In 2011, John Bisset (keyboards on Fraternity), granted me an interview for the site AC / DC Back In Black. I asked him subtle questions around Bon Scott and his life in the group on and off the stage
First of all, I thank you for granting us this interview
No problem. I can only tell the story from my point of view and can only give very “ballpark” dates.
I would also like to say that I cannot talk about Fraternity without talking about subjects like excessive alcohol consumption, marijuana smoking and the use of drugs like LSD and mescaline. I gave up alcohol in 1984. I remained a light user of marijuana for many years but eventually gave that up too. My use of LSD and the like ended when I left Fraternity in 1972, except for a couple of disappointing trips down memory lane in the early 1990s.
I became one of the worst sinners ever to become a saved Christian in February 2006, when I heard and believed the gospel of Christ in a little local mid-Acts dispensational grace fellowship here in Hamilton, New Zealand. I have found that true salvation is a more exciting ride with a much better destination than that which my old life was taking me to.
What was, chronologically, the origin of Fraternity? Were certain members an integral part of this chronology?
I arrived in Sydney in 1967 with a Kiwi (New Zealand) soul and Motown band called the Action. I first met the other founding members of Fraternity when they were with the Levi Smith’s Clefs, resident band at the Whiskey A Go-Go nightclub in King’s Cross, Sydney’s famous club and red light district. The Action were the resident band at another nightclub (owned by the same people that owned the Whiskey) called the Hawiian Eye. I used to visit the Whiskey and occasionally jammed with the Clefs. I played Hammond organ at the time. Sydney was a popular R ‘n’ R destination for US servicemen from the war in Vietnam so it was an exciting and colourful time.
The Action disbanded around the same time as the Clefs organist left to form Tully (a very successful acid-rock band.) I was offered the gig on keyboards with the Clefs. The line-up at the time was Barry McAskill (vocals), Bruce Howe (bass), Mick Jurd (guitar), Tony Beutel (drums) and I played Hammond organ. A female vocalist called Inez Amaya also sang with us on a ‘guest vocalist’ basis. Barry and Bruce were from Adelaide, Mick was from Sydney and Tony was from Brisbane.
Some of us (including myself) were ambitious and impatient for greater things than being a resident band so we went on the road (must have been about 1969) and played the rock circuit in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. We recorded an album in Adelaide (“Empty Monkey”) which is a pretty accurate representation of the Clefs at that time. – a blend of Motown and rock, largely inspired by Vanilla Fudge.
When was the original band formed? And who were the members? What did they play? You played keyboards, correct?
Barry was the leader of the Clefs. The rest of us (Bruce, Mick, Tony and I) had different ideas and ambitions to Barry and we split from him in Melbourne and became Fraternity. I think Mick came up with the name. We worked as a four-piece for a while, eventually basing ourselves in Sydney. Bruce and I did most of the vocals. Other than that we continued on the same instruments as in the Clefs.
Who were your biggest influences (personally), and who was the inspiration of the group, musically?
While still at high school my personal influences were the Shadows and the Ventures. I was an aspiring lead guitarist at the time. The Beatles changed all that and I modelled myself on John Lennon for a while becoming the rhythm guitarist and vocalist for the Mods, a Beatles-style band in Hamilton, New Zealand.
I joined an Auckland band (the Action) who introduced me to soul and Motown music. Rhythm guitarists were going out of fashion and I wasn’t good enough to get a gig as a lead guitarist. I switched to keyboards and learned how to play them “on the job”: I was greatly impressed and influenced by Mark Stein of Vanilla Fudge, Jon Lord of Deep Purple and Keith Emerson of the Nice and ELP. I was always very limited by my lack of formal keyboard training but I played with heart and got a good sound.
Fraternity were initially very much into Vanilla Fudge, Deep Purple and the Nice. Later on we were greatly influenced by the Band, Yes and the Byrds. I became detached from the “engine room” of Fraternity later on as I lived separately from them. Bruce Howe, Uncle John Eyers, John Freeman or Sam See would be better qualified to comment on the band’s later influences.
Which was the life method of the group out [of] concert?
