It was 1995 and my 20-minute interview slot had almost run over time when the operator delicately cut in. Malcolm Young, who rarely engaged with the media, just as politely advised that we hadn’t finished talking, thanks. Without further interruption, the wide-ranging conversation eventually clocked in at around two hours. During that time it was difficult to marry up the fact that the easy-going bloke on the other end of the line with the slightly raised pitch in his voice was actually the mastermind behind one of rock & roll’s greatest ever acts.
Malcolm, who passed away on November 18th, just a month after older brother George, spent his entire career just outside the reach of the main spotlight. He was the man with the right hand like God; a master lead guitarist, but far better known for AC/DC‘s simple rhythmic genius — witness the outro of “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll)”, in which the groove of the song morphs several times before settling on the monster riff that fades out; the central driving motif of “Let There Be Rock”, particularly in a live setting; or that gear shift in “Night Prowler”.
More importantly, Malcolm was the founder and ongoing soul and conscience of the band, the business affairs of which he drove with a singular, even fearsome, determination and tenacity.
The direct benefactor of George Young’s sagely teachings, nothing was more important to Malcolm than the show and everything was mentally logged for quick future reference. It was Malcolm, the technical master, who tweaked younger brother Angus’s gear in the studio and would detect when two notes were cancelling each other out when experienced big-name producers heard nothing. It was Malcolm who even structured AC/DC’s stage movements into almost a soul-revue discipline, with the guitarist and bassist Cliff Williams stepping forward from the back to sing a chorus and then retiring to the semi shadows against the amps.
And no-one fucked with Malcolm or his band. Like the time in Detroit when the venue owner — horrified by the band’s volume — cut their power. The guitarist tracked the culprit down and slugged him.
He steered AC/DC from the very beginning in 1973 to the cusp of global success with 1979’s Highway to Hell, then picked up the pieces after the tragic loss of Bon Scott in 1980 before straddling the globe with that year’s Back In Black.
A few years later, without any fanfare, he successfully beat a battle with the bottle. The notion of the man being struck down by anything but a meteor always seemed unthinkable.
But Angus sensed during the early preparations for 2008’s Black Ice album that something wasn’t quite right. Malcolm was forgetting things and at times acting out of character. Nothing major, just enough to raise a silent red flag with the schoolkid who knew him best. The guitarist asked his older sibling if he wanted to continue and begin the arduous process of actually recording. Malcolm indicated everything should proceed as planned.
In the studio, the difficulties of the AC/DC boss became more pronounced. Once the storehouse of information and expertise and the provider of keen-eyed insight and perspective, Malcolm, who had long instructed established producers what to do in the studio, was heartbreakingly unsure and confused.
By the time Black Ice was completed — his health, perhaps, the reason for the unusually prolonged creative process — the band leader’s symptoms had been medically diagnosed, confirming the initial fears. He was suffering from the early stages of dementia, the disease that would eventually claim his life.
But another hurdle was looming: would Malcolm be in a suitable state to go on the road? Again, Angus gave his occasional sparring partner the opportunity of opting out and, again, his brother stared down his situation; the tour would proceed and he would be part of it.
Some days, while readying for the road haul, the boss was fine, his old self. But on other occasions Angus barely recognised his older sibling.
“I thought that at times it was not Malcolm with me,” Angus told The Guardian‘s Michael Hann. “He was relearning a lot of those songs that he knew backwards; the ones we were playing that night he’d be relearning.”
To the audience, without any knowledge of what was slowly unfolding, it just seemed like business as usual — when, in reality, the biggest band in the world was performing before tens of thousands each night without a safety net.
Thankfully, the mammoth, almost two-year ‘Black Ice’ tour went off without a major hitch, with Malcolm, as always, largely at the back of the stage, his usual lack of presence in the spotlight now a sad reflection of his situation rather than a strong positional strategy. Being bathed as per tradition in either semi-darkness or lost in a wash of detail-obscuring lighting was also tragically apt.
The final date of the tour on June 28th 2010 in Bilbao, Spain, was also to be Malcolm’s last-ever performance with AC/DC. His health situation was still very much in-house, but in January 2012, a typically frank Brian Johnson revealed during an interview that a member of the band was seriously ill. But it wasn’t Malcolm’s loss of memory the singer was referencing; the guitarist also had lung cancer, most likely from almost half a century of lubricating AC/DC’s music with cigarette smoke.
While a surgical procedure was successful, his major health issues didn’t end there. There were heart problems out of which — after going under the knife again — he won himself a pacemaker.
All the while, dementia was tightening its grip and Malcolm was slowly being enveloped in its fog. Angus was now having difficulty talking with his brother and getting his point across, their once almost-psychic connection tragically broken.
