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AC/DC: Why Malcolm Young matters

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There should be special recognition for the quiet achievers in any art form – the ones who no matter how rich and famous they become, simply let their brush, pen or musical instrument do the talking.

The more you listen to the music of AC/DC, the more you realise just how much the band’s immense legacy is owed to the late Malcolm Young. Those of us who belong to the Countdown generation might well have undervalued that contribution during the band’s rise to fame in the 1970s. As we may now understand with the wisdom of hindsight and some sense of irony, that is the point.

Self-taught as he was, here was someone who achieved success entirely in terms of the band’s core ethos of building something from nothing through discipline and sheer hard work. If all that the wider public ever really knew of Malcolm Young was the music he made, then that in and of itself is an impressive epitaph in our celebrity-obsessed age.

Malcolm’s playing, in partnership with that of Angus, has the beauty of simplicity.

Standing just over five feet tall and lacking the bright-eyed, animal magnetism of front man Bon Scott or the idiosyncratic exhibitionism of his brother Angus, Malcolm Young was easy to overlook at least on TV. He stood back with the other, equally undemonstrative members of the rhythm section while adding something to the performance of much more consequence than his presence on stage alone could ever have conveyed.

Anthony Bozza suggests in his 2009 book Why AC/DC Matters that the contribution of Malcolm Young is essential to the music of AC/DC being judged great rather than good. Apart from the vital role he played in writing the songs, Malcolm’s playing, in partnership with that of Angus, has the beauty of simplicity.

“Though most of AC/DC’s songs tend to rely on five or six guitar chords at most, those chords are the very pillars of rock and roll: E, A, D, G, C, and B. But what the Youngs have found a way to do for the past thirty-five years is to come up with subtle, well-placed anomalies that make the simple sublime”, writes Bozza.

Above, it is an art that conceals itself. “In AC/DC, nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems” according to Anthony Bozza. “There is an almost invisible complexity to the music that is unanimously felt but singularly understood.”

The sublime simplicity identified by Bozza is exemplified in a classic song like Jailbreak, an epic of sheer dramatic intensity comparable with anything by more flamboyant bands like Queen or Led Zeppelin. What’s more, it is unmistakably Australian, redolent of the enduring national fascination with doomed outlaws apart from anything else. The story is propelled towards the inevitable tragic conclusion by Malcolm’s desperate, insistent rhythm guitar as much as anything else in the impressively spare arrangement.

Unlike the Young brothers, or the rest of us, the best of AC/DC’s music shows no signs of getting old.

The true spirit of AC/DC likewise is expressed in Sin City, a song from Powerage, which in the opinion of many listeners – including, it seems, Malcolm Young himself as well as Keith Richards – is their best album. Like Jailbreak, Sin City is a story of a working class individual told in the first person albeit having a less outwardly dramatic scenario.

Surely there has been no more direct dramatic insight into the psyche of a problem gambler than Bon Scott’s deluded, yet at the same time, painfully self-aware casino punter character? Again, the song would not be anywhere near as memorable if it weren’t for the moving parts in the rhythm section being so solidly put together and then pulled apart with equal skill during the course of the song.

These days Sin City is the track I reach for first for consolation whenever AC/DC appears in the news, as seems to happen fairly frequently nowadays and not in a happy way. Age inevitably is taking its grim toll on the members of the band. Malcolm’s death was announced shortly after that of his talented and unpretentious older brother George.

Unlike the Young brothers themselves, or for that matter the rest of us, the best of AC/DC’s music shows no signs of getting old.

By all accounts, it was Malcolm Young who to a very large extent was responsible for that carefully constructed immutability.

10 responses to “AC/DC: Why Malcolm Young matters

  1. Beautifully expressed – when Diesel started off the AC/DC tribute at the end of the ARIA’s the other night his intro chord riff sounded strange and then when the rhythm section came in it sounded perfect – emblematic of course of the rock hard genius of Malcolm Young – wanna know why most hard rock bands are ordinary? Answer they don’t have the innovative understated genius thinking of this bloke RIP mate as always well done!!

  2. No one seems to have mentioned Malcolm Young”s strictness of temp, without which, ACDC would sound like a garage band. It was the metronomic regime of Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams geared synchronously to Malcolm Young that afforded the luxury of shenanigans displayed by Angus Young and Brian Johnson (and Bon Scott in the early years) Malcolm Young was the man and the band will never be the same without him.



