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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Scott, Ronald Belford (Bon) (1946–1980)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published online in 2018

Bon Scott, n.d.

Bon Scott, n.d.

Ronald Belford ‘Bon’ Scott (1946-1980), rock music lyricist and performer, was born on 9 July 1946 at Forfar, Scotland, eldest of three surviving sons of Charles Belford Scott, baker, and his wife Isabella Cunningham, née Mitchell, both Scottish-born. The family lived at Kirriemuir before migrating to Australia in 1952; they settled first at Sunshine, Victoria, but moved to Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1956. Bon was educated at Sunshine and North Fremantle primary schools, and at John Curtin Senior High School (1959-61), Fremantle. Leaving school at the age of fifteen, he worked as a farmhand and crayfisherman before taking up a mechanics apprenticeship with a weighing-machine company and winning an award as the firm’s best first-year apprentice.

Out of working hours the steady apprentice was a prominent member of one of Fremantle’s ‘rocker’ gangs. At five feet eight inches (173 cm) tall, the wiry Scott acquired ‘a fearsome reputation as a street fighter’ (Walker 2007, 21). In March 1963 he was charged with several offences including escaping from police custody. He pleaded guilty and was sent to Riverbank juvenile detention centre. Released by Christmas, he was employed as a storeman for several years and then as a postman.

After his release from Riverbank, Scott became the drummer—and occasional singer—in a local pop band, the Spektors. Interested in music from an early age, he had commenced his musical career as a drummer with the Coastal Scottish Pipe Band in Fremantle. At a dance in 1962, he ‘gave a remarkable exhibition on his side drum’ (Beverley Times 1962, 8). He was the State under-seventeen side drum champion for five years (1958-63) and played with the Coastals at the opening ceremony of the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. In 1966 he and some of the Spektors members combined with another local band to form the Valentines, with Scott eventually sharing lead vocals. By 1967 the Valentines was Perth’s leading group, playing soul music and cover versions of British pop songs. In October that year, the group moved to Melbourne, at that time ‘Australia’s indisputable pop capital’ (Walker 2007, 42). The band successfully exploited the fashion for youth-oriented ‘bubble gum’ music, but broke up in mid-1970.

Scott then joined the Adelaide-based group Fraternity, a country rock band with high ambitions, as lead singer; the band won the national Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds competition in 1971, and its leader, the bass player Bruce Howe, became a mentor to Scott. In Adelaide, on 24 January 1972, Scott married Irene Thornton, a typist; she accompanied him to London in June after Fraternity set up a base there. The band’s venture to England having failed, the couple separated on their return to Australia at the end of 1973. They were divorced in March 1977, but remained in contact. Scott took a job as a labourer in a Port Adelaide fertiliser plant. A motorcycle accident in February 1974 left him comatose for three days.

In August 1974 Scott saw the newly formed hard rock band AC/DC perform in Adelaide. At the time he was doing odd jobs for a booking agency run by the former Valentines member Vince Lovegrove. The dominant members of AC/DC were the brothers Malcolm and Angus Young—also Scottish-born—who were looking for a new lead singer. Lovegrove recommended Scott, who joined the band at the end of September 1974, moving to Sydney where it was based. He was some years older than the other members. His approach to music and his eagerness to succeed fitted in with the Young brothers’ chosen style. Together they maintained an extraordinary work ethic, steadily building the band’s reputation by playing live gigs at every opportunity.

Co-writing most of the band’s songs with the Youngs, Scott flourished as a lyric writer, and is credited with the words of some of AC/DC’s most popular songs, including ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’N’Roll)’ (1975), ‘Let There Be Rock’ (1977), and ‘Highway to Hell’ (1979). His lyrics celebrated sex and rock music, but he also wrote of the ‘Dog Eat Dog’ (1977) music business, the pain of love, and the loneliness of life on the road. The songs were delivered in a ‘barking vocal style’ (Nichols 2016, 243), with key phrases bitingly enunciated. Strutting around the stage, often bare-chested, and wearing strategically ripped, tight jeans, he was happy to share the limelight with the band’s lead guitarist Angus Young, a diminutive figure of manic energy in a school uniform.

Scott’s persona as the tattooed rock rebel with an ‘impish smile’ (Engleheart 201, 288) was magnified by his reputation for drinking and womanising, and ‘a recklessness that could border on the self-destructive’ (Evans 2011, 138). As the spokesman for the band, he played up to that image, although the reality was more complex. Those who knew him characterised him as ‘a sweet man’ who was ‘uncommonly funny’ (Walker 2007, xviii), ‘a gentleman with old-school manners’ and ‘very protective of others’ (Evans 2011, 138). He was a regular letter writer to Irene and to his family and friends, and worked constantly on his notebooks of lyrics.

Over the next five years AC/DC gained repute as a peerless live act, initially in the United Kingdom and Western Europe. By the end of 1979 the band had broken through in the United States of America, and the success of Highway to Hell (1979), the band’s sixth international album, took its members to within sight of their goal of rock superstardom. As the band’s fortunes rose, so did the level of Scott’s drinking and drug-taking. The ending of his long-term relationship with Margaret ‘Silver’ Smith early in 1978 left him adrift and isolated. Eighteen months before his death, he described the ‘constant pressures of touring’ as ‘crushing’ (Walker 2007, 258). Yet his work on stage and in the recording studio remained professional.

In the early morning of 19 February 1980, Scott fell asleep in a friend’s car in Lambeth, London. He was found dead there later that day. A coronial inquest gave the cause of death as acute alcoholic poisoning. He was cremated and his ashes interred at Fremantle cemetery; the grave was given heritage classification by the National Trust in 2006. Statues at Fisherman’s Wharf, Fremantle, and at Kirriemuir, Scotland, commemorate his contribution to rock music. With a new lead singer, Brian Johnson, AC/DC went on to achieve outstanding international success; it is widely judged to have been Australia’s most famous rock band.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Beverley Times (Western Australia). ‘Successful Carnival.’ 25 May 1962, 8
  • Engleheart, Murray, and Arnaud Durieux. AC/DC: Maximum Rock and Roll. Sydney: Harper Collins, 2015
  • Evans, Mark. My Life Inside and Outside of AC/DC. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2011
  • Fink, Jesse. Bon: The Last Highway. North Sydney: Penguin Random House, 2017
  • Nichols, David. Dig: Australian Rock and Pop Music 1960-85. Portland, OR: Verse Chorus Press, 2016
  • Thornton, Irene. My Bon Scott. Sydney: Pan MacMillan, 2014
  • Walker, Clinton. Highway to Hell: The Life and Death of Bon Scott. Sydney: Picador, 2007
  • Wall, Mick. AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be. London: Orion, 2012

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Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Scott, Ronald Belford (Bon) (1946–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-ronald-belford-bon-27533/text34934, published online 2018, accessed online 19 September 2020.

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