So I realized I haven’t done any sort of music post here in a while—or anything else, really, except politics for a good while now. That makes Jack a dull boy, and I need to correct that.
And that’s gonna be easy, as it turns out. See, I recently acquired a Gretsch Duo Jet from my friend Mike Earle through some advanced and intricate horse-trading, swapping, and negotiation. The pickups in the thing were complete and utter shite; I borrowed the guitar to try it out, and it was the most un-Gretsch sounding Gretsch I ever heard. For those of you who aren’t guitar slingers, Gretsch guitars are known primarily for their clear, ringing, bell-like high end. They sparkle like freshly-polished crystal, and can always cut through any amount of rock and roll mush you care to pile on ’em.
But not this thing. It sounded like cold mud—like canned green beans unseasoned and microwaved for an hour and a half would taste. The factory pickups were Gretsch mini-humbuckers, which I had never heard of before and didn’t even know they made. They were wretched, worse than a waste of time. I never knew a Marshall amp could sound so dull and lifeless. The neck was good, the body was solid and heavy like it ought to be, but the pickups were…shoot, I can’t find words to describe how utterly boring they were. It’s like they weren’t even there. You don’t buy a Gretsch for sound like this, you just don’t.
And the problem was, you can’t just fit any old pickup into a mini-humbucker hole. They’re both skinnier and less wide than every other pickup out there; total oddballs, they are, and to fit something that might be worth listening to in there you’re gonna have to rout out the body. Which is tough because of the way this thing was put together; the neck pickup butted right up against the bottom of the fretboard, leaving no real space for modification. I was stymied, and handed the guitar back to Mike the day after I tried it out with a solid “Sorry, not interested.” We were both hugely disappointed; I wanted to like the guitar, I really did, and we had worked out a deal that would have cost me next to nothing and allowed him to rid himself of a guitar that, being a diehard Fender guy, he really didn’t have much use for anyway.
But as things stood, I didn’t have much use for the damned pancaked albatross either. To jumble the avian metaphors a bit, I had no idea how to turn this ugly duckling into a swan.
But then my guitar guy Craig found some amazing pickups for me that would fit right in with no modification, and sure enough they woke the little thing right up. And all that got me to digging around on the intarwebs for more info, and that led me to the discovery that the Gretsch Duo Jet had been Malcolm Young’s guitar since…well, since always.
And that in turn leads me to the raison d’être of this whole post. See, it has long been my belief that AC/DC is the greatest pure rock and roll band in history. Think of it: every time you ever heard an AC/DC song, you knew right away who it was. Never any frills, never any bullshit. No synths, no horn sections, no backup from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. No intricate, jazzy, complicated chord changes. No violins, no didgeridoos, no bizarre percussion instruments from darkest Africa thrown in just to impress everybody with how erudite and well-traveled you were.
Just straight-up, no-ice, no-chaser, balls-out rock: pounding drums, howling vocals, lyrics about getting drunk and chasing women, and ripping, piercing, razor-sharp guitar. 1-4-5, verse-verse-chorus-verse, repeated forever. And executed cleverly enough that it never really got old, and always had a certain freshness and spark to it, a certain liveliness that all bands strive for, but few achieve—much less sustain over a four-decade lifespan.
Every time you ever heard an AC/DC song, you not only knew right away who it was—you were glad to hear it, and enjoyed it, if you were any kind of rock-and-roll guy at all. New AC/DC was like a visit from an old friend you didn’t even know you’d missed until he turned up again and made you remember why you liked him in the first place.
And Malcolm was an integral, irreplaceable part of that. Hell, he started the band, wrote or co-wrote all the songs, and was by all accounts the creative spark and driving force that moved them forward from the very start. And guess what guitar he’s been playing since the beginning? Which, as a huge fan of theirs, makes this all the more painful and depressing:
In April 2014, Young became seriously ill and was unable to continue performing. On 16 April 2014, AC/DC released a note stating that Young would be “taking a break from the band due to ill health”. However, singer Brian Johnson stated that despite earlier reports, AC/DC are not retiring: “We are definitely getting together in May in Vancouver. We’re going to pick up guitars, have a plonk and see if anybody has got any tunes or ideas. If anything happens we’ll record it.” In July, Johnson revealed that Young was in hospital receiving treatment for an unspecified condition and during May recording sessions had been replaced in the studio by Stevie Young, his nephew. On 24 September 2014, the band’s management announced that Young would not be rejoining the band. Stevie Young continued to fill in for Malcolm on the band’s 2015 Rock or Bust World Tour.
