[We could play] anything, jazz, whatever. But we chose to do what we do. Anybody who criticises us is criticising themselves, they’re thinking wrong, we’re not thinking wrong, they are.
Bon Scott (Rock Chronicles, 1978)
Usefulness in composition carries no implication of opprobrium.
Albert Lord (The Singer of Tales, 2000, 65)
Bon Scott and the Blues Lyric Formula examines the question of how Bon Scott employed the blues lyric formula in the music of AC/DC. My argument is that because of the apparent ease of Scott’s delivery, little scholarly attention has been paid to the quality of his lyrics.
To begin with, the dissertation aims to outline general theories in lyric formula literature and oral poetry studies. I draw on theorists such as Milman Parry, Albert Lord, David Evans and Michael Taft. To ground the dissertation historically, I give an outline of the social context and history that brought about the conditions for the creation of blues music. With this background I then describe and present the blues lyric formula as presented by Taft. Some objections to this model of the blues lyric formula are examined.
The dissertation moves to represent aspects of Scott’s life and examine how Scott was able to use the blues lyric formula. I attempt to show that because of Scott’s intimate musical knowledge, he was able to work within and build upon the blues lyric formula. Systematic comparisons between Taft’s twenty most common blues lyric formulas and Bon Scott’s lyric are undertaken. I conclude the dissertation by examining the importance of Scott’s work in relation to the blues lyric tradition. My conclusion is that Scott’s lyrics have a claim to the blues tradition both as a continuation of that tradition and a worthy addition in their own right.
Bon Scott is possibly Australia’s most known singer in his chosen genre. Some regard him as the greatest front man of all time. Few bands, if any, worked harder than AC/DC during the years Scott was their singer. From 1975 to 1979, AC/DC produced five studio albums and one live album. At the same time they toured constantly, playing approximately 150 shows per year in Australia, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and the United States.
Since his tragic death in 1980, the myth of Bon Scott has grown. His memorial at Fremantle cemetery is the most visited in Australia, and is listed as a classified heritage place with the National Trust of Australia. For many people visiting Fremantle, Scott’s memorial is high on the agenda. Scott has become a romanticised character who represents a carefree larrikin and humorous entertainer. What Scott does not normally symbolise is that he is one of our most significant blues and rock lyricists.
The nature of Ronald Belford Scott’s lyrics is the main focus of this dissertation. I will examine the way in which the patterns in Scott’s lyrics are evident in common blues lyric themes, and more specifically in Taft’s ‘blues lyric formula’. Perhaps because of the apparent effortlessness of his delivery and execution, commentators have not seen reason to look closer at Scott’s ‘moment of creation’, and how that sits historically. Typically, Scott’s lyrics are glanced over in AC/DC related literature. I will draw comparisons between Scott’s lyrics and the “essential ideas” of common blues lyrics.
In part one, I will outline general theories in lyric formula literature. The thesis will begin by discussing the ways in which ‘oral poetry studies’ and ‘oral formulaic theory’ has developed over time. I will draw on theorists such as Milman Parry, Albert Lord, David Evans and Michael Taft. Parry and Lord were the first to develop a formulaic method of examining the epic poetry tradition. They recorded numerous bards in Yugoslavia during the 1930s. From these recordings they were able to develop a formula for examining the ancient epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Secondly, I will give an outline of the social context and history that brought about the conditions for the creation of blues music. To place the dissertation historically, a brief outline of the blues as a social and historical phenomenon will be conducted. Throughout the twentieth century to the present, blues music has influenced many musicians. Blues music, along with jazz, spawned later genres such as pop, soul, rock and roll and rhythm and blues. This thesis examines the question of how Bon Scott employed the blues lyric formula in the music of AC/DC.
Some contrast between the way blues was created in the southern states of America in the early twentieth century and how the blues was created by Scott in Australia in the 1970s will take place. The blues were disseminated in Australia by way of the English blues revival heralded by bands such as the Rolling Stones, Them and The Yardbirds. Many Australian bands copied these English bands, including the bands Scott learnt in. One of the main arguments of the dissertation is to assert that Scott gained intimate knowledge of the earlier blues artists in an effort to gain competence and authenticity. Artists such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Little Richard greatly influenced the lyrics of Scott.
I will then describe and present the blues lyric formula. Evans, a student of Lord went through the United States recording blues artists in the 1960s. He was able to make a wide range of conclusions about the nature of blues music; how it was created and the main themes and subject matter. The central concept of formulaic theory rests upon the notion of the “essential idea” of the poem. In 2006, Taft published The Blues Lyric Formula, an argument offering a systematic way of examining blues lyrics. Taft’s sample size is more than two thousand commercially recorded blues, sung by more than three hundred and fifty singers from the years 1890 to 1945. From this research Taft is able to develop twenty of the most common blues lyric formulas. I present the differing views of Evans and Taft in relation to the blues lyric formula. I conclude that they are both correct in separate ways and that both provide valuable methods for examining blues lyrics. Ultimately, however, I use Taft’s twenty blues lyric formulas because I conclude they provide a simple guide to studying an artist’s lyrics and how they may or may not apply to the blues. Given time and space this thesis would compare and contrast a musicological versus a linguistic study of blues music and blues lyrics. Presumably the conclusions from such a study would disclose many of the ambiguities surrounding the definitions of the blues lyric formulas. Essentially I am arguing that Scott’s lyrics, but not all of them, belong in the blues lyric tradition. I will not be arguing which theoretical position is more sound in relation to the blues lyric formula.
In part two I present aspects of Scott’s life and examine how Scott was able to use the blues lyric formula to produce significant output in a short period of time. Because of Scott’s intimate musical knowledge, he was able to work within the blues lyric formula. A point-by-point comparison of Scott’s lyrics to Taft’s twenty blues lyric formulas will take place. The dissertation then searches through Scott’s work with AC/DC, some fifty songs, to see if his lyrics can be applied to the blues lyric formula. I discover that Scott’s lyrics satisfy eighteen of the twenty formulas. This is the crux of the dissertation, and its validity hinges upon how convincing the comparisons are. I examine Taft’s approach, primarily through the arguments of Evans, but will attempt to provide my own views as well.
To add further proof to the thesis that Scott’s AC/DC lyrics fit within the blues category, a brief discussion of one of the main techniques of blues lyrics, the contrasting pair, will follow. A discussion of the ways in which Scott’s lyrics deserves a place blues history, mainly through the motif of ‘hell’, concludes the dissertation. Inevitably, there is a portion of Scott’s lyrics that do not fit into the blues lyric formula. AC/DC were not strictly a blues band. They continued the rock and roll genre, drawing on the styles of blues and rhythm and blues. The story-like narrative songs Scott wrote fall outside the scope of this dissertation. These songs warrant further analysis. An essay on the use of humour in Scott’s lyrics could also warrant further investigation.
One of the aims of this dissertation is to show that Scott’s seeming effortlessness was the product of years of perseverance born out of an attraction to his subject matter. There is a significance to Scott’s lyrics unlikely to be disclosed in this thesis. If the reader can glean some recognition of where Scott’s lyrics sit historically and stylistically, the dissertation will have served its purpose.
Spanning the decades 1920-1960, Parry and Lord ran a series of textual and field studies that compared the themes and formulas of modern Slavic oral poetry with ancient Greek epics, primarily the Iliad and Odyssey. The plan was to “set lore against literature in a rational and scientific analysis of the mechanisms and aesthetics of oral poetry” (Lord, 2000, viii). These ethnographic surveys attempted to compare and contrast oral poetry with written poetry. In 1933, Parry went to Yugoslavia to gain “knowledge of the processes of a oral poetry” which “can be had only by the accumulation from a living poetry” (Lord, 2000, ix). He recorded oral poetry performers with the aim of showing “to what extent an oral poet who composes a new poem is dependent upon the traditional poetry as a whole for his phraseology, his scheme of composition, and the thought of his poem” (Lord, 2000, ix). Put another way, the purpose of the study “is to comprehend the manner in which they [the poets] compose, learn, and transmit their epics” (Lord, 2000, xxxv). It was thought that by comparing and contrasting the different ways individual bards constructed their songs, theorists could then begin to make generalisations about the tradition as a whole. The underlying motive behind the ethnographic approach was to ensure that the ‘theory of composition’ was developed through the poetry, and not grafted on from another critical or theoretical discipline.
Parry uses the basic formula to examine Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. His criteria for the example of a formula is a sentence made up of a simple subject and a simple predicate:
If one can fill the first half of a line with the predicate, and if one further disposes of a series of grammatical subjects each of which separately can fill the second half of the line, then with the materials one can form as many different lines as one has subjects. (Parry, 1971, 10)
Parry finds that there are twenty-seven different lines in the Iliad and the Odyssey, in which Homer forms songs in this way. Parry defines the formula as “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea. The essential part of the idea is that which remains after one has counted out everything in the expression which is purely for the sake of style.” Parry provides examples such as ‘when it was morning,’ ‘he said to him,’ and ‘he went’ (Parry, 1971, 272). The more frequently a formula is employed is a measure of its usefulness. Homer, Parry claims, uses one formula in particular fifty times to express the idea ‘Athena’. We can thus determine a formula’s usefulness by the frequency of its use. A formula used only once, is not, according to Parry’s criteria, a formula, but a repeated phrase (Parry, 1971, 272). A repeated phrase is similar to a formula but is used more for style than for expressing an essential idea under metrical conditions.
For Parry there are two types of formulas. The first are those that have “no close likeness to any other”. The second is “that which is like one or more which express a similar idea in more or less the same words” (Parry, quoted in Lord, 2000, 275). A group of formulas make up a system. A system is a group of phrases which have the same metrical value and express the same thought. For example, the phrase: “but when he (we, they) had done so and so” is used in varying ways over 500 times in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Parry provides a chart to prove his discoveries. Parry is careful to remind us that the formulas are at all times linked to tradition and intrinsic to the mode of composition. The poet first must conjure up the story, then the ideas follow which are in turn placed within metrical conditions. In conclusion, Parry argues: “the formulas in any poetry are due, so far as their ideas go, to the theme, their rhythm is fixed by the verse-form, but their art is that of the poets who made them and of the poets who kept them” (Lord, 2000, 272).
The image we derive from Parry and Lord of the Greek and Yugoslavian bard is of someone employed for weddings, wakes and parties. Using the formulas crafted from a young age, the bard is able to sing for hours on end using a combination of narrative imagination and syntactic rigidity. Often there is a long invocation or introduction that is used for every song, to get the singer warmed up. One word begins to suggest another by its very sound. One phrase suggests another not only by reason or idea or by a special ordering of ideas, but also by acoustic value. If the singer is of the Yugoslav tradition, he obtains a sense of ten syllables followed by a syntactic pause, although he never counts out ten syllables, and if asked, might not be able to tell how many syllables there are between pauses. Parry recorded one accomplished performer Salih Ugljanin who was able to sing 12,000 lines uninterrupted (Lord, 2000, 45).
