Malcolm Young - a tribute to the man who drove AC/DC to the top

Malcolm Young on the AC/DC tour bus in 1985
Malcolm Young on the AC\/DC tour bus in 1985 (Image credit: Ebet Roberts \/ Getty Images)

The most telling line in the statement released by the Young family in the wake of the sad death of AC/DC founder Malcolm Young reads: “From the outset, he knew what he wanted to achieve and, along with his younger brother took to the world stage, giving their all at every show. Nothing else would do for their fans.”

For a man with a reputation for not saying much, it has to be said that Malcolm Young made one hell of a big noise, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. For despite the “behind-closed-doors” stance that AC/DC took with all their business, it has become increasingly apparent to those who came even remotely close to this amazing rock juggernaut that Malcolm Young was very much in the driving seat.

It wasn’t just on a business level that Malcolm led AC/DC until dementia forced his retirement in 2014. He was always making the right decision – no “official” Best Ofs, always releasing new music – helping to keep AC/DC at the top level over the best part of four decades. It was also his musical drive and vision that helped shape the very sound of AC/DC: The steadfast refusal to bow to current trends and fads; the determination never to take an eye off the ball; and never to forget why the band did what it does, never forgetting what drove AC/DC to make the music they do.

Their love of explosive 50’s rock’n’roll would go on to change the face of popular music for ever, combined with a passion for the great bluesmen of America and beyond. And to update it to a level that worked now through five different decades? Well, that’s a rare talent indeed.

One popular AC/DC rumour has it that the band never recorded anything unless it could be played on the piano, and this was the key to the way AC/DC utilised simplicity so successfully. A theory undoubtedly inspired by a photo showing Mal seated with Angus and elder brother George at a piano, the truth of the matter is that AC/DC actually begin their songwriting process with acoustic guitars, pairing down the essence of each song to its barest yet most effective form before starting down the electric guitar process.

And yet, in the tradition of all great “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” methods, this approach has served AC/DC better than most. Operating within Malcolm’s designated format, each member of the band would rise to the occasion time and time again.

Caring little for the trappings of rock’n’roll fame, the Young clan are a fiercely private family, the by-product of emigrating from the mean streets of Glasgow to the equally unwelcoming reality of Sydney when Malcolm was just ten years old. And it was this us-against-them attitude that would inspire the dogged persistence that would serve Young for his entire career.

Malcolm Young backstage at London's Marquee Club, 1976

Malcolm Young backstage at London's Marquee Club, 1976 (Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

He was a quiet man, saying little and happy for Angus - and first Bon and then Brian - to hog the limelight on stage and in interviews. And yet nothing happened in AC/DC without Malcolm’s say-so. You sensed this when you met him. Unfailingly polite, and with a similar dry sense of humour to younger brother Angus, he suffered no fools.

Even in a social situation, happily drinking a beer - which I had the pleasure to do so with him on several occasions - Malcolm largely kept his council, preferring the more gregarious Brian Johnson do much of the talking. Even then, you sensed that the sometimes intensely quiet Young was wholly aware of everything that was going on around him. Malcolm’s fondness for alcohol eventually led to him to step down from the band’s Blow Up Your Video tour in 1988, but even that disruption was kept a minimum, with nephew Stevie Young stepping up, as he would do again when Malcolm retired in 2014.

That he ruled AC/DC with a rod of iron is without debate. A similar figure to that of Steve Harris in Iron Maiden, Malcolm Young called the shots in AC/DC. This has led to some allegations of ruthlessness – a family trait that led to Brian Johnson’s somewhat cold-blooded departure from the Angus Young-led version of the band in 2016 – but it was also the fuel that fired AC/DC to world domination.

With the ever-fluctuating fortunes of the modern day music industry, the chances are we won’t see another band emulate the heights that AC/DÇ - and the rock juggernauts like Guns N’Roses and Metallica they inspired - have achieved. They’ve sold a staggering 200 million albums. 50 million of those are for their 1980 album Back In Black.

Yes, the schoolboy-outfitted Angus Young might be the image most people readily associate with the band, closely followed by the be-capped Brian Johnson. But from his position to the left of the drum riser, ably supported by the tightest rhythm section in rock, Malcolm Young was the engine that fuelled the legend that is AC/DC.

We probably won’t see his, or their like again.

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Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.