De Constantia, or Malcolm in the Middle

THE WORLD’S LEADING non-lead guitarist died last Saturday. With the passing of Malcolm Young, a co-founder and lifelong member of the Australian rock band AC/DC, the rock ’n’ roll pantheon loses yet another of its giants. But the significance of this particular loss may at once be harder to measure and all the more devastating. For those of us who came of age playing guitar in rock bands throughout the ’80s and ’90s, AC/DC constituted that rare breed of a band who, in record after record, recycled the same material and yet somehow got away with it. Call it variations on a theme by Chuck Berry. Tours by the band were less occasions to promote new material than that they treated fans to a best of set. It was a set that over time came to be accompanied with the same invariable stage props: the cannons in “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You” (which, since the ’80s, has served as the band’s priestly envoy at the close of concerts); the enormous bell tolling at the beginning of “Hell’s Bells”; the gigantic inflated sex doll during “Whole Lotta Rosie.”

In the middle of it all was Malcolm, strumming his rhythm guitar with unwavering rigor and precision. Indeed, there has perhaps not been another rock musician who emblematizes so closely the Neostoic Renaissance ideal of Constantia. Even as his brother, lead guitarist Angus Young, moves all over the stage in his school uniform doing his well-known “duck walk,” Malcolm remains stationary, occupying his assigned place to the right of the drums, doing his characteristic muted headshake. The few times that he brings his mouth to the microphone, his voice is what you expect it to be: raw, raspy, unpolished, the speech of a factory worker (the job he held before co-founding AC/DC in 1973). For those less talented rock band musicians who, like myself, found themselves slotted into the position of rhythm guitarist, Malcolm’s playing was an early and obvious model to turn to, one that brought unexpected glamour to the job. His riffs were easier to play than those of Zeppelin or Sabbath and yet there was more of a finesse and character to them than there was to be found in punk.

Tellingly, it’s Malcolm’s strumming that opens AC/DC’s very first studio album, High Voltage (1976), after which the other instruments, including vocals, lead guitar, even bagpipes (!), vie for hegemony but never quite manage to snatch it away. “It’s a Long Way to the Top” ends five minutes later with the fading out of this very same riff, apparently unshaken by the contestations that it has just been exposed to. Or consider the opening sequence of “For Those About to Rock”: “We roll tonight / to the guitar bite,” sings Brian Johnson. The lyrics seem intended for Angus’s high-pitched chords that open the song and yet it’s Malcolm’s background chords, their transition from B flat to G sharp, that truly grind at you, producing the familiar AC/DC drone sound that buzzes without lulling, that whirs without soothing.

AC/DC fans notoriously disagree over which album constitutes the band’s magnum opus. For some the electrifying élan vital of that very first album, High Voltage, has never been surpassed. Others will point to Highway to Hell (whose titular song Alec Baldwin offered to play at President Trump’s inauguration). Yet others see in Back in Black the band’s greatest work — the first album with singer Brian Johnson and a tribute to their first singer Bon Scott, who died earlier that year. What is clear, in any case, is that along the way the band became increasingly aware of its own “historical sense” (to speak with T. S. Eliot), its individual talent within the broader tradition of rock. As early as the 1977 album Let There Be Rock, with its parody of the Book of Genesis (lux fiat), the band ruminated on the origins of the genre and their own place within it: “In the beginning / Back in nineteen fifty-five / Man didn’t know about a rock ‘n’ roll show / And all that jive.” 1955, not coincidentally, was the year of Angus’s birth, and the fact that, during the recording of this particular album, smoke started to emanate from his amplifier, is the stuff of legend among fans. The songs on Let There Be Rock are longer, the guitar solos more extravagant, the vocals near-epic in reach. And yet behind every virtuoso thrill, behind every shriek, there is Malcolm’s pounding, no, hounding, rhythm urging his band mates on, like a steam roller flattening the concrete for them to ride on.

By the time of the 1981 album For Those About to Rock, the band had attained enough self-consciousness to imagine themselves as mentors to those musicians waiting in the wings. “For those about to rock,” so Brian Johnson shouts, “we salute you.” Yet this tendency to self-aggrandizement was at the same time offset by an equally pronounced penchant for parody and comedy. Humor, after all, was that other element which AC/DC inserted into rock music, and this at a moment when the genre most desperately needed it. While the hairbands of the 1980s reveled in posh and stardom, taking in part advantage of the newly created medium of MTV, AC/DC’s response arrived in the form of the album Blow Up Your Video. The ex-factory worker Malcolm, meanwhile, is believed to have said that, as far as he was concerned, being a rock musician was just like another nine-to-five job.

Over time, the invariability of AC/DC’s sound and formula, as hypostatized in Malcolm’s instantly recognizable rhythm riffs, could not help but produce its own sense of prematurely attained immortality. How could we not have thought so? Even as various music fads (grunge, hardcore, nu metal) came and went, there was always AC/DC, which seemingly effortlessly connected with every new generation. Not even the loss of Bon Scott in 1980 was able to break up the band. In fact, it became an opportunity for reinventing themselves through repetition. There would always be AC/DC, or so it seemed until last Saturday.

Truth be told, at the time of his death Malcolm was no longer with the band, having withdrawn three years earlier when the onset of dementia made it no longer possible for him to keep playing. Yet none of this seems quite so devastating as the knowledge that the very body that handled the strings is now no longer with us. Perhaps his passing warrants another tribute album, such as the 1980 record Back in Black on which the band honored the legacy of its first singer. In the meantime, let us return the salutation that he gave us all these years ago. For those who’ll rock no more, we salute you.


Birger Vanwesenbeeck teaches at the State University of New York at Fredonia.