When Malcolm Young passed away earlier this year, the rock world was hit with shock and grief. Here, Young’s friends and colleagues gather to pay tribute to the AC/DC legend.
Dave Mustaine, Megadeth
That’s how I got AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock. I came home, put the record on my turntable – and when the needle hit the vinyl my life changed forever. Up until then, guitar-wise I’d been learning the classic stuff like Zeppelin, Kiss, Ted Nugent; not really so much that boogie-woogie riffage kind of stuff.
Malcolm was one of the greatest rhythm guitar players ever – and if you don’t have good rhythm under the solo, it sounds like crap. Y’know, The Beatles were famous for back beats and for turning the beat around, and that’s one of the things that AC/DC and Malcolm did a lot. Overdose the way that the riff goes against the beat. Y’know, that anticipated riff where it almost seems like it would be ahead of the drum beat. I just loved it.
Some people say Malcolm’s rhythm parts are simple. They’re missing the point. Think of somebody who has every single shade and tint and hue under the sun, versus the guy that’s got one piece of paper and one pencil – and they both accomplish the same thing. My hat would be tipped to the person who can do the most with the least. There’s only two other guitar players that I would give that kind of credibility to, and that’d be Rudolf Schenker [Scorpions] and Brian Tatler from Diamond Head. I definitely prefer to handle the heavier rhythm stuff now, because of what Malcolm did with AC/DC. I would say it’s certainly one of those predecessors to speed metal and thrash metal.
One of my favourite pictures ever is me and Malcolm in Germany. We were at an F1 race track where we were playing that night. I’d just come in to say hi to everybody for the night. We took a picture and the two of us were standing next to each other – and he’s so little, I had to bend over so I’m the same height with his head. We made little fists and stuff and it was like, “Awesome – this is my guy!”
First off, when Malcolm got the diagnosis I was in shock. Nothing can happen to Malcolm. He’s impervious to any kind of disease. He’s Malcolm Young, dammit. When the news happened that he’d passed, I was just dicking around on my computer, writing to our fans on Twitter. Somebody said: “Dave, I’m sorry about Malcolm.” I said: “What are you talking about?” Because how many people do you know called Malcolm? Not a lot, right? So I started to go into meltdown mode. Malcolm was my hero. If there’s any sort of bittersweet consolation to all this, it’s that he’s back with Bon and his brother George.
Cormac Neeson, The Answer
It was Malcolm who gave us that break. We had one record out at that point, and he’d heard it and liked it. I think he liked the fact there was no bullshit with us, and with his Celtic roots it struck a chord with him. He insisted we were given a shot at that tour. And I know for a fact there were countless big-hitter labels and agents sitting down with the powers that be, trying to force their bands on to that tour. But Malcolm stood firm.
So a very principled man. And a very caring man. Malcolm actively made sure we were treated well on that tour. And every other night, we’d be playing our gig and you’d look over to the pit and he’d be standing there having a look, checking in to make sure we were still firing on all cylinders. You could tell he was keeping an eye on all things Black Ice over the course of that tour. And you never forgot that he was the big brother. Of course, it was a joy to be able to stand at the side of the stage and watch Malcolm nailing it every night. That right hand up close, it’s even better.
Was there any indication of his illness? Not for me. All I saw was a guy on top of his game, nailing the AC/DC rhythm sound that defines the band for me. He was the backbone, y’know?
We were given the first run of American dates, about thirty shows, on a trial basis. But it kept rolling, to the point where a year and a half later we had to go to Malcolm and say: “Listen, we need to get off this tour to make another record.”
A few years later, Micky [Waters, Answer bassist] was on holiday in Australia, and Malcolm went out of his way to meet him. I know he kept a watchful eye on our career, too, well after the Black Ice tour wound up. So his death hit me on a number of levels. As a fan it’s a massive loss to rock’n’roll. But then we know he’s leaving behind a beautiful family who loved him very much, and that’s hardest to take.
