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The story behind AC/DC's Hell's Bell

Addressing the rumours and speculation!

AC/DC Hell's Bell

By Mike Milsom

With the renewed interest in AC/DC as they approach the start of their European Power Up Tour, I think it is opportune to correct the rumours, speculation and many incorrect ‘facts’ surrounding the 1980 AC/DC ‘Hell’s Bell’. At the time, I was Bellmaster at the John Taylor Bellfoundry in Loughborough, UK, and was responsible for casting and tuning the bell in question, and for striking it for the recording on the ‘Back In Black’ album!

Hell's Bell

It was a ‘standard’ bronze Taylor bell tuned to E (A=440Hz), which measured 48 inches in diameter and would normally weigh close to 1 UK ton, or 2240lbs (not a US ton of 2000lbs). This was the largest bell that we could make in the tight delivery period — it was ordered seven weeks before the recording was due to take place. With the addition of the large logo, the finished bell weighed 1.03 UK tons (2318lbs / 1051kg). The assertion that the bell weighed 1300kg — which has been quoted as fact by one author fairly recently — was in fact the gross weight of both the bell and its shipping/flight case; the case was clearly labelled “GR.WT. 1300 kg" for the benefit of people who needed to move it! This was not considered to be a big bell for Taylor’s, who’d made a 10-ton version in 1992. It was always agreed that in the recording studio the note E could be dropped down in pitch to the note they wanted. A big bell tuned to C had been suggested initially, but was impossible to produce in seven weeks, and AC/DC thought that the finished weight of two tons was far too heavy to hang from a gantry.

This is the only bell Taylor’s made for AC/DC, and the only real bell used during tours from ‘Black In Black’ until the Auckland concert in November 1991, at the end of their European ‘The Razor’s Edge’ tour. This is the same bell that, for 99% of the time, Brian Johnson struck with the mini sledgehammers we provided.

Making bells is time consuming, as one-off moulds have to be made for both the internal and external profile. The external mould takes the longest, with loam (a special bellfounder’s material that resembles thick mud) spread on the inside of a bell-shaped cast iron case in layers. When completed, after several spells in a very large drying stove, the bell is lettered with whatever markings are required. Once the AC/DC logo was sent to us, we scaled it up in size and made individual thick wooden bevelled-edge patterns. The logo and ‘Hell’s Bell’ letters were impressed in reverse into the external mould so they would be in relief on the bell. With the case on its side, the ‘A’ of the logo was the right-hand letter and the second ‘C’ was the left-hand letter. Fans on complain that the logo is not properly spaced, and I accept that it is not exactly right, but it is very close! No Taylor bell had ever featured lettering this big, which meant slots had to be cut in the mould and filled with damp loam before impressing the wooden patterns.

The Denison Bell

Then, the Denison bell became part of the story. Bob 'Mutt' Lange, the record producer at New York’s Electric Lady Studio, was getting jittery at the thought of the bell not being ready in time to be recorded and mixed into the album. He asked Tony Platt, the recording engineer for the ‘Back In Black’ album, who was in the UK at the time, to see if there was another big bell he could record instead. Platt then asked Taylor’s, and a colleague of mine suggested he could record a bell at the 1923 WWI Memorial Carillon in Loughborough, which housed 47 bells that were used to play music. The largest bell measured 76 inches, was tuned to G#, weighed 4.14 UK tons (9284lbs / 4211kg) and was donated by Denison Taylor in memory of his three nephews who were killed in the war, hence being named the Denison bell.

Vehicle access to the memorial is difficult, and the bell chamber is 36m (140ft) off the ground. I had thought traffic noise would be a problem but while I was away, Tony turned up with the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio. Pigeons on the outside of the tower combined with the traffic noise meant that a good recording of any of the bells was impossible. So, the bell recorded for the album is not the Denison bell, and the AC/DC bell is not a replica. All Taylor bells have the same relative profile, and this is the only thing they have in common. The bell called ‘Son of Hell’s Bell’ that Taylor’s made for Malcolm Young’s house in Beaconsfield in the UK was a much smaller one — from memory, it was 24 inches in diameter and weighed about 136kg (300lbs).

With the moulds clamped together, molten bellmetal (77% copper / 23% tin) was poured in at 1150℉. After this, the bell was tuned by rotating it mouth-up on a turntable and machining metal away from the inside. A bell is part of the idiophone group of percussion instruments and has no natural harmonics. Partials or overtones have to be brought into the correct musical intervals and, in this case, I tuned the lowest ‘hum’ note (E / 164.8Hz), the E an octave up, a G, B and the next E. Above this, the notes G#, B and E are in tune. The G is a very important partial that ‘sings out’ when the bell is struck. As this is a minor third, not a major thirrd, bells sound a bit mournful. The upper G# partial is not very strong or particularly audible.