“I’ve been a little bit lucky for myself, probably from the beginning, because I’ve always had Malcolm,” Angus once told me. “I could dream up some idea some time and he’d tell me if it was stupid or something. Other times he’d go, ‘That’s not bad’, and he would make it happen. He’s probably more practical than me. I’m a bit of a dreamer so I’m lucky in that sense. He has more get-up-and-go.
“If we come up with ideas and stuff, I’ll look at Malcolm and every time it amazes me. I’ll sit and hear what he’s got — an idea off a tape or something — and it’s always different. It’s way ahead and in front of anyone I’ve ever met. It’s unique.”
Malcolm’s condition came to a head on 16th April 2014 with an official announcement addressing the rumours and reports head on. “After 40 years of life dedicated to AC/DC, guitarist and founding member Malcolm Young is taking a break from the band due to ill health. Malcolm would like to thank the group’s diehard legions of fans worldwide for their never-ending love and support.
“In light of this news, AC/DC asks that Malcolm and his family’s privacy be respected during this time. The band will continue to make music.”
It was a stunning public admission from an organisation that had built a world brand by keeping ‘family’ business strictly within the family, never confirming or denying anything, ever.
With Malcolm receiving care in Sydney, surrounded by old familiar comforts like music by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, AC/DC began recording the Rock Or Bust album at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studio with Angus and Stevie Young on guitars.
Meanwhile, the condition of the band’s chief deteriorated further. On 24th September 2014, a media statement announcing the release of Rock Or Bust stated:
” …Earlier this year AC/DC released a statement explaining that due to illness, Malcolm would be taking a break from the band. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Malcolm’s illness, he will not be rejoining the band. AC/DC will undertake a world tour in support of Rock Or Bust in 2015. Stevie Young, nephew of founding members Angus and Malcolm Young, plays guitar on Rock Or Bust and will accompany the band on tour.”
It was now tragically official.
Malcolm Young was born in Glasgow in 1953, the year Elvis Presley walked through the doors of the Memphis Recording Service to make his historic first recordings for what would become the legendary Sun label. The son of William and Margaret Young, his small hands and reach made handling the guitar fretboard a challenge. Music at first was only an interest rather than a driving and all-consuming passion. Like older brother George, Malcolm was a talented soccer player and had very definite designs on a career in the sport. But at 13 or 14, the growth spurts of everyone in his age group — except him — put paid to that. Malcolm remained locked in a tiny frame, due, it’s been said, to the lead in the pipes while the family was still in Glasgow.
After moving to Australia with his family in 1963, Malcolm refocused enthusiasm for music through George being in the Easybeats, one of the biggest rock & roll bands in the world at the time. The fuse was really lit, however, in 1968 when his brother’s Easybeat colleague, Harry Vanda, presented Malcolm with his treasured Gretsch Jet Firebird guitar. Malcolm listened repeatedly and studiously to Eric Clapton’s blazing work with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac and the groundbreaking Butterfield Blues Band’s East-West album, with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop jousting spectacularly. The great blues men who inspired them, such as Muddy Waters, as well as early rock & roll figures like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Chuck Berry, were also a major part of his musical diet.
“As a kid it started with Chuck Berry,” Malcolm once told me. “You can’t forget Chuck Berry. I mean, just about everything he did back then was great.”
But it was the English acts who had styled blues and R&B into roughly three-minute-pop radio fodder who shook him to his core.
“The first time I heard ‘My Generation’ by the Who, that was something. The Beatles and the Stones were the big thing and then all of a sudden this sounded heavier. That changed my whole thing. Later on I guess ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, and I’ll give you two more, ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ — and these are all just tracks out on their own — and then ‘Get Back’ by the Beatles. That’s just pure rock & roll as it evolved, I reckon.”
William Young’s work ethic dictated that his son get himself a job rather than just practice guitar in his bedroom. Accordingly, Malcolm entered the workforce and took on a number of positions, from a sewing machine repairman to an apprentice fitter and turner and storeman.
But unlike his colleagues, Malcolm didn’t hear the usual workplace noise. Instead, the repeated clunkings and clickings of the various pieces of machinery around him blurred into a tribal rhythm which, with a little imagination, helped him formulate song ideas and structures.
“I’ve been a little bit lucky,” said Angus Young. “I’ve always had Malcolm.”
Malcolm’s first band was in 1968 with Beelzebub Blues, the tiny guitarist quite effortlessly tearing his way through songs by Black Sabbath, the Animals, Eric Clapton in his Bluesbreakers period, as well as virtually all of Cream’s first album and Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix.
