Sunday, November 19, 2017

AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, R.I.P.

AC/DC's Malcolm Young
Malcolm Young photo courtesy AC/DC
Although it wasn’t entirely unexpected, we’re still devastated by the loss of AC/DC founder Malcolm Young at the too-young age of 64 years. Young had been suffering from dementia and other health problems for years, which forced him to retire from the band in 2014. Young will be remembered as a hard rock and heavy metal pioneer, a talented rhythm guitarist who was the driving musical force behind AC/DC, the band he formed with his younger brother Angus in 1973.

Born in Scotland, the Young brothers – George, Malcolm, and Angus – migrated to Australia in the early ‘60s with their family. As teenagers, Malcolm and Angus formed the Marcus Hook Roll Band with older brother George and his friend and former bandmate in the Easybeats, Harry Vanda. That band released a single album – Tales of Old Grand Daddy – in 1973 before the two younger Young brothers split off to form AC/DC. After several line-up changes, AC/DC gelled with the addition of vocalist Bon Scott, recording their 1975 debut LP High Voltage with George playing bass and producing along with Vanda. Adding bassist Mark Evans and drummer Phil Rudd, AC/DC recorded their second album, 1975’s T.N.T., produced again by the team of Vanda and Young.

The band’s first two albums were only released in Australia, their tentative debut marked by flirtations with glam-rock whereas the follow-up album pursued a more assured, bluesy hard rock sound. Signed to Atlantic Records, the label reissued a version of High Voltage in Europe with songs picked from both the band’s early albums; critically-panned, fans nevertheless picked up on AC/DC early on and eventually pushed High Voltage to triple-Platinum™ sales levels. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, the band’s third album, was originally released in 1976 in Australia and Europe, but wouldn’t receive U.S. release until 1981, after AC/DC had already found international fame (and after the death of Bon Scott).

AC/DC's Highway to Hell
With Malcolm steering the sound of the band, AC/DC continued to get louder and more raucous with subsequent Vanda/Young-produced albums like 1977’s Let There Be Rock and 1978’s Powerage, which introduced new bassist Cliff Williams. The band’s European popularity was driven by their electrifying live shows, with 1978’s live If You Want Blood You’ve Got It album earning AC/DC a loyal stateside following. Pushed by the label to work with a more commercial producer, former Jimi Hendrix foil Eddie Kramer’s disagreements with the Young brothers (already angry at the “firing” of their brother George) led them to recruit veteran pub-rock producer Robert “Mutt” Lange to helm the recording of the band’s 1979 U.S. breakthrough, Highway to Hell, with Lange honing AC/DC’s rough-hewn boogie-rock sound to a sharp commercial edge.

Although Highway to Hell would chart Top 20 in Australia, the United States, and much of Europe, eventually selling better than seven million copies in the U.S. alone, AC/DC suffered a major setback with the death of gritty singer and frontman Bon Scott from alcohol poisoning. Work had already begun with Lange in the studio on Back In Black, so the Young brothers recruited singer Brian Johnson (from British hard rock band Geordie) to fill Scott’s enormous role with the band. Johnson proved to be up for the challenge, and although his vocal style differed greatly from Scott’s, it meshed perfectly with AC/DC’s blustery hard rock sound. Released in 1980, Back In Black would become the band’s best-selling album, achieving 22x Platinum™ sales status in the U.S. and selling over 50 million copies worldwide.

The band’s 1981 album For Those Who Are About To Rock We Salute You became AC/DC’s first number one album in the U.S., eventually certified quadruple Platinum™, and would be the last recorded with producer Lange. Subsequent AC/DC albums during the ‘80s suffered by comparison with the band’s first two albums of the decade, discs like 1983’s Flick of the Switch and 1985’s Fly On The Wall produced by the Young brothers and experiencing diminished commercial returns. Vanda and Young returned to oversee successful 1988’s Blow Up Your Video, but Malcolm sat out the majority of the album’s supporting tour to tackle his own alcohol problem; his nephew Stevie Young temporarily replaced him for the tour.

AC/DC's The Razors Edge
AC/DC leapt back up the charts with 1990’s The Razors Edge album. Working with a new producer, Bruce Fairbairn (Bon Jovi, Aerosmith), and with newly-sober Malcolm back in firm control of the band, the album would go Top 10 across the globe on its way to selling five million copies in the U.S. The band would retain its popularity throughout the ‘90s on the basis of their relentless touring schedule and powerful live performances, subsequent albums like 1995’s Ballbreaker and 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip charting in the Top 10 in most countries and enjoying Platinum™ sales status stateside.

It would be eight years between releases, though, the band leaving Atlantic to sign a new deal with Sony Music and slowly working on a new album while bassist Cliff Williams recovered from an injury to his hand. Working with producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Black Crowes), 2008’s Black Ice would debut at number one on the charts in 29 counties, becoming one of the band’s best-selling albums and resulting in a highly-successful world tour. Black Ice would also prove to be Malcolm Young’s swansong with AC/DC, the guitarist forced to retire from the band in 2014 due to the growing effects of dementia.

During his 40+ years with AC/DC, Young’s songwriting and innovative fretwork would influence dozens of young bands in the hard rock and heavy metal genres, including Def Leppard, Megadeth, Soundgarden, Guns N’ Roses, and Queens of the Stone Age, among many others. While his band’s meat ‘n’ potatoes hard rock sound was seldom in style, AC/DC transcended musical trends to retain a degree of commercial popularity spanning four decades. Malcolm Young was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with AC/DC in 2003 and will long be remembered as the standard by which contemporary rhythm guitar players should aspire.

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