I assume you mean “off stage”. Initially in Sydney, Bruce, Mick, Tony and Bon lived a short distance from my flat which was across the road from Centennial Park. They rented a two-storey terraced house in Jersey Road. There was a lot of booze, marijuana and acid and a lot of socialising with other musicians. In Sydney, John Robinson (Black Feather guitarist) was a regular visitor and other characters like Leo De Castro (Kiwi vocalist). Bon was a great one for dispelling myths about acid culture, like the vegetarianism that many hippies embraced. I remember him wandering around gleefully chomping on a large leg of roast beef at one very acid-soaked party in Jersey Road.
I was primarily a boozer and womaniser and had a torrid relationship with my wife. My wife Cheryl and I were both incredibly suspicious and jealous of each other (with good reason) so our son grew up in a war zone. Bon was one of the few people who brought cheer into our lives and was totally non-judgmental of our lack of maturity. He always owned a motorbike and used to visit and take our son for rides. He would also spend time with our son and entertain him with somersaults and other athletic feats on the back lawn.
Adelaide millionaire Hamish Henry took over management of Fraternity soon after Bon joined. We moved to Adelaide and most of the band took up residence in a large property in the Adelaide Hills. Hamish let Cheryl and I rent a beautiful flat above his art gallery in North Adelaide. By this time John Freeman from Adelaide had taken over on drums and “Uncle” John Eyers had joined on harmonica. Sam See was the last to join on guitar and keyboards – sometime after we won the Australian “Battle of the Sounds” in 1971.
New Fraternity members from Bon onwards were basically musicians with personalities that made them naturals for the Fraternity culture. They were like family. We just liked them and got on really well with them. They also shared our taste for booze, marijuana and acid. There was an amazingly tolerant spirit in the band. I was easily the most erratic personality, prone to severe mood swings and extreme, blackout drunkenness. Yet I was never once lectured or censured by the band. That was just “JB” (as I was called). Bon used to drink as much or more than me but he didn’t undergo the extreme personality change that I did. I was a Jekyll and Hyde but Bon was always Bon – straight Bon, stoned Bon, tripping Bon, legless drunk Bon.
Later on (late 1971, early 1972) Bruce and Bon moved into a large house in a more working class suburb of Adelaide with me and Cheryl and my son Brent (and Clutch the dog of course – he had the honour of getting his photo on the back cover of the Flaming Galah album.) Bon was really good with Brent and continued to take him for rides on his trail bike and put up with Brent (who was four at the time) playing pranks on him. Brent’s favourite prank was to adjust the temperature of the water when Bon was in the shower, by turning the taps in the laundry off and on.
We did an amazing tour of the smaller towns around South Australia. On arriving in a new town we would descend upon the local pub. The locals would initially make fun of our appearance with comments like “long-haired poofters (queers)” or “drug-crazed hippies”, but as the alcohol flowed and we proved our skill on the pool table, they would befriend us. On our German tour we had to add table football to our skills but otherwise things were pretty similar to Australia.
Bon was a natural-born daredevil and would have loved the advent of outfits like the Crusty Demons. He probably would have applied to join them if they had been around in our time. He entertained the local kids in one town by jumping off a high point on a pier into a swarm of jellyfish in the ocean below. He would ride a trolley down an embankment at the Adelaide Hills property into a small lake at the bottom. When the trolley hit the bottom he would be projectiled into the lake. He suffered some painful injuries on his trail bike but never lost his spirit. He played a practical joke with me on the back of his trail bike once which I have described elsewhere. He was dubbed “Road Test Ronnie” by the band as he usually was the first to try a new type of acid or weed. He seemed able to cope with any drug that science or nature could come up with. Only datura, which he road-tested in London, got the better of him. He had a bad couple of days and the rest of us avoided it.
In the era of Fraternity, Bon did live [up] to the manner "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" as he was able to live with AC/DC ?
