Bonfest - Long way to the top
I can clearly recall the moment in 1979 when, as a 9 year old schoolboy, one of my classmates showed me the amazing sleeve artwork for AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, which had just been released. His older brother was a keen musician and, like all kids learning from their older siblings, my pal was inspired by his love of rock and roll and this, in turn, filtered down to us and helped define the following years of our lives.
The music was exciting, not what we were hearing on Top of the Pops, and there seemed to be an air of rebellion surrounding the band, which made you feel that, as fans, you were part of a special club for just you and your mates.
Who were these guys up on stage clearly having so much fun, one even dressed up as a schoolboy, as if to reinforce the sense that WE were all part of their gang?. And the wild, fantastic noise that they made felt like an articulation of our adolescent inner voices that our near-monosyllabic selves could never hope to externalise. To demonstrate our allegiance to the shared cause, we would scrawl shoddy approximations of their artworks over every surface which could take biro ink, from jotters to schoolbags and perhaps even the soft wood of a school desk or two. To us, these marks were as profound as those made on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but were merely early signifiers of what was to become a lifelong passion for AC/DC and (at the risk of sounding like Fred Willard in ‘This is Spinal Tap’) the whole genre of rock and roll, which eventually led me to photographing for the music press in the 90's for such titles as NME and Jockey Slut.
But I would never get to add a picture of Bon Scott to my portfolio, as he sadly died in mysterious circumstances only a year after the release of Highway to Hell. He had a voice like no other, a true one-off, and he remains to this day, one of my favourite rock frontmen.
Fast forward to 2019, many years after the heady days of my all too-short career in the music press, and I was lucky enough to be invited to Kirriemuir (colloquially referred to as ‘Kirrie’), a small town in Angus, Scotland, best known in more refined quarters as the birthplace of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, but to AC/DC fans, a place of pilgrimage as its other most famous son is none other than Bon Scott. So, each year, this normally relatively sleepy burgh plays host to BonFest as its number of inhabitants is swollen by several thousand AC/DC fans from across the globe.
Commonly referred to as ‘The Family’, this group of fans has a simply amazing and infectious level of passion for the band and its music and their camaraderie is legendary as they travel across the world to the various different festivals which now celebrate AC/DC.
Over a long weekend in April, Kirrie becomes the epicentre of the AC/DC universe, playing host to a simply staggering number of different bands, squeezed into every possible venue, from the town hall to pubs and open air stages. Now, a decade on from its inception, BonFest holds a particular magic for the fans and the town itself has opened its arms to the world to host a party like no other. The ‘proper’ festival arena which can host top international acts which has now been set up on the outskirts of town, is testament to that success.
Meanwhile, the whole of Kirrie seems to get in on the act: Shops decorate their windows and local producers create AC/DC-themed sweets, cakes and even sausages, alongside more traditional merchandise of clothes, bags and so on. The carnival atmosphere builds all week, culminating in thousands converging on the streets of Kirrie on Saturday afternoon as one of the festival’s headline acts performs from the back of a flatbed truck as it drives around the town centre, recreating the legendary 1976 video for Bon’s signature song, “It’s a Long Way to the Top”, incongruously transposed from its original backdrop of Melbourne, Australia to the rolling hills of Angus.
The icing on the (AC/DC-themed) cake is that the entire festival is run by volunteers, with all profits going back into the community, including the DD8 Music charity and Kirrie Connections, a dementia-friendly community hub. In 2016, a worldwide crowdfunding campaign raised funds for the statue of Bon Scott which now has pride of place in the town and is visited by fans from across the globe throughout the year.