The ways in which bards used stock epithets in Homeric epics and Yugoslavian oral poetry are important to the argument of this thesis. A stock epithet is a phrase used often enough that a near inseparable association is developed between the description and the object or subject. Well-known Homeric stock epithets are the phrases ‘wine dark sea’ and ‘grey eyed goddess’. Stock epithets are interesting for oral poetry studies and oral formulaic studies in two major ways. Firstly, how the stock epithets are established and secondly, how they are interpolated from one bard to another, and from one generation to another. For example, Cecil Bowra, writing in 1960, and armed with new information from an excavation at Troy, is able to reconsider the epithets of the Iliad in light of the new knowledge. His article “Homeric Epithets for Troy” is separated into three main parts, titled ‘conventional epithets for places’, ‘epithets confined for Troy’, and ‘epithets suitable for Troy but not confined to it’ (Bowra, 1960, 16). Using the systematic methodology set out by oral formulaic theory, Bowra is able to determine which epithets Homer was most likely to have invented himself and which he inherited from others. Bowra is also able to determine if single epithets were restricted to a single geography or evolved generically across a region. From this study he is able to conclude:
[i]f we think that the Iliad was composed in the eighth century by a man called Homer, it is clear that he had very little part in bringing these epithets for Troy into the epic language. They belong to a tradition which he inherited and no doubt expanded and improved. In this matter, as in others, he seems to have been content to operate within the formulae which for the most part were fixed and regularised before he began to compose, and his task was rather to use them with the utmost effect for his own vision of the wrath of Achilles and its dire consequences. (Bowra, 1960, 22)
From this we are able to gather a sense of the usefulness of oral poetry and oral formulaic studies for disclosing the origin and interpolation of epithets and how they work in relation to individual poets and their creative output. In briefly discussing the work of Parry and Lord in relation to the Yugoslavic and Homeric song traditions I have presented some of the complexities of oral poetry studies and oral formulaic theory. It is these theories that underpin this present study of the relationship between blues singers, particularly Bon Scott, and their tradition.
Before we can begin a discussion on Scott’s creative relationship to the blues lyric formula, a brief summary of the blues as a cultural phenomenon is necessary. Without such a summary, no clear understanding of how Scott received and utilised the blues is possible. Where did the blues begin and how did it transform? How does the blues make its way to Fremantle, Western Australia, where Scott lived as a teenager? How do the contrasting regional conditions transmute in the conditions of creation between, for example, Muddy Waters, and Bon Scott? To what extent does the blues remain authentic if not created by African-Americans? In this context, all of these questions relate to issues of cultural identity and ethnicity.
Blues music evolved out of the movement of slaves from Africa to the Americas from the early 1600s to the early 1900s. (Weismann, 2005, 10) The movement of Africans to the Americas as slaves ceased in 1865. Michael Coolen, in A Senegambian Origin for the Blues? draws comparisons between the instruments, language imitations and lifestyles of Senegambian music and musicians and blues music and musicians (Coolen, 1982, 74-78). Firstly, there is the similarity between the xalamkat (Senegambian musicians) ensembles and the blues ensemble. The former consisted of a plucked-lute, a bowed-lute and tapped cabalash, and the latter a fiddle, banjo and tambourine (Coolen, 1982, 74). Secondly, there are the language imitations “such as the frequent absence of helping verbs (for example, “I go,” instead of “I am going”)” (Coolen, 1982, 76). And lastly there are the similarities of the lifestyles of professional xalamkats and bluesmen “who pride themselves on being complete entertainers” (Coolen, 1982, 75). Furthermore, Coolen claims the xalam tradition includes a musical structure remarkably similar to the blues; more specifically the kinds of tuning used and melodic and rhythmic patterns employed (Coolen, 1982, 77).
Coolen hesitates to state categorically that there is a connection between Senegambian music and the blues. He states that is is impossible to “demonstrate a one-for-one relationship between Senegambian music and the blues” (Coolen, 1982, 75). However, through the examination of calques (linguistic borrowings across languages) and fodets (recurring musical structures):
it is possible to posit that the fodet could have been introduced into the United States as a kind of musical calque, thereby influencing the development of the Afro-American blues, much as African languages, via linguistic calques, have influenced the emergence of Black American English. (Coolen, 1982, 82)
In Pop Music and the Blues, Richard Middleton argues that slave emancipation in 1865 enabled the blues form and subject matter. With freedom came a sense of “isolation from the old slave-community; and, as an American and therefore an heir to the American’s belief in personal privacy and susceptibility to personal loneliness, isolation as a newly independent individual” (Middleton, 1972, 16). A period of segregation followed the post-emancipation movement as white power brokers, such as the Ku Klux Klan, regained control of the movement of black people. African-Americans were now separated from white America, and this situation lasted for the second half of the nineteenth century. Middleton states:
It is now that the complex relationship of the blues to the Negro experience becomes very important. Certainly the blues reflects the experience of this time—but more than that. The bluesman also ‘remembers’ the individual loneliness, and the Americanness responsible for it, which was characteristic of the early years of emancipation, and which the black community, not surprisingly, tried to forget…Certainly at this time the bluesman can be seen as the memory and even conscience of the community, as well as its feelings and consciousness. The tension of his music is part of his completeness and honesty. (Middleton, 1972, 17)
It is in this context that the blues existed in separate areas across America. Blues music was distributed thousands of miles apart in different social, economic and physical conditions. Paul Oliver claims that the distribution of the blues could be compared to a “hypothetical folk music that flourished at once in Copenhagen, and in Rome, London, and in Cairo though bonded by language and national unity” (Oliver, 1990, 3). Wright, in Oliver, argues that blues music evolved out of the working conditions of the American Negroes, and the secularisation of society:
If the plantations’ house slaves were somewhat remote from Christianity, the field slaves were almost completely beyond the pale. And it was from them and their descendants that the devil songs called the blues came—that confounding triptych of the convict, the migrant, the rambler, the steel driver, the ditch digger, the roustabout, the pimp, the prostitute, the urban and rural illiterate outsider (Oliver, 1990, xv).
Here bluesmen and women are considered as mostly outsiders and underdogs. With the use of double entendre, blues lyrics gained a reputation for being subversive. An ironic duality developed in their songs that underscores much of the sentiment of the blues: “when I’m laughing, I’m laughing just to keep from crying” (Weismann, 2005, 8). This preoccupation is reflected in Parry’s notion of the ‘essential idea,’ which in the blues is human suffering and survival. Blues then, requires a transmission of a sense of injustice in order to garner a sense of authenticity. These injustices are manifest in the personal and public relationships of blues performers; from lovers to bosses, to police, judges and politicians.
While blues and spirituals share the use of the blues scale, spiritual subject matter appealed to a higher power and maintained a belief in life after death. The blues, however, preferred a more direct approach, focusing instead on corporeal needs, including bawdy images and double entendres which the spirituals rejected. The standard blues song included a “pattern of twelve-bar stanzas of three lines each, wherein the first line was repeated, giving the singer an opportunity to extemporise if he so wished, a third rhyming line” (Oliver, 1990, 5).
The first publicly sanctioned performances of these musical styles took place in black churches in what become known as African-American Spirituals (Weismann, 2005, 10). Some of these traits include a metronomic sense, or beat, music as function rather than form, call and response singing, and the use of hand clapping (Weismann, 2005, 9). Over the two hundred and fifty year period of the movement of slaves from Africa to America, arrivals would bring new influences and different musical styles. As Weismann writes: “many slave owners encouraged blacks to attend church, and the imagery of freedom from bondage on earth, escaping to a promised land, must have resonated with the slaves’ own situation of oppression” (Weismann, 2005, 10). The Spirituals would later evolve into Gospel music, a form some consider the non-secular sibling of the blues.
Even though nearly every measure to keep black and white people separated was undertaken, the relationship between black and white performers provided a way of breaking through the barriers. Minstrel shows, where white performers would paint their faces black and sing mock-ups and parodies of black songs, were a way for white audiences to receive and appreciate African-American music. Often the performers would make fun of uneducated black people who struggled with the English language. As Weismann argues, minstrel songs varied in their attitudes towards slavery. Parts of the show might include depictions of the break ups of black families and more supportive relationships between owner and slave. Minstrel shows were highly popular with white audiences in the southern states for the most part of the nineteenth century. However, it wasn’t only the white people ‘stealing’ music from the black people.
Tony Russell, in Blacks, Whites and Blues argues that the influences of black music on white, and white music on black is symbiotic. He claims “the only way to understand fully the various folk musics of America is to see them as units in a whole; as traditions with, to be sure, a certain degree of independence, but possessing an overall unity” (Russell, 1970, 10). This is the scholars perspective, one not necessarily shared by individual performers. Individual black performers felt that their way of singing, playing and performing had been copied and reproduced in other contexts with the purpose of profit in mind. Nevertheless, by the 1930s, there emerges the idea of a ‘common stock’ of songs that both black and white performers could use interchangeably (Russell, 1970, 26). This phenomenon occurs despite notions of copyright and ownership generally associated with publishing. The proliferation of music through records and radio meant performers could disassociate the artist from the performance. More conscientious musicians expressed to their audience where the song was borrowed from (Russell, 1970, 30). The quality of ‘common stock’, was the adaptability of the songs to be assimilated despite race. Russell concludes:
[T]he evidence from twentieth century sources…which emphasises the divergent paths of the traditions, speaks to us not of the past but of the new century and its new mood. As the black man sought rights and equality, the tidily stratified society of the south was disrupted and the races drew apart. As if expressing this conflict of interests and of aims, the black and white musical traditions took different roads as well. (Russell, 1970, 31)
According to Charlie Gillett, in 1941, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) was established to broaden the copyright protection of writers and publishers beyond scope of the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (Gillett, 1996, 30). To this day, however, most early blues records recognise no composer or recording date credits. In many cases we don’t know who wrote the song (Weismann, 2005, 10). There are two possible explanations for this. Either the record company producers bought the song outright or the composer was operating in the traditional mode of variation of the ‘common stock’. As singers and bands became more famous, they demanded greater royalties. To receive greater royalties writers needed to be credited with the creation of the song (Gillett, 1996, 30). ‘Original’ songs emerged from this process, along with blues artists who achieved a measure of fame. Some of the most well-known names in the blues include artists such as Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters.
Today, the blues is considered a major musical form with many sub-categories. Some of the subsidiaries of the blues form include classic blues, rural blues, folk blues, delta blues, holy blues, down home blues, and Chicago blues. During the 1950s the more classical forms of the blues became less popular as movements such as rhythm and blues, rock and roll and rockabilly became more prominent. Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s the classic blues forms reentered the public imagination in what is now called the blues revival (Weismann, 2005, 100). The blues revival was facilitated by scholars such as Evans, conducting field recordings and by the growing interest of English musicians interested in the blues.
Rhythm and blues was typified by harsh vocals and loud explicit songs that created an excited atmosphere (Gillett, 1996, 39). The louder instruments such as saxophone and drums were now matched by the amplification of the guitars and vocals. Weismann summarises the main difference between rhythm and blues (R&B) and the blues as follows:
-Blues had a twelve bar structure, R&B did not
-The music on R&B recordings often had written arrangements, the blues did not
-R&B songs use chorus, bridges and refrains and the lyrics often tell a coherent story
-Blues songs frequently dipped into the ‘common stock’ of songs and repeated lyrics from other songs. R&B songs did not, and were considered original.
-Love songs were the main preoccupation in R&B whereas
-Blues songs drifted across subjects
-R&B singers used gospel techniques such as growling, screaming and falsetto.
-R&B took showmanship to a new level, using the instruments as props (Weismann, 2005, 94).
The term rhythm and blues was a more culturally sensitive name designed to replace the name ‘race records’ (Weismann, 2005, 86). Black writers and journalists would often refer to popular African-American music as race records. Gillett claims the label rhythm and blues was replaced by the name rock and roll, although the former label still exists, despite the music having a different style (Gillett, 1996, 30). According to Gillett, a minority group of specialist music listeners helped push for the exposure of rock and roll artists into the mainstream. The group were usually affluent white audiences, or audiophiles. This group sought music outside of the range of choices offered by the music industry. The listeners were more active and tried to understand the arrangements of the songs and virtuosity of the players. This counter-culture rebelliousness is described as exhibiting “rigours standards of judgement and taste…a preference for the uncommercialised, unadvertised small bands rather than name bands…a sympathetic attitude or even preference for Negro musicians” (Gillett, 1996, 41). These specialist groups helped transform the awareness of artists who were writing and singing the blues.
