Rock’n’roll memories, it seems, beget newer/older ones.
Years ago this strange circus of music journalism cast me into the role as a co-curator of a WA music exhibition at the Western Australian Museum. It was a different endeavour for a cultural institution that tended to focus on more traditional histories and it attracted the curiosity of many of the museum’s regular staff as a result.
One such individual was a kindly security guard probably not that many years shy of retirement. As we spoke about the upcoming exhibition I came to learn that he had once played in the Fremantle Pipe Band with none other than Bon Scott.
‘Yeah I knew Ronnie’, he said, referring to the pre-fame ‘Bon’, one Ronald Belford Scott.
I asked if he ever caught up with his Pipe Band colleague, once his AC/DC glory days kicked in…
‘I did bump into him’, he recalled.
‘The last time I saw Ronnie was at Parry’s Department Store in Fremantle near the end of 1979. He said he was really happy to be home for Christmas’.
Sadly, only two months later in February, 1980, Ronnie from the Fremantle Pipe Band, aka Bon Scott, died in the back of a car as a result of a messy alcoholic misadventure in London. AC/DC famously went on to recruit Geordie vocalist, Brian Johnson, and a mere five months later released their seventh album, Back In Black, an immediate break-out success that went on to become one of the highest selling records in history. They have since had a long, storied reign at the top of rock’n’roll.
The misleadingly diminutive Bon Scott, meanwhile, only grew in stature. As one of the country’s most popular commemorative touring shows states in their very name, he is Bon But Not Forgotten. Scott is both history and myth, but most powerfully he remains adored and revered all over the globe in a manner approaching and reserved for the likes of Hendrix and Marley, possibly sharing as many paternity claims as the latter.
Scott’s gravesite at Fremantle Cemetery rivals the mortal remains of Jim Morrison’s resting place at Pere Lachaise in France when it comes to pilgrimages by masses of fans and celebrity admirers (Metallica, Faith No More, The Cult and every touring band who plays vaguely hard rocking music).
In 2003 the climactic scene of the feature film Thunderstruck featured the bumbling young bogan protagonists taking their departed mate’s stolen ashes across the country to scatter with Bon. I was there when they shot the scene, as was then-WA Premier Geoff Gallop. He got to be in the film, I didn’t, I merely covered the experience for Rolling Stone magazine, who decided not to run the article 12 months later after early reviews of the film proved less than encouraging.
Hey, it was nice to be there and surreal as surrealism among several hundred mega-fan extras. Hundreds of them arrived at once, walking down the hill – they were told to come and while they hadn’t already been there they were quite literally back in fucking black. ‘That would be a terrifying sight if this weren’t for a film’, I said looking towards the portly gentleman standing next to me. He nodded. It was the guy who played the Mayor of Parkes in The Dish. Well, golly goddamn!
The whole set shut down in silence when a Saturday morning funeral procession passed in the distance led by, you guessed it, a bagpipes player. You can’t write this stuff.
Oh, wait. I am. So, anyway…
In Fremantle Bon Scott is the patron saint of the unwashed and the well-to-doers who like the occasional bit of dirt underneath their finger nails. His statue at Fremantle Wharf is a photo/selfie-must have, attracting more chips – at least on his shoulder – than the seagulls.
Folks just love the bastard. Sooo much so that the Perth Festival with all its power and cultural might is closing down a good 10 kilometres (and 120 side-streets) of Canning Highway today, Sunday, March 1, embracing the myth and legend that is the song Highway To Hell and calling it just that. It’s the closing gambit for the festival’s 2020 incarnation – a culturally, logistically and cheerfully ambitious 40th anniversary celebration of AC/DC’s wildchild wunderkind.
The Perth Festival, nearing its 70th anniversary in 2023, has never previously celebrated a figure such as Scott. Indeed for, many years in Perth it was seen as an affluent Golden Triangle (Claremont/Cottesloe/Dalkeith) affair. A Bogan Barbecue? It would seem more fitting to call it a Bonfire For The Common Man.
It’s unlikely, however, that it would have happened a decade ago.
“The Festival, along with others, has helped break through those barriers in recent years,” says Event Organiser, Pete Stone. “Things like The Giants (2015’s mammoth marionette city takeover) have helped. I think it’s good to reflect on things like that when considering the maturing of Perth as a big city.”
The Perth Festival were from the earliest stages in touch with Scott’s family via their lawyer and Highway To Hell has their subsequent blessing. Stone sees the event as a spotlight on Perth’s southern corridor, with the various councils – Melville, Fremantle and East Fremantle – also viewing it in terms of the opportunities it presents.
