Years ago, a journalist asked the late Bon Scott whether he was the AC (alternate current) or DC (direct current) in his band. Scott’s response was as quick-witted and accurate as any of his best double entendres. “Neither,” he grinned. “I’m the lightning flash in the middle.”
Many thought Scott, who died in 1980 just as the band was reaching its peak, was irreplaceable. But AC/DC were unstoppable. Substituting their lightning flash for a forward slash named Brian Johnson, they ploughed on and made Back In Black. It was the biggest album of their career, vindicating the band’s resolve.
So it would be a foolish writer indeed who ever wrote off AC/DC. They remain unimpeachable as a live act, even if their recordings post-Back In Black have never matched the brilliance of their early years (for proof, their give-the-punters-what-they-want shows lean heavily on the roll-call of classics from their first six albums).
Be that as it may, I can’t bring myself to see them on their Rock Or Bust tour, which kicks off in Sydney this week. For without Malcolm Young, AC have, in effect, lost their DC – the man that made them a true rock & roll, as distinct from a mere rock band. (They’ve also lost drummer Phil Rudd, who brings more nuance and swing to the 4/4 meter than most, but it’s hard to argue with the reasons behind his exclusion.)
There is nothing consistent about my stance. I have seen the MC5, with Deniz Tek (brilliantly) filling in for Fred “Sonic” Smith on guitar and Evan Dando (lamentably) replacing Rob Tyner on vocals. I have also seen the New York Dolls, with David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain the sole surviving members. Both were enjoyable.
And AC/DC have kept it in the family: Angus and Malcolm’s nephew Stevie will hold down rhythm guitar on the tour (he also played on Rock Or Bust). He played in the band briefly in the late 1980s, when Malcolm was drying out. Live, when AC/DC are coming at you at 130 decibels, it’s unlikely anyone will notice any difference.
So is it plain irrational sentiment that stops me from countenancing the band without their indomitable rhythm guitarist? Yes, Angus is still there (indeed, he is the sole remaining original member). To most, he is the star of the band and always was, even when Scott stood alongside him. The perpetual schoolboy defines AC/DC’s image.
But it was Malcolm who defined AC/DC’s sound. The band is, first and foremost, a rhythm machine: Malcolm’s distinctive chop is inextricable to their identity. While Angus is a thrilling soloist (at least on those early records, where his breaks are mostly short, sharp and shocking), Malcolm was all accent, drive, and reinforcement.
Most of all, he knew when not to play, as this isolated track of Let There Be Rock demonstrates. Silence – those gaps punctuating the riffs – was as vital a component of the AC/DC sound as ear-splitting volume. As Angus and Malcolm’s uncle George, the band’s co-producer (and ex-Easybeat) once put it, “It’s the stops what rocks.”
Think of the long list of AC/DC riffs which made use of those stops: Highway To Hell. Whole Lotta Rosie. You Shook Me All Night Long. It’s A Long Way To The Top. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Jailbreak. These are the songs that have made them a juggernaut for over 30 years (their Black Ice tour grossed $441 million).
It is sad beyond words that Malcolm Young, who is suffering from dementia, is no longer able to remember the riffs that made his band immortal. It is frankly unbelievable – and heroic beyond measure – that on his last tour with the band, before every show, he had to teach himself each song again before taking the stage.
No one else who cares will ever forget those songs. And there is no right or wrong way for AC/DC, or their fans, to honour the legacy of their fallen comrades. As Rock Or Bust suggests, it’s not AC/DC’s way to admit defeat, ever. The show will go on, maybe for the last time, to pay tribute to the man that made them what they are.
But while I don’t begrudge them for an second, neither do I want to see AC/DC reduced to a tribute to themselves. For those about to rock, I salute you. But on the night they come to my town, I’ll stay home, crank Let There Be Rock up to 11, and have a drink to Malcolm – the greatest rhythm guitarist of them all.
First published in The Guardian, 2 November 2015