As already discussed, in America white people were the majority and black people the ‘minority group’. Gillett argues often minority groups experience a progression from exclusion to assimilation to inclusion (Gillett, 1996, 41). Exclusion is when the entire group is denied privileges enjoyed by the rest of society. Assimilation is when a favoured few, such as musicians or sports players, are granted the privileges of the many but withheld from the rest of the minority. Finally inclusion is when the minority group is granted full access to the privileges of society. It can be argued that well into the twentieth century the majority of black blues singers were writing during a period of exclusion. During the 1950s, rhythm and blues singers could experience a sense of assimilation. But it wasn’t until the rock and roll period that the black minority musicians experienced inclusion in American society. In 1955, Chuck Berry became the first black singer to release a rock’ n’ roll hit titled Maybellene. The single sold a million copies by the end of 1955. Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry would become important for the kinds of music bands like the Rolling Stones and AC/DC would later create (I have chosen to limit the discourse to a few of artists and influences across the blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll genres. For a sense of the enormity of the movement, please consult Gillett’s Sound and the City.)
Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry recorded at Chess Records in Chicago (Weismann, 2005, p 88, 92). From this time, it is in the recording studio that the majority of blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll songs are created. The social context and circumstances in which the records are made alter the subject matter of the songs. However, as we shall see in the works of Scott, the context can be shifted significantly, yet retain much of the original form. Muddy Waters continued to retain many of the elements of original folk blues and delta blues. These included slide guitar, playing in the blues form, and soulful and direct performances (Weismann, 2005, 89). Chuck Berry, on the other hand, became the icon of the ‘Rocking Chicago Blues’ style after moving to Chicago to help Waters develop the ‘Chicago Bar Blues’ style (Gillett, 1996, 69).
A common element amongst these styles is that they were not only loud and heavily amplified, but also these artists wanted to be successful across a wider spectrum. Maybellene was written to a formula to meet the demands of the growing white market (Gillett, 1996, 69). Hence the subject matter consisted of cars, sex and school. Furthermore, Berry’s clear enunciation meant he sounded ‘white’ on radio (Gillett, 1996, 70). The anonymity meant that audiences were concentrating on the music only, and not the colour of the performer’s skin. This raises the question: were the white musicians covering versions of the blues, R&B and rock and roll styles aware of the issues faced by the originators of the form? Was their objective to raise the profile of the black musicians by covering their songs? Or were they copying the style because it was ‘cool’? The answer is that it was a mixture of all these elements.
By the late 1950s, artists such as Waters and Howling Wolf toured Europe. This inspired groups such as the Rolling Stones, Cream and Them, the latter two groups releasing cover versions of Waters’ song Baby Please Don’t Go. The Rolling Stones took their name from the Waters’ song ‘Rollin’ Stone’. These English bands exposed new audiences to the blues. According to Oliver: “the popularisation of the blues in the 1960s, and its considerable popularity today, has been principally a reflection of the growing taste for the music among white enthusiasts” (Oliver, 1990, xxii). The audiences would stretch as far as Australia where a burgeoning youth culture waited for the latest music. Many of the Australian bands would play cover versions of cover versions that had been transformed from the original. It is safe to say the musicians in these bands would often be unaware of where the song originated. Nevertheless, in order to create their own music required some knowledge of the issues and themes addressed in the music they were emulating. It is highly likely that writers such as Scott received their blues knowledge through British incarnations of blues bands. His knowledge would have expanded the further he researched the black musicians.
Ferguson, in ‘A Blue Note On Black American Literary Criticism and the Blues’ (2010) warns against over-generalising blues music as symbolic of African-Americans plight for social equality. He claims that it is too simplistic to use blues music as a representative art form that generated social and legal change. He argues that blues music was originally apolitical and not the centre of African-American culture (Ferguson, 2010, 699). Ferguson argues that blues music has been reshaped, to an extent, by scholars who seek to use the form as representative of wider movement.
Though regarded with a certain doubt, or even disdain, among the majority of black thinkers before the 1970s for its low cultural or even primitive, folk origins, and its fundamentally apolitical posture, the blues enjoys an iconic status today as an almost unquestioned source of practical philosophical wisdom, artistic guidance, and contact with a increasingly remote yet distinctly black American past marked by slavery and legal segregation in the South. (Ferguson, 2010, 699)
Ferguson asserts that the trend in Black American literary criticism has been to use blues music as a “valuable conduit to the past, but one that avoids the loss of contemporary relevance” (Ferguson, 2010, 699). The implication is that blues music is somehow trapped in the past, and that even with blues revival movements, blues music is still used to portray the injustices of the sufferings of slaves from Africa. Blues music, Ferguson argues, has been retrospectively stripped of its “Americaness” by primarily white scholars. But the opposite phenomena seem to have occurred with the white musicians who took up the styles and patterns of black American music. The music of the Rolling Stones and AC/DC is, in many ways, a celebration of America. To emulate the form was to embark on a process of international regionalism. Generating the context in which the form could flourish was part of the work needed to represent a believable performance of blues and rhythm and blues music.
Evans was critically aware of the work of Parry and Lord when he set out to conduct his own survey of blues composition. He was a student of Lord at Harvard. In the introduction to Big Road Blues Evans discloses the motivation for his study of the blues stating: “after listening to a number of these records, it occurred to me that a system of traditional formulas existed that accounted for the texts, melodies, and instrumental accompaniments of many blues songs (Evans, 1982, 9). But before he could begin his study, Evans needed to address two problems shared by Parry and Lord. “One was the relationship of a singer’s blues to those of his sources – the other singers that he had learned from. The other was the problem of variation or stability from one performance of the blues to another by the same performer” (Evans, 1982, 10). Like Parry and Lord, Evans went out into the field and conducted his own ethnographic studies in a series of recordings of blues singers.
Oral poetry studies and oral formulaic theory attempt to discover what is being presented and deals with the relationship between the singer and his/her sources. These fields of study also try to establish how the information is represented. In this context, the question of ‘how’ is generally addressed through the notion of the formula. “They [Parry and Lord] have shown that the basic units of composition in the epic are the traditional formula, the formulaic expression, and the theme” (Evans, 1982, 315). In this context, Evans claims that his work in the blues contributes to both oral poetry studies and oral formulaic theory. Nevertheless, Evans cautions against uncritically grafting Parry and Lord’s methodology onto the blues, or any other poetic form:
Epics, after all, are lengthy, narrative, stichic, and rigidly metrical, whereas the blues are short, lyric, stanzaic, and have their meter carried mainly by the musical accompaniment. We must also keep in mind that not all blues are composed of traditional formulaic elements, and some of those that do contain them are sung from memory. (Evans, 1982, 315)
Blues then, while highly formulaic and composed in performance, also allows for non-formulaic, memory-based composition. In contrast to the performance of epic oral poetry, modern blues needed to incorporate recorded blues that may not have been previously performed in front of an audience. Only after the song is written and recorded could the song be performed. Therefore, while the blues can be examined as an oral poetry tradition, it has also been used in a non-traditional way. That is, its composition is not carried in front of the audience using a formula. Blues songs however can be composed using traditional formulas and themes but not performed simultaneously to a live audience. The audience in this context are those present in the recording studio. The audience, or ‘crowd,’ is imagined.
Evans provides further caution for future blues/folklore scholars. He states “previous researchers often tended to borrow theories and concepts that had been developed for the study of one particular genre of oral poetry or the traditions of one particular culture and apply them to other genres or cross-culturally” (Evans, 1982, 315). In order to avoid this dilemma, the researcher must conduct their own ethnographic field recordings and studies. But there is, as hinted at above, an important distinction to be made between ‘formula’ and ‘traditional textual elements in composition’. While a singer can use the exact phrasing and words of a previous song he/she is not performing oral poetry in the strict traditional sense. For the latter to occur the composer must not be singing from memory, but composing from formula. In any case there is always a close relationship between those blues lyricists working in a more strict ‘oral’ tradition, composing entirely during performance, and those written and performed at different times.
The issue here is a mnemonic one. Those who perform based on memory, will tend to display limited variation and greater stability in their songs. In the blues it is possible to sing from memory and remain highly formulaic (Taft, 2006, 187). This we will discover in the songs of Bon Scott. Scott created what is known as ‘voice text’, that is, lyrics which were written and rehearsed before recording, but meant to be listened to. Having established a closer relationship with the recording studio, Scott’s mode of operation was to compose songs quickly, and in a ‘live’ way, having only loosely determined the theme of the song based on drafts, or phrases, written beforehand. The themes, I will attempt to show, were grounded in the blues songs he had heard elsewhere. My objective is to present the relationship of Scott’s blues to those of his sources — the other singers that he had learned from.
Evans identifies a series of themes that run through the blues corpus. These themes are based on realistic situations treated imaginatively. That is, the blues singer is permitted to allow their emotions and imagination to run away with them during the song-writing process. Exaggeration is common. For example, in a lyric where there is a separation in a relationship, the singer is entitled to be angry with the other person, and maintain a high level of self pity. The main goal in a blues lyric is to express “such universal facts of life as contradiction, conflict and tension” (Evans, 1982, 19). Below is Evans’ list of the most recurrent themes in blues lyric:
1) Love: dealings in man/woman situations. Can also include rich sexual imagery.
2) Travel and escape. Supports the notion of blues musician as outsider.
6) Sickness and Death.
7) Crime and prison.
8) Authority/hierarchy in the community.
(Evans, 1982, 28)
These themes form the basis for the blues lyric formula developed by Taft. Love, or man/woman situation is a major preoccupation in the blues. Therefore in almost all blues lyrics we should find a greater number of songs dealing with this subject matter. The predominance of love as a theme in blues lyrics is reflected by Son House:
Blues is not a play thing like people think they are. Youngster today, they take anything and makes the blues out of it. Just any jump and say this is the such and such a blues. No, it’s not. Ain’t but one kinda blues. That consists between male and female that’s in love. Two people suppose to be in love when one or the other deceives the other through their love. Sometimes that kind of blues will make you even kill one another. Do anything that kinda love. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQ9CS-97KUA)
We could expect that the majority of songs in a blues singer’s works to contain mainly love-related songs. There are many other themes in blues lyrics which I will discuss later. Table 1 (below) charts the themes present in songs of Bon Scott during his years with AC/DC. Nearly half of the songs written by Scott deal with the theme of love.
Taft distinguishes between a structural study of blues music and a structural study of blues lyric (Taft, 2006, p.3). He argues that a structural study of blues music has been achievable because “the musicologist has a system of theories and methodologies that can be applied to the study of blues music. It may be an oversimplification to say that music is a logical and well-ordered mathematical construction, but the fact remains that the physical properties of music can be measured and recorded in a most exacting and scientific fashion” (Taft, 2006, 2). On the other hand, a structural study of blues lyrics, as opposed to blues music, has no theories or methodologies to operate within. “Blues lyrics, like all poetry, involve the clever use of language; they are dependent on special phonological, lexical, syntactical, and semantic limitations and options that overlay the general rules of everyday language” (Taft, 2006, 2). Applying oral formulaic theory to blues lyrics is therefore uncharted territory.
