The rumours are that AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young is seriously ill, possibly suffering from the aftereffects of a stroke, and may not be able to play with the band anymore. This would mean the end of AC/DC as we know it, which would be unequivocally a bad thing.
Not that AC/DC are always a great band. I haven’t listened to them much after Back in Black and I suspect most people haven’t outside the fan base. But if there’s a key to the band in purely musical terms, it isn’t Angus Young, for all his Gibson SG pyrotechnics and school-uniformed stage charisma. Nor is it either of their iconic lead singers, Bon Scott (who for me will always be the cool one) and Brian Johnson (for me, the one that did Back in Black and everything that I haven’t listened to.) It’s Malcolm Young, living proof that a good band can rise to greatness if they have a great rhythm guitarist.
Malcolm Young is one of the great rhythm guitarists, up there with Steve Cropper and John Lennon and Pete Townshend, because he grasped something fundamental about rock rhythm guitar, something to do with the power of silence. He plays as little guitar as it’s possible to play while still being awesome. He’s credited with being the band’s resident riffmaker, and think about it; what are AC/DC songs, other than great riffs? I mean, does anybody love an AC/DC song because of the guitar solo? Angus’ solos exist to push the band over the edge into frenzy, but they can only do that because Malcolm’s riffs have already done the hard work of getting the song to the peak of excitement. Think of the classic open E riff to ‘Back in Black’: DUH. DUH-DUH-DUH. DUH-DUH-DUH. Din-da-da-da-twahdada-DUH. DUH-DUH-DUH. DUH-DUH-DUH, followed by that neatly syncopated little chromatic strut up from the major third to the fifth. The silence in between those massive gleaming chords is a silence Malcolm Young made his own.
I may not be able to call myself an AC/DC fan, although there are a few songs I listen to over and over again, such as the live version of ‘Riff Raff’ on If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, or their frenzied breakdown of the Them version of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ on the original Australian version of High Voltage. In every case, the reason I find myself enjoying the song has a lot to do with the economy and wit of Malcolm Young’s riffs. If it’s true that he can’t play with the band any more, it’s very sad.