Malcolm Young: AC/DC’s Giant in the Shadows

Greg Kot

15 Min Read

AC/DC’s Malcolm Young stood barely 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed little more than 100 pounds, but he was a giant figure in rock ‘n’ roll and the driving force of AC/DC. He not only founded the band and recruited his brother Angus Young and vocalist Bon Scott to become its focal points, he cowrote the songs and provided its vision. In the recording studio and on stage, he preferred a background role that was crucial to the sound: He anchored the fire-breathing arrangements as one of the best rhythm guitarists in rock history.

Malcolm Young died at age 64 in 2017, a couple years after dementia forced him to exit the band he built. The band carried on, and released its first album without him, “Power Up,” in 2020. But as usual, Malcolm was credited as the cowriter on every song with Angus, including “Through the Mists of Time,” a rare ballad that turned out to be something of a somber tribute from the band to its fallen comrade: “Monster shadows/A light gone dim.” 

“It was Malcolm who had the vision of what the band should be,” Angus Young once told me. “He said, ‘We’re going to play the only music worth playing: rock ‘n’ roll. And we’re going to play it hard.’”

The band went on to sell more than 200 million albums worldwide, though it was initially shunned by commercial radio and didn’t have any chart success in the United States until its fifth internationally released album. But the band’s audience only expanded with each release. Its 1980 album, “Back in Black” (1980), broke sales records by perfecting the band’s no-nonsense sound: riff-based, darkly humorous songs that bridged the gap between punk and metal. 

Malcolm and Angus Young were born to the job, the youngest of eight children in a blue-collar family from Glasgow, Scotland. Their parents moved the family to Australia in 1963 to look for work. Within weeks of arriving in Sydney, their older brother George had formed a rock band, the Easybeats, which would storm the pop charts in 1967 with a classic garage-rock single, “Friday on My Mind.” Another one of their older brothers, John, introduced Angus and Malcolm to the blues, particularly Big Bill Broonzy. Their course was set.

He’s got this amazing left hand, y’know? It’s just so quick, so fast…he’s always three or four moves ahead of us all.

Angus and Malcolm both played guitar, and early on they were able to define their roles in a way that served their songs. “In the beginning, we would sort of flip roles, then he took over on rhythm,” Angus Young told me. “His rhythm style is a style in itself. I sit and watch and try to copy him but it’s still not Malcolm. He’s got this amazing left hand, y’know? It’s just so quick, so fast…he’s always three or four moves ahead of us all. The adaptability of it — there’s all the chords I’ll struggle with, and he’s already hitting ’em. And on top of that, he keeps that right hand going, and it’s so smooth that there’s never a note missing. When you look at it, you go, ‘Aw, he’s just filling in spaces.’ But when you look at it closer, you realize he’s not only filling them in, he’s playing in between them. We sound like we do because of him.”

Malcolm Young rarely granted interviews, instead preferring to let the more flamboyant Angus and the garrulous lead vocalists, first Scott and later Brian Johnson, supply the media with glib quotes. But Malcolm Young never overplayed a hand. He was a humble, awestruck student when introduced to one of his heroes, Buddy Guy, backstage at the Roxy in the ‘90s. A few years later, he recalled the meeting when I finally was able to converse with him at length. 

“People such as Buddy Guy,” he said, shaking his head at the memory, “without them we wouldn’t be here.”

Here’s an edited version of our 2003 interview, which focused on Malcolm’s early years and the roots of AC/DC.

Greg Kot: You’re about to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (in 2003). That’s got to be a strange feeling, given that you weren’t widely accepted by the rock establishment when you started out. 

Malcolm Young: It shows you what degenerates they’ll take in there, eh?

GK: (Laughs.) Degenerates may be a slight exaggeration. How did you see the band when you started out in the early ‘70s?

MY: All we were doing is trying to entertain people. When we started as a band we were told by club owners: “We want people to dance so they drink more.” That’s how we cut our teeth — getting people hot and sweaty and drinking. We stayed on that same thing. People paid money for tickets and we’ve never forgotten that. Anything after that was a bonus. We were just a club band. As things evolve, you evolve with it. 

GK: Let’s talk about where it all started. What were conditions like in Scotland that forced the family to move to Australia in the early ‘60s when you were about 10? 

MY: We grew up in Glasgow and emigrated to Australia in 1963. Glasgow got bombed quite extensively in World War II, and it never really recovered. Unemployment was high, and you could get to Australia for about 20 pounds, which is about 40 U.S. dollars. That was for the whole family to fly over. Not everybody left. Me and Angus were the youngest, so we went along with George. My sister came with her husband and their young kid at the time. There wasn’t a lot to do in Australia unless you liked sports, like cricket and rugby. So we just spent a lot of time playing guitar, me and Angus.

