Angus Young may have been AC/DC’s primary showman, dressed in his ever-present schoolboy garb and stalking about the stage, but his big brother Malcolm, who died Saturday from complications due to dementia, was the band’s ever-present rhythmic anchor and source of sturdy riffing support. In contrast to his diminutive sibling, Malcolm stoically stood his ground in his black sleeveless shirt as rock solid in support as the band shouted out its assertive anthems. “Malc” has cemented his place near the drums with one leg thumping as arguably the Greatest Rhythm Guitarist Ever.
As a tribute to Malcolm’s always indelible presence and precision engineered rhtythms, we offer ten examples of his relentless riffing. To paraphrase one of AC/DC’s great anthems, “Malcolm, we salute you.”
“Riff Raff” (1978)
Malcolm’s hard-charging guitar line from what is considered by many AC/DC’s greatest album (Powerage) never fails. Serving as raw accomplice to Bon Scott’s vocals, Malc’s dirty A Chord riff stirs this drink and then some.
“Whole Lotta Rosie” (1977)
Inspired by an obese woman with whom Bon Scott shared a one night encounter, “Whole Lotta Rosie” is a descriptive commentary not only on the subject in question, but also on her exceptional bedside manner. It’s riff borrowed from the melody of an earlier effort entitled “Dirty Eyes,” but that’s the only thing the two tracks hold in common. “Whole Lotta Rosie” is bold and brassