AC/DC confirmed today that founding member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young is ill and will take some time away from the band. But let’s first talk about the band’s quasi-compilation album, Who Made Who.
Who Made Who, by every imaginable standard, is not AC/DC’s best album. The rock ‘n’ roll giants released it in 1986 as the soundtrack to Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. It offered one new song (the album’s title) and two instrumentals. Beyond that, it offered nothing but tunes from previous efforts. Many consider it a “greatest hits” album–but not the band. When reviewing AC/DC’s extensive catalog, Who Made Who reads as a footnote.
Not to me.
I was 11 when it debuted and wouldn’t be familiar with the band or album until high school. My introduction to AC/DC has been replicated the world over: I heard You Shook Me All Night Long, loved it, and asked “What band is that?” I eventually found the compact disc (Who Made Who) that had the song. (Had I known any AC/DC fans, they’d have commanded me to instead buy Back in Black, the band’s Sgt. Pepper’s, because it had the same song and nine other classics.)
I probably listened to YSMANL 1,000 times, as well as Shake Your Foundations, Hell’s Bells, For those About to Rock (We Salute You), and Ride On, a song featuring a singer who sounded nothing like the vocalist on the other tracks. Why? Who are these singers, anyway? Who plays the guitar and why is he dressed like a school boy? Where’d they come from? Australia? Really?
These are the questions people ask themselves while discovering their Band.
We all have our Band, the one that rises above all others. There are no ties. Your Band is like what cigarettes are to smokers. You have your brand and you rarely deviate. You might try other smokes, but will always return to that one familiar pack that clearly warns it will kill you one day.
AC/DC’s my Band and they didn’t use chemicals to addict me. It was music, one layer of lead guitar crunching along with rhythm guitar, accompanied by booming 4/4 drum beats and bass lines that sound the same on every glorious damn song they play. Yeah, the lyrics are sometimes oversexed to the point of silliness–but damn fun to sing when sober and nobody’s listening, or when drunk and everyone else is screaming them.
AC/DC fans know lead guitarist Angus Young duck walks around stage while playing a Gibson SG. His older brother, Malcolm, hovers in the back with a yellow Gretsch. Brian Johnson screeches like a Gatsby-wearing werewolf with laryngitis. Cliff Williams hangs back and picks his Fender bass, and lastly, but not least, Phil Rudd’s workmanlike pounding on his Sonor drum kit powers AC/DC’s distinctive sound.
Nothing’s better and louder than an AC/DC concert: September 6, 1996, I saw my heroes live for the first time in Philadelphia (and 11 more times since). I didn’t plan on doing it, but I raised my arms and screamed “Yeeeaaaaah!” when Angus ran onto the stage. It just exploded out of me.
Malcolm and Angus, transplanted Scotsmen, formed AC/DC in Australia in 1973. Brian wasn’t the band’s first singer. That was Bon Scott, the hard-living ladies man who died by misadventure (a pleasant way of saying he choked on his own vomit while unconscious) in 1980. AC/DC fans know all this. They know that Malcolm once took a hiatus from the band to kick the bottle (they also know that his nephew, Stevie Young, filled in for him during the 1988 Blow Up Your Video tour).
The names Simon Wright, Chris Slade and Mark Evans mean nothing to the casual AC/DC fan, but real ones can tick off which instruments those former band members played and when: Wright, drums, mid 1980s after Phil had a falling out with the band; Slade, drums, early 1990s after Wright joined Dio (Phil returned in the mid 1990s); and Evans, bass, mid 70s until being replaced by Williams.
You know you love a rock band when you feel like you know the members even when you don’t. You care about the music they produce, but you care more about the boys, as fans often refer to them. You hope they’re as cool in real life as they are on stage because it sucks when your one encounter with your heroes reveals they’re actually assholes. AC/DC, in my dealings with them as a journalist and fan, couldn’t have been kinder. I met all five when they did a record signing in New York City on the day of their Stiff Upper Lip release in 2000. I remember shaking Angus’ hand and that his palm and fingers were so calloused it was like gripping sandpaper. I informed Malcolm I was going to review the album for my newspaper but told him up front it wasn’t for a big publication. He was cool with it, said you gotta start somewhere, and wished me well. A few years later they played the Roseland Ballroom the night after being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and I was literally front row, center, crushed against a gate holding back a horde of fans behind me. I covered for USA Today the boys kicking off their Black Ice world tour in 2008. And a few years after that, Brian came to New Jersey to sign copies of his autobiography. Again USA Today let me check things out, and it was the coolest day of work ever. Brian’s a jovial English chap. He didn’t let me down. See for yourself:
AC/DC fans got a sobering dose of reality this past week. Malcolm may (it’s not been disclosed) have suffered a stroke and it’s limited his ability to play guitar, and that he physically might not be able to record or perform again.
My first thought: I hope he’s okay. My second thought: what does this mean for my Band? It’s still unclear. Their website indicates they’ll continue to record. Brian said the band’s booked for a recording session next month in Canada and they’ll give it a go. Subsequent to that, AC/DC released a statement on its website saying Malcolm would be taking time off from the band. So, I don’t see how you can reconcile the two. Either he’s taking off (which I believe he is) or he’s going to Canada in a few weeks (I’m inclined to think he’s not). And if he’s that sick, he shouldn’t.
Any way you look at this situation, given Malcolm’s health and the age of the band members (Mal’s 61, the rest are in their late 50s or early to mid 60s), AC/DC’s winding down. Brian a few months back spoke of a 40th anniversary tour to accompany a new album, and I was thrilled to hear it, but also cognizant that it likely would be their swan song. Tuns out the swan might’ve already sung.
Angus gets the notoriety because of his onstage antics, but Malcolm’s the backbone and guiding force. He’s irreplaceable. No Malcolm, no AC/DC. I, like many fans, have done a lot of reflecting on what life will be like without our Band.
Would I like a new album and final tour? Of course. Would I rather see Malcolm recover, play with some grandkids, and live another couple of decades so he can reflect on what AC/DC has meant to millions of people?
Yes. No contest yes.
Get well, Malcolm. Whatever happens, thank you. Know that you’ve given us all we could ever ask for and that we’ll all ride on.