Taft situates his blues lyric formula within a linguistic paradigm focusing on performance rather than competence as a register of what is ‘acceptable’ within the framework of the poetic form. Performance here refers to “actual speech acts” whereas competence refers to “ideal situations” (Taft, 2006, 3). A focus on performance therefore limits a study to examples, whereas a competence-based approach attempts to develop a hypothetical, ideal structure. In deriving rules of formulaic composition Taft’s approach is therefore ‘bottom up,’ rather than ‘top down,’ although he states that this cannot always be the case (Taft, 2006, 3). Bottom up means working from ‘actual speech acts’ to generalisations, rather than the other way around.
To develop rules for a performance-based blues formula, Taft’s sample size is “more than two thousand commercially recorded blues, sung by more than three hundred and fifty singers” (Taft, 2006, 4). He states that this sample is “perhaps nearly one-fifth of all blues songs commercially recorded before World War II”. Taft’s study is largely quantitative, however he does include a qualitative chapter dedicated to one blues writer Garfield Ackers. In that chapter Taft discusses how Ackers’ four songs relate to the blues lyric formula. One of the focuses of this study is to see how Taft’s methodology for relating individual performers to his blues lyric formula can be applied to other artists. Later, I shall attempt to show how Scott’s some fifty songs can be applied to the formula. This study is therefore comparative. Before this is possible I need to further define and discuss the blues lyric formula.
Taft’s development of the blues lyric formula centres on a distinction between commercial and non-commercial recorded blues music. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, since the agents of the oral poetry are deceased, without a recording there would be no access to the documents. Secondly, the recordings would need to be commercially available. Taft dedicates an entire chapter to defining what constitutes commercially recorded blues. He then uses this definition to develop a blues lyric formula. He summarises his understanding of commercially recorded blues at the end of the chapter:
The overall definition of blues under analysis in this study (that is, the commercially recorded blues) included the following features: its texture is the rhymed couplet in which each line is interrupted by a caesura; its text might be best described as a love lyric; its context is the recording studio; and its form of composition is, in the majority of cases, a written, rehearsed, non-spontaneous poetic creation. (Taft, 2006, 24)
The study, while not exclusive of such elements, does not include historical and psychological relationships that led to the creation of blues music or lyrics. There is much literature on the subject, in particular discussing the effects of slavery in the evolution of blues music. As mentioned in the section ‘Blues History,’ Middleton’s Pop Music and the Blues, Oliver’s Blues Fell This Morning, and Evans’ Real Big Blues explore these aspects, for example.
Taft states that there is no one definition of the term “formula” upon which all scholars agree. The problem is that different forms of poetry call for a different kind of formula which necessarily alters the definition of the term formula. “The disagreements are caused, in part, by the different types of poetry that have been studied as formulaic systems: classical Greek epics, Old English and Middle English Verse, and modern Yugoslavian epics, among others” (Taft, 2006, 29). Consequently, formal analysis has broken into two separate camps.
In one camp, there is syntactic formal analysis, and, in the other, semantic formal analysis. Syntactic formal analysis seeks to compare and contrast sentence structure within a school of poetry. The grammatical “pattern that is specific to a poetic form is a subset of the rules of language—a language within a language.” Such a formula would rely on sentence structures which are particular to a poetic form, “structures that would be considered odd or incorrect in everyday speech” (Taft, 2006, 32). Blues lyrics do not contain these peculiarities, however. Blues lyrics reflect everyday speech, although the repetition of lines may seem strange.
Taft’s preference is for semantic formal analysis. This approach attempts to find imagistic patterns within a scheme. The main goal here is to disclose the ‘essential idea’ of a phrase. More specifically, “each blues formula is composed of at least one semantic predication” (Taft, 2006, 32). He goes on to argue: “if a sentence expresses ‘a complete thought,’ then a predication can be formally characterised as a ‘complete thought’ that a sentence expresses” (Taft, 2006, 33). His description for a blues lyric formula can be summarised as:
This predication (PN) is a “complete thought” that consists of a predicate (P) with one or two arguments (Al and A2). PN typically includes a structure such as A1-P-A2, which in turn generate specific words or phrases, for example, “I (Al) -walked from (P) -Dallas (A2)”. (Taft, 2006, 33-6)
Taft goes on to clarify:
Each predicate and argument is composed of a number of semantic features that ultimately generate a word or phrase from the speaker’s lexicon (Taft, 2006, 33).
The remainder of Taft’s definition of the blues formula is succinctly summarised by Evans:
Taft distinguishes between “x-formulas” which occupy the first half of a blues line and “r-formulas” which occupy the second half and rhyme with a formula at the end of another line, the two lines forming a couplet as in the standard AAB stanza pattern. Thus a couplet could contain four half-line formulas (predications). The blues formula he states “maybe defined therefore not by its ‘metrical demand’ but by its placement within the blues line”. “The formula is the structural unit,” Taft writes, and the couplet is “the essential component of the blues”. (Evans, 2007, 483)
I will paraphrase the definition thus far. A predicate and two arguments make a predication. A predication is a complete thought formed from a speaker’s lexicon. These complete thoughts occupy each blues line. A blues line is generally half of a rhyming couplet. This definition for a blues formula strips away what, for many are the most interesting aspects of the blues lyrics. That is, their succinct expression of struggle. Taft’s blues lyric formula contains the promise of illuminating the workings of the standard blues lyric and how blues performers deliberately or intuitively engage with such a formula. The question remains: how does the typical blues sentence/line structure impact on the thematic content found within the verses/songs? Or put more theoretically, how can an empty syntactic structure isolate a region of semantic content? The general answer to this question is that if the lyrics do not fit into the syntactic structure in combination with the semantic content, then those lyrics do not belong to that formula. That artist’s lyrics belong to another genre. The problem with blues lyrics, and attempting to establish a blues lyrical formula, as opposed to say, ancient Greek or Slavic poetry, is that the general semantic content of the blues is one of personal suffering. So long as a lyric addresses that suffering in combination with the AAB stanza pattern it can be considered the blues.
In closing his chapter on defining the blues lyric formula Taft stresses that the formula is a “theoretical construct”. In attempting to give definition to the formula, he thinks analysts have needed to “define the boundaries of the formula” (Taft, 2006, 52). He draws a distinction between analysts of the formula and those who have invented and used the formula, the performers. The analysts, he argues, are bound to the ‘theoretical construct’, whereas the performers are free to engage or disengage with the formula at their will. He states: “the blues singers had no need to explain the way they conceived of the formula or what personal rules of composition they used” (Taft, 2006, 52). The challenge for the analyst is in describing and determining the compositional competence of the performer. One can assume therefore that by using Taft’s predication-based methodology for examining a performer’s compositional competence, we can determine whether the lyric falls inside of the blues lyric category, or not. He concludes the chapter with an admonition:
The more general and unfocused one’s research, the more elusive is the blues formula. For this reason, studies of specific singers, or specific repertoires make the best use of formulaic theory, and show more clearly the nature of formulaic systems than do large-scale overviews of the entire poetic corpus of blues. (Taft, 2006, 55)
In Chapter six of The Blues Lyric Formula Taft attempts to examine the blues work of Garfield Ackers under the scope of the blues lyric formula. Later in this thesis I intend to apply the same “theoretical construct” to the work of Ronald (Bon) Scott. Before this can take place however, I will disclose some objections to Taft’s theory of the blues lyric formula.
Evans begins his criticism of Taft’s “step by step description of the rules implicit in the formulaic structure of the blues” by outlining his arguments. Evans summarises Taft’s description of the semantic formula as a “meaningful thought that generates verbal phrases, sometimes substantively different lexically from one another, rather than simply a verbal phrase that might be related lexically to one another and/or syntactically similar verbal phrases” (Evans, 2007, 485). Evans criticises Taft for deviating from the Parry and Lord linguistic methodology that has dominated other systematic approaches to poetry and lyrics. Evans argues that many previous scholars recognised the patterns intrinsic to blues lyrics, but felt the Parry/Lord methodology sufficient, and felt any systemisation of the blues lyric detracted from the content and themes. He claims that Taft’s “definition of it [the formula] as a semantic unit…is so simple that it can also define much of the structure of everyday speech in the English language” (Evans, 2007, 486). If Evans is correct then Taft is simply presenting a formula for everyday speech, rather than blues lyrics. My conclusion is that Taft’s blues lyric formula is a more focused study of the themes found in blues lyrics. Taft’s formulas are a useful tool for narrowing the focus of a study.
While the sentence structures found in stock blues lyric sentences might be so ambiguous so as to resemble ‘everyday speech’, surely the quantitative outcomes of Taft’s study, a survey of more than 2000 commercially recorded blues songs, can reveal to us the predominant themes actually found in the lyrics, rather than what is commonly assumed or surmised by experience. Taft’s systematic approach is useful for determining the influence of blues lyricism not only within the genre, but across genres as well. For example, a lyricist may be working within a musical genre that sounds nothing like the blues, but the lyrics can correlate closely to the formulas as presented by Taft. It is safe to say traditions evolve and the conventions that define a genre evolve as well. By the time Bon Scott began writing blues lyrics in the 1970s, the blues had been performed in one shape or form for approximately sixty years. Naturally then, some of his lyrics operate outside of the formulas and blue genre. It is my aim to show how most of his lyrics work in relation to Taft’s formulas.
Taft concludes his book by asking the question why is the blues formulaic? The obvious answer is that the blues is formulaic because of the way they are written and recorded. There are certain “constraints and freedoms” in the recording studio that “shaped the way they composed the blues, and these factors worked to make the commercial blues concise, aphoristic and ultimately formulaic in their composition” (Taft, 2006, 188). Taft believes that the recording studio brings about a “non spontaneous” atmosphere where the lyricists are attempting to create original compositions (Taft, 2006, 189). This pressure led the composers to fall back upon formulas. In the studio, away from immediate audience interaction, composers are stripped of the ability to entertain and perform in an innovative fashion.
Evans, on the other hand, thinks that this argument is “needlessly complex” (Evans, 2007, 496). Instead of asking why blues is formulaic? Evans requests us to consider why blues shouldn’t be formulaic? He offers an alternative to Taft’s blues formula with these five axioms for examining the blues:
1. Blues stanzas may be linked to one another in a song through association. A word or verbal phrase, a topic or idea, or a syntactic pattern used in one stanza causes the singer to choose another stanza containing the same or a similar element.
2. Blues stanzas may be linked to one another in a song through contrast. A stanza or a group of associated stanzas contains a topic or idea that contrasts with a topic or idea in another stanza or group. Typical blues contrasts are leaving/returning; boasting/self-pity; praise/abuse; love/hate; good treatment/mistreatment; faithfulness/abandonment; and dominance/subordination.
3. Some stanzas say essentially “I have the blues” and state the singer’s general dissatisfaction, ambivalence, confusion, uncertainty, hopelessness, worry, depression, restlessness, and so forth. Such stanzas sometimes function to separate linked pairs of stanzas or stanza groups from one another.
4. Instrumental choruses or breaks also often function to separate linked pairs of stanzas or stanza groups from one another. (Such breaks should be indicated in any textual transcription of a blues.)
5. Blues texts relying on these principles often display symmetrical structural patterns. (Evans, 2007, 491)
Evan’s five axioms reflect more naturally to the attitudes found in the blues and blues artists. These axioms have influenced this study and provide some key indicators as to how a blue artists lyrics may belong to the blues as a genre. A axiom by axiom argument applied the lyrics of Bon Scott could be made to develop a case for his lyrics to be included in the genre. I have decided instead that these axiom should be considered together with Taft’s twenty formulas disclosed below. In this general theatre of theoretical dialogue there exists a definitive approach to examining blues lyrics. These five axioms could all fit the traditional image of the blues composer as one where he or she is sitting on the front porch jamming away by themselves or with friends. There is a standard blues musical structure that rolls on until someone gains some inspiration and begins to build upon a theme. During the 1960s Evans went to these houses and recorded these blues men and women in what became know as ‘field recordings’.
