Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be - The Story Of Bon Scott

Nick Barker was about ten years old when he first encountered the late Bon Scott. Surrounded by his sisters' musical tastes - Bay City Rollers, Sherbet and Skyhooks - Barker turned on Countdown one Sunday evening and was confronted by Scott at his most provocative and ballsy. "He was singing Baby, Please Don't Go, dressed as a school girl, smokin' a fag," Barker laughs. It's an image that in many ways sums up Bon Scott the irreverent larrikin - while his contemporaries in the music scene flirted with androgyny as a faddish pop cultural statement, Scott took the aesthetic to its offensive extreme, while maintaining the absolute credibility of the band's music. "When AC/DC came along, they stood out like dogs' balls," Barker laughs.

31 years after Scott went on one bender too many, and departed this earth for another place, Barker and a group of like-minded musical associates are bringing Scott's life story to the stage. Written by Andrew Barker (The Man In Black), directed by Brian Nankervis (RocKwiz) and featuring legendary Australian singer Doug Parkinson (who, as leader of Doug Parkinson In Focus, played on the same bill as Scott during the latter's tenure in the bubblegum 60s band The Valentines), Hell Ain't A Bad Place to Be tells the story of Bon Scott from his days playing drums in a pipe band in his adopted hometown of Fremantle through to his tragic early death while on tour with AC/DC in England in 1980.


A serious AC/DC fan by the time he left school in the late 1970s, Barker can remember the announcement ofScott's death. "It came on the radio at the workshop where I was doing my apprenticeship," Barker recalls. "Between 1975 and 1980 AC/DC were omnipresent, so it was pretty shocking when he died. I don't think people in Australia realised at the time the inroads that band had made. It wasn't til later that I realised how hard they'd worked."


But before he became the leering lead singer of AC/DC, clad in ridiculously tight denim jeans taking rock'n'roll to its dangerous erotic extreme, Scott was singing in a few lesser-known bands. In the mid 1960s Scott played drums with The Spektors, a typical r'n'b band that played covers of rock hits of the day. Shortly after, Scott joined the fledgling Valentines alongside Vince Lovegrove (whose subsequent career included managing The Divinyls), before moving onto the psychedelic prog rock outfit Fraternity.


Like many AC/DC fans, it took Barker a while before he discovered Scott's pre-AC/DC activity. "It's only in the last ten years that I've come across it," Barker says. "But with stuff like YouTube you can find stuff that you could never find before. He was basically ten years older than the rest of the band, so he'd already toured the UK, and been around a bit." Barker concedes that it's often difficult to discern the other aspects - both personal and musical - of Scott's life in the face of the caricature that built up around his work in AC/DC. "Totally," Barker says. "There's five years of his life when that's all he ever was to some people, and all he ever will be. I've really come to love Fraternity - a lot of it's just like Humble Pie or The Small Faces. It's really rootsy, got that r'n'b flavour, and he sings like [Steve] Marriot."


Like The Man In Black, Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be is intended to tell the story of Bon Scott through a combination of his music (performed live on stage) and a historical narrative; while he's proud to be singing a batch of Scott's tunes, Barker is adamant he's not playing the part of Bon Scott per se. "It's not a stage play - it's basically a gig with narrative about Bon's life. If you come at it from that point, I'm not playing the part of Bon - I never would," Barker says. "The first half of the show is going back through Bon's life after he came to Australia and the first three bands he was in, and the second half is his time in AC/DC," Barker says. "It's really hard to cram everything in - there's a huge body of work: the seven albums with AC/DC and the stuff before then."


Having been offered the part, Barker initially declined the offer, unsure whether he could match Scott's vocal abilities. Barker spoke to director Brian Nankervis subsequently, and agreed to take part in the show. "I basically put the band together myself," Barker says. "These guys are all fantastic players - they're all AC/DC purists. It's a great hard rock band." Barker makes no apologies for the amplitude of the music that he and his band mates will perform on stage. "One thing I wanted to make sure is that the music wasn't watered down at all - I think that would be a real disservice to it. We've had noise complaints from the word go - and that's got to be a good sign," Barker laughs.


With the AC/DC fanbase legendary - almost infamous - for its passion and intensity, even singing a collection of AC/DC songs brings with it the risk of hypercritical analysis. "Yeah, but I'm an AC/DC fan as well. But do you not do stuff because someone thinks you shouldn't, or do you try and do it as a fan - which is where I'm coming from…[as is] the band and Brian. And Doug's someone who knew Bon," Barker says. "I'm sure there'll be people who say it's bullshit and whatever, but you know what - I don't care. I'm having a good time doing it."

Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be - The Story Of Bon Scott starring NICK BARKER kicks off at The Athenaeum Theatre on Tuesday July 12 and runs until Saturday July 23. Tickets through ticketmaster.com.au.