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.