Malcolm Young, rhythm guitarist and de facto leader of AC/DC, the thunderous Australian rock band that he co-founded with his brother Angus in 1973, died Saturday after a long battle with dementia. He was 64.
The band, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, announced his passing on its website with a plainspoken simplicity that reflected their music. At least part of the post was clearly written by Angus:
“Today it is with deep heartfelt sadness that AC/DC has to announce the passing of Malcolm Young.
Malcolm, along with Angus, was the founder and creator of AC/DC.
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 endeavored.
His loyalty to the fans was unsurpassed.
As his brother it is hard to express in words what he has meant to me during my life, the bond we had was unique and very special.
He leaves behind an enormous legacy that will live on forever.
Malcolm, job well done.”
While Angus’ schoolboy outfit and onstage aggression made him the focal point of the band throughout its career, his older brother’s crushing rhythm guitar anchored it musically, and his no-nonsense toughness anchored it in virtually every other way. Malcolm’s last show with the band took place in Spain in 2010. His illness forced him to leave officially in 2014, although they continued to tour and record with his nephew, Stevie, playing rhythm guitar.
AC/DC’s music is rock and roll stripped down to pure muscle and bone, like a supercharged version of Chuck Berry. It sounds simple but isn’t — its melodic directness makes for indelible hooks that are as to-the-point as their titles: “Back in Black.” “Highway to Hell.” “TNT.” “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll),” and their biggest hit, “You Shook Me All Night Long.” The songs make as much use of air and tension as they do sound: A skull-crushing riff is often followed by silence or a stripped-down, driving beat; the brothers’ guitars answer each other like birds calling across a forest.
Malcolm and Angus were co-writers of virtually every song the band recorded until 2014’s “Rock or Bust,” released after he’d left the band. The group’s early material was co-produced by their older brother George, a founder of Australian ’60s legends the Easybeats, who died last month.
The Young brothers were born in Glasgow, Scotland and lived there until the early ‘60s when the family emigrated to Sydney, Australia. Like several other transplants from the U.K. — AC/DC’s polar opposites the Bee Gees, for one — the brothers thrived in the country’s burgeoning music scene and George quickly found fame with the Easybeats and their global hits “Friday on My Mind.”
George’s younger brothers had a longer road to the top, and slogged it out before tough crowds in Australia’s bars before connecting with Scottish-born singer Bon Scott and releasing their first two albums, initially only in Australia, in 1975: “High Voltage” and “T.N.T.” The albums were produced by brother George and his songwriting partner Harry Vanda, who brought out the pop sensibilities in the band’s bruising template. The first album contains the formula from which the group rarely deviated: big riffs, a driving beat, throat-shredding vocals, shouted, stomping, fist-pumping choruses — and not least a sense of humor: The second song on the group’s debut album is called “She’s Got Balls”; their early hit “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)” features a bagpipes solo; “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” closes with the immortal lyric, “I’m gonna be a rock ‘n’ roll star/ Yes I are.”
The group signed with Atlantic Records in 1976 — they played New York’s punk mecca CBGB on their first U.S. tour — and their reputation grew quickly as albums followed in rapid succession: “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Power Age.” Angus quickly became one of rock’s most unusual frontmen, and the contrast between his schoolboy clothes and the band’s pulverizing riffs only made them seem heavier. The group scored a hit album in Britain with 1978’s live “If You Want Blood You Got It” — the cover of which featured Angus with a bloodied guitar neck sticking out of his chest, cementing the band’s image.
Yet their music vaulted into another league when they united with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange — who at that point had worked mostly with British alternative acts but would later craft multiplatinum albums for Def Leppard and Shania Twain — for the 1979 album “Highway to Hell.” His razor-sharp production cast the band’s melodicism into an even greater light, and the album was an international hit that over the years has sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S. alone.
The group was poised for even greater heights when vocalist Scott died of alcohol poisoning in early 1980. Scarred but undeterred, the band soon recruited British singer Brian Johnson — more of a screecher than a snarler like Scott — and recorded the biggest album of their career: 1980’s “Back in Black.” Driven by the singles “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the title track, the album vaulted the group into superstardom and has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.
AC/DC’s influence on the burgeoning heavy metal scene of the 1980s cannot be understated — their songs have been covered by hundreds of artists including Guns N’ Roses, whose Axl Rose filled in for a sidelined Johnson on a 2016 AC/DC tour — but less obvious is the influence it had on other forms of music. Producer Rick Rubin has said that AC/DC is his all-time favorite band, and he brought their stripped-down approach to both the early hip-hop albums he helmed — LL Cool J’s “Radio” in 1985, Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell” the following year, which included a collaboration with Aerosmith that Rubin orchestrated — but also the rock and pop albums he’d oversee in the ensuing decades by artists from Slayer to Johnny Cash, and especially Tom Petty’s 1994 album, “Wildflowers.”
After “Back in Black,” the band eased into a global superstardom that would continue for the next three decades. More albums ensued and sold in multiplatinum quantities — “For Those About to Rock,” their last with Lange, “Flick of the Switch,” “Fly on the Wall” — but the songs became rote and more years elapsed between releases. Still, the band remained a formidable touring force and continued to pack in giant crowds across the globe, its crushing sound and simple lyrics needing no translation. Malcolm suffered from alcoholism in the late 1980s and missed much of the “Blow Up Your Video” tour, but became sober and rejoined the band, remaining until his illness forced him to leave officially in 2014.
On Saturday morning Twitter was filled with tributes to him, from Ozzy Osbourne and Eddie Van Halen to Zac Brown and Ryan Adams.