Highway to Hell: 10km of major Perth highway to shut for AC/DC covers concert

<span>Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives</span>
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

Australian music legend Bon Scott will get the epic tribute he deserves in March, when 10km of Perth’s Canning Highway will be closed for eight hours to host the world’s longest music festival stage: a roving concert, rolling from one end to another, devoted to AC/DC covers.

On 1 March 2020, 10 semi-trailers – eight topped with live bands playing AC/DC songs – will be taking over the highway’s southern portion, between Canning Bridge and Fremantle: the same regular pilgrimage Scott would make in his youth, heading from his Fremantle home to rock’n’roll hangout the Raffles hotel.

The stretch of highway was immortalised in 1979’s Highway to Hell, nicknamed for the fatal crashes that plagued its most dangerous intersection. But the event itself – which was announced on Sunday – is as much a tribute to the film clip of an earlier AC/DC hit, It’s A Long Way To The Top, which featured the band playing on the back of a flatbed truck as it drove through Swanston Street, Melbourne.

For the concert – which marks the 40th anniversary of the singer’s death, and closes the 2020 Perth arts festival – two lanes of the stretch will be devoted to the “hit parade” of local and international acts, moving at 4km/h with regular stops.

The other two lanes will be for the public, who will set up picnic rugs and vantage spots to watch the bands. Four other parks and stops along the route will be devoted to special events, including a mass singalong of Highway to Hell, and rock patch-making sessions with the local embroiderers’ guild.

2020 marks the first of four Perth festivals to be helmed by new artistic director Iain Grandage, an internationally renowned music director and composer who was born and raised in Perth. The idea for Highway to Hell came to him when he was new to the job, but, he told the Guardian, he wasn’t sure they could pull it off. “The kicker was when we found out that the [festival closing] date was 40 years to the day” of Scott’s ashes arriving at Fremantle Cemetery. “It was like, ‘We just have to do this’, despite the ridiculous size of it.”

The bands listed in the first announcement include Finnish bluegrass group Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, Japanese female rock trio Shonen Knife, Melbourne punk act Amyl and the Sniffers and the WA Police Band. While Ackadacka covers have as much of a place in Australian pub rock folklore as AC/DC themselves, Grandage prefers the term “reinterpretations”.

“Covers feels like a dirty word,” he said. “These will be more like creative responses.”

The 10km stretch of Canning Highway is in a southern part of Perth that doesn’t usually bask in the glow of the arts festival. But it’s one of the city’s major arteries, which has 129 roads feeding into it, runs through three local councils, and has 1,300 residences and businesses facing onto it. Six key crossroads will need to remain open; paths for ambulances and emergency vehicles will be mapped out in advance; and organisers will begin door-knocking every highway-facing building on Monday.

For event producer Pete Stone, the bureaucratic negotiations have taken seven months so far, involving more than 200 meetings with mayors, CEOs, transport authorities and emergency services. “It’s much less exciting than what people usually equate with working in the arts,” he said, laughing. “But you can’t do anything on this scale without complete buy-in.”

What surprised him was how easy the sell was. “There will be some inconvenience to some people, of course … but there was almost no conversations along the lines of ‘we can’t do this’,” Stone said. “I think it reflects a sort of maturity in Perth – I’m not sure if you could do this 10 years ago here.”

While AC/DC was formed in Sydney by two Scottish-born brothers, Malcolm and Angus Young, Perth was where their lead singer spent most of his life, before dying at 33. A statue has already been erected in his honour in Fremantle.

But for Stone, the idea behind Highway to Hell is bigger than the band. “There’s something really powerful in [the image of] reclaiming a highway for a day, and bringing it back to the people,” he said. “Turning it into a 10km high street for one day, which links every community along the way? People warm to that idea.”