AC/DC's Malcolm Young: Bandmates, Admirers Remember Group's Quiet 'Catalyst'
“I’ve never felt like a pop star,” Malcolm Young told Rolling Stone in 2008. “This is a 9-to-5 sort of gig.” Playing with AC/DC, the guitarist stood in the back, stone-faced, holding down the rhythm as his younger brother Angus soloed and stalked the stage in his trademark schoolboy outfit. When the Rolling Stones invited the Youngs onstage for a blues jam in 2003, Malcolm at first refused. “He said, ‘I can’t,’ ” former AC/DC singer Brian Johnson recalls. “There was nothing funnier than Keith Richards and Ron Wood trying to drag him up there. He did a bit of a song with them and then walked back to the amps. That’s just the way he was.”
But Young, who died on November 18th at 64 of complications from dementia, was as integral to the band as his flamboyant brother. Malcolm co-wrote almost all of AC/DC’s unrelenting anthems with Angus (and singer Johnson or his predecessor Bon Scott), kept a watchful eye on their image and integrity, and devised many landmark riffs. “Angus was the star, but Malcolm was the most powerful and most underrated rhythm-guitar player in the history of rock & roll, period,” says Tom Morello. “That band is uncompromised in its power, and the reason is Malcolm and the way he played. It’s the tectonic plate on which the AC/DC world exists.”
Malcolm dropped out of high school at 15 and began working as a mechanic after the Youngs relocated from Scotland to Australia. In the early Seventies, he joined a band called, strangely enough, the Velvet Underground – before he and Angus joined forces, first in the R&B group the Marcus Hook Roll Band, and then the first version of AC/DC, in 1973. Although Angus would say that his brother could easily play lead solos, Malcolm preferred the role of rock-solid foundation, while serving as the band’s driving force. As Angus told Rolling Stone in 2016, “Malcolm was always one to battle through. He would look at me in times of crisis and go, ‘We’ll just go in and do some work … write some songs.’ He had that drive.”
“Malcolm was the catalyst,” says Johnson, recalling the writing sessions for his first album with the band, 1980’s Back in Black, which sold 22 million copies to become the sixth-bestselling album in the U.S. of all time. “He came to my room with a cassette and a legal pad and said, ‘This is the rough music. Let’s see what you can come up with.’ I said, ‘What’s the title?’ and he said, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’ I said, ‘That’s a fucking long title!’ Malcolm gave rock & roll a fist, a kick in the ass.” Johnson recalls watching Malcolm play “Let There Be Rock” as he went through two guitar picks just during that song. “He was like a machine up there,” says Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, who toured with AC/DC in their early days. “He was totally serious, and he didn’t make any mistakes. He was rock-steady.”
Young’s personal life could be less stable. In the late Eighties, his drinking got out of control. “Malcolm had a problem,” said his older brother George (who fronted the Marcus Hook Roll Band and passed away in October). “In our family, if we have a problem, we deal with it ourselves.” Young got sober and, after missing a U.S. tour, returned to his rightful role. When Megadeth toured with AC/DC several years ago, Dave Mustaine glimpsed their less-than-crazy backstage life: “Someone said, ‘Can I get you a bottle of something?’ and someone else said, ‘All they do is drink tea and smoke cigarettes.’ ”
According to Johnson, Young’s dementia began to reveal itself when AC/DC started rehearsing for the Black Ice tour in 2008 and Young had to relearn some of their old songs. By the time they started cutting 2014’s Rock or Bust, he wasn’t well enough to contribute. Later that year, he was admitted to a nursing home in Australia. “It’s hard to communicate,” Angus said in 2016. “I do pass on messages. I let him know there are a lot of people missing him.” Recalling the close of the Black Ice tour, Johnson says Malcolm was committed to the end: “We were in Barcelona the last night – Malcolm still had a fire in his eyes you could spot a mile away. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.”