By Bob Lefsetz
“You Shook Me All Night Long.”
We don’t have records like this anymore, from unheralded acts that end up being ubiquitous, liked by everyone, living forever.
Well, maybe “Despacito” fits this bill, Luis Fonsi has been working in the trenches forever and a lot of people know it and maybe it’s a harbinger of what’s to come, Latin music, then again although AC/DC heralded a resurgence of hard rock, the band was singular, almost no one else sounded like them.
The average bloke didn’t think about Malcolm. He was just another short guy on stage if they knew what the band looked like at all. But they knew the music, everybody knows “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which implored you to buy the album “Back In Black,” whereupon you went through the looking glass into a sound that felt so good you could not lift the needle from the LP, unless it was to start it all over again.
It was the black cover. It was the gong at the beginning. It was the indelible riff that had you nodding your head in hypnotic rhythm, and that’s what Malcolm played, rhythm, and a minute into “Hells Bells” he started to chug, it was like a freight train leaving the station and onboard you could not think about anything else, texting a friend, you were along for the ride and you didn’t want to get off.
And then the track segued into “Shoot To Thrill.” It’s like that train turned into a roller coaster and you’d been going up the hill, slowly, pulled forward by the chain, and now you were set free, going downhill, defying gravity. Back when albums were just that, a compilation of tunes that was rarely cherry-picked.
And the second side began with the title track, “Back In Black,” just as powerful as the opener on the other side, with its sing-songy chorus that kept your head moving with the devil horns thrust in the air. This is where the tribes diverged, before we were all listening to the same sounds, but now new acts got harder and appealed to a more blue collar audience and the new metal was not for everybody, but AC/DC was, a new kind of Beatles, less comprehensive, more one note, but testing limits and pushing their way into our hearts nevertheless.
But by this time there was a different lead singer and a new producer. Mutt Lange worked his magic first with AC/DC, before he moved on to Def Leppard. But AC/DC had success before him, most prominently with “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll), which featured a bagpipe, but was built upon the aforementioned rhythm guitar, chunking along, making you feel so good, and that’s what rock music should do, elate you and make you feel powerful, that the rest of life does not matter.
The building blocks were there before Mutt, he just pushed it over the top.
Let there be rock, that’s what AC/DC declared. And like every Aussie band they were road-tested, so when you went to see them live you were not disappointed, it was an aural assault, overcoming you with pure sound, no trappings were necessary.
And the funny thing is, after the relationship with Mutt went sour, when the band was on the verge of becoming an oldies act, “Who Made Who” emerged from the speakers, and although the twitching lead is indelible, once again it’s the rhythm guitar that sets the pace, that locks you into the groove, the way bass and drums do in most bands, but in AC/DC it was Malcolm who was most essential, who was irreplaceable.
And the formula was ultimately repeated with “Thunderstruck,” proving the band was not a studio concoction, that it could do it all by its lonesome.
And when you went to see the band live it was not nostalgia, not a convention of denizens from the suburbs experiencing a nice night out, rather it was still dangerous, you didn’t see AC/DC in the tabloids, it’s almost like the members didn’t exist outside the band, there were no charity dinners, no jet-setting with models, just the music.
And that’s what we lament, the loss of this ethos. So simple, yet seemingly unattainable today, when every act is looking to the trappings and willing to do anything to achieve them. AC/DC always led with its music, it fought in the trenches, experienced the highway to hell, and then suddenly emerged the biggest band on earth. I’d call it artist development, but it was something different. The sound was always the same, it was just refined, it was like an adolescent turning into an adult. It was always the same person underneath, no matter who the band worked with, it sounded like them.
And now there’s still a band plying the boards with that name, that does boffo at the b.o., testimony to our infection with its sound, but every original member other than Angus is gone.
And you can laugh about this, talk about how the Eagles are still touring without Glenn Frey, but these are musicians, they don’t know what else to do, and the music means just that much to us, we go and are reminded of who we once were, how the tunes greased the skids of our lives, how this wasn’t entertainment, but life itself.
So now Malcolm Young is gone. Not only the player of that rhythm guitar, but the cowriter of the songs. But honestly, this is not a surprise. He had dementia, he had to retire from the road. This is not sudden like Bowie or Prince, we’d already waved goodbye to Malcolm.
But not to rock music. Not to ourselves.
Today’s rock music is not for everybody. It’s niche. To its detriment. It’s hard to get into and hard to convince others to partake of. Whereas one listen to “You Shook Me All Night Long” closed you.
And Malcolm Young was only 64.
Hey, that’s my age!
And I hope I get a couple more decades, maybe not. But now my generation is passing. Not through misadventure, but life itself, the twists and turns, one minute you’re drinking a beer and staying up all night with the music cranked, the next you’re in the doctor’s office with a pain being explained that you’ve got this ailment that could not only waylay you, but kill you.
It’s the nature of life.
But we thought we were gonna live forever. The music too.
And the thing is so much of the music has been forgotten. The younger generation knows the Beatles, but the Stones more by legend, as for their compatriots…most of today’s generation has never even heard the names.
But they know AC/DC.
The records live on in jukeboxes. They’re beloved by hipsters and hicks. Those on the coast and the heartlands. Those rich and poor. They’re so basic, sans trappings, you need to bring nothing to the party, the music provides it all.
And it still does.
Which is why Axl wants to sing with the band. Why we still play the records. We want to get closer to this glorious noise, it makes us feel so good, it makes us feel alive.
But Malcolm Young is dead.
But the sound he helped architect lives on.
You’re out on a lark. You think it’s about now. A momentary diversion. You’re not thinking about legacy, you just want to get paid, you just want to continue doing it, and then the heavens open and you’re anointed and you become a rock god.
Malcolm Young was one of them. He’s anchoring the band in heaven, strumming the strings of that Gretsch as we sit here.
Can you hear it?
Oh, maybe it’s coming from below, shaking the ground we’re standing upon.
Those are hells bells.
Visit the archive: http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/