  4. I first heard ACDC when I was 14 YEARS old on the radio. From then on I was into rock bands and still am. I thought Malcolm was very sexy and his hair was just beautiful!!. I cried when news of his passing was released. I love the video of the boys on the float, playing Its A Long To The Top, rockin down Swanston St in Melbourne. Im sad those young men then arent still doing their magic.

  5. To my mind, Malcolm’s legacy is even more extensive than just being the driver of that amazing band, that *machine* that AC/DC became. Malcolm stopped in its tracks – or revealed it to be a somewhat spurious progression – the trajectory that rock music was supposedly on, from the emotional simplicity of the 50s, to the exponential maturation process of the 60s embodied by the Beatles’ career, into the ‘progressive’ 70s… AC/DC showed that you don’t have to necessarily change with the times to progress your career. People are often puzzled by the success of AC/DC, why people continue to like the apparently coarse and basic musical formula and delivery they invented, but it’s ‘marketing 101’ really: create an expectation, and meet that expectation every time. They created a product that they delivered every time and it outlived one musical fad after another. They conquered through sheer professionalism, but not just that; I can personally attest from seeing them a number of times in 1975/6 that they were an absolutely incendiary band in their first few years, there was simply not a band as machine-like as them, as on-fire every gig. And by machine-like I mean awe-inspiring in the way they delivered; they were as good during the first song as they were at the last, and to any aspiring guitarist (and let’s face it, who wasn’t!), they provided role models par excellence. As a 60 year old now, I’ve come to see objectively that it wasn’t just my own fixation with them, with a band that happened to have a school boy appearing to be chucking tantrums –
    as if this was some external embodiment or evidence of the peurile and transitory nature of their ‘neanderthal’ music (and believe me, there were critics who believed this was *exactly* the case, critics who pontificated from behind the mastheads of Rolling Stone and other ‘rock mags’ that music had ‘moved along’ and there was no place for simplistic stunted ‘three chord’ rock such as this shoved down yer throats by this bunch of ex-convict antipodeans). I now know I was lucky enough to witness a band that did in fact go through quite a radical progression, of playing, of lyric writing, of mood and texture, during their first few years. I was simply lucky enough to be there at the very beginning of the career of one of the best bands ever to exist, *ever*. Even the great ZZ Top succumbed to the lure of synthesizers in the 80s; I remember thinking “Dear god, please don’t let me hear not one synthesised note on an AC/DC track”. It never happened thankfully. AC/DC was the brainchild of George Young, but it was the vision of Malcolm and Angus Young, but particularly Malcolm, the brother who arguably sacrificed any opportunity to be noticed by becoming, simply, the rhythm player. His legacy is immense; in some ways he’s realigned the order of priorities in rock music; it’s not just about virtuosity, it’s about the beat, the count, the structure of the song in the mind’s ear and eye; without structure, Angus is floundering, there is nowhere for him to start or finish. Great players talk about ‘the space’ within a song, within which anything can happen provided it conforms to the boundaries of the space. Malcolm Young quite simply created that space for Angus, and he never let Angus down, not once. Critics hate to admit it, but things changed when AC/DC came along; they endured like nothing else and they defied any attempt to predict their end. But now, perhaps, with the passing of Malcolm Young, that time has come. Angus can continue playing with other singers and other rhythm guitarists but without Malcolm, it’ll never be AC/DC again.

    1. Thank u Michael Spooner for that mate, well put…
      I’m from that era from Maroubra going to the Bondi Lifesavers during 70’s the best ever live venue seeing the the best Oz bands ever..too many to mention. You would know who they were…
      Yes ACDC dig em…
      I try playing gtr with my wife gigging live, been doing it for 20 years all ard Sydney and all I really appreciate your comments about Malcolm who was so tight and laying down that groove, I’m in absolute awww..
      On ya mate, take care and rock on forever ✌???????????? Happy Christmas to ya and your family & friends…,????

  6. I remember cruising around in my panelvan playing acdc it was the type of music you could play over and over again if they where the good ole days if it wasnt for malcom young there would be no acdc rip i still listen to it now just as much as i did 30 years ago

  7. Agree about Malcolm being sexy. On the YouTube videos I wait for the moment he finishes his backup vocals and turns around to return to his backstage position. That’s when you get a glimpse of his cute bum.

  8. I was amazed when I heard the acdc cover of Johnny BGoode. They tore it to pieces at breakneck tempo.
    I also love “whole lot of Rosie”. The band at their irreverent best.

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