GK: Did your parents approve of you focusing on playing music?

MY: My dad was a laborer, what you’d call an unskilled worker. Mom was just mom. She ran the house. My dad worked in a factory and was a postman for a while. The family used to laugh about my dad. He didn’t play an instrument. But he would tap dance and play the spoons. He had rhythm. My mum’s side, she had a nephew in Germany who played piano. All the brothers played guitars, acoustic. A lot of Big Bill Broonzy songs. One of ‘em used to play Scottish songs on the squeezebox. There always seemed to be instruments in the house. Angus and I picked up the guitar, like learning how to walk, as soon as we could. We’d see our older brothers knock up a tune, so we learned how to do it. We were basically brought into the world with guitars. 

GK: Was your brother George an inspiration, given that he formed the Easybeats as soon as you came over and ended up coproducing AC/DC with his old bandmate, Harry Vanda, in the ‘70s?

MY: George was five, six years older than me. He formed the band from the hostel we all emigrated to. It was formed within three-four weeks of us arriving there, out of boredom, more than anything else. They were doing gigs and got a local record deal. Their first song went straight to radio. They moved to England to try and break through, and they even did a tour in the States. With us, George was more like the wise uncle rather than the big brother — in a good way. He had a good head on his shoulders and was a good producer. If we drifted off the track, he’d say, “Don’t forget about your rock ‘n’ roll.” We also had a brother before George, Alex, who played in a band in England called Grapefruit that was actually one of the first bands on the Beatles’ label, Apple. John Lennon gave them the name Grapefruit. They released a record with Apple and had some singles.

GK: Australia wasn’t really known for producing rock bands at the time. How did you connect to the music that was starting to flourish in England and the U.S.?

MY: You felt cut off from the rest of the world in the early ‘60s. You got the hits from America two months later. We had all these mini-stars who dominated the TV. We got the Top 20 on the short-wave radio, Radio Luxembourg. We’d tune in to find what was really happening in the music world. We saw the Beatles on TV in Glasgow before they had a hit, and before we left for Australia. Six months later we found out about them when they hit big. It took about six months for it to catch on in Australia.

GK: When you met Buddy Guy backstage in L.A., you didn’t talk to him about your band, you wanted to talk about blues. How big a role did the blues play in your development?

MY: I’d heard Chicago blues from my brothers. One of them, John, loved Big Bill Broonzy. You start picking up other names from the albums and listening to them. We could relate to that music. It doesn’t seem a lot these days, but when a family uproots itself and moves to the other side of the world because your dad couldn’t get a job, you didn’t feel part of the system, if there even was a system. It was a bit of a struggle in many ways. We related to what the blues singers were saying. They could make you laugh. It was just about everyday life, and that pushed a button. We just fell right into it.

GK: How did you take the step toward actually forming a band?

MY: Angus and I both had silent dreams about playing in a band. We thought one day we’d do the same thing as George. We played every day, and when George was around, we’d play with him too. We weren’t competing with each other. We practiced on our own, sorting out our styles. We never really played together. I was more into the Beatles and Stones, and Angus was more into the heavier stuff, Hendrix and Cream, with the lead guitar. I used to listen to songs as songs — the drums, the vocal, the music side of it. I tended to pick up on the chords, the whole picture around the guitar. It just happened at one point when I was putting together a band. We were going to get a keyboard player, but I got Angus instead (laughs). Angus had his own band, a little rock outfit, but they just packed it in. He told me they were finished, and I said, “Come down tomorrow and have a bash.” We were going to play rock ‘n’ roll, it was simple as that. 

GK: How long did it take to find the lineup that people know as AC/DC that included you with Angus, Bon Scott and (drummer) Phil Rudd?

MY: It took a while. When Angus came in, it was a big piece. He hadn’t come into his stage act yet. George and my sister helped him a lot with that. They said, “You gotta have a gimmick, Angus.” They thought a good act always had something people could relate to. My sister said, “Why don’t you get your school uniform with the shorts?” She knocked that up for him and this little guy became larger than life.

GK: Angus always struck me as pretty shy offstage. 

MY: Believe me, he can fire up. It’s not an act. He takes it on full. I don’t think anyone could become that intense method acting. That’s what people expect and he does it. Even I don’t know how he gets himself into that state. 

GK: He must’ve gotten some crap from the audience when you guys first started playing the Aussie bars.