I think Bon learned his “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” attitude and lifestyle in Fraternity. Some commentators saw us as a bunch of clean-living hippies into lentils and sandals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Uncle didn’t drink a lot and was more into hippiedom than the rest of us, but despite appearances, Fraternity was very much a “sex, drugs and rock” outfit, though I would put booze at the front of that list – particularly cheap South Australian brandy. We had our share of groupies though some of us indulged more than others. Bon would sign autographs for girls in very intimate places but was not much into casual sexual relationships from my observation. He introduced me to a very beautiful, dark-haired, very pregnant, lady friend once in Melbourne. It seemed that he was the father but I never heard any more about it.
We lived to “have a good time” as Bruce once expressed it to a belligerent, drunken Vietnam vet who threatened to kill us all during our train trip to Perth. Being “straight” was a state to be liberated from. Once “out of our minds” on booze and/or drugs we lost our judgmental uptightness and became more natural, laid back, communicative, content and humorous.
At one drunken gig as a guest band at the Whiskey A Go-Go, Bon shared some mandies (sleeping pills) with me. I fell asleep during a set and flopped onto the Hammond keyboard with my foot right down on the volume control. The band initially thought I was doing a wild improvisation. Later on it was Bon who fell asleep, slouched in a seat in the club. They were closing the club and we couldn’t wake him so I dragged him out with his arm over my shoulder and took him home in a cab.
We dropped window pane acid then got seriously drunk and stoned during our train trip from Adelaide to Perth. Uncle lit up a joint during a flight to Perth and told the airline staff that the smell was patchouli oil. We got so drunk on that flight that a planned radio interview on arrival in Perth had to be cancelled. The Adelaide police sent us all home when we turned up roaring drunk to get our international drivers licences.
What was it like recording in the studio with Fraternity? How long did it generally take the band to write and record an album?
Studio recording was brief. Just a few days in the studio as I remember. It did not interrupt our boozing, stoned lifestyle. The songs were collected over the months and years prior to going into the studio though maybe a few were put together specifically for the album.
Who did most of the songwriting?
We wrote songs when we were inspired. They were few and far between. We relied heavily on covers for our live performances. New Zealand and Australian rock bands generally lagged behind Europe and the USA with regard to original songs. We only caught up from the late 1970s onwards with bands like AC/DC, INXS, Men At Work, Cold Chisel, Crowded House etc. Doug Ashdown was a friend of the band and we recorded a couple of his songs in the Clefs and Fraternity.
Mick was the main contributor to our more ambitious stuff like Raglan’s Folly. He also wrote “You Have A God”. Mick and I collaborated on a song or two while on the road. He also composed some excellent instrumentals during the Clefs days – “Theme From A Lighted Doorway” and “Empty Monkey”.
Bruce, Bon and Sam collaborated on much of Fraternity’s later material like “Welfare Boogie” which was getting much closer to the international mark. I was not present during their songwriting sessions in the Adelaide Hills so Bruce or Sam could fill you in on who did what.
I lacked the confidence that I could write material as good as the English and US bands and I lacked confidence and experience in making originals exciting and powerful. I became better at it later on, long after Fraternity. My best songwriting effort for Fraternity was “If You Got It” which went to number 2 on the South Australian chart. It was entirely my music and lyrics but Hamish insisted that the band as a whole get songwriting credit because I was signed with another publisher and he wanted his own company to publish it. When I contacted APRA regarding royalties for “If You Got It” their records had Sam See as the songwriter. Sam wasn’t even in the band when we recorded it. Most frustrating.
John Robinson and Neale Johns of Blackfeather wrote our biggest hit “Seasons of Change”. It went to number one in South Australia and the Blackfeather version was a hit on the East Coast of Australia.
What were the albums published under the name of Fraternity with Bon Scott?
I am not very knowledgeable regarding this type of information. Raven records have released some compilations but to the best of my knowledge Livestock and Flaming Galah were the only albums we released while the band was together.
What Fraternity album is your favourite? Livestock or Flaming Galah?
I was unhappy with both of them and had little interest in them after we recorded them. I was embarrassed by our (my?) inability to get it right. Bon later told me what a joy it was to write and record simple and powerful stuff with AC/DC.
Mick had been a jazz musician. We all respected his skill and knowledge and so there was a tendency toward the kind of complexity and skill that bands like Yes and Steely Dan found success with. Sam was a country-rocker.
