AC/DC was the first band I ever got truly obsessed with. I was 11 years old and at the cusp of maybe, possibly wanting to learn to play guitar. Anything with crunchy, choppy, standout guitar would catch my ear. I put my mom and dad’s Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits cassette through the ringer, listening to “Last Child”, “Kings and Queens”, and “Sweet Emotion” over and and over. But the band that stoked that guitar playing fire more than anyone was AC/DC. My parents had Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Highway To Hell on 8-track and I remember specifically wanting to hear “Beating Around The Bush” constantly. That song in-particular was like cat nip for me. It was rough, tough, badass, and that riff was as heavy as anything that was coming out of the Bay area in the early 80s or the Lower East Side in the mid-70s. There was just something very visceral and physical about the rhythm guitar work on those AC/DC albums.
The summer before my 6th grade year I had some chore money saved up(probably some raking for my dad) and my mom took me to Big Wheel, which was a retail store in town where you could pretty much buy anything(precursor to Walmart.) They had a pretty decent collection of cassettes so I snagged up High Voltage by AC/DC and by the time we were 20 seconds into the drive home and “It’s A Long Way To The Top(If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll)” I thought I’d heard everything I’d ever need to hear in terms of guitar music(in some ways, that statement is still very true.) That staccato rhythm Malcolm Young built that song on was like the Pyramids of rock and roll, where hard rock built its civilization upon. Of course everything else about that song was amazing, but for a fledgling, wannabe guitar player it was as if the curtain had been lifted and I was shown that a simple flick of the wrist and just the right amount of volume from a Marshall plexi head could blow minds.
In that summer of 1986 I quickly amassed a collection of cassettes from AC/DC that covered ’74 Jailbreak up to Who Made Who. By the time I’d gotten my first guitar at the end of that summer I was already learning “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, “Ride On”, and “Hells Bells” thanks to the AC/DC songbook that came home with me. Malcolm Young made playing rhythm guitar seem deceptively simple, yet he had a very deft touch that would take a few more years to somewhat crack(though I never really cracked it.) Everyone talked about Angus and his schoolboy uniform, his stage antics, and yes his raw, bluesy lead playing. His sound was perfect after all. It was electric, buzzing, and always on point. But when you get older and you can look back on those old AC/DC records you see and hear the true secret ingredient to those albums was Malcolm Young’s rhythm playing. He laid a solid foundation, along with Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, on which Angus could bewitch us with his SG wizardry.
I can’t imagine anyone else playing “Kicked In The Teeth”, “Dog Eat Dog”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Beating Around The Bush”, “TNT”, “Who Made Who”, “Highway To Hell”, “Back In Black”, “Gone Shootin”, “Shake Your Foundations”, “Bedlam In Belgium”, or ANY other AC/DC tracks with the same amount of restrained, simple dexterity and spot-on timing than Malcolm Young. He, along with legends like Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, James Burton, and Jerry Reed elevated the rhythm guitarist into as vital a role in rock and roll as the front man. Malcolm turned being a rock and roll rhythm player into an art form.
Malcolm Young died today. He was 64 years old. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll, but Malcolm Young made it. He even added a few floors above it.