always thought that was a bit spooky. He said to me he’d had enough of the whole circus. By that point they’d had enough success that he could buy a pub and just rock out locally. I dunno.”
“Bon was a great mate, just another one of the guys,” smiles Freeman. “We all still miss him.”
Seasons Of Change – The Complete Recordings 1970-1974 is out now via Cherry Red.