On 26 September 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Young has dementia and has been admitted to a nursing home where he can receive full-time care. A source close to Young was quoted in this article as saying: “He has complete loss of short-term memory.” Young’s family confirmed four days later that he has dementia. The family is quoted as saying: “Malcolm is suffering from dementia and the family thanks you for respecting their privacy.”
In subsequent interviews Angus Young stated that his brother had been experiencing lapses in memory and concentration before the Black Ice project and had been receiving treatment during the Black Ice World Tour which ended in 2010. Angus confirmed that although his brother did not play on the 2014 Rock or Bust album: “He still likes his music. We make sure he has his Chuck Berry, a little Buddy Holly.” He added that AC/DC would continue according to his brother’s wishes and standards: “Look, even with his health, Malcolm was touring until he couldn’t do it anymore.” In that same interview, Young stated that Malcolm was rehearsing AC/DC’s songs repeatedly before every concert just to remember how the song goes. In an interview with Guitar Player about Malcolm Young’s songwriting credits in Rock or Bust, Young stated, “Mal[colm] kept doing what he could until he couldn’t do it anymore, but I have all the material he was working on. There were a lot of riffs, ideas, and bits of choruses. I’d fill things in to see if we had a song. Every album we’ve ever done has been that way. There was always a bit from the past, a bit from what we had that was brand new, and, sometimes, just an old idea that either Malcolm or myself had worked on but we never finished.The songwriting process didn’t really change, except for the fact that Mal wasn’t physically there. So when it came to writing and putting stuff together, I had Stevie [Young] there with me. You see, Malcolm was always a great organizer. He always kept track of the stuff we were writing together. He’d record it, date it, make notes. My records – if you can call them that – are always chaotic. So, this time, Stevie helped me organize a lot of what was there.”
At the conclusion of the Black Ice World Tour, Malcolm was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was treated at an early stage, so surgery was successful and the cancer was removed. He also has an unspecified heart problem and now wears a pacemaker.
I was there when AC/DC came through Charlotte on the Black Ice tour. I took the ex-wife, who had never seen them before. She was grinning throughout like a kid—just as I had when I first saw them on the Highway To Hell tour way back when, only weeks before Bon Scott died. I remember back then all my friends discussing just how the hell they were going to replace Scott; the general consensus was that it couldn’t be done, that AC/DC was finished. They somehow found Brian Johnson, and went on to do some of their best work ever; the Back In Black album was a stunning comeback, including as it did the most insouciant, cocksure, spit-in-the-devil’s-eye song imaginable for a band whose iconic singer had just drank himself to death, “Have A Drink On Me.”
That adversity didn’t stop them, and they went on to even greater things. But now, well, I dunno. They’ve been doing this for a damned long time, and they’ve made their money and left one helluva mark. They don’t owe anybody anything, and the laurels they have to rest on are enough to see anybody through.
Whatever the future might hold for them, I wish them well. And if they do tour again and pass through my hometown, I’ll be there to see them one more time. And I’ll raise a glass to the great Malcolm Young, and give a thought too to the guitar I’ve ended up playing myself in common with him at this late stage of my own career, unexpectedly and against all odds. Malcolm is in a tough spot now, but he brought a lot of joy to a lot of people over a long and lustrous career, and that ought not be forgotten.
And with all that said, how could I not leave you with some good shit from Black Ice?
Gott DAMN, but I love these boys. Long live AC/DC; long live Malcolm Young. And long live hacked up, bastardized Gretsch Duo Jets, too.
Oh, and that Gibson SG Angus plays? Fuck them things.
Update! For you Bon Scott purists:
God bless Bon Scott too; one of a kind, he was, and the story of how he first hooked up with AC/DC would make a whole entire post of its own—one which I may yet get around to writing one of these days. His first Aussie TV appearance, too, was an outre classic of pure rock and roll decadence and…oh, hell, here it is:
No explanation from here offered, maybe none possible; Bon Scott was without question the most manly sumbitch ever to appear on national TV in a dress and pigtails. And he did it with a sardonic smile, and with no confusion at all about his gender identity; one can’t even begin to imagine him being conflicted about which bathroom he ought to be using, nor whining to the government in hopes of its enforcing his preference at everybody else’s expense. Regardless, and all joking around aside, may he rest in peace. If you ever wanted a concrete reason to resist creeping Islamism and defend the wild, reckless, no-holds-barred freedom of the West, Bon Scott amounts to as good a one as any I can think of.