On Saturday, AC/DC guitarist and co-founder Malcolm Young died at age 64. For the past three years, he had been retired from the road after being diagnosed with dementia. In his absence, the venerable Australian band released its sixteenth album, 2016’s Rock Or Bust, and embarked on a world tour that was almost derailed by the departure of singer Brian Johnson, who was ordered by doctors to quit the road lest he go permanently deaf. AC/DC subsequently tapped Axl Rose as a replacement, and the tour went on to gross more than $220 million. In true AC/DC fashion, the show went on, even without most of AC/DC.
With his brother Angus, Malcolm was AC/DC’s general — his no-nonsense leadership kept the band steadfastly pointed in the same direction for nearly 40 years, away from passing trends and toward foundational, meat-and-potatoes rock and roll. If you love AC/DC and feel grateful that the band never delved into ’80s power-balladry, ’90s rap-rock, or ’00s dance music, then send a prayer of thanks to Malcolm. While Angus was AC/DC’s duck-walking, schoolboy outfit-clad mascot, Malcolm was the band’s gritty soul. (Or, in the parlance of AC/DC, the balls.)
Someone unfamiliar with AC/DC’s history might question Angus’ apparent coldness in carrying on without Malcolm — their nephew Stevie was tasked with playing his uncle’s parts on the Rock Or Busttour — and later Brian. But surely this was what Malcolm wanted. When the band’s original lead singer Bon Scott died tragically in 1980 at 33, Malcolm corralled Angus and finished off what became the most popular hard-rock album of all-time, Back In Black. The Young brothers mourned Scott, but they integrated that grief into their work. Not working simply was not an option for rock’s quintessential blue-collar band.
Was this a display of ruthlessness or just the sort of toughness and fortitude one must have in order to build and sustain a band as mighty as AC/DC? A bit of both, perhaps, though AC/DC never shied away from rock’s un-sentimental side in its music. “I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks,” Scott mewls conspiratorially in “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock And Roll),” the ultimate “life on the road” anthem from the band’s 1976 debut, High Voltage. And yet Malcolm and Angus, for many years, did make sustaining the reliable, stubborn, reassuring sameness of AC/DC seem as easy as pounding a case of beer to Highway To Hell.
Looking back, the obvious question music historians will ask about AC/DC is: How did this band sell more than 200 million albums worldwide, and make hundreds of millions (if not billions) on the road? AC/DC is utterly anathema to any common-knowledge definition of pop music. AC/DC is not trendy. AC/DC is not cute. AC/DC is not pleasant or easy-listening. AC/DC never conformed to radio formats or made flashy music videos. AC/DC, in fact, always seemed to hold all of those things — trendiness, cuteness, pleasantness, conformity — in contempt.
So, what is AC/DC’s secret? Well, there is no secret, not as far as your body is concerned anyway. Put on an AC/DC song right now and notice how your body responds. All of a sudden you’re moving in all sorts of involuntary ways — your head bobs, your fists clench, your arms wave maniacally. And then you get up and you actually start dancing. AC/DC grooves. And that groove started with Malcolm Young.
In order to fully grasp the genius of Malcolm Young, you must also appreciate the art of rock and roll rhythm guitar. Unfortunately, you won’t learn anything by looking at the umpteen “greatest guitarist ever!” lists that have been compiled time and again to honor the players that can solo for 20 minutes but can’t lock into a riff for even 30 seconds without needing to wank away again. The only way to measure the mettle of a rhythm guitarist is to watch an arena-rock audience and count how many asses are still perched in their seats at the end of the night. By that metric, Malcolm Young was an all-time champion. He lifted more asses than a Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon.
If I were to create a syllabus for Rock And Roll Rhythm Guitar 101, I would start with Keith Richards on the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, Lou Reed on the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” and the first six AC/DC albums. But for now, let’s just focus on “Down Payment Blues,” from 1978’s Powerage.
After Angus spends 15 seconds ominously strumming his Gibson SG, Malcom comes in with a quintessential AC/DC riff — slyly propulsive, bluesy, minimal notes. He has instantly built a pocket that’s only going to get deeper and dirtier as the song progresses. For a while Angus joins him — part of the magic of AC/DC was the Young brothers’ teamwork in the service of making the band a pleasurably punishing rhythmic sledgehammer.
At 2:20, Angus tears into a smoldering solo that goes on for almost a minute, while underneath Malcolm plays a symphony, hitting the same lick with steady, unrelenting force. He’s moving the song, the band, and the listener forward simultaneously. This movement is gradual but overwhelming. Malcolm is the reason your BPM is at 60 when the song starts and 120 when it ends.
Malcolm pulled this maneuver in countless AC/DC songs, and while it’s hard to articulate exactly why it works so well, the emotional as well as physical impact of AC/DC’s music speaks for itself. When you listen to most bands, you can have what seems like the whole package — the singer is good, the band is good, the vibe is good, the songs are good. And yet your body will tell you that … something is missing. What’s missing is a person like Malcolm Young, a primitive genius who could play a guitar like it was a steady wind at your back.