In memoriam: AC/DC guitarist and co-founder Malcolm Young

From Sloan to SARSstock, a look back at the undeniable influence, virtuosity and ferocity of one of rock's true saviours


My six-year-old son was once so obsessed with AC/DC, I took him to see their last Toronto show at Downsview Park in 2015 on their Rock Or Bust tour. In fact, he and I discussed AC/DC so much, we began performing a comedy bit about them.

Me: I like Bon Scott.

Him: I like Brian Johnson.

Me: Bon Scott.

Him: Brian Johnson!

Me: BON SCOTT!

Him: BRIAN JOHNSON!

Me: …Malcolm Young?

(Mutually agreed upon silence)

Sadly, Malcolm Young, AC/DC’s rhythm guitarist, song architect and final say on all matters relating to the band had been diagnosed with dementia and retired from performance before that last tour. Young died November 18 at the age of 64 and true blue rock ‘n’ roll fans have been shaken by the news.

“Malcolm, along with Angus, was the founder and creator of AC/DC,” the band wrote in a statement. “With enormous dedication and commitment, he was the driving force behind the band. As a guitarist, songwriter and visionary he was a perfectionist and a unique man. He always stuck to his guns and did and said exactly what he wanted. He took great pride in all that he endeavoured. His loyalty to the fans was unsurpassed.”

A complex man who some close to the band have described as controlling, Malcolm Young possessed a steadfast consistency, which is an admirable trait to have if you’re a rhythm guitarist. In fact some, like Anthrax’s Scott Ian, have called him “the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time.”

And yet, there is a strain of disdain for AC/DC among music fans and critics who can’t see past their bawdy lyrics about their dicks and harsh-sounding vocals, which were primarily delivered by the late Bon Scott and his replacement, the recently dispatched Brian Johnson. The underlying argument seems to be that the band was one-note and juvenile, encouraging a kind of arrested development and machismo.

Well, fuck that.

The Bon Scott-era of AC/DC is unsurpassed in rock ‘n’ roll. No band combined such ferocity, virtuosity, nuanced swing, irreverence and a pointed effort to entertain people for as potent a musical brew as AC/DC. You can see their influence on everyone from – and this is obviously a partial list – mainstreamers like the Rolling Stones and Ramones to underground noise explorers like the Jesus Lizard and Shellac. If Sloan’s biggest hit is Patrick Pentland’s Money City Maniacs, check out Live Wire for its foundation. Just a couple of months ago, the Canadian indie-punk band Partner covered It’s a Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) at the Horseshoe.

No one jolted rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing out of its complacency like Malcolm Young and AC/DC. They made chording and riffs sound huge and dynamic. Their influence is impossible to quantify and Malcolm, admirably, knew and appreciated their core. He didn’t deign to seem trendy or seek external flavours-of-the-month to give his band contemporary cred.

(Side note: At 2003’s SARSstock at Downsview Park, I was among a horde of people who walked out on the Stones after they brought out Justin Timberlake because, after AC/DC stole the day with an insanely powerful set, they just seemed tired and desperate and there was no way anyone on earth could top what AC/DC did that day.)

And while Scott, Johnson, and his school-uniform-clad, duck-walking, lead-shredding brother Angus have become icons, Malcolm Young was quietly the real engine of this band.

“Mal always had a better ear for recording and mixing than I did,” Angus once told journalist Dan Epstein. “He was more involved with that when we were younger, fiddling around with sounds and stuff. He tunes into it more than me I’m more about just picking up the thing and play it. He helped me a lot with dialling in sounds from my amp I would be saying, ‘I can’t get nothin’ out of this Marshall,’ and he would help me sort it out and get the best out of it.”

And so, just as my son and I have done, I hope people can finally resolve the fact that Malcolm Young was AC/DC’s true boss and really a musical saviour. His parting is an immeasurable loss for rock ‘n’ roll.

music@nowtoronto.com | @vishkhanna

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