But in 1971, opportunity knocked when the Velvet Underground (not to be confused with the legendary New York outfit led by Lou Reed) relocated to Sydney from Newcastle. On the recommendation of former Easybeat Stevie Wright, drummer Herm Kovac and guitarist Les Hall went to see their potential new recruit at the Young home in Burwood, where they were amazed to find the family spoke to each other in a thick, almost impenetrable Scottish brogue. It wasn’t the only shock. Malcolm was smitten with T. Rex and the guitar playing of Marc Bolan.
“I used to say to him, ‘That’s shit, Malcolm! All those singles all sound the same!'” Kovac recalls. “There were no blues guys or anything like that on his wall — there was a big poster of Marc Bolan.”
They changed their name to Pony in late 1972. Their first gig under that name was in Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches, where Young made an equipment-and- sound connection that would stay with him for the rest of his career — the Gretsch guitar, which Harry Vanda had given him, plugged into a Marshall amp.
“That was born in Kangaroo Hall in Kangaroo Street, Manly,” says Herm Kovac. “Malcolm had been saying, ‘I want to get a Gibson and this [Gretsch] isn’t much good.’ Les [Hall] said, ‘I’ll buy it off you.’ And because Les showed an interest in it Malcolm decided not to sell it, he thought it must be good.”
Malcolm eventually took his leave from Pony — he was looking for something tougher, but the band he initially had in mind didn’t pan out.
“I was looking for a keyboard and [to] try a bit of rock & roll with piano and be versatile. And it just didn’t work out, probably because I didn’t feel confident enough as a solo player,” Malcolm told me. “[Working with Angus] just came about. I just didn’t even think about Angus [previously].”
But the option of teaming with his younger brother was an obvious one — a likeminded ally and one hell of a guitarist.
While Malcolm was piecing together the first lineup of AC/DC, he had been doing some homework. He realised both the Stones and the Beatles had had their experiments — Their Satanic Majesties Request for the former, the scholarly concept albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour for the latter — but they had both gravitated back to their original rock & roll roots, the Stones supremely with Exile On Main Street and the Beatles to a lesser degree on Let It Be and songs like “Get Back”. The lesson was clear: work harder and more simply at what you have.
But for Malcolm that ethos was almost a dumbing-down exercise. Associate Steve Morcom recalls a conversation with Angus about prog rockers Yes and their guitarist Steve Howe.
“Angus said, ‘Look, Malcolm can play all that stuff but we’re just going to stick to this bottom line thing’,” recalls Morcom. “I knew Malcolm was well up on that [more complex material] and could pull off stuff like that. Malcolm was a really accomplished player when AC/DC started.”
Over the next four decades, from the back of the stage, Malcolm led AC/DC on an unswerving path across the globe, attracting millions of life long fans who were as singleminded in their worship as AC/DC’s chord structures.
Following the death of Bon Scott, the decision to continue was down to Malcolm. Simply calling time would have been a slap in the face of the tough, hard-working character AC/DC represented, and that was never going to happen under his watch. It was a matter of commitment, just as it always had been.
Malcolm reportedly wasn’t initially sold on Brian Johnson, but he was quickly won over, and Back in Black was an enormous global success.
“Back In Black is the album we’re proud of,” Malcolm told me, “because we thought it was the end of the band, to be honest. Me and Angus had been together two weeks jamming [on ideas for the album], and after [Bon’s death] we thought, well, this is it really. I just can’t see David Coverdale singing with the band, you know what I mean?”
But the road took its toll, and for the American leg of the ‘Blow Up Your Video’ tour Malcolm, who had become aware that his drinking had become a problem, took some time out. “Just a case of rock & roll,” he said. “The lifestyle. I’m just a little guy, like five foot three, you know? I was trying to keep up with the big guys. It just got to me. People can’t depend on you anymore. So it was just a matter of cutting it [alcohol] right out. Of course, when you’ve sobered up, lots of thoughts would go through your head, like Bon and lots of other things you might have messed up here and there. It was a combination at the end where you just need help, basically. You can’t do it yourself. Especially when you’ve done everything yourself in the past and along comes this little thing that’s snuck up on you.”
Malcolm’s old friend Herm Kovac later received a call.
“[Malcolm] rang me up asking if I could get him a deal on a drum kit. The Scottish thing coming out in him. Guy’s a multimillionaire and rings me up [to ask] could I get him a deal on a Ludwig kit!”
The rhythm method never left him.
When a journalist once questioned Malcolm about just how long AC/DC could continue, he referenced the never-ending careers of his blues heros like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and declared he wanted to die onstage.
Tragically, he had no say in the matter.
Main photo: Malcolm Young at Alberts Studios in 1976 during the recording of ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’. Credit: Philip Morris.
This article features in our Malcolm Young tribute issue (#794, January 2018), available now.