We can now compare and contrast this model to the model of the recording artist who draws upon traditional elements in the blues, in the moment of their creation. Successful artists had unlimited access to recording studios and their technologies. Gone were the days of writing songs ‘on the road,’ or rehearsing them before recording. This artist is steeped in knowledge of the tradition but does not necessarily improvise in the moment of recording. These artists may work to a formula, but rely on memory in the moment of performance. However, during the recording process improvisation is not out of the question. If a song has a certain feel, or the band is ‘in the zone’ the artist may gesture to keep the improvisation going. Artists such as Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry typify this category. Bon Scott also falls into this category. Muddy Waters is an interesting identity because he was born on the plantations and moved to the city to become a recording artist. He therefore crosses the boundaries of the traditional and contemporary blues artist. He also toured Europe in the 1960s helping to spawn the blues revival.
There is no question that the blues is formulaic, but the problem is in the nature and definition of the formulaic approach. The answer comes back to the performers and the dynamic and disparate origination of blues lyrics. The answer rests on the performer’s attitude to the recording studio, an attitude that would alter from performer to performer and throughout time as commercial interests changed. Some artists, Evans states, simply transferred their blues to the studio, with no ‘in studio’ composition needed. However:
If they were successful, and their recording careers continued, if they were seeking to emulate the most successful singers from the outset, their blues tended to become increasingly thematic, original and less formulaic…The recording context tended to work against the use of formulas, but it did not destroy it, and commercially recorded blues were constantly being enriched with the songs of the artists who had already had repertoires and an approach to composition dependent on the use of formulas. (Evans, 2009, 496)
As we shall see, this is the trend we discover in the lyrics on Bon Scott. Scott’s lyrics become less formulaic as his career progressed. The final two albums Powerage and Highway to Hell are allegoric and thematic, whereas the earlier albums lack that cohesion. Powerage in particular depicts the man/woman situation and agents in that relationship coming to terms with their own power. Highway to Hell is an exploration of life on the road as a musician and compounds the mythic notion of bluesman as outsiders, outside of redemption. My view, and the one shared by both Evans and Taft, is that it is possible for blues lyricists to be original and use formulas simultaneously.
BON SCOTT HISTORY
Bon Scott was born in Scotland in 1946. In 1952, the Scott family migrated to Australia, eventually settling in Fremantle, Western Australia. Members of the local church and Scottish pipe band, both of Scott’s parents had an interest in music and performance (Walker, 1994, 22). From a young age Scott was encouraged to play the piano, accordion and the drums. In 1962 Scott represented the Fremantle Pipe Band at the opening ceremony of the Empire Games held in Perth (now known as the Commonwealth Games). Performing from a young age, Scott was novice pipe drum champion by age twelve and under-seventeen champion for five years (Walker, 1994, 32). Scott had a talent for a variety of instruments, including voice, and evidently grew with a predisposition to perform.
At sixteen, Scott was sentenced to nine months detention for lying to police, stealing, and carnal knowledge (Walker, 1994, 38). Riverbank detention centre housed teenage boys from around the State. The centre focused on reform, demanding inmates learn basic literacy and arithmetic. Scott had access to musical instruments, radio and books. I would argue that it is here he developed a letter writing habit he would carry throughout his life.
When Scott departed Riverbank he immediately joined his first band, the Spektors. The Spektors (named after Phil Spector) were a five piece cover band consisting of a singer, two guitars, bass and drums. Scott played drums and occasionally swapped roles with the singer. The Spektors’ repertoire consisted mainly of Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis songs.
After approximately eighteen months the Spektors merged with another Perth band called the Winstons. The merger, jettisoning half the members from each unit, created the six-piece band The Valentines. In this outfit Scott was employed as a singer, sharing lead and backing parts with Vince Lovegrove. The band were in high demand in the pubs and clubs around Perth. Again, the main repertoire consisted of Beatles and Rolling Stones covers, but also included songs by the highly successful Australian act The Easybeats. The Easybeats preceded the Bubblegum pop genre that the Valentines would eventually become known for Australia wide. The early shows would also include covers of songs by Wilson Pickett, The Who and Spencer Davis. The Valentines were able to make a living from their music. We can conclude that Scott had started to see music as more of a vocation than a hobby by this time. In January 1967, they played a show to over 3,000 people. Their first single, Every Day I Have To Cry was a cover of a song by United States singer Arthur Alexander.
According to Scott biographer Clinton Walker, the Valentines met The Easybeats in Perth and built up a rapport with the band (Walker, 1994, 50). Guitarist George Young of The Easybeats would later become mentor for his younger brothers Malcolm and Angus, founding members of AC/DC. George Young and Harry Vanda of The Easybeats would go on to write three songs for the Valentines: She Said, Peculiar Hole In The Sky, and My Old Man’s a Groovy Old Man. In October 1967 The Valentines moved from Perth to Melbourne, where the music market was more competitive. Over the next three years the band would play many shows, learning their stage craft, including what to wear. As the members’ musical tastes developed, so did their set. The band would play one set of songs for one audience and another set of songs for another audience. Scott learnt that in order to make a living as a musician you didn’t always have the opportunity to play what you wanted.
During this period Scott is credited with writing three songs, Juliette, Getting Better, and Hoochie Coochie Billy. From these songs emerges Scott’s Robert Johnson-like high register voice. The songs cross three distinct genres presumably in an effort to see which would sell more. Nevertheless there are motifs in the lyrics that reoccur throughout the rest of Scott’s lyrical career. In the second verse of Juliette we find:
Juliette, golden hair so long, who’d have thought you could be bad
Juliette, you just go your way, leaving me alone, and sad
(The Valentines, 1970)
Firstly, there is a central character who knowingly crosses a moral boundary. Discovering what is right and wrong becomes a central theme in all of Scott’s lyrics. Secondly, there is a protagonist who is wronged in some way and victimised. Lastly, Scott’s displays his capacity to construct a narrative that involves either irony or an unexpected shift from the anticipation of the protagonist as evil doer, to protagonist as having had some wrong performed to him/her. These themes are prevalent in blues lyrics, particularly those concerned with the theme of love.
The Valentines disbanded in August 1970 and in 1970 Scott joined Fraternity almost immediately after the Valentines split. Fraternity were a six piece consisting of drums, bass, guitar, keyboard/synthesiser, harmonica and vocals. Even though they were stylistically very different to the Valentines, based on his vocal prowess, Scott had been selected to join the band as the single main singer. Fraternity were to be a primarily original band attempting to play the style they felt suited their personalities, rather than chase album sales. Musically erudite, they quickly rose to a prominent position in Australia’s popular music scene. Over the next three years they would play numerous shows in Australia before relocating to London, financed by winning a national band competition and their affluent manager. With Scott, Fraternity recorded two albums titled Flaming Galah, and Livestock. As the name of the band suggests, they pooled their resources and discouraged private ownership of property, including song rights. This makes identifying Scott’s individual contribution to the band difficult. Nevertheless there are a few connections to be made between the lyrics of Fraternity and those to come later in AC/DC.
The song Welfare Boogie precedes Down Payment Blues that would appear on the Powerage album five years later:
Collection on Friday, collection on Friday
The treasury keeper will drop me a line
Spend it by Monday, tomorrow’s a fun day
Can handle the road if the weather is fine.
Come and sing the welfare boogie,
Come sing with me
Oh you know it will fair thee well.
I find me a lady, I find me a lady
She’ll cheat on the bottle and we’ll double our pay
We’ll save up our coupons, we’ll save up our coupons
Trade them for genuine Mexican pay.
Well my friend you complain let’s see
That the welfare boogie’s doing fine by me
I got a problem a real social problem
I can’t find employment for more than a week
You might think I’m sleazy
But you know it ain’t easy
Finding employment’s a job for a freak.
But now I’ve been busted
The wrong guy I trusted
Well they put me in jail
And they’ve thrown out the key.
Things could have been better
But there’s no weekly letter
But my bread and board
They look after for free
(Transcribed from Flaming Galah, Fraternity, 1972).
The lyrics of this song contain the genesis of multiple motifs that can be found in the later AC/DC lyrics. Tales of life on the road in a band (Long Way to The Top, Highway to Hell, Show Business) expressions of life as an underdog (Riff Raff, Problem Child, Bad Boy Boogie), cooperation of members against an authority (Dog Eat Dog, Live Wire, Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation), challenging the notion of work within a social hierarchy (Aint no fun Waitin Round to Be a Millionaire, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, If You Want Blood) and exploring the concept of freedom and oppression (Jailbreak, Ride On). Most significant is the theme of love. ‘Find me a lady’ becomes a major pre-occupation in Scott’s blues-based work. In Welfare Boogie, tying the lyrics together is the clever use of inverting the notions of freedom. Scott is suggesting that life in prison is easier than life outside. Scott was able to turn the gambit of multiple themes in this one song into material sufficient for a multitude of single songs.
Between Fraternity and AC/DC, as he was recovering from a motorcycle accident, Scott began to write lyrics more concertedly. Teaming up with Peter Head, an Adelaide-based musician, they created Round and Round, Carey Gully, and Up in the Hills Too Long. Up in the Hills Too Long is a frustrated summation of Scott’s musical endeavours:
Well, I feel like a shirt that ain’t been worn
I feel like a sheep that ain’t been shorn
Feel like a baby that ain’t been born
Feel like a rip that ain’t been torn
Wish I’d done somethin’ so I could boast
But I’ve had one less than the holy ghost
And I hear he’s had less than most
I’ve been up in the hills too long.
Scott’s Sisyphean struggle continued (with life on the road, coupled with a failed marriage and two failed bands) as he entered the new band AC/DC. It is useful to note that Fraternity’s insistence on non-formula was in contrast to AC/DC’s stubborn application to formula. Fraternity sought to be experimental and innovative. AC/DC, on the other hand, tried to build upon a tradition. In AC/DC Scott jettisoned the vibrato and delicate phrasing found in his singing within Fraternity and The Valentines. The rhythm and blues based style of AC/DC called for loud screaming, constant notes and restricted dynamic volume.
Taft offers twenty most common formulas found in the blues lyric. Put simply, these are:
1) I have the blues
2) I come to some place
3) I go away from some place
4) I have a woman
5) I quit my woman
6) I love you
7) I tell you
8) I treat you good/bad
9) I woke up this morning
10) I am worried
11) I have the blues [sic]
12) I cry
13) What am I going to do
14) Everywhere I go
15) I will be gone
16) I’m going back home
17) It won’t be long
18) Some thing is on my mind
19) I treat you right
20) I’m leaving town (Taft, 2006, 135).
Taft develops a more complex system of symbols and diagrams to represent his interpretation of the blues formula. My aim here is to make connections between Scott’s lyrics and the blues lyric formula, not explain those systems. I will attempt to summarise the formulas as I proceed. Some formulas, such as 1 and 11 above seem duplicated. I will now move through each formula providing an example from Taft’s survey and showing how Scott employs each formula in his lyrics. It is important to note that Taft’s survey is drawn from “race” records, or commercially recorded blues records from the years 1890 to 1945.
