Farewell to the great Malcolm Young, the heart, soul, and backbone of one of my all-time favorite bands, AC/DC. His legacy is nothing short of staggering, whether you like the band or not. I’ve been listening to them since the mid-70s, back when being a fan of theirs meant you had NO chance of ever getting a date—this was the disco era, and women just HATED them back then, as odd as that seems now.
I’ve always maintained that they were one of the greatest pure rock bands ever; they somehow tapped into an unalloyed strain of the real deal, and mined it for nigh on forty years. You always knew an AC/DC song the minute you heard it; they never varied the format much, never went “jazz” or prog or whatever, just kept cranking out those three or four chords and that pounding beat with seemingly limitless inventiveness and enthusiasm. And that fierce, single-minded dedication made them one of the most successful bands in history.
I saw them live a few times over the years, from the Highway To Hell tour just before Bon Scott died to the Black Ice tour a few years ago, and I won’t forget any of those shows. Sure, on the Black Ice tour they had maybe lost a step or two; Angus didn’t seem to bob his head quite as wildly as he once did, although he did still manage to roam the stage with the same old vim and vigor. He had definitely lost some hair somewhere along the way, I can say that much. But who among us hasn’t? It was still a fantastic show, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The obit linked above is a good one, from an unlikely-seeming source:
So, what do you notice? Up front and hard to miss is Angus Young, the diminutive dynamo of a lead guitarist, wearing the sweat-soaked remains of a velvet schoolboy uniform, duck-walking and thrashing his head like the lightning-strike victim on the cover of “Powerage.” Nearby, prancing bare-chested, is the lewd and mischievous lead singer, Bon Scott. (He’ll be dead by the end of the decade.) But, if you can take your eyes off these two showmen for a moment, you might find your gaze drifting to the left of the drum riser, where a pugnacious long-haired kid (he looks like he’s still in high school), wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, is strumming his Gretsch guitar and shaking his leg in time to the driving beat. His name is Malcolm Young, and you could be forgiven for seeing him as just another part of the backing band, but he is in fact the mastermind of the whole operation, at once its visionary and its taskmaster. He is the soul of the band, its leader on and off the stage.
The interplay of Malcolm’s and Angus’s guitars is the essence of AC/DC’s sound. You can hear it if you listen closely to almost any of their songs. A favorite of mine is “Overdose,” from “Let There Be Rock,” released in 1977. The song opens with a series of arpeggios played on a single guitar, almost like a warm-up exercise. (It’s uncharacteristic of the band to have left such a rough intro in the final edit.) Drums soon arrive, adding some structure, followed by a thrumming bass line, and then the second guitar, with a striking, unforgettable riff. The other guitar shifts to playing open chords before finally locking in on the riff with the first. Lars Ulrich, of Metallica, singled the song out earlier this year, noting that AC/DC almost never performs “Overdose” live. Thus, it’s hard to know which brother plays which part of that intro. One thing’s for sure, though: the song, like the band, wouldn’t work with only one of them.
Nope, not a chance. Here’s Malcolm himself, discussing the Back In Black album:
About three or four weeks before Bon’s death [in February 1980], Angus and I had started putting some ideas together, and Bon had sat in playing the drums. Some of those ideas ended up on Back In Black. Then Bon died, and we didn’t know whether we wanted to carry on. The record company was pressuring us to make a decision. Brian [Johnson] was recommended to us, and it felt right.
But when Brian joined, the music papers were full of this Bon versus Brian debate, and Brian had a tough old time. I don’t think Brian let it get to him. He comes from a traditional working-class background – his old man was in the pit, and he’s a tough old nut to crack. At the end of the day, Brian had the balls to get up there, and he was the only guy we found who could sing loud enough to be heard over the racket the rest of us were making. He was always going to be our man, whether we liked it or not.
So, looking back on it, an awful lot of sweat went into the making of Back In Black. Hells Bells was one of the key songs. It reminded us of Bon and I think a lot of our older fans still see it as a tribute to him. That one, the title track and Shoot To Thrill are still in the live show, and I think they’ve joined some of the early songs as timeless AC/DC. Whatever it was, we were doing it right, because it was the most successful album we’d made at the time.
I remember back in the aftermath of Scott’s death having many long, serious discussions over just what the hell they were going to do—would they somehow find a substitute? Would they just hang it up? How the hell do you replace somebody as unique both in voice and onstage persona as Bon Scott, anyway? It seemed unlikely in the extreme that they could hope to carry on as before, and the general consensus was that, like it or not, they’d pretty much be forced to fold.
Instead, they found Brian Johnson, and went on to do some of their finest work with him, in my opinion. Which diminishes Scott not a whit, mind. There was a change, surely, but they somehow stayed the same too; they remained AC/DC, recognizably so, and kept on mining that rich vein of purest no-frills rock and roll, just as direct and uncompromised as before. It was remarkable. In fact, it struck many of us at the time as damned near miraculous.
I remember when I first heard Have A Drink On Me from Back In Black (which remains one of my favorite songs) thinking just how ballsy it was to have a lynchpin, totally unique singer drink himself to death, and then immediately come out with a song like that. It was damned audacious, or so it seemed to me. But then, audacity was always one of their most endearing traits—that, and the expression of that audacity via their unswerving, relentless dedication to remaining true to their chosen style—and one can easily imagine Scott looking on from whatever afterlife there might be and having himself a good laugh over it.
If there was ever a demonstration of the old admonishment to “dance with what brung ya,” it would have to be AC/DC. And the dance was to a tune called by Malcolm Young, from the wings of a stage dominated by his brother and both Scott and Johnson. He was an unsung giant who forged one of the most successful bands in rock and roll history, and directed its path from beginning to end without fanfare or much in the way of recognition from most. I wouldn’t quite call him humble; his hilarious dismissal of Robert Plant (“A blond feller. Bit of a poser”) argues pretty convincingly against that. But he possessed a certain capacity for self-effacement just the same. Either way, may God grant him peace and respite.