A new AC/DC album was announced last week – but without founding guitarist Malcolm Young. Reports soon surfaced that the 61-year-old is suffering from dementia under constant care in a Sydney nursing home. With the band yet to release a formal statement on the circumstances around Young’s departure, Jesse Fink, author of new biography ‘The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC’, gives us his take on the prospect of AC/DC without their influential, understated leader…
His younger brother Angus may be the undisputed star of AC/DC, but nothing in music stirs my very being more than a simply constructed, brutally performed Malcolm Young riff, from ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ to ‘Let There Be Rock’ to ‘Thunderstruck’. That last song, arguably AC/DC’s most popular, is a perfect example of the power of the Youngs’ guitars: an alchemy of Gretsch, Gibson, strings, pickups, amps, brotherly synergy, a ton of volume and more than a dusting of musical genius. His part in the group’s chemistry, simply put, is not to be underestimated.
“Malcolm’s contribution to the sound of AC/DC is just massive,” agrees Rose Tattoo guitarist Rob Riley. “His guitar playing is absolutely fucking crucial. He puts a beautiful, big, solid bed under Angus, which leaves him to run around the fucking shop and do what he does. Malcolm’s a huge part of it.”
Mike Fraser, engineer on the past five AC/DC studio albums, explains: “You sit there and watch Malcolm play. He’s actually leading that whole band from standing there beside the drums. Everyone watches him for the cutoffs. ‘Let’s do another round.’ He’s got all these little nods. Little flicks of his hand. Everybody’s got their eyes on him. Even Angus, as he’s flying around, flipping around backward. He’s watching Mal for everything.”
Not just in terms of band chemistry but, crucially, band authority, it’s Malcolm who runs the show, from the way the band looks to their stagecraft to even how they play. So, if Malcolm’s health is as grave as is being reported, and if his departure from the band is permanent, where does that leave AC/DC? What will become of the band without their leader, as the prepare for a new tour and album, ‘Rock or Bust’?
The vital signs are good. A snippet from the new record, ‘Play Ball’, was unveiled last week in a promo for Major League Baseball. Its guitars suggest the distinctive and penetrative AC/DC sound hasn’t suffered drastically with Malcolm out and his replacement, nephew Stevie Young, in. For me, as for so many millions of people around the world, listening to AC/DC is not just a physical experience but also an emotional one. Like the best music, it makes you feel good. It
makes you feel alive. In my book ‘The Youngs’, Tony Platt, the engineer of ‘Highway to Hell’, ‘Back In Black’ and ‘Flick of the Switch’, which he also co-produced, attempts to explain this total mind-body effect. “There’s a lot to be said for this notion that it’s the resonances of our own body,” he says. “It’s something that gets the endorphins going. It’s the same as drinking a nice glass of wine or going and doing exercise. It gets right to the core of you and lifts you.”
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Angus more than ever before will be centre stage – in songwriting, in the band’s live performances and in promotional duties. In his brother’s sad absence, he has no choice but to step up to the plate. But, as he has for every show over the band’s incredible career, he’s going to deliver.
Jesse Fink is the author of ‘The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC’, released by Black & White Publishing on October 16.