Scott’s blues were written in the years 1974-1979. If AC/DC’s primary goal were to produce as many songs and records as possible in a short period of time, they required a musical model to assist both themselves and their audience. They had learned from both the Beatles and The Rolling Stones that shifting styles often confused and alienated their audiences. AC/DC then go about developing their own songs based on the rhythm and blues and rock and roll formula. Scott develops an admixture of styles in his lyrics, but the most dominant of the styles is the blues form. Scott does not use all of the most popular blues formulas in Taft’s ‘top twenty list.’ The reasons for this are many and varied, but we can make some preliminary conclusions.
Firstly, even blues lyricists from the period would not be expected to use all of the most popular formulas from that time. Secondly, in the years 1945 to 1974, many more formulas would have been written and in common use by blues lyricists. Thirdly, a lyricist would not be unique if he/she employed all of the most popular formulas in their works. Some interesting observations have arisen out of identifying which formulas have and have not been used by Scott. For example, Scott does not use the formula “I’m going back home.” If we take the use of formula as a representation of autobiographical elements in Scott’s life, the absence of this formula is truthful in that Scott never does return home, or at least appears ‘homeless’.
It is not the objective of this thesis to wrestle with the definitions and theoretical underpinnings of the blues lyric formula, but to take a survey of formulaic definitions in an attempt to illuminate the workings of Scott’s lyrics. Given time and space, a major study would include a lengthy analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of a musicological versus a linguistic study of blues music and blues lyrics. My approach is primarily semantic, rather than syntactic.
Formula 1: I have the blues. Put in more formulaic terms this formula can be represented as +human have the blues. Taft explains “the predicate might be described as “to contract or to come down with, as in the case of a cold or fever,” and this predicate usually generates one or two surface level verbs: have or get” (Taft, 2006, 90). Some examples Taft provides are:
Got the barrel housing blues; feeling awfully dry
I can’t drink moonshine, because I’m afraid I’ll die
(Gertrude Ma Rainey, 1923)
I mean I went to the depot, and set my suitcase down
The blues over take me, and tears come rolling down
(Blind Lemon Jefferson, 1927)
In Scott’s lyrics we find these examples:
I got holes in my shoes, and I’m way overdue
I got the downpayment blues.
(Downpayment Blues, 1978)
Well if you’re having trouble with the high school head
He’s giving you the blues
(Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, 1976)
Formula 2) I come to some place. Put in another way this formula can be summarised as +human come to some place. Taft explains the predicate as “moving forward” (Taft, 2006, 92). Some examples are:
I went down to the ocean, just to get a permanent wave
My woman got a new way of loving, man, and it won’t behave
(Jake Jones, 1929)
I went down to the station, up to the train
Couldn’t buy no ticket for shaking that thing
(Walter Vinscon, 1932)
We find these examples in Scott’s lyrics:
Well I left my job in my home town, and headed for the smoke
Got a rock ’n’ roll band, and a fast right hand
(Aint No Fun Tryin To Be A Millionaire, 1976)
Hey Satan, paid my dues, playing in a rocking band
Hey Mumma, look at me I’m on the way to the promised land
(Highway to Hell, 1979)
3) I go away from some place. This formula is related to the previous one and can be explained as +human go away from some place. Some of Taft’s examples are:
I’m going away, now don’t want you to go
I’m going to stop at a place, I haven’t never been before
(Blind Lemon Jefferson, 1927)
I’ve got a girl, her name is Joan
She leaves here running fast, chocolate to the bone.
(Henry Thomas, 1928)
And in Scott’s lyrics:
Said now you go your way, I’ll go mine, and that’s a start
Doctor Doctor, ain’t no cure for the pain in my heart
(Bullet to Bite on, 1978)
She never made past the bedroom door
What was she aiming for? She’s gone shootin’
(Gone Shootin’, 1978)
4) I have a woman. +Human got/have +human. Taft describes the predicate as “to posses in a loving relationship”. Examples are:
Said I woke up this morning, just about the break of day
Some man had my woman, and the worried blues had me
(George Torey, 1937)
If you want me baby, just leave me alone
I can get another woman to carry your business on
(Amos Easton, 1932)
In Scott’s lyrics we find:
She’s got speed my lady, got what I need my lady
She’s got the ability, to make a man out of me
(She’s Got Balls, 1975)
Old man’s car on a Saturday night
Got me a woman, me I feel alright
(Back Seat Confidential, 1997)
5) I quit my woman. Taft suggests this formula is the corollary of the two previous formulas; “possessing someone and leaving, thereby dispossessing someone” (Taft, 2006, 96). The two most common verbs in this formula are “leave” and “quit.” Here are some examples:
Depot agent, please turn your depot around
My woman done quit me now, going to leave your town
(Noah Lewis, 1930)
Early this morning my baby made me sore
I’m going away to leave you; aint coming back no more
(Joshua White, 1934)
In Scott’s lyrics we find:
Feel the pressure rise, hear the whistle blow
Bought a ticket of her own accord, to I dunno
Packed her heart in a travellin’ bag, and never said bye bye
Something missing in the neighbourhood, of her cryin’ eyes
(Gone Shootin’, 1978)
6) I love you. This formula needs no explanation. Examples are:
I love my baby, my baby don’t love me
But I really love that woman, can’t stand to leave her be
(Robert Johnson, 1936)
Now you wanted me to love you, and you treated me mean
You might give a thought on my mighty dream
(Richard Rabbit Brown, 1927)
In Scott’s lyrics we find reference to love:
I’m as happy as a man can be, too far gone to save
Died of love, and plenty of, just write on my grave
It’s your love that I want, it’s your love that I need
It’s your love gotta have, it’s your love guaranteed
(What’s Next to The Moon, 1978)
7) I tell you. This formula can be expressed also as +human communicate some message. Example from Taft’s corpus are:
My mother told me, don’t you weep and moan
Because, son, there’ll be a woman here when you dead and gone
(Leroy Carr, 1934)
In Scott’s lyrics we find:
Wanna tell you a story, ain’t no lie
I was born to love til the day I die
(Bad Boy Boogie, 1977)
All right mama, gotta listen to me
Last chance thrill it’s half past three
(Back Seat Confidential, 1979)
8) I treat you good/bad. This formula can also be expressed as +human treat +human in some manner. Taft also explains that “the predicate might be ‘to behave toward’ or ‘to have a certain effect on’. The pre-1945 examples are:
You treated me wrong, I treated you right
I worked for you both day and night
(Bessie Smith, 1925)
Judge, I dont kill my woman, because she treated me so unkind
Treated me so unkind, til I swear I lost my mind
(Leroy Carr, 1934)
In Scott’s lyrics we find:
I’m a loser that ain’t lost it, baby you were too good, too good to be true
What you done no one else could do now I’m up, I’m up to my neck in you
(Up To My Neck in You, 1978)
You say that you want respect, honey for what
For everything that you done for me, thanks a lot
(Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation, 1978)
Wish I knew what was on your mind, why you being so unkind
Remember those nights we spent alone, talking on the telephone
(Beating Around the Bush, 1979)
9) I woke up this morning. No examples have thus far been found in Scott’s lyrics.
10) I am worried. In formulaic terms this can be expressed as some thing worry +human. In Taft’s corpus we find:
Oh baby what’s the matter with you
You worry me woman, babe, I don’t know what to do
(Barrel House Buck Macfarland, 1934)
I worried a long time ago, and you was happy as as could be
So now it’s your worry, I’m glad you have set me free
(Washboard Sam, 1943)
In Scott’s lyrics we find:
It’s another lonely evening, in another lonely town
But I ain’t to young to worry and I ain’t to old to cry, when a woman gets me down
(Ride On, 1976)
Then tonight you came home early, packed a bag or two
It’s been worrying me honey, just what you’re gonna do
(Stick Around, 1975)
11) I have the blues. As previously mentioned this formula is similar to the first.
Well the doctor said “we got to make em dead”
Walking sideways, sideways walking, give me the blues
(Crabsody in Blue, 1975)
12) I cry. This formula is simple and straight forward. An example from 1930:
Sometimes he makes me happy, then sometimes he makes me cry
He had me to the place, where I wish to God that I could die
(Memphis Minnie, 1930)
In Scott’s lyrics we find:
Disillusion and confusion make me wanna cry
The shame, you play your game, tellin me those lies
(Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be, 1977)
If you leave me you’ll make me cry, when I think of you saying good bye
Oh the sky turns to a deeper blue, that’s how I’d feel if I lost you
(Love Song, 1975)
13) What am I going to do. This formula can also be stated as +human do unspecified action. It relates to hopelessness and having the blues. An example from Taft’s corpus:
When I get drunk, I’m evil, I don’t know what to do
If I get my good chib, can I get something good from you? (Edith North Johnson, 1929)
In Scott’s lyrics we discover:
That’s why I’m lonely, I’m so lonely
But I know what I’m gonna do I’m gonna ride on, ride on (Ride On, 1976)
I know that it’s evil, I know that it’s gotta be
I know I ain’t doing much, doing nothing means a lot to me
(Down Payment Blues, 1978)
14) Everywhere I go. This formula can also be expressed as +human go some place. There are limitations on this formula in that go and goes must fulfill the last position in the phrase for rhyming purposes. Taft’s examples are:
Well it’s hard times here, and it’s hard times everywhere I go
I’ve got to make some money, so I don’t have these hard luck blues no more
(Bill Jazz Gillum, 1942)
I woke up this morning, I couldn’t even get out my door
Said this wild water got me covered, and I ain’t got no place to go
(Kokomo Arnold, 1937)
In Scott’s lyrics there are:
They said stop, I said go, they said fast, I said slow
They said up, I said down, I do the bad boy boogie, all over town
(Bad Boy Boogie, 1977)
Sitting in my Cadillac, listening to my radio
Suzy baby get on in, tell me where she wanna go
(Down Payment Blues, 1978)
15) I will be gone. This formula must contain the phrases be gone, have gone, have been gone, or done gone. (Taft, 2006, 106) An example of this formula is:
I woke up this morning, my good gal was gone
Stood by my bedside and I hung my head, I hung my head and moaned
(Willy Baker 1929)
Scott’s lyrics contains an obvious example:
I stirred my coffee with the same spoon, knew her favourite tune
Gone shootin, my baby’s gone shootin
(Gone Shootin’, 1978)
16) I’m going back home. This formula is self explanatory. Here is an example from Taft’s corpus:
Baby, please forgive me, I know that I done wrong
I’m going to get down on my knees, I want my little old baby back home
(Jack Kelly, 1933)
Only one reference to home exists in Scott’s work, Stick Around from 1975:
Then tonight you came home early, packed a bag or two
It’s been worrying me honey, just what you’re gonna do
(Stick Around, 1975)
It is interesting that Scott does not write about home in his lyrics. Having moved from Scotland to Australia at a young age and then from the east coast to the west of Australia as a teenager it could be argued that on a personal level Scott did not develop a sense of home. After he moved from Fremantle to Melbourne with the Valentines he then embarks on a lifelong journey of touring around the world. This context it is possible to argue that Scott had a sense of homelessness. Perhaps if he lived longer he may have written more about home?
17) Time won’t be long. Taft claims this is the most variable of the most common twenty formulas. (Taft, 2006, 108) Taft claims “[a]t the semantic level, the verb be is only a signal for the equative predication.” The equative predication is where one argument is equated with another. In almost all cases the word it is an epithet for time, and refers to a future tense. Examples are:
Tell my dad, I going to leave my home
Now I’m going, I’m going, and it won’t be long
(Gertrude Ma Rainey, 1926)
Well I’m going away, swear the time ain’t long
If you don’t believe I’m leaving, daddy, count the days I’m gone.
(Louise Johnson, 1930)
There are no obvious examples of this formula in Scott’s lyrics. The closest we get is in What’s Next to The Moon (1978):
Well I tied my baby to the railroad track, cannonball down the line
Givin’ that woman just one more chance, to give it to me one more time
18) Some thing is on my mind. This formula can also be expressed as +human have something on +human’s mind. Some examples are:
I’m kind of worried, got something on my mind
That’s why I drink my whiskey, make my faro wait behind
(Robert Hicks, 1928)
In Bon Scott’s lyrics we find these examples:
Little lover I can’t get you off my mind, no
Little lover I tried so hard to find someone like you
(Little Lover, 1975)
Too scared to turn your light out cause there’s somethin’ on your mind
Was that a noise outside the window, what’s that shadow on the blind
(Night Prowler, 1979)
Wish I knew what was on your mind, why you being so unkind
Remember those nights we spent alone, talking on the telephone
(Beating Around the Bush, 1979)
19) I treat you right. This can also be described as +human treat +human right. Nevertheless, an example:
I often tell my honey, don’t have to fight
The gal that gets you got to treat you right
(Bo Weavil Jackson, 1926)
Other than the examples provided in formula eight, the closest we have to this formula in Scott’s lyrics are:
Well if you’re lookin’ for trouble I’m the man to see
If you’re lookin’ for satisfaction, I’m satisfaction guaranteed.
(Live Wire, 1975)
20) I’m leaving town. Also expressed as +human leave town relates to a major theme in the blues, travel. According to Taft, there are many variations of this formula. Some examples from the pre-1945 corpus are:
I got the bad feeling blues, keeps me so lowdown
I’m going to pack my grip, leave this lonesome town
(Blind Blake, 1927)
The man I love, I know he’s out of town
And when I find him, he better not be messing around
(Gertrude Perkins, 1927)
Scott employs this formula in these songs:
Heavenly body flying across the sky, Superman was outta town
Come on honey gotta change your tune, it’s a long way down
(What’s Next To The Moon, 1978)
I took an offer in another town, she took another pill
She was running in overdrive, a victim of overkill
(Gone Shootin’, 1978)
What I’m gonna do, ride on, ride on, got myself a one-way ticket
Going the wrong way, gonna change my evil ways, one of these days
(Ride On, 1976)
I have systematically worked my way through the twenty blues lyric formulas presented by Taft, and then applied Scott’s lyrics to that formula. I have concentrated on the semantic, rather than syntactic aspect of the formula, in order to locate the “essential idea”. We find that Scott fulfils almost all of the twenty formulas, except formula nine, ‘I woke up this morning’. It could also be argued that he does not address formula sixteen, ‘I’ll go home’, instead writing ‘you came home early’. Formula seventeen ‘it won’t be long’ also remains unsatisfied. Nevertheless, I have clearly shown that there is a high similarity between Scott’s lyrics and Taft’s twenty common formulas for the blues.
I will now shift my focus to the concept of ‘contrasting pairs’ to provide further evidence of the blues-based nature of Scott’s AC/DC lyrics. A common technique in blues lyrics is to present themes in contrasting pairs. Evans summarises Taft’s formulas by claiming that their central importance is the way they signify the main themes of the blues; love, travel and anxiety (Evans, 2009, 498). He argues that the formulas only take on a tension, or energy, when they’re used in contrast with one another. This is evident when placing the formulas side by side; I come to some place/I go away from some place, I have a woman/I quit my woman, I treat you good/bad, I will be gone/I’m going back home/I’m leaving town. By doing so, the composer can play with thesis and antithesis but rarely provide synthesis. Blues lyricists do not seek to offer solutions to their problems. Instead, they provide a thesis, an anti-thesis, but no synthesis.
To provide a solution is to contradict a central tenet of the blues, an uncommitted attitude to life. By providing contrasting pairs the lyricist is able to maintain a sense of tension. The tension exists both in emotion and language. Common contrasting pairs are “leaving/returning; boasting/self-pity; praise/abuse; love/hate; good treatment/mistreatment; faithfulness/abandonment; and dominance/subordination” (Evans, 2007, 491). The singer may also contrast images and objects as well as states of mind. Below is a small compilation of Scott’s lyrics containing contrasting pairs.
In Bad Boy Boogie (1978) we find the contrasting pair of domination/subordination:
On the day I was born
The rain fell down
There was trouble brewing in my home town
It was the seventh day
I was the seventh son
And I scared the hell out of everyone
They said stop I said go
They said fast I said slow
They said lost I said no
I do the bad boy boogie
Bein’ a bad boy ain’t that bad
I’ve known more pretty women than most men ever had
All you women come along with me
And I’ll show how good a bad boy can be
We are presented with a character at odds with ‘them’. The character claims to be the seventh son. That is, the seventh son of a seventh son in a line of unbroken males. According to this folklore the seventh son has special powers. In this case the special powers appear to be the ability to resist the pressures of domination.
The contrast between love and hate is evident in Hell Aint a Bad Place to Be:
Sometimes I think this woman is kinda hot
Sometimes I think this woman is sometimes not
Puts me down, fool me around, why she do it to me?
Out for satisfaction, any piece of action, that ain’t the way it should be
She needs lovin’ knows I’m the man, she’s gotta see
Pours my beer, licks my ear, brings out the devil in me
Hell ain’t a bad place to be
(Hell Aint a Bad Place To Be, 1977)
Within the song there is a tension between the feelings of the protagonist and the actions of the parties in the relationship. The protagonist detests his ‘woman’ “pushing” him down and “fooling” him around but is willing to accept these actions for the affection he receives. The contrast in affection given to the protagonist is the nature of the relationship described as ‘hell’, a relationship not easily given up.
The song Sin City contains a literal contrast of images:
Ladders and snakes, ladders give, snakes take
Rich man poor man, beggar man, thief
You ain’t got a hope in hell, that’s my belief
(Sin City, 1978)
The song is about gambling. Scott suggests a synthesis between the contrasting pair of rich and poor, but the synthesis is a negative one of hopelessness, a central tenet of the blues. This hopelessness is contrasted in the song by a “burning feeling” and a directionless “yearning” that cares little that the odds are stacked against them. The “winning” is in the release of the “burning feeling.”
The theme of good treatment/mistreatment is found in the song You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me, a cold analysis of dependent relationships:
You can take me to your bedroom, you can take me to your heart
You can take me to a climax, I won’t fall apart
But don’t count on me giving it all back to you
Just because I’m hooked on living, don’t mean I’m hooked on you
(You Aint Got A Hold On Me, 1975)
The voice in this song attempts to warn the lover not to misinterpret his/her happiness for happiness within the relationship. The voice is saying I will accept your advancements but do not expect reciprocity. The song Ride On contains the contrasting pairs of both leaving/returning and boasting/self-pity. This song is probably the most blues-like of all the songs Scott wrote:
That’s why I’m lonely, I’m so lonely, but I know what I’m gonna do
I’m gonna ride on, ride on
Standing on the edge of the road, thumb in the air
One of these days I’m gonna, change my evil ways, ‘til then I’ll just keep riding on
Broke another promise and I broke another heart
But I ain’t to young to realise that I ain’t to old to try, try to get back to the start
And it’s another red-light nightmare on another red-light street
And I ain’t too old to hurry cause I ain’t too old to die but I sure am hard to beat
(Ride On, 1976)
The lyrics maintain a tension between permanence and change, youth and age, innocence and wisdom. The singer tries to set things straight but is invariably hindered by his “evil ways” that lead to travel/returning, boasting/self pity. It is interesting to note that “I’m so lonely” is not one of Taft’s common formulas. The trope is frequent enough in blues lyrics to warrant recognition. In Scott’s lyrics, what emerges is a pattern of formulas that link the songs together by theme and association. Finally, I present the contrasting pairs of faithfulness/abandonment, in Beating Around the Bush:
Smilin’ face and laughin’ eyes, but you keep on tellin’ me all those lies
How’d you expect me to believe honey I ain’t that naive
Baby I got my eye on you, cause you do all the things I want you to
Stop your cryin’ and dry your tears, I ain’t that wet behind the ears
You can throw me lefts, you can throw me rights, but where was you last night?
(Beating Around the Bush, 1979)
There are a percentage of Scott’s lyrics thus far unaccounted for in this dissertation. These songs relate to the theme of ‘being a musician’. This theme is almost always addressed under the scope of being a rock musician. In much the same way blues musicians continually define and redefine the blues in their lyrics, Scott attempts to define and redefine rock and roll in his lyrics. The songs seek to provide a definition of ‘rock’ both through the lyrics and the musical accompaniment. In this context the songs act as a manifesto for Scott and mark a departure point from the traditional blues lyric theme and structure discussed earlier. Nevertheless, this departure point is based on the formula of the blues lyric, but the theme lies outside Taft’s common blues formulas. The term ‘rock’ was originally slang for sex, but grew to encompass loud, electric, rhythm and blues. As we have seen in the case of Scott, the content of the lyrics for the blues man is not too dissimilar to the content of the lyrics of the rock and roll singer. Scott makes a conscious effort to present himself as a rock and roll singer, as opposed to a blues man. Rock and roll, through amplification, is loud, whereas the blues, particularly in its earlier acoustic antecedent, was quieter.
Generally, the songs implicitly or explicitly acknowledge influential musical genres or musicians through allusion or direct reference. The ‘being a musician’ songs also act to define an audience for the group. The ‘us and them’ message serves to create a ‘inner circle’ for the group. Call and response, a traditional blues and gospel technique is used to activate the inner circle with the live audience. Overall, these songs act as a legitimation process for both the musicians and the audience. On every AC/DC album there are songs which relate to the theme of being a musician/rock and roll singer. These songs are present on every album and act as a contrast to the blues songs, many of which are deal with the theme of love. On the first album we find It’s a Long to the Top (if You Wanna Rock and Roll), Rock and Roll Singer, and High Voltage. It’s a Long Way to the Top:
Ridin’ down the highway, goin’ to a show
Stop in all the by-ways, playin’ rock ‘n’ roll
Gettin’ robbed, gettin’ stoned, gettin’ beat up
Broken boned, gettin’ had, gettin’ took
I tell you folks it’s harder than it looks
It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll
If you think it’s easy doin’ one night stands, try playin’ in a rock ’n’ roll band
It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll
Hotel, motel, make you wanna cry
Lady do the hard sell, know the reason why
Gettin’ old, gettin’ grey, gettin’ ripped off
Under-paid, gettin’ sold, second hand
That’s how it goes playin’ in a band
It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll
(It’s a Long Way to the Top, 1975)
The lyrics of this song draw upon the experience Scott gained playing with both the Valentines and Fraternity. During the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for touring Australian bands to drive over 500kms from one city to the next, often sleeping on top of amplifiers in the back of vans. This song introduces the Scottish bagpipes during the solo and outro, an acknowledgment to the band’s Scottish heritage. The song continues the overall themes evident in many blues songs. The themes of worry, hardship and oppression are contrasted with the bands desire for success. As one of the first songs written with the band, the lyrics also act as reinforcement to the singer as he begins at the bottom of the musical hierarchy once again. The use of parataxis and repeated caesuras foreshadow the technique used in the song Highway to Hell, written some four years later:
Livin’ easy, livin’ free, season ticket on a one way ride
Askin’ nothin’, leave me be, takin’ everythin’ in my stride
Don’t need reason, don’t need rhyme, ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do
Goin’ down, party time, my friends are gonna be there too
I’m on the highway to hell, highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell, highway to hell
No stop signs, speed limit, nobody’s gonna slow me down
Grab the wheel, gonna spin it, nobody’s gonna mess me around
Hey satan, paid my dues, playin’ in a rockin’ band
Hey mumma, look at me, I’m on the way to the promised land
I’m on the highway to hell, highway to hell
I’m on the highway to hell, highway to hell, don’t stop me
(Highway to Hell, 1979)
In contrast to It’s a Long Way to the Top, Highway to Hell celebrates life as a touring band. Touring is presented as joyous rather than oppressive. When the former was written in 1975, the band were virtually unknown, whereas in 1979, the band were one year away from being one the biggest and most successful in the world.
