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A Tribute To AC/DC's Malcolm Young, The Generator That Powered A Generation Of Rock

When the members of AC/DC convened this spring in Vancouver, B.C., to record the forthcoming "Rock Or Bust," it was both the end of an era, and the start of an uncertain new one. To be sure, the band has faced adversity and uncertainty before -- most notably in 1980 with the death of singer Bon Scott and his replacement with Brian Johnson for "Back In Black."

This time, the loss is potentially an even greater one, as the band prepares to release its first album without founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young.

Fans' worst fears were confirmed recently, when it was announced that Malcolm was too ill to return to the band, and would be permanently replaced by his nephew, Stevie. Details of Malcolm's condition were slow to emerge. Rumors of a stroke circulated through Australian press reports, followed by statements from people allegedly close to the Young family that Malcolm's condition was bad enough that he wouldn't perform again. Finally, on Tuesday, the Young family issued a terse statement to People magazine that confirmed that Malcolm is suffering from dementia and requested that his privacy be respected.

Though it is sad to think that one of the architects of the modern hard rock sound has been silenced so cruelly, let us take a moment to honor the man and the wealth of great music that he created.

Unlike his lead guitar-playing brother Angus, who's spent the past four decades duckwalking and flailing across stages worldwide, Malcolm was content to remain mostly in the background, marching out into the spotlight to deliver the occasional backing vocal, and then receding back into the darkness of stage rear with drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams. When it came time to promote the albums, it was mostly Angus and either Bon Scott or Brian Johnson giving the interviews. If judged solely by stage and media presence -- and the fact that the was "only" the rhythm guitarist (especially in the era that gave us the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Slash and, of course, Angus himself) it would seem to the otherwise uneducated that Malcolm's impact on the band was minimal. It was, in fact inestimable.

Malcolm wasn't just THE founding member of AC/DC, he was also chiefly responsible for the band's sound -- a sound that evolved partly out of necessity. His first instinct was to be the band's sole guitarist, and he attempted to recruit a keyboardist to complement him. It was only when that didn't work out that he looked to little brother Angus to fill a second guitar slot.

Even then, the familiar AC/DC sound took a while to get worked out. No less a source than Angus Young himself has said on numerous occasions that Malcolm was the better soloist of the two. A listen to a handful of early AC/DC tracks in which Malcolm plays the lead guitar parts gives that argument considerable credence.

The band's first single, "Can I Sit Next To You Girl," featuring Dave Evans on vocals, has the two Young brothers trading leads, with Malcolm's soloing every bit as strong as Angus' more familiar sound. Even into the early part of the Bon Scott era, Malcolm took the occasional lead, with an especially effective showing on "Soul Stripper." On that track especially, Malcolm plays with a fluidity that his little brother would be hard-pressed to match.

It was little wonder then that, when Malcolm announced that, henceforth, the division of labor, guitar-wise, would have him in the rhythm spot while Angus took all the leads, some AC/DC members fretted that they were losing a key aspect of their sound. In fact, the reverse was likely the case.

Granted, the more progressive-sounding stuff like "Soul Stripper" and "Love Song" went away, but what the band gained by putting Malcolm on the "low end" was infinitely greater. Suddenly, the deep AC/DC groove started to take shape.

Frankly, especially in those early years, there are plenty of moments when Malcolm's rhythm parts prove much more impressive than Angus' leads. Take, for example, the reprise of the opening riff that Malcolm plays as Angus' solo takes flight on the song "High Voltage." Note how it increases in intensity each time he plays it. Malcolm's rhythm line during the solo to "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" also far exceeds Angus' lead line (and that solo ain't nothin' to laugh at).

If you ask me, the greatest interplay between the two brothers in the studio comes during the solo to "Back In Black," as Angus' solo snakes in and out of Malcolm's rock-solid rhythm playing. Angus has given Malcolm full credit for the creation of the central riff to "Back In Black," pointing out that he's never perfectly reproduced how Malcolm initially played it to him. In terms of live recordings, I'd have to say that the version of "High Voltage" that appears on the "AC/DC Live" album most clearly shows their near-telepathic rapport on stage.

Even those songs which veer more into Angus' lead guitar territory the most -- like, say, "Thunderstruck," from "The Razor's Edge" -- benefit immeasurably from Malcolm's steady hand on the rhythm guitar. It may be Angus' famous pull-off arpeggio intro that you'll hear echoing from every Guitar Center practice room, but it's Malcolm's cracking rhythm part underneath that fueled that fire both on the album and in countless live performances.

Here's hoping that Stevie Young, who famously filled in for Malcolm during the "Blow Up Your Video" tour proves equal to the task of replicating his uncle's sound, both on the upcoming "Rock Or Bust" and on the world tour to follow. Moreover, let us all give our best wishes to Malcolm and his family as they deal with this cruel illness.

It's the least we can do after the countless hours of sheer rock n' roll joy that he and his guitar have given us.

EdgeoftheWorld's avatar

Todd Wels is a professional journalist living in Grants Pass, OR.

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7 Comments on "A Tribute To AC/DC's Malcolm Young"

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Drum_Junkie's avatar

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1. Drum_Junkie writes:

Dementia, Alzheimer's, and the other related diseases are heartbreaking and truly makes victims of the entire family. I'm praying for strength, faith and patience for the entire Young family. It's gonna be a hard road ahead.

# Oct 1, 2014 @ 5:12 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
spiral_architect's avatar

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2. spiral_architect writes:

KICKED IN THE TEETH AGAIN. SOMETIMES YOU LOSE, SOMETIMES YOU WIN.

THANK YOU MALCOLM FOR ALL THE GREAT MUSIC.

# Oct 1, 2014 @ 6:10 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
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3. Carlos Santos writes:

Very very sad.
Very good article which once again proves that rhythm is what makes the body move. I f I remember correctly, Eddie Van Halen once said that, for those who really knew, it was what he did as a rhythm guitarist that made him noteworthy. I think many people how decisive he was. What makes that unusaul was how away from the spotlight he like to be. He had nothing to prove.
All the best to this great man and his family.

# Oct 2, 2014 @ 7:45 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Fear_Of_Napalm's avatar

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4. Fear_Of_Napalm writes:

Terrible way to see the great man no longer able to play. Dementia is a awful thing. A well written piece though...thanks for the memories!

# Oct 2, 2014 @ 7:52 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
5. All Rhythm Guitar writes:

Malcolm Young has been and continues to be a guiding light in my (amateur) guitar path. He is the master of the riff and also integrating lead vocals and guitar with the bass and drums. Malcolm is the definitive connector in the band and his driving riff and beat brings the song to life. Without rhythm guitars like Malcolm Young, the song is dead. He is the life giver to all AC/DC songs. Nobody else in rock and roll can match what Malcolm has achieved. I wish him a full recovery.

# Oct 2, 2014 @ 8:57 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
6. James Lamb writes:

You rock Malcolm! God bless the Young/AC/DC family.

# Oct 3, 2014 @ 7:10 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
7. Greg Graham writes:

I learned to play guitar playing along with their first albums. Thank you Malcolm!

# Oct 4, 2014 @ 5:41 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address

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