In this case, there was an unexpected anomaly as the very large logo had made the bell unbalanced. The hum note had a very slow beat (bellfounders call this a ‘wobble’) with two narrowly-spaced frequencies of 165 and 167.5Hz. Around the circumference of the bell there were four antinodes for each of the split partials where the sound is loudest, and four nodes where the sound is considerably quieter. Luckily for bellfounders, the antinode of one of the frequencies is the node of the other one, so finding the antinodes of the frequency of 165Hz, I put four circular red spots on the bell as ‘hit here’ places. All Taylor bells are dark grey both on the outside and inside when cast, because graphite powder is worked into the moulds to give a fine finish, and is then is baked onto the bell during casting. Because a grey bell would not have stood out, we painted it gold. Polishing the logo revealed the silvery-gold colour of the bronze. 


The bell was finished in good time, and Tony Platt came to the bellfoundry to record it with the Ronnie Lane mobile studio. He knew from attempting to record the Denison bell that the sound pattern is very complex. I hit the bell on one of the red spots with various types of hammers until we found the one that produced the right sound, and recorded the results with 16 mics of two types to a 24-channel tape machine. So, this is my moment of fame! The sound you hear on the album, and in the recordings played at live concerts, is me striking the bell.

In New York, after Tony delivered the recording to 'Mutt' Lange, they dropped the note down an octave by halving the tape speed from 30ips to 15ips. The note E in this case, then became note E one octave lower — a much more majestic sound. It tolls ominously 13 times, and there is no doubt at all that it was a funeral bell for Bon Scott. In an article in Ultimate Guitar in November 2023, quoting a Sound On Sound magazine interview in September 2014, Tony Platt referred to halving the tape speed but then he is also quoted as saying it was “slowed down to achieve the key of C which was desired”. I can’t find this comment in the 2014 interview, and they didn’t do this. He assumed that a bell an octave lower would weigh two tons, but this is wrong. The diameter of this E bell is twice as big, so 98 inches / 2.5m, but the weight is slightly over eight tons / 8100 kg! The ‘Hell’s Bells’ track is in the key of A major (relative minor F#), and Brian Johnson considers that the key of A is “The rock’n’roll key of rock’n’roll keys”. The note E is a musical perfect fifth in the key of A — a very pleasing interval.


In 1982, I was told that Angus wanted the bell to swing. It came back, was fitted with a heavy hollow cast iron ‘horse-shoe’ headstock (yoke), a wheel, motor, chain drive and frame for the ‘Flick Of The Switch’ tour. This doubled the weight, but after conversations with the American engineer who worked out how much weight each gantry could support, the top of the steel box-section frame was made into a square with four big eyebolts. He told me he intended to rig it between two gantries to split the weight and keep the frame as stable as possible. With Brian no longer hitting it on stage they asked me if the bell could still be struck, so we made an enormous electro-magnetic solenoid clapper. A pulse of electricity from a push-button at the end of the rope that hung down from the frame enabled Brian to do this in time with the track’s tempo (108bpm). Alternatively, there was a second push-button on the control unit so that the bell could be operated by someone else.

You can see the motorised bell on the YouTube video ‘AC/DC Hells Bells (Live at Houston Summit October 1983)’. They stopped using the it for their 1984 European tour — and any further tours — and instead reverted to using the bell on its own again. I imagine the total weight had been the main problem. It was a lot more theatrical with Brian hitting it!

However, Angus still wanted a swinging bell, so a fake fibreglass bell was commissioned that eventually swung over the stage and the front rows of the fans. It is quite different in shape and height: the yellow logo is on both sides with the Hell’s Bell letters a similar size, and the bell has a domed top. Unfortunately, some articles about the real bell have a photo of the fake bell, including the Ultimate Guitar article. During ‘The Razor’s Edge’ tour in July 1991 at Madison Square Gardens (as an example), you can see the dummy bell stationary over the arena with the real bell on stage — this can be found on YouTube: AC / DC (Live) 12 July 1991, starting at 1.16.25.

Finally, in his book The Lives Of Brian, Brian tells us that while the bell was at Taylor’s they “tapped it with a fork-lift truck to signal when it was time for a tea break”. Very regretfully, this did happen at the company that had collected the bell — and were making the flight case — to sound lunchtime as G. D. Praetorius states in his book Babysitting A Band On The Rocks. I pointed out to Brian’s US publisher that this reflects badly on the dedicated employees at Taylor’s in 1980 and today, so they have promised to correct this in the next printing of the book.

Mike Milsom was Bellmaster at John Taylor & Co, Bellfounders, Loughborough, Leicestershire, England between 1977 and 1988.

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