I was a blues-rocker at heart and the world has seen what Bon was really into. Bruce and Uncle also moved back toward blues-rock in later years. If simple blues-rock had been our focus and direction we could have made great albums. But as you can see we had not yet reached that degree of self-knowledge. I believe that to know yourself is to know what you truly love.
What was the typical Fraternity live show like?
The band went through changes in style and personnel so the performances varied accordingly.
I think we at our best during our first series of gigs in Melbourne after Bon had joined the band. I think Uncle was on board but Sam See had not yet joined. I remember we played three different venues on one Saturday night and peaked at the last one, a club called Berties. We were all high on mescaline, marijuana and wine (well I certainly was and I think the others were too). But we weren’t too drunk – just right.
We all helped the roadies, Bob and Rob, hump the gear into Berties downstairs room. My Hammond organ had removable handles but was still awkward and heavy.
We opened with “Chest Fever” a cover of the Band song. I did an extended introduction that I was a little beyond my keyboard technique but I did it well some nights and this night in particular. Then the band powered in and it was really exciting. The club was packed to capacity to see Bon’s new band. We went over extremely well.
We would have played a few other band covers like “The Shape I’m In” and probably “Seasons of Change” and “If You Got It”. I can’t remember what else we played though Mick always cracked up the crowd with our band introductory song “Sydney Cold Smorgasbord” our answer to King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew”. We improvised a lot and had extraordinarily good communication musically.
Later on in Germany we tried to be a more intense rock band. I was relegated to piano (which I wasn’t that good at) and there were too many instruments in our 7-piece line-up for a good clear sound – more of a wall of sound. Very frustrating and short-lived. After Sam and I left they went back to a 5-piece as “Fang” but folded soon after.
You did a tour outside of Australia?
We were based in Finchley, London from early 1972 to mid 1973. From there we played one-off gigs around England and did at least one, maybe two, short tours to Germany.
What went wrong with that tour? How did the English crowd react to the band?
With the benefit of hindsight I can see what was wrong but at the time I was just as confused (more so probably) as everyone else.
Our wealthy and benevolent manager, Hamish, transplanted the whole Fraternity community to London. My dog Clutch even joined us after six miserable months in quarantine. In all there were 17 people and a dog living in a house designed for maybe 6 people. It was very cramped and communal and there was a lot of bickering as you can imagine. Each band member had a girlfriend or wife and I also had a young child and a dog. There were also the two roadies, Bob and Rob, Bob’s wife and our tour manager, Bruce King. Hamish had also shipped our Fraternity tour bus to London from Australia. The Finchley residents were bemused by the mini greyhound bus parked in the narrow London street.
I remember London rehearsals being very gloomy, unproductive affairs. We had very little money so the booze and drugs supply was severely limited. The whole mood of the band went downhill in London – harsh reality began to set in. The party was over.
We were not up with the play as far as sound production went. Our PA was inadequate and we lacked the know-how and experience of the UK bands. We supported Status Quo at our first gig. The audience was appreciative and kind but we could not compete with the gear we had.
Other problems inherent in the band became prominent. We had too many members to get a clear sound definition of individual instruments and we lacked good original material. We also had not established a clear musical and cultural niche or direction for ourselves. We were a strange type of country-rock band by this stage. We all tried to write new and better songs but to no avail. I was unhappy on piano but felt like a passenger on a bus that no one in particular was driving, and clueless and powerless to change anything.
Things were briefly better in Germany. We focussed more on rock for the German audiences and went over quite well. Bon introduced a song or two in German, much to the delight of the audience.
I was the first to jump ship and Sam See followed soon after. The rest (Bruce Howe, Mick Jurd, “Uncle” John Eyers, Bon Scott and John Freeman) carried on for a time as Fang but soon returned to Australia. I was hired and fired by Mungo Jerry then got a job in Surrey as a farm worker. Later in 1973 I began my long stint as a computer programmer, only returning to the rock scene briefly in 1982-83 back in Sydney.
