November 18, 2017 – Malcolm Young (AC/DC) was born on January 6, 1953 in Glasgow, Scotland, into a rather large musical family. When he was 10 years old, the family decided to move to Australia, after surviving the worst winter on record in Scotland and TV spot that offered assisted travel for families for a different life in Australia. In late June of 1963, 15 members of the family flew to a new life in “Down Under”, including his older brother George and younger brother Angus.
Malcolm later described the family’s musical background as, “All the males in our family played, Stevie, the oldest played accordion, Alex and John were the first couple to play guitar, and being older, it was sort of passed down to George, then myself, then Angus.”
His first stage experience was shortlived in a band that named itself the Velvet Underground, but nothing like the Lou Reed famous New York band in the sixties. The family business of music was originally established by brother George, who together with his Dutch immigrant songwriting partner and friend Harry Vanda had international success with the Easybeats and their huge international hit “Friday on my Mind” in 1966. After the Easybeats disbanded in late 1969, they stayed in the U.K. anda couple of years later formed the Marcus Hook Roll Band in which both Malcolm and Angus claimed guitar duties for a short while. Vanda & Young (George) became one of Australia’s most successful songwriting partnership and in the mid 70s once again established a musical success formula with the acclaimed “Flash and the Pan”, studio band project.
In the early summer of 1973, just 20, Malcolm Young and 18 year old brother Angus formed AC/DC; Angus on lead and Malcolm on rhythm, both writing all the band’s songs, one chaotic and the other one meticulous. Greatness wasn’t immediate, but it came. The first three Australian AC/DC albums were patchy, and whittled down to two much better records for international release. Let There Be Rock, from 1977, was a huge step in the right direction, and the following three years saw AC/DC release three of the greatest hard rock records ever – Powerage (1978), Highway to Hell (1979) and Back in Black (1980). They never reached those heights again, but every single AC/DC album thereafter – nine of them – contained at least one song, often more, that slotted as comfortably into the setlist as anything from the older, greater albums.
And Malcolm Young was the heart of it all. The great producer and engineer Terry Manning – whose career consisted largely of working with the greatest soul groups and rock bands – once said that as a rhythm guitarist, Malcolm was the equal of Steve Cropper, of Booker T & the MG’s, and that does not oversell him.
Just months after the release of Highway to Hell, tragedy struck when Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning. Questions were raised as to whether the band could continue without him. Young and his other bandmates soon decided they should finish the work they had begun for their new album, so they recruited ex-Geordie singer, Brian Johnson to replace Scott. Five months later, Back in Black was released as a tribute to Scott.
It quickly became a huge international success, far out-selling any of their previous albums, and going on to reach 22 times multi-platinum in the US alone, and selling 50 million copies, the second highest-selling album worldwide, behind only Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
AC/DC’s next album, For Those About to Rock We Salute You, cemented their position as the most popular hard rock act of the time, but it also created to an extent the summit of their musical importance, as soon after AC/DC’s popularity started declining as a result of the mediocre commercial success of their next 3 albums, Flick of the Switch, Fly on the Wall and Blow Up Your Video. AC/DC looked as though they had reached their peak early in the decade and by the end of it, were in decline.
Malcolm Young missed the majority of AC/DC’s Blow Up Your Video World Tour to address his growing alcohol problem. He eventually dried out and returned to the band. During his absence he was replaced by his nephew, Stevie Young, his older brother’s son, just 3 years younger than Malcolm himslef.
And then success returned with their 1990 studio album, The Razors Edge, reaching 5x multi-platinum in the US alone and selling between 10 and 12 million copies worldwide. Over the next 10 years AC/DC released two other studio albums, Ballbreaker and Stiff Upper Lip, which confirmed their renewed popularity and success.
In 2003, AC/DC were inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame and the following year they were ranked number 72 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 greatest artists of all time.” VH1 ranked them number 23 on their list of the “100 greatest artists of all time” and number 4 in their list of the “100 greatest artists of hard rock.” They were also named the 7th “Greatest heavy metal band of all time” by MTV.
After a lengthy eight-year hiatus, AC/DC returned with a new studio album, Black Ice. Black Ice debuted at number 1 in 29 countries and was certified multi-platinum in 14 of those, becoming one of their most successful albums worldwide, and was followed by a hugely successful world tour. In 2010, AC/DC released an album of songs used for the Iron Man 2 movie soundtrack they had put together, which reached number 1 in many countries around the world, including the UK, and number 4 in the US. Malcolm Young confirmed in 2011 that AC/DC were in fact working on a 16th studio album. It was at this time that he found out he had lung cancer and some heart problems, leading to a Pacemaker implant. The cancer was caught in an early stage and subsequently successfully removed, but dementia had already reared its ugly head.
Angus Young stated that his brother had been experiencing lapses in memory and concentration since 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, Angus stated that Malcolm was rehearsing AC/DC’s songs repeatedly before every concert just to remember how they went. In an interview with Guitar Player about Malcolm Young’s songwriting credits in Rock or Bust, Angus 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.”-
Yes, Angus is still there (indeed he is the sole remaining original member). To most he is the star of the band and always was, even when Bon Scott stood alongside him. The perpetual schoolboy defines AC/DC’s image.
