When Malcolm Young of AC/DC died yesterday at age 64 after a long illness, a small bit of the flame of Rock `n Roll was put out. Al thought the music Young created will live on forever, as an observer of music history, you have to marvel at the longevity and the quality of the songbook he has left and wonder if anyone will ever come along to replicate it.
Formed in Sydney Australia and later moving to London, UK, AC/DC was the dream of Malcolm and Angus Young. Angus is synonymous with the visual aesthetic of the band, almost like a human logo or a mascot: schoolboy uniform, wild blues-drenched soloing, duck walking all over the stage. Angus was the face of the band, but Malcolm was its unquestioned heart and soul. Under the stewardship of older brother George Young (himself just passing recently at age 70) and Harry Vanda who had gained fame in the Easybeats, the younger Young brothers galvanized their love of blues, and British blues-rock bands in 1973 to essentially create the handbook of how to write riffs for generations to come.
Although they had numerous lineup changes in the early years, the addition of singer Bon Scott crystallized the bands’ sound and dangerous rock n roll swagger. If the band had even just stopped after the first six albums Bon had appeared on, they would still have to be included among the greatest bands ever. The string of albums from the début of High Voltage (Albert Productions), T.N.T. (Albert), Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (Albert), Let There Be Rock (Albert), Powerage (Atlantic), the live album If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It (Atlantic) and Highway to Hell (Atlantic/Albert) are unstoppable documents to great songs, killer licks, sexual innuendos, wry humor, and raw rock power. Malcolm was a major part of those elements as the chief songwriter in the band.
When it seemed like they could not get any bigger, the band lost Bon Scott to an untimely death, and the band was left voiceless for a time. They famously worked through their grief on what would become 1980s Back In Black (Atlantic) until it was nearly completed, and before they hired Brian Johnson to become their new lead vocalist. Of course, we know that Back In Black has been the biggest album of their career and the intro riff to ‘Back In Black’ is their signature piece of music. AC/DC has had a few other hit records such as For Those About To Rock, We Salute You and The Razor’s Edge, but none as powerful at Back In Black or as consistent as the early albums with Bon.
What endures are those riffs: blasted out from that Frankensteinian Gretch special yellow axe and a REAL wall of amps. Whether he was paying tribute to his 1950s rock influences, blues guitar greats, or just having some fun, Malcolm Young wrote such a collection of indelible riffs, it’s hard to imagine anyone else coming close. The main thing people overlook is how much groove came from the guitars and riffs. Most rhythm sections push the groove, but in AD/DC it has always been the guitars. The power and authenticity of each chord, just hit something raw and true in fans early on, which is why the band became so huge and popular. Also, not only could he compose great main riffs, often his other parts of songs were just a great and catchy. Listen to the solo in many AC/DC hits and focus on the rhythm guitar, you will hear a symphony of great licks and parts. While you could argue they haven’t experimented or changed in decades, they simply didn’t have to. That was Malcolm’s vision, make heavy music people could get into.
AC/DC was not only a peer to the biggest bands of the early 1970s and 80s, they helped influence hard rock, Heavy Metal, punk, The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, thrash, the Seattle bands and much more. When thrash bands like Anthrax and later Metallica started added in more classic rock sounds, it was AC/DC they cited as the main ingredient.
If there were ever to be a Mount Rushmore of classic rock, Malcolm Young’s face would need to be on it. But Young was so much more than a guy in a huge band. By all accounts he was glue that held them together. Although his stroke and later dementia forced his retirement prematurely in 2014, he casts a long shadow of their past and future. It remains to be seen if the band will continue, but at least we have tons of great songs and music to carry us.