The Highway To Hell concept was hatched in late 2018 by newly-minted Artistic Director, Iain Graindage. Stone, one of WA’s premier cultural can-do figures, as well as an accomplished musician in his own right, came on board in April, 2019. Consultations began with the three councils involved plus the State Government and its authoritative departments, Main Roads, Perth Transit Authority and the WA Police. According to Stone, it was never a case of ‘why do it?’ but ‘how it could be done’.
“We had a particular strategy we employed,” he says, “which was to start at the grass roots. We went to the three local councils who were to be involved, and they were very enthusiastic about the idea. So we took their support with us to the stage government agencies who would have to be involved, we slowly went through that process and gathered everyone’s support along the way and by the time we approached the higher levels of State Government we could demonstrate there were fundamental levels of support for the event, so it was easier to progress from there.”
There a wildness around the event that reflects the man himself. “There’s a risk around it, but that’s exciting,” Stone says. “I think that’s a good space for the festival to be in.”
While Stone is clear that he is an admirer of Bon Scott, rather than a card-carrying obsessive, there’s plenty of artists on this huge bill who are with him in more than spirit.
“The spirit of Bon Scott was probably Jack Daniels,” laughs Selina Paul, guitarist for all-girl AC/DC tribute, Ballbreaker. “But seriously, the spirit of Bon is all about living; being alive. It is evident in his lyrics that he was intent on having fun and lots of it. Always with a charming smile and a silly face on stage yet he was still a powerfully charismatic bolt of lightning. He made sure you knew he was – and if you didn’t like it then that was your problem – he loved being himself. That’s a lesson for anyone to learn.
“Bands from different parts of the country and around the world? It’s exactly what Bon would have wanted – ‘All my friends are gonna be there too’… he knew what he was talking about!”
Old mate Callum Kramer, from The Southern River Band is a man who seems to have been cut from a similarly cheeky, outlawish yet curiously-well-fitting-cloth as Scott, concurs. Let the thunder and light-en-ing start.
“Bon Scott is freedom. The proverbial ‘middle finger’ directed wherever one sees fit, sometimes literally. One of the greatest working class poets known to humankind.
“If there’s gonna be something to shut half the highway down for, I can’t think of anything better than AC/DC. If playing Touch Too Much as loud as possible on the back of a goddamned truck is culture, well, paint me Stones Green Ginger Wine, and, bigger than everyone else.”
“As a performer, his charisma was pure magnetism,” says End Of Fashion’s Justin Burford. “He belongs in the same pantheon as Freddie, Prince and Jim, or any other rock icon you can name. But, I think what makes his legacy so enduring is despite how bright he shone, he seemed like an approachable, good Aussie bloke, keen to share a cold beer and a hearty laugh. He was everyone’s mate. That’s a hard balance to strike, but he did it effortlessly because it was authentically him.”
For the longest time now, Anna Gare has been a celebrity chef on TV shows such as Junior Masterchef, Consuming Passions and Best In Australia. In the ‘80s, however, she fronted The Jam Tarts, one of the funnest, most charismatic bands WA has ever seen. They were simply irrepressible and have reconvened for this event.
“We’re honoured to be asked and excited about the wild concept of closing down Canning Highway in memory of the legendary Bon Scott and AccaDacca,” she says.
“We weren’t planning on getting the band back together again, but this gig sounded too cool to resist. We’ll be channeling the spirit of Bon as best we can as we crank out a couple of AC/DC tunes. Long live rock’n’roll”
Echoing the iconic 1975 Long Way To The Top video where AC/DC performed on a flat-bed truck moving down Swanston Street in Melbourne, local, national and international bands (Shonen Knife, Amyl & The Sniffers, Odette Mercy, The Pigram Brothers and dozens more) will perform on moving semi-trailers, or at stops along the way.
Pubs on or near the route – including Clancy’s Fish Pub Canning Bridge, Raffles Hotel, Leopold Hotel and Mojos – will have their own satellite celebrations before, during and after the H2H shebang.
Cal Kramer’s pretty sure – in his own way – that he knows what we can all expect from this mammoth exercise.
“From what we can gather through modern information systems, the authentic swashbuckling, no holds barred attack bands from yesteryear – or in our case, today – pride themselves on,” he notes, sagely. “That, and a snug fitting pair of pants, potentially.”
Personally, I’m off to get the train. You can find full details at www.perthfestival.com.au/event/highway-to-hell