It was Malcolm, however who defined AC/DC’s sound. The band is, first and foremost, a rhythm machine: Malcolm’s distinctive chop is inextricable to their identity. While Angus is a thrilling soloist (at least on those early records where his breaks are mostly short, sharp and shocking), Malcolm was all accent, drive and reinforcement.
Rolling Stone said in 1980 that “the AC/DC sound is nothing more and nothing less than aggressively catchy song hooks brutalized by a revved-up boogie rhythm, Malcolm’s jackhammer riffing, Angus’ guitar histrionics and Johnson’s bloodcurdling bawl.”
In the book “The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC” by Jesse Fink, Angus Young said the formula worked. “We’ve got the basic thing kids want,” he said. “They want to rock and that’s it. They want to be part of the band as a mass. When you hit a guitar chord, a lot of the kids in the audience are hitting it with you. They’re so much into the band they’re going through all the motions with you. If you can get the mass to react as a whole, then that’s the ideal thing. That’s what a lot of bands lack, and why the critics are wrong.”
AC/DC’s infectious, driving sound stretched further than rock arenas. The song “Shoot to Thrill” was heard in the film “The Avengers,” ”Back in Black” made it into “The Muppets,” ”Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” was played in “Bridesmaids” and their songs were included in the “Iron Man” franchise. On TV, the band’s music was heard in everything from “Top Gear,” the “Hawaii Five-0” reboot, “Glee,” ”CSI: Miami” and “The Voice.”
Though the band championed good-natured hell-raising, it had to weather suggestions in the 1980s that they were a threat to the moral fabric of society. There were rumors the band’s name stood for Anti-Christ/Devil’s Children and many were shocked when it was learned that serial murderer and rapist Richard Ramirez identified himself as a fan and left an AC/DC baseball cap behind at a crime scene.
In 2014, the band released “Rock or Bust,” the first AC/DC album without Malcom Young. Even so, he is very present on the record since the 11 songs are credited to the Young brothers (Angus said he built the album from guitar hooks the two had accumulated over the years).
Around the album’s release, Angus Young told The Associated Press that Malcolm was doing fine, but that he couldn’t perform anymore.
“It was progressing further, but he knew he couldn’t do it,” Angus Young said of his older brother’s dementia. “He had continued as long as he could, still writing. But he said to me, ‘Keep it going.’
Young took a leave of absence from AC/DC in April 2014, to receive treatment for dementia. In September 2014, the band’s management announced that he would be retiring permanently.
The fate of the band was further put into doubt by the retirement of Williams, legal trouble for Rudd and Johnson’s hearing loss, which forced him to leave. The band enlisted Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose to sing on tour in 2016.
Malcolm Young died on 18 November 2017, just a short few weeks after his older brother George.
Malcolm, on a Gretsch Jet Firebird that always looked giant on his tiny frame, was not just the business brain of AC/DC but their musical heart, too – everything AC/DC did stemmed from his playing. And what he played, he insisted, was rock’n’roll, not rock. One puzzled interviewer once asked him the difference between the two. “Well, rock bands don’t really swing,” he said, as if explaining how the Earth was in fact spherical rather than flat. “Rock’n’roll has the swing.” He proceeded to demonstrate precisely what he meant by hissing out the respective hi-hat patterns, while beating his thigh to mime the kick drum. “They don’t understand the feel, the movement.”
You can hear that feel best, perhaps, on the version of Live Wire that opened the 1977 promo album Live From the Atlantic Studios, a performance so taut and dynamic it ought to be mandatory listening for every aspiring rock band.
Crucial to it all is space: no matter how raw Malcolm’s rhythm playing is, he never gives in to the temptation to fill in the gaps. Power chords are allowed to fade, not be chopped off prematurely.
That’s also a tribute to Malcolm’s songwriting. Think of it: his name appears on the credits of so many classics: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Let There Be Rock, Whole Lotta Rosie, Highway to Hell, Back In Black, You Shook Me All Night Long, For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), and countless more almost as well known.
That combination of songwriting and playing made AC/DC something unique. Even in the 1970s, it was hard to juggle rock’n’roll’s constituent parts to come up with something that sounded like no one else. By Powerage, when they shed the blues shuffle once and for all, AC/DC had managed that. From then on, anyone trying to incorporate AC/DC’s influence just ended up sounding like copyists, without the same finesse – try the Cult’s Electric album, or anything by Airbourne and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s because AC/DC’s greatest songs aren’t just riffs and choruses, they’re full of tricks and variations: the pauses after three crashing chords of each part of Highway to Hell’s riff, the stutter in Back in Black, the way Riff Raff spends 30 seconds building up to its monstrous central riff, then a further minute allowing the whole riff cycle to unspool before allowing the vocals to come in.
For people who simply refuse to countenance the idea that a band who spent almost all their career playing riffs with largely puerile lyrics on top could be revolutionary, the following statement will sound ridiculous, but I believe it to be true: Malcolm Young was hard rock’s Ralf Hütter, someone who saw the possibilities of focusing on one thing and pursuing it to its end. He was implacable, immutable, irreplaceable. He was one of the greatest rock’n’roll musicians ever. – Michael Hann