Dave Meniketti, Y&T
As well as being the manager within the band, AC/DC was just as much about his guitar playing and songwriting. The bass and drums were very important, obviously, but his rhythm playing was the heart and soul of their sound. Malcolm had the time-keeping thing going on. His tone and the way that he strummed those chords, he was one by himself. He stood at the back and let the others get on with the show, only stepping forward to sing back-up vocals.
As a support act, AC/DC treated us very fairly. Believe me, that wasn’t usual. Most headliners tend to limit the amount of PA system and lighting you can use. AC/DC just wanted us to play the best show we could.
Malcolm’s death really saddened me. As a rock fan, AC/DC were an inspiration to me. And as a musician, that was among the greatest tours we were on. He’s gone from the face of the planet but his tunes will live on. And it’s quite possible that Angus could keep on going; the YouTube [video] I saw with Axl on vocals and Stevie [Young] in Malcolm’s place was fantastic. If Angus wants to continue, why not?
Phil Collen, Def Leppard
The sound that Malcolm and Angus Young created together was incredible. It was a vast sound and completely unique. Of course, it helped that they were brothers – they had such an understanding. And although it’s hard to be really creative when you’re playing basic stuff as they did, Malcolm and Angus absolutely nailed it.
We’ve always said that the blueprint for Def Leppard was AC/DC-meets-Queen – the rock power and that almost funky rhythm that drove AC/DC, plus the depth and third dimension and the creativity of Queen. We still try to do that, and I’ve always nicked stuff off Malcolm Young. He was the perfect rhythm guitar player. Pete Townshend was hard to beat as a rhythm player, but in terms of hard rock you’ve got to give it to Malcolm.
Back In Black is one of the greatest records of all time. Highway To Hell and For Those About To Rock are both amazing too. Their music was a living, breathing entity.
As head of A&R at Albert Productions from 1998 through 2009, I had the privilege to be mentored by Fifa Riccobono, George Young & Harry Vanda. It was an inspirational period for me professionally, and on several occasions I had the opportunity to meet with Malcolm and Angus.
He was the most kind, unassuming and humble man, who always made me feel at ease and welcome. He took a keen interest in my work at Alberts UK, including the signing of The Answer. But when it came to the support slot for the 2008 Black Ice tour, we had to make our case like every other band on the planet for what was considered the most coveted support slot in rock.
We shared a balmy summer evening dinner at an Italian restaurant in Dean Street, London where we discussed the possibility of The Answer doing the tour. I was aware of the competition from much bigger bands, but he simply said something to me that exemplified his persona: “It doesn’t matter who wants the support, it’s a case of who is right for it, and The Answer are that band.” He knew what he wanted, and nothing or anyone would cause his conviction to waver. As I left that dinner, it was the most numbing and surreal feeling. I knew that if Malcolm said it was happening, then it was happening. That was his way. Thank you Malcolm, for all your support and kindness to me over the years, you will be missed.
Joe Elliott, Def Leppard
For a rhythm player, I can’t think of anybody better than Malcolm Young. He was the glue that held AC/DC together. The way that Malcolm held it down, it allowed Angus to go off as – excuse the pun– the live wire that he is. In that early line-up you had Angus and Bon Scott going off like two people on elastic bands, flying away and then shooting back. And then you had this rhythm section.
Generally speaking, a rhythm section is just drums and bass. AC/DC’s rhythm section was drums, bass and rhythm guitar. As far as I’m aware, Malcolm never once took a solo. He barely ever moved away from his amp, except to go up to the backing-vocal mic and shout: “Oi! Oi!” He just stood at the back, with one eye on Phil Rudd, knowing full well that on the other side of the stage you’ve got Cliff Williams, who never moved an inch, and had the best right hand in the business when it came to timekeeping. Cliff didn’t really need much of a left hand. As a rhythm guitar player in that band, Malcolm was phenomenal. He had such a metronomic feel.
Malcolm and Angus came from the right place. Their roots were R&B, Chuck Berry and all that stuff, but a little further out from that you could tell that they’d listened to Peter Green and a lot of the Rolling Stones. They had that simplistic ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude.