What was the final downfall that caused the band to break up for good?
I was long gone and still in London at the time the band finally broke up in Australia. You would have to ask Bruce, Uncle or John Freeman what happened.
What is your most memorable moment of Bon Scott?
I have told this story elsewhere but it is by far my most memorable moment of Bon Scott.
Bon and I and my dog Clutch drove in my International pickup truck to a deserted beach beyond the Adelaide Hills to drop some acid with some university students we had met at a gig. Bon had loaded his trail bike on the back of the truck.
I was normally depressed and paranoid when sober - aggressive and arrogant when drunk. Neither of these states was even close to sanity but I had had an amazing experience of sanity once before at a beach in Sydney, with the help of a friend and LSD. (I told the story in a song called “The Ballad of Bill Shattock” – if you’re interested you can find an mp3 of it on my website.) I have since learned that many other alcoholics had a similar awakening with the help of LSD. (See the AA founder’s Bill Wilson biography “Pass It On”, chapter 23)
So I was hoping for another “spiritual awakening” type of experience on this occasion with Bon. As it turned out, the LSD wasn’t as strong as on the previous occasion and I just sat on the beach feeling miserable and paranoid like I usually felt when sober. I still got my spiritual awakening, though in an unexpected way with Bon’s help.
Bon had gone off down the beach on his trail bike. When he returned he beckoned me on to the back of the bike. I objected that I had to mind the dog. “The dog will be all right” said Bon and insisted I get on. So I did.
He took off down the long deserted beach at great speed. The eastern end of the beach was blocked by massive sand hills and a wide stream of water flowed down across the beach from inland to the water, just prior to the sand hills. I expected Bon to slow down but he went even faster. We rocketed through the stream and I was drenched with water as though by a fire hose. The bike then ploughed into the base of the sand hills at great speed and Bon and I were both thrown about ten metres from where the bike stopped dead.
When I regained my senses I was covered in water and sand but seemingly uninjured. I looked up the sand hill and there was Bon smiling and laughing at me. That’s what it took to ‘awaken’ my sanity on that day – I immediately saw the funny side of it and laughed too. Bon said “I knew you would either laugh or hit me”. He also said later “I knew there was a normal happy bloke in there somewhere”.
The rest of the day was amazing. We took turns at riding the trail bike through the sand hills. The back wheel was doing about 100kph but the bike was gliding through the sand at maybe 20 or 30 kph.
We brought fish and chips on the drive home. It was really cool scoffing fish and chips, hungry as hell, salty, wet, sandy and high on acid, with Bon and my dog Clutch.
You had kept the contact with him after he had left Fraternity?
Not much. He was mostly on the road with AC/DC and I was a computer programmer in London and Saudi Arabia. I visited Adelaide on leave from my Saudi Arabian contract late in 1978 and by chance Bon was there visiting the other guys too. AC/DC were already quite famous at that time and Bon was getting harassed a lot by aggressive, jealous blokes in pubs. We got drunk at Uncle’s place then parted company again.
I only saw Bon twice in the seven years from Fraternity to his death and we had no contact in between, so we did not remain close mates. He didn’t look me up to go drinking with him when he hit London. Uncle remained his best friend from Fraternity. In the Fraternity pecking order Bon had been a non-founding, easygoing, “junior” member, as was Uncle, so they bonded together in relation to us difficult, arrogant “senior” members, particularly Mick and me.
Bon had a less than happy time of it in the latter days of Fraternity. There was even talk of firing him in London at one point, though God Knows, Bon was never our problem. So he probably felt vindicated by his success in AC/DC and glad to be free of the shackles of Fraternity.
You had the occasion to attend a concert d' AC/DC with Bon Scott? If yes [what] was your impression?
I was working at Shell in London at the time, probably late 1979. He left 5 tickets for me and my mates for an AC/DC concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. They weren’t megastars yet but had a big following.
I had been out of the rock scene for many years and it was all a bit foreign to me. I enjoyed it and could see that they had reached a much higher level of professionalism and popularity than I had ever experienced in the rock scene. They were totally committed to their performance and really gave their supporters their money’s worth. Their songs were simple and powerful and I enjoyed Angus’ guitar playing and the sound he got and could see that Bon was totally in his element and was loving the gig.
