Australia’s greatest export, AC/DC, have for almost half a century kept the beating heart of rock and roll alive. Despite their sound becoming more buffed and polished as time has gone by, despite the rooms going from humid pubs to the world’s enormo-domes, they have kept true to the basic template laid down on their first album, High Voltage.
And the beating heart within the band has always been Malcolm Young, his rhythm riffs the rock upon which the AC/DC sound is built. So many of their iconic rock’n’roll songs begin with Malcolm’s throaty Gretsch guitar – not vocal or lead guitar – because it is his sound and fury that lets you know it is AC/DC within four bars.
Fashions and fads have tried to co-opt AC/DC – heavy metal, cartoon rock á la Guns’n’Roses, retro ‘classic’ rock, corporate rock etc – but the band who always refer to themselves simply as a rock’n’roll band have never faltered. They have remained true believers and picked up generation after generation of new fans along the way.
Most know his brother Angus’s schoolboy antics or Bon Scott’s loutish leer (and later, Brian Johnson’s flat-cap swagger) but Malcolm’s tone and attack, like Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones, defines the band and makes it unique in the world of Rock.
In fact, Angus Young was often quoted as saying that Malcolm was the better guitarist, in a technical sense. And you can hear it in the focused energy of his playing – like a White Pointer shark, a perfectly evolved machine – relentless, rock-solid and dynamic.
As a guitarist myself I have always admired Malcolm Young’s playing. People would speak of rhythm guitarist as being down a rung from the showy, spot-lit lead guitar. But those with ears and the knowledge of how a band is built always knew Malcolm had a gift for playing just what was needed. The spaces between his slashed chord-riffs, the holes he allowed for the snare to leap out or for the bass to breathe added a funkiness and a swing to AC/DC’s sound that aligned it more with their heroes of ’50s rock – like Chuck Berry – than many of the stodgy, leaden hard-rock bands they were usually lumped in with.
As time moves forward, the legacy of Malcolm will be appreciated even more, because it is gone, and it can never be replicated. You can read about the history of AC/DC, their amazing story and Malcolm’s sad decline elsewhere. I can only say what he meant to me, safe in the knowledge that he meant the same to millions the world over.
His rock and roll heart had a huge, thunderous beat for such a little guy and now that it has stopped the world is a little quieter and a lot greyer. Goodbye, Malcolm and thank you.