MY: He got a bit of shit. They were all bikers and workers at the end of the day, but he won them over, because he was entertaining, to say the least. He gave as good as he got. We had a good thing with the clubs. Rowdy, mad, brawling made Angus do it more. By the end of the night everyone was won over. He wore the outfit, but he could play that guitar. We used to go to clubs and check out what was going on, and none of them were playing music that was getting people up and rocking and dancing. People would dance to the records between the bands. We thought, this is rock ‘n’ roll. (The Rolling Stones’) “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” would come on the jukebox, and the dancefloor would be filled. All the bands were doing that hippie period of music, that hippie hangover stuff. They didn’t have a clue. It was just wide open for us. The very first show, the very first song we did, we had them won over. We’d play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and jam in the middle, drag it out, some Little Richard, “Great Balls of Fire,” a couple more Stones tracks. Stuff we all roughly knew. Have a quick bash, and we just bluffed our way through. As long as they were up dancing, we were doing our job. The more they dance, the more they drink. Everyone was really happy. Everywhere we played, we were getting offers for residencies. The band was up and running. Melbourne, which is a bit like L.A. and London in size, there were people calling us in Sydney asking about the band. We were moving up quickly. At the time we weren’t fazed. It was like, “Oh, good, another gig.” 

GK: How did you and Angus mesh as guitar players early on?

MY: I was more into the chord thing, the complete song, rather than the individual part. I was glad in a way, because I was more of a melodic player. Angus was more into the rock world. Straightaway I said this is great. There was never any question. I thought Angus, it’s pointless for me to play solos. It was never a brotherly squabble, but the opposite, because we just wanted to do good as a band.

GK: Don’t you know that brothers in rock bands are supposed to fight?

MY: (Laughs.) We do suffer a bit of that. It’s not that dramatic. We have our moments. That’s what we do, knowing each other all our lives. But it’s got a lot of big pluses. Brothers do fight, but there is a closeness too. Within the band, a little bit of aggro rears its ugly head. But it’s certainly not a major problem for AC/DC. During the making of the albums it’s the worst, because everyone is under a bit of pressure. You’re in a confined area and things happen. We’re pretty lucky overall with that though. 

GK: Bon Scott completed the band in a way, and was a big personality. How did he fit in with you and your brother?

MY: Bon basically took charge, to be honest. He was older and he’d been around in another band. He was the man of experience. We’d written one or two songs, and he encouraged us to write more. He’d say, “I’ve got an idea about that motherfucking wife I’ve left: ‘She’s Got Balls.’” We’d already written some tracks, but when he came in, we had the voice of experience. We kept our ears wide open. He pushed us a little further. The first singer (Dave Evans), people cheered when he left, so we could jam. He was so bad. Bon was in a week later. He had songs, ideas, motivation. He’s serious. We were happy to be with someone like that. We were just happy to be playing. He had bigger plans.

GK: Why did the band move to London in the mid-‘70s?

MY: We went to break into the European market. The big plan was to break into the States, but the manager at the time said the best thing to do was to play some clubs and pubs in London, make a name there, and then try New York. Within two or three months in London, word of mouth picked up, and it didn’t take long. That was late 1975, into ‘76.

GK: How did the production of “Mutt” Lange on “Highway to Hell” (1979) differ from the Vanda-Young approach on your earlier albums?

MY: It was certainly different. Vanda-Young was basically performance-based. Do what we do on stage in the studio. That’s what they wanted on the record. They got off on the vibe, the good rocking thing. The shaking, the rocking, that’s what George and Harry wanted. If the guitar went out of tune here and there, we’d leave it if it felt good. They wanted that excitement to come across. Mutt was more about sound. He had great ears. He wanted it pristine. That was a different world in a way. On the production side he was great, the arrangements. He liked the rock ‘n’ roll vibe, but his style was different. Both styles worked for us.

GK: Would you tend to do more takes with Mutt?

MY: I wouldn’t say that. It’s really up to the band to get it rocking. When we recorded with George and Harry, it was get in for a couple of days, the gear would be set up. They’d get it close enough to right, and we’d go for it. With Mutt, we sat around for days just waiting while Mutt got the drums right. George and Harry come from the rock ‘n’ roll era, Little Richard. A rattling old drum kit can sound good with that.

GK: So let’s say now you’re home and you can play anything you want. What record do you reach for?

MY: Right now it’d be this Bob Dylan instrumental, “Wigwam.” It had some brass in it. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure, but it’s a catchy ditty. I didn’t know it was him, at first. I thought they had it wrong when I heard it was him. I used to play pool and bop to it. I’m not a soft-rock type of guy. If I’m gonna listen to slow stuff, it’s John Lee Hooker usually. My dad used to do an Al Jolson imitation, tap dance to him. It’s the rhythm that he related to. Now, when I want to get happy again, I’ll go back to my favorite old-timey tracks. I play a lot of Django Reinhardt. Some of his stuff rocks. I like it when he got a drummer in too. Louis Armstrong could rock too. Now that makes me happy.

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program ( In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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