I spotted Bon at a backstage door after the show and managed to get his attention. He invited me into the dressing room where I had a beer with him. He introduced me to Angus. Bon said of Angus’ antics on stage that “Its just a matter of keeping out of his way” or words to that effect. I stood and watched as they drove off in a limo soon after.
In what way were notified you of the death of Bon Scott ?
My ex-wife Cheryl (we parted in 1974) called me at Shell after she read it in the paper.
What was your reaction?
I was saddened and probably a little disturbed because of my own excessive drinking. He was a good example to me in many ways. He was far more generous of spirit and emotionally mature than I was and had that most excellent quality of tolerance – letting people be happy in their own way and not interfering, judging or trying to control them. He smiled a lot and told me once that “everyone loves a smile”. (I didn’t smile much in those days.) I hope to pay my respects at his gravesite some day.
You had contacts with other members of the group?
Very little. As my drinking and attitude worsened over the years, I managed to alienate myself from most of my old acquaintances. Those who weren’t alienated by my drinking were freaked out by tales of my drunken sexual escapades or my psychotic breakdown in 1983. The person I am now would have had serious concerns about the person I was then, (during the last three years of my drinking) and would have stayed well away from him. It would have been obvious to any clear-headed person that I was a disaster waiting to happen.
As to contacts, I have already mentioned the time in 1978 when I was on leave from my Saudi Arabian contract and got drunk with Bon and Uncle in Adelaide.
When I returned from London to Australia in 1981, I stayed with John Freeman, and his partner Sue, in East Sydney for a night or two. I regularly played pool with them in their local pub for a few weeks. I had hoped to join “Mickey Finn”, a blues/rock band run by Bruce Howe and Uncle and based in Adelaide. I had spoken with Bruce on the phone from London about it. By the time I reached Australia, Bruce had changed his mind about letting me join. I was in the last, worst stage of my drinking by that stage (I finally quit in 1984) and I guess I was not an attractive proposition as a band member. I met with “Mickey Finn” once in a Sydney Hotel and was in my “Mr Hyde” mode by the time I parted company with them in a belligerent, arrogant, drunken state. I had my son with me and Bruce wisely insisted that Brent didn’t accompany me when I drove off.
John Freeman introduced me to Billy McMahon, a bass player that I teamed up with to form “Diamond Cutter”, my last serious attempt to “make it” in the rock scene. After a promising start, Diamond Cutter was a casualty of my personal collision course with disaster, which came in the form of a severe psychotic breakdown in August 1983.
I am now based in New Zealand, the country of my birth. I have called Bruce, Uncle and John Freeman on the phone a few times over the years since then. They are all still in Adelaide to the best of my knowledge. I had a brief exchange of emails with Sam See regarding our differing versions of Fraternity history. Uncle sent me a cd of his harmonica playing recently but did not even enclose a note. I heard that Mick died of cancer.
And to finish, which is your current musical event?
I took up electric blues guitar in the early 1990s and am quite good at it now. I play a few gigs and blues festivals. I also sing the blues and am not bad at that too. I have a modest home studio and record demos of my own songs and three or four other local songwriters.
I play 12-string and sing at our local Christian grace fellowship. I have written and recorded some acoustic grace gospel songs which describe what I have experienced and learned since being saved in February 2006. They and a few older blues/rock songs can be downloaded from my website: www.johnbisset.com
I plan to put together an album of electric blues/rock and an album of acoustic grace gospel songs in the coming months – a kind of before and after set. J
Which are the relations between you and our country? Is it possible to see you [one] day in France?
I have dual citizenship, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, so I am free to work and live anywhere in the European Union as far as I am aware. My distant ancestors came from Normandy to Scotland. My father came from Scotland to New Zealand. I have never spent much time in France but I believe that blues music is very popular there. I like what I know about French culture.
I lead a fairly quiet and humble life these days with a large cat and a small dog. I don’t ever have much money but if circumstances ever permit it, I would love to visit France.