The Living End frontman, Chris Cheney, pays tribute to AC/DC's Malcolm Young, who passed away on November 18th. This article features in our Malcolm Young tribute issue (#794, January 2018), available now.
There's not a guitar player alive that can play an E major chord and make it sound as good as Malcolm Young. You could spend 20 years trying but it'll never sound like him. There'll only ever be one Malcolm Young. No matter what he played, he played the same way, with an inimitable touch and feel uniquely his. It was in his blood. When that magic right hand of his hit the strings on his single pickup Gretsch Jet Firebird, the sound produced was one of the most memorable, recognisable and powerful sounds in rock music. It shook the foundations, yes, all night long! It was gigantic and otherworldly and sounded like a bell tolling, thunder crashing and a sledgehammer pounding down on a piece of steel.
The AC/DC sound and Malcolm's guitar parts and approach to playing are one of the great anomalies in rock. It's not complicated music, yet it kind of is. It's both easy and difficult to play at the same time. His guitar parts require discipline, restraint, power, dynamics, feel, accuracy and attitude.
Any musician will tell you it's not about the fingers, it's about the attitude and soul you inject into your playing, and Malcolm Young had soul and attitude in spades. He was smart. He played what the song needed and in turn what he played became the song. No one can for a second discount the importance and contribution of the rest of the band. Together they spoke a language the whole world understood, and although Bon and Brian were the mouthpieces and Angus the enduring image, it was Malcolm Young who was their greatest communicator. Listen to the opening chords of "Jailbreak", "Dirty Deeds", "It's a Long Way to the Top" — I could go on — and you will hear the sound, the true essence of AC/DC in Malcolm's unrivalled feel. We have lost one of rock's truest, most recognisable guitarists. But he was more than that. He was also a brilliant songwriter, arranger and visionary.
"We have lost one of rock's most recognisable guitarists."
I have a couple of great personal memories of Malcolm. The Living End toured Australia with AC/DC on the 'Stiff Upper Lip' tour in 2001, and it was a career highlight. School of rock? Indeed it was. One moment I will always cherish was during set-up one day, Malcolm's guitar tech handed me his Gretsch for a strum. I think he was grinning more than I was, as he knew what this meant to me. I couldn't believe I was holding that guitar, the one used on "TNT", "Back in Black", "Live Wire", "Let There Be Rock"... I grabbed a plectrum, took a breath and hit a chord. Clang!! A couple of things amazed me. Firstly, how earth shatteringly loud it was. The other thing that struck me was how clean the sound was. Not a big overdriven noise but a crystal clear punch where you could hear every string. It was the toughest guitar tone I'd ever heard, and the strings themselves were as thick as over-head telephone wires. This is one of the key factors in Malcolm's sound and the sound of AC/DC. The cleaner the sound, the more direct it is and subsequently, the more powerful it sounds. Providing of course you play well, and Malcolm played very, very well.
At the end of the tour the promoter hired a boat to take both bands and crew out for an afternoon. I remember being quite nervous around them and completely in awe of these guys, but they were just very normal down to earth people. Despite the gazillion records sold and how famous they were, they seemed unaffected. There was a little covers band playing out on the deck so it wasn't long before Brian was up singing "King of the Road" with them. At one point I ended up inside the boat at the bar standing next to Malcolm. He had a drink in one hand and a ciggie in the other. He asked how the tour had been for us and we chatted for a while about all the usual stuff, probably guitars, amps and what both bands had coming up next. For such a bonafide monster of rock I remember thinking how unassuming and quietly spoken he was. He spoke slowly and looked directly at you. He was interested in what I had to say and he listened. After a few minutes one of the staff from the boat came up and said to Malcolm, "Excuse me, sir, you are not allowed to smoke inside the boat." We both turned and looked at this chap who was at a guess maybe 20 years old. I just stood there silent as I thought Malcolm was about to pull the "piss off, mate, don't you know who I am?" line. But he didn't. Instead he slowly raised his left foot and stubbed out the cigarette on the soul of his shoe and politely said, "Oh OK, no problem mate." A class act all the way. It hit me: this guy is the same guy he always was. He was all about the music. And what incredible music he made and left for us. Thank you, Malcolm. R.I.P.
Top photo: Cheney with Malcolm's Gretsch Jet Firebird.