The notion or concept of ‘hell’ is inverted from a place/state of mind to be avoided, to a place to be embraced. For Scott, the concept of ‘hell’ becomes the connection between blues and rock ’n’ roll. He first uses the idea to describe a relationship, but later uses the idea to define the outsider or rogue. Put broadly, the blues is an emotional state of sadness, whereas rock and roll is a state of hell. ‘Hell’ as a motif, first appears on the album Let There Be Rock. The quasi-religious nature of all blues lyrics can be explained through the relationship between blues and gospel music. The blues singers as outsiders are condemned to hell. Two of Scott’s songs exemplify the lineage from blues to hell, Let There Be Rock, and Hell Aint A Bad Place To Be:
Spends my money, drinks my booze, stays out every night
But I got to thinkin’, hey, just a minute, somethin’ ain’t right
Disillusions and confusion, make me wanna cry
The shame you playin’ your games, tellin’ me those lies
Don’t mind her playin’ demon, as long as it’s with me
If this is hell, then let me say, it’s heavenly, hell ain’t a bad place to be
(Hell Aint A Bad Place to Be, 1977)
Scott inverts the values of heaven and hell. The traditional blues theme of love, man/woman relations remains present but the context has altered. Scott has taken notions of the devil, or demons that are both objective and subjective motifs in blues lyrics and expanded them to represent a state of ‘hell.’ Like the hell in Highway to Hell, the hell in Hell Aint A Bad Place To Be is an enjoyable place/state of mind used to ironically mock the prevailing value structure inherent in religion. In this new order, to be an outsider, to be aligned with the ‘devil’s music’ is more joyful, playful and ‘heavenly’. For Scott, music, and in particular blues and rock ‘n’ roll music, is his religion.
This belief is exemplified in the song Let There Be Rock. This song is Scott’s swan song and ars poetica (singing about singing). The song defines the term ‘rock’ both on a semantic and musical level. In this sense the lyrics mark a departure point from blues to rock in Scott’s work. Let There Be Rock is a parody of the Book of Genesis supplanting the creation of the earth with the creation of ‘rock’ music. Scott takes elements from the biblical story such as light, land, water and vegetation and replaces them with the key ingredients for a rock and roll concert, such as light, sound, guitar, drums. The lyrics:
In the beginning, back in nineteen fifty five
Man didn’t know ‘bout a rock ‘n’ roll show, and all that jive
The white man had the schmlatz, the black man had the blues
No one knew what they was gonna do, but Tschaikovsky had the news
He said: ‘Let there be sound, there was sound
Let there be light, there was light
Let there be drums, there was drums
Let there be guitar, there was guitar
Let there be rock’
And it came to pass, that rock ‘n’ roll was born
All across the land every rockin’ band was blowin’ up a storm
And the guitar man got famous, the business man got rich
And in every bar there was a superstar, with a seven year itch
There was fifteen million fingers learnin’ how to play
And you could hear the fingers pickin’, and this is what they had to say:
‘Let there be light
Let there be rock’
One night in the club called the shakin’ hand
There was a 92 decibel rockin’ band
And the music was good and the music was loud
And the singer turned and he said to the crowd:
‘Let there be rock’
(Let There Be Rock, 1977)
In 1956, Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry was released. According to Rolling Stone magazine, the song “became the ultimate rock & roll call to arms, declaring a new era.” (Rolling Stone, 2004, Dec. 113) In the song, Berry sings:
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm and my soul keeps a-singin’ the blues.
Roll over Beethoven and tell Tschaikowsky the news.
(Roll Over Beethoven, 1955)
In 1976, Scott takes these lyrics together with his interpretation of the events of the previous twenty years, suggesting Tschaikowsky has received the news and with great bravado signals that classical music has ‘rolled over.’ Classical music here represents the ‘old’ generation as opposed to the ‘youth culture’. Acting in the role of preacher, Scott identifies ‘the beginning’ point as the release of Maybellene by Chuck Berry in 1955, the starting point for Rock and Roll.
Scott combines Berry’s ‘call to arms’ with his inversion of the values of heaven and hell. Recognising the tradition of both blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Scott is able to expand on previous techniques to develop his own definition of ‘rock and roll’. The term ‘rock’ has progressed from its original meaning of sexual intercourse, to now have a new meaning of its own. The lyrics and music are able to provide the dual roles of the definition of rock and simultaneously act as an example of the new definition. This scenario parallels the claim that blues lyricists can simultaneously use the blues lyric formula and remain original at the same time.
The purpose of this dissertation has been to establish the origin and inspiration of Bon Scott’s lyrics during his time with the band AC/DC. To do so I have outlined the theoretical and historical framework for oral poetry studies and the blues lyric formula. Through the arguments of Taft and Evans, the dissertation has presented a sample of the problems found in oral formulaic theory and how they are evident in the blues lyric formula. Although I have attempted to give a sense of the intricacies inherent in the blues lyric formula, there has not been sufficient room to compare and contrast a musicological versus a linguistic study of blues music and blues lyrics. The overall aim was to attempt to systematically demonstrate in what way Scott’s lyrics belong to the blues lyric tradition. The intention was never to highlight the shortcomings of the blues lyric formula itself.
The dissertation is comparative and relies on three images of performers as symbolic representations of their tradition. The first is the Yugoslavian bard, the second the traditional blues composer, and the third the contemporary blues recording artist. Firstly, the image we get of the Yugoslavian bard is one employed for weddings, wakes and parties. Secondly, the image we receive of the blues performer is one where he or she is sitting on the front porch jamming away by themselves or with friends. There is a standard blues semantic structure that rolls on until someone gains some inspiration and begins to build upon a theme. The final image I compare and contrast is one of the recording artist who draws upon traditional elements in the blues, in the moment of their creation.
As a form of oral poetry, the blues was one of the most influential and pervasive styles of the twentieth century. The blues was born out of the African-American slave experience. Blues men and women were the conscience and memory of the community. They sang and played to a series of subtle and flexible patterns that could be considered as formulaic. The formula enabled a standard and common stock of songs that performers could share. The songs emerged out of collaborations between performers who, in their oppressed state, were unaware of the commercial viability of their talents. Not until the mid to late 1940s did African-American music begin to become mainstream. “Race” records were re-branded as rhythm and blues records signifying a shift away from the identity of the performers to the style of the music. The global proliferation of African-American music via radio and record elevated the profile of individual performers who began to claim royalties for the original creation of their work. Amplification altered the live performances as bands could play to larger audiences. Singers and guitarists could be heard over the percussion and brass instruments and distorted guitar complemented the singers screaming.
In 1955 Chuck Berry released Maybellene marking the beginning of rock and roll and youth culture. Berry’s clear voice sounded, to many on radio, like the voice of white man. African -American musicians were beginning to be included as a major part of youth culture. In England and Australia bands were emulating the styles and songs of rhythm and blues and rock and roll bands. To write your own music, however, required intimate knowledge of the blues form. Blues, R&B, and rock and roll music was politically charged like the folk boom of the early 1960s, was aligned with the black civil rights movement. To emulate the lyrical style meant to fulfill the notion of the “essential idea” of the blues; that of human suffering and survival. To strike at the heart of the “essential idea” of the blues required understanding of the blues lyric formula.
In order to be considered as a blues musician, lyricists had to display knowledge of the tradition. These artists may work to a formula and rely on memory in the moment of performance. Artists such as Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry typify this category. Nevertheless to be considered as part of the tradition, lyricists needed to innovate to be considered part of the tradition. Through the work of Evans and Taft, we have been able to distill the prominent themes, patterns and formulas found in the history of blues music. Having identified these themes, I have been able to compare the twenty most prominent formula identified by Taft with the lyrics written by Scott. As I have shown, Bon Scott’s lyrics in AC/DC satisfy the majority of the prominent themes found in blues music. Finally we brought this study to a conclusion with a closer examination of some examples of Scott’s lyrics and highlighted some of the major themes and techniques in his lyrics. Throughout all of the examination we have maintained, through oral poetry studies, a sense of the history of blues lyrics as a link between the Slavic and Greek bards through to rock and rock via rhythm and blues.
To paraphrase Bowra, if we think that Let There Be Rock was composed in the 1970s by a man called Bon Scott, it is clear that he had very little part in bringing these epithets into the rock and roll language. They belong to a tradition which he inherited and no doubt expanded on and improved. In this matter, as in others, he seems to have been content to operate within the formulae which for the most part were fixed and regularised before he began to compose, and his task was rather to use them with the utmost effect for his own vision of the wrath of Angus and its dire consequences.
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN FICTION AND DISSERTATION
*THIS article is intended to be read with the novel Bad Boy Boogie: The Adventures of Bon Scott, which can be found in the Amazon store.
For Bon Scott, life on ‘the road’ was a series of ongoing performances. The process of recording was also a performance with the band preferring to record ‘live’ with limited overdubs and sound effects. Scott carried with him notebooks within which he would jot lines and ideas for songs. These notes would remain in draft form until the band entered the studio, where the lyrics would be considered in relation to the music and then edited in relation to a concept that would suit the tune in question.
In the fiction part of this project I attempt to recreate the moments in time when Scott wrote the drafts of the songs which then become the compositions. I take it as a presupposition that Scott was so highly skilled and knowledgeable in his craft and that he was essentially composing and performing ‘in his head’. Put more clearly, Scott did not need the band to help draft the composition. The performance may well have taken place alone. Nevertheless it is misleading to suggest the performance is as complete and compelling without the expertise of the other members.
To recreate the ‘moment in time’ is a major element in historical fiction. It is also, as Lord argues, an integral part of oral poetry studies (Lord, 2000, 13). It could be argued historical fiction has a formula as much as the traditions of epic poetry or blues music. The concept of verisimilitude, or truthful similarities crosses the work of both fiction and non-fiction. To ‘truthfully’ and factually represent Scott’s life would take thirty-three years, the amount of time he lived.
In my research, I discovered that many of the resources on Scott’s life were unreliable. Many of the dominant myths were distortions of Scott’s character and often events were fabricated to support the view of that character. A peer-reviewed, academic biography of Scott’s life is a project yet to be undertaken.
By interviewing people who knew Scott, I soon learned that the majority of the quotes in authoritative texts were not word-for-word transcriptions of interviews but paraphrased sound bites recreated later. Many interviewees have became disgruntled with the manipulation of their memories. Journalists and writers were perpetuating the myths rather than critically analysing them. I do not present these inconsistencies as a sort of trial of process. Rather, the point is to suggest that my own processes will be, and is flawed. My conclusion then, is that it is better to say the work is completely fictional.
I need always to start from the sources that are reliable, and these are the lyrics and letters we know to be the works of Scott. In the creative component of this thesis, I have taken these letters and lyrics and attempted to recreate the moments in time when they were written. Some of the letters in the novel are based on letters Scott wrote, and some are fictionalised. The lyrics in the novel are intended to be read as imagined drafts of the songs that would be published on the AC/DC albums. The dissertation aims to disclose the tradition to which those lyrics belong.
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