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AC/DC’s Brian Johnson on Malcolm Young: ‘He Gave Rock and Roll a Fist’

“Malcolm would have been absolutely stunned at the outpouring of tributes and grief,” Johnson says of late guitarist.

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Malcolm Young and Angus Young (behind) backstage in 1976. Credit: Bob King/Getty.

“It was a lousy weekend,” Brian Johnson says from his Florida home. And with good reason: As AC/DC‘s primal-grunt lead singer, Johnson spent 35 years singing and writing songs with guitarist and co-founder Malcolm Young, who died November 18th at age 64 of complications from dementia.

During those years, the 70-year-old singer co-wrote many of hard rock’s most enduring battering rams with Malcolm and his schoolboy-garbed lead-guitarist brother Angus. Johnson, who stopped touring with the band last year over hearing issues, is still dealing with the aftershock of what he calls “nine fucking operations” on his ears. “You got to take it like a man, but when it hurts, you know that’s it you’re done, pal,” he says. “But Malcolm had it way worse another invisible thing. I call it the invisible disease that nobody can see or touch.” Johnson spoke with Rolling Stone about his memories of working with Malcolm Young.

Malcolm was a catalyst. It was Malcolm that got ahold of Angus and said, “Just go fucking crazy [on guitar].” Malcolm taught everybody in the band how to be in a band. One of the super-fans came to one of the gigs and the security just wouldn’t let him in. We were in Germany and he had hitchhiked there, so Malcolm just pulled out 500 pounds and said, “I am sorry I can’t get you in, but why don’t you fly home?” He was just a sweetheart.

I’ll always remember my little audition for AC/DC in 1980. They had asked singers to come in and do a couple of songs. The smallest guy in the room stood up and walked towards me. Pulled out a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, because that is where I am from, and said, “There you go, mate, just make yourself at home.” It was Malcolm.

“Malcolm never missed a trick. He paid attention to everything.”

I sang and left and thought, “I will never get this.” I was a nobody. I said, “Hey guys, I’ll sing a couple of songs and then I got to get back home.” At least I could tell me pals I had a sing with AC/DC. Then a month later, it was Mal’s voice on the phone saying, “Would you like to come down?”

I said, “For what?”

And he said, “You know, we got to do an album.”

And I go, “Does that mean I am in the band?” And he went, “Oh, fuck yeah.” When I first joined them and went to Australia, he took me to meet his mother and father. Then he came up to Newcastle to meet me mom and dad, just to say, “Hey, I am Malcolm and this is the band.” He was just such a thoughtful man.

When we went to the Bahamas [to record Back in Black], I was pretty on edge. I was joining this band and first thing they did was say we’re going to do an album. The first day, Malcolm gave me a little cassette and a legal pad. He said, “Okay, this is the first rough recording. Just give us some lyrics; see what you got.” And I said, “Do you have a title?” And he said, “Yeah it’s called ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.'” I said, “That’s a fucking long title.” He said, “Mate, take your time. We are going in all day to get some tracks.” And that is the man he was. He wouldn’t say, “I want some words tomorrow.” He would just say, “Sit down and see what you come up with.” Luckily enough, I came up with a whole song. You just didn’t want to let a man like him down because he picked me.

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AC/DC in 1984. Credit: Bob King/Getty.

Malcolm never missed a trick. He paid attention to everything. Onstage he was always watching, taking in things and making sure it wouldn’t happen again if he didn’t like the look of some lights or something. We were in the Bahamas doing Back in Black and listening back of one of the tracks. I was sitting there going, “Yeah, that’s Malcolm’s riff!” Phil [Rudd] was right on the money with the drums like he always is. Mal sat for a moment and went, “What is that noise?” And we said, “What noise? What are you talking about?” He goes, “There was a noise there. Play that again.” They played it again and we were all listening – nothing.

We took the tracks off one at a time until the only thing left was the bass drum. And I will be a son of gun: All you heard was a clicking noise. I was like, “What the fuck is that?” They took the big blanket out of the bass drum and there was a little sand crab that had been stuck there for two days. It had found itself a nice little cozy thing while Phil was banging the living shit out of it. We just looked at Malcolm and said, “How the hell did you even [know]?” That was just the way he was. It was unbelievable.

In 1981 or ’82, Malcolm said, “Let’s go to Loch Ness. Let’s go see if there is a monster!” We booked a hotel right on the side of the Loch and had dinner and, you know, we had a few sherbets, and as we are walking down there I said to Malcolm, “What’s that you got?” He said, “I’ve got a box of fireworks.” I said “What for?” He said, “Well, we will set them off and it may get the attention of the monster.” I said, “Ah, that is a fucking great idea.” We walked straight into the water; we didn’t even take our shoes off. And there we were giggling and laughing trying to set these fireworks. Everything got soaked in the water and we all fell down, and of course we thought we had seen it. We weren’t sure.

Malcolm gave rock and roll a fist. He’d give it a kick in the ass. People always used to ask Mal, “How do you get that sound, man?” Malcolm either wouldn’t tell them or just really couldn’t explain it. He would just go, “We just play.” I used to stand next to him at the end of “Let There Be Rock,” where there is a big huge build at the end and it builds and builds. Malcolm would go through two guitar picks during that one song. He would wear them down. He was the most precise guitarist.

Many times on the road, Angus would tell me, “Hey Brian, I got to rehearse in my room every day. My finger bits and all of this. I do it every day.” And I said, “Why? You are just so natural at it.” And he said, “No, because of him [Malcolm] behind me. If I don’t do it right, he will just pick it up and play better than me. I am just in constant fear of it!”

In the 1980s, we had just suddenly become unfashionable because of the hair bands. Atlantic threw our new album on the table in front of Mal and Angus and said, “There are no singles, there is nothing.” Mal just went, “That is the way it is going to be. We are not going to be a singles band.” People were telling us to change, get some leather jackets and that mid-Eighties hair band stuff. Malcolm had two black T-shirts and a pair of jeans. Malcolm always looked cool in whatever he was doing.

“I was lying there and couldn’t move, and there was me pal next door. It was fucked up.”

On the Black Ice tour, he was just amazing, even though he had to relearn some of the songs. That was the dementia kicking in; the evil silent thing. You can’t see it with an X-ray machine or anything like that. It is just nasty. It wasn’t so bad during the making of the album. He was still pretty good. He had some great riffs on that one as well. But as the tour went on, it started to dig in. But I will never forget the last night. Malcolm had a fire in his eyes you could spot a mile away.

By the time of the Rock or Bust tour [in which Young did not participate], he was pretty much being taken care of and searching for cures or how to try stop this thing. About three-and-a-half years ago, he came over to Florida to talk to a neurologist friend of mine. But I think it was pretty much too late. I was in the hospital in Australia two years ago getting an operation, and the guys said Malcolm was in the next wing. I said, “I would love to see him,” and they said, “No, you can’t see him. He is in a bad way now.” He had just had a pacemaker put in and was pretty weak so the doctors didn’t want to excite him. I was lying there and couldn’t move, and there was me pal next door. It was fucked up. That was a toughie. Maybe it is good I didn’t see him, because that would have broke me heart.

Malcolm would have been absolutely stunned at the outpouring of tributes and grief. He didn’t think of himself in that way, that he was great and all that. I learned the team spirit from Malcolm. You are just a cog in a well-oiled machine. If we all pulled together at the same time, you get this amazing thing happening. And it worked, you know. Mal is not here anymore, but if I ever have a problem I stop and go, “What would Mal do?” He just always seemed to do the right thing.