We opened for AC/DC on the Highway To Hell tour in 1979, but I’ve no idea what Malcolm was like as a person. I’m not saying he was shy, he just kept his cards close to his chest. He’d acknowledge you – a nod, like, ‘How are you doing?’ – but he would never sit down and have a chat like Bon did. I found that AC/DC was cliquey. Bon and Cliff were very amiable, but when it came to the Australian side of AC/DC they were very standoffish. In fairness, Angus came into our dressing room a few times, but Malcolm didn’t really talk to us.
When we started working with Mutt [Lange, producer for AC/DC and Def Leppard], he told us that it was an absolute joy to have Malcolm doing the rhythms, because he was just on it. Some of their earlier records were out of tune, but with the albums that Mutt produced – Highway To Hell, Back In Black and For Those About To Rock – the sound was so much more focused, not just for Malcolm but for all of the band. In those records you can hear the left and right guitars so well. The interplay between them was fantastic. And Mutt wouldn’t have just taken one performance for a track. He was the only guy that ever had the balls to tell them: “No, we’ll do that one again.”
Highway To Hell is a stunning record. Back In Black – hard to argue with, isn’t it? But for me, Powerage is AC/DC’s best record. It’s got everything – amazing songs, great performances. Listen to Powerage now and you’ll really feel what a great player Malcolm Young was.
Joel O’Keeffe, Airbourne
I was about six years old when I first discovered AC/DC through this TV programme called Rage. I saw Malcolm with his guitar and his blue singlet, and I said to Mum: “Can I get a blue singlet for my birthday?” Y’know, it’s not a standard kids’ request, like a fire truck or a toy gun. But I wanted to be like this guy on the TV. Then, once I discovered the AC/DC records, I found there was this button on my dad’s old stereo that I’d press and all of a sudden I’d have Malcolm’s isolated guitar panned over to the left speaker.
It was the greatest way to learn guitar. Y’know, when to pull back, when to drive, when to pick it up, when to charge that thing home. Most bands, they’re all following the drummer. With AC/DC they’re all looking at Malcolm: when to go up, when to go down, when to start, when to finish.
No music teacher is gonna teach you how to play like Malcolm, and you can’t learn it from sheet music. It’s the feel and attitude. In AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock, right from the get-go you can hear Malcolm’s primal, Glaswegian, fuck-you attitude. To learn how he plays – or even to understand it – would take forever. Because the guy is constantly building it up – like in Let There Be Rock – and then he’ll bring you back down. It’s unwavering. With Bon Scott running around, stealing people’s women, with the cops after him and all this sort of shit, you needed Malcolm to keep it all going, just to keep that guy under control.
I bet no one’s mentioned this, but one of the really unsung things about Malcolm is his backing vocals. They’re often overlooked, but they’re as distinctive as his guitar. Without them you don’t have that AC/DC sound. They give you that blokey-ness. The dirtiness comes from his vocals. It’s one of the most important parts, woven into the AC/DC tartan fabric. And when you’ve blown your voice out singing along with Bon or Brian, you can still sing along with Malcolm.
I saw AC/DC on the Ballbreaker tour, the Stiff Upper Lip tour and the Black Ice tour. On the Stiff Upper Lip tour I found a spot right in front of Malcolm’s cabs, and the mix I had was kick, snare and Malcolm’s guitar. It was so fucking loud and awesome. I stayed in that little pocket the whole night. Malcolm is the biggest star in AC/DC, definitely among musicians. All guitarists love Malcolm, just as much as Angus.
I was never fortunate enough to meet the guy, but like everyone else who grew up listening to his guitar and his band it kinda feels like an uncle has passed away that you never met but you felt like you knew. All my good times have been through listening to AC/DC. Down here in Melbourne, Cherry Bar have just painted a huge mural of Malcolm on the side of the entire building. And if you walked in there today and said: “Can you just put the left speaker on and play some Malcolm Young,” they would do it. Because everyone feels like they know him. And everyone knows what he meant to AC/DC.
‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, Fastway
I first met Malcolm in 1976 when we [Motörhead] supported AC/DC in Bath when Bon was still with them. We shared a dressing room. I’d seen in Sounds that they were getting fantastic reviews of their residency at the Marquee every week, so I was keen to check them out. Motörhead’s equipment wasn’t great and the gig was in a fucking tin hut, so we sounded awful – it was maybe our fifth gig. Then they came on and, man, they sounded magnificent.
Fastway did some arena dates with AC/DC in America in late eighty-three, up to twenty-five thousand people a night, and they were great to us: we could have all the sound and lights except the special ones that were part of their show, which was fair enough. I watched them every night.
On that tour I sometimes drank with Malcolm at the bar and I occasionally travelled with them on their bus, but he tended to be a man of few words, and some of what he said I struggled to understand because that Aussie-Scottish accent of his was pretty thick. One thing I told him was to change that fucking guitar of his. He had that old Gretsch with one pick-up missing. But what that said to me was: we’re a fucking great rock band, you don’t need a fancy-looking guitar, just an instrument that plays good. You’ve just gotta rock.
During those six years I didn’t notice much change in Malcolm as a person. Apart from Brian [Johnson], who was the life and soul of the party, they were quiet, almost shy. Not up themselves at all. Up on the stage you’d never seen a band work so hard. They talk about Keith Richards, but for me Malcolm was a real rhythm guitar player. You never heard him unless you listened. That’s the whole idea of a rhythm player. Him and Cliff [Williams] would just stand at the back and get lost for the night in AC/DC World. What they did was faultless.
I was shocked by Malcolm’s death because it’s the end of the best band in the world – that’s what AC/DC were to me.
I was thirteen when I heard AC/DC and for the first time the universe made sense. Being a teenager can be pretty crap, and this music was an escape from the awkwardness and the boredom, at once an awakening and a doorway into a new world. Their pull continues well into my middle age, providing relief from a different set of pressures.
Rock’n’roll defined the lives of millions. Malcolm Young defined rock’n’roll. The most important musician most people have never heard of. So what made Malcolm the five-foot-two colossus became? The riffs. And the single-minded determination to succeed, allied to some very shrewd decision making.
But what is often overlooked in the band’s alchemy is the acute sense of timing. You could set your watch by Phil Rudd’s drumming, but there was also something indefinable going on with the brothers’ guitars. Dig out the 1976 Peel Session of Live Wire on YouTube and you will hear it: everything clicking like clockwork.
AC/DC have been a very important part of my life and still are. I met Malcolm Young briefly in October 1996 on the Ballbreaker tour in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was sixteen. A couple of fans and me were at the hotel where they were staying, the night before the concert. Someone invited us to approach to a van where Malcolm was waiting for us inside to sign our stuff and shake hands…
In 2000 I was in the US spending my first trip abroad with one of my best friends. We were in New York. One day we were visiting the Virgin Megastore, a couple of days before Stiff Upper Lip was released. We discovered a flyer, saying: ‘AC/DC first in-store appearance in many years.’ In order to go, we needed to change the date of our flight.
We showed up at eight a.m. and were third in the queue. At four p.m. we were invited into the store and given several instructions for when we met them – no pictures, and only two items to sign. But we asked Malcolm and Angus for a picture. Both accepted. Having the chance to talk with Mal, we told him how far we had come and that we changed our flight just to meet them.
Malcolm said thanks twice, and signed all the stuff we asked for (more than two!) After we left, my friend asked me why I didn’t ask for a guitar pick. I called in a loud voice: “Malcolm! Malcolm!” He looked at us, and that was when I asked for a pick. Malcolm calls us. He searched in his pockets for a pick, but he didn’t find one. He asked Angus.He found a pick that he gave to Mal and give me the pick. He said thank you for coming from that far and for changing the ticket. They stayed there signing autographs until 10pm.