AC / DC guitarist who helped define the sound of heavy rock guitar


“Unassuming” is perhaps a curious description of someone who has performed countless stadium shows – known for their larger-than-life props – and was one of the driving forces behind an act that has sold over 200 million records. But AC / DC co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young embodied conflicting elements that became one of the defining sounds of rock, as AC / DC also came to illustrate how a rock band works as a unit. social and musical combined.

The eldest of the two brothers who founded the group in 1973, Malcolm was not the group’s natural center in terms of visual iconography. It relied on the lead vocalists – Bon Scott and, more recently, Brian Johnston – and lead guitarist, his younger brother, Angus. Angus’ distinctive school uniform and staging – spinning on his back, running across the stage and on a ‘duck ride’ – aligned with the band’s instantly recognizable logo and visual aids like bells and cannons giants. Malcolm, still, was a linchpin rather than a focal point in terms of AC / DC branding.

AC / DC on stage in Tacoma, USA, in 2009 (Malcolm Young is second from left),
Imhavingfun42 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

But the ring was another matter. Here, Malcolm has come more than anyone (with the possible exception of Keith Richards) to define rock rhythm guitar – and, by extension, the sound of heavy rock itself. Its playing characterizes the style of the group: tense and discreet riffs which are lodged indelibly in the memory of the listener because of their simplicity. Young’s metronomic right hand was the foundation of pyrotechnics elsewhere.

But at the heart of how he did this work was his understanding of space in music. AC / DC’s association with scale and volume belies the economy of their riffs, the impact of removing music from its main components, allowing each chord its own space within the musical framework rather than to crash into each other. It is telling on this front that, despite their preeminent position in the heavy rock market, Malcolm Young insisted that AC / DC was a “rock and roll” group. Its emphasis on “swing” in music – roll as well as rock – was what differentiated AC / DC from its peers and imitators.

Family affair

Sociologists distinguish between groups oriented around community ideals and those oriented around work or projects. Here, too, AC / DC characterized the link between social relationships and musical creativity in rock. It was above all a family business.

Few bands have succeeded in replacing a key member as AC / DC, whose career-defining album Back In Black was released following the death of singer Bon Scott in 1980 and his replacement by Brian Johnston. . It was the nucleus of the Young brothers that made this possible, with Angus providing the visual and musical centerpiece for the group, while Malcolm took care of the foundations.

Their family roots in rock and roll go back to childhood. Angus and Malcolm’s older brother George – who died four weeks before Malcolm – enjoyed success in the 1960s with The Easybeats and eventually produced many key AC / DC albums.

Their nephew Stevie – the son of their older brother, although quite close to the band members in age – also replaced Malcolm – briefly in the late 1980s when he took a break from touring to sort out his addiction to the alcohol and, more recently, when his dementia finally forced him off the stage.

Malcolm Young’s personal struggles here have also been a model for AC / DC. In many ways he was a guitarist – and leading a band – that was clearly backward-looking. He was wary of new technologies, preferring analog recordings, and he avoided open musical experimentation. Lacking an exploratory edge, he replaced that with sheer determination. The uncompromising nature of their music is echoed in Young’s insistence on completing a world tour in 2008 despite the onset of dementia.

Watching the waves of audience movement on the River Plate band’s live DVD, it’s hard to believe that the engine of this wave generator had to relearn its own songs before each gig.

Keep it simple – not stupid

Young, and the band he founded, represented a sort of deceptive musical simplicity. But it’s easy to confuse “simple” with “stupid”. Here, Malcolm Young was both the embodiment and the reproach of a series of musical clichés: the silent rocker who relied on a few chords, the limited rhythm which took precedence over the technical abilities of the lead guitarist, and the rock dinosaur that cannot operate beyond a defined formula.

Malcolm Young with his brother Angus (l) for the promotion of their album Stiff Upper Lip in Madrid in 2000.
EPA-EFE / Guillermo Junquera

His refusal to stray from particular parameters with AC / DC music, however, masked how much that basic sound had been refined, extracted from the myriad of other possibilities rather than stumbled. His decision to focus on developing monolithic riffs revealed the understanding that a successful band works as more than the sum of its parts – their rhythmic playing leaving room for catchy antics elsewhere, while locking ears. and the bodies of the public.

Malcolm Young, through AC / DC, came up with an approach and sound that was both completely generic and completely individual, exerting massive influence, even if it turned out to be impossible to reproduce properly. For that, we salute him.

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