Iron Man and Smoke on the water were the gateway riffs for a generation of guitarists, myself included. But, it was “Highway to Hell”, and “Back in Black” that we all needed to summit before daring to take on the groove of, “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Only then were we able to unlock the mystery of the Aussie band, formed in the image of Chuck Berry and turned up to 11; the Swagger and fury that was and will always be AC/DC!
Back in 1975, the words, “Lock up your daughter, lock up your wife” was less about protecting your loved ones from the Hollywood elite and politicians and more a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that AC/DC was coming to town; shouting Oi, Oi, Oi! It struck fear into adults and elated young boys.
Leading this mythical charge was a 5’ 3” guitarist. Firmly planted, in his position, stage right, next to the drum riser, pick in hand, he assaulted power chords with the precision of a metronome. He allowed his whirling dervish of a younger brother, Angus, to dominate upstage, in an ill-fitting schoolboy uniform, powering through the lead guitar parts. Everyone came to know baby brother, Angus, as the face of AC/DC. But, to anyone in the know, Malcom Young was the glue and the soul of AC/DC. Just ask Angus!
The band got their start in the mid-70’s fronted by the swaggering Bon Scott. They were on the precipice of greatness, when their Album Highway to Hell was unleashed, internationally, in July of 1979. By February of the following year, Bon would be dead and the band would do the unthinkable. Rising like a phoenix, nearly a year to the day, of the release of “Highway to Hell,” they would return with the juggernaut album “Back in Black.”
I count myself among those that liked the Van Hagar years. But, even the mighty Eddie & Sammy combo, could not come close to what AC/DC accomplished when it came to replacing a lead singer. The band, known often more for their partying than their discipline, recorded and released their 6thth international studio album a mere 5-months after losing their lead singer. This accomplishment has been largely credited to Malcom’s persistence and work ethic.
The summer of July 1980 saw the legendary beer swilling Aussies, conquering the music world with the album Back and Black. Over the years, there has been some controversy as to the source of the album’s lyrics. Some believe the lyrics were written by Bon, before his passing. If so, he would have to have been predicting his own death. I believe Brian Johnson was responsible for, if not all, then many, of the lyrics, as they are clearly a tribute to Bon. What is not up for debate is the solid, undeniable AC/DC sounding guitar grooves and solos of brothers Malcom and Angus.
5-years later, ironically, track-5 from the album, “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” would become notorious for reaching number 6 on the legendary “Filthy Fifteen” A list of offensive songs put out by the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center). You know AC/DC was rock and roll, when they bested Wasp’s, song called “Animal ([email protected] Like a Beast), which only reached #9. The band would ultimately have the last laugh against any censorship, as the album has held steady as the Number-6 best-selling album of all time.
My personal memories of AC/DC start back in my 10-year-old brain. That’s when, in 5th grade, I first heard the giant bell that opened the album “Back and Black.” The album’s opening track was blaring from a boom box, courtesy of my friend Rich. He had placed it behind the home plate of our asphalt kickball field. Kickball would never be the same!
I immediately sought out their previous albums. Discovering Highway to Hell, with brother Angus brandishing devil horns and holding a forked tail in his hand. It was just the sort of thing that kept mothers and Al Gore’s wife up at night, and 10-year old boys fantasizing about becoming rock stars.
It was the band’s, 1976, Release, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” that really stirred up some controversy in my household. I still remember debating the lyrics of Side Two’s Second Track, with my mom. She, rightfully, questioned the appropriateness of a 10-year-old singing, about “Big Balls.” I countered with my best tone of innocence. Professing to believe that the song was really about an upper class, high society ballroom gala! Mom, 1. Me 0!
The band has always held a special place in my family’s heart. Their song “Thunder Struck,” with its chant of (Aaah-ha-ha-ha) Thunder! Helped my daughters through many a scary thunderstorm. I cannot wait for the day that they pass it on to their own kids.
I only had a chance to see the band once; November 28, 2008, at the Denver Pepsi Center. I was in the 15th row as the band rocked the crowd. I was immediately transported back to that kickball diamond. Angus tore around like a madman, but I was fixated on Malcom. He was in his corner, like a prize-fighter, holding everything together. Keeping the giant train on the edge, but always squarely on the rails.
That same year, I had one of my fondest, AC/DC memories. My older daughter, then only 4, was discovering AC/DC, via VH1 classics. She danced, sang and played along with the band. The finale was her rocking her guitar up into her mouth, and chipping her front tooth. It’s better experienced, then explained. One thing is for sure, she will always remember the band.
In 2014, everything changed. Malcom was diagnosed with dementia. His nephew, Stevie Young, stepped in to help out. Stevie was the obvious choice. He had previously filled in for his uncle, in 1988, when Malcom was seeking treatment for alcoholism. Few, but the most faithful noticed. Back then, he had a striking resemblance to his Uncle Malcom.
Much has changed since the band first struck fear into suburbia. Perhaps not sonically. AC/DC has stuck to a formula that works. But personnel have often shifted. Most recently, singer Brian Johnson, the man whose voice insured, AC/DC’s, permanent legendary status, had to bow out, mid-tour, due to hearing troubles. He was replaced by legendary bad boy Axel Rose; frontman for Guns and Roses.
It might be a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, but Malcom helped propel the band to that spot in record time. He took his final exit, from the Highway to Hell, on November 18, 2017. His alcoholism, dementia and his bandmates, were left behind; no longer his co-pilots. He will be missed, but his music will live on.
As for this fan, just in case the band does continue to tour, I’m not going to take any chances. Electric wheelchairs are pretty fast. For that reason, I’m going to go lock up my daughters. My wife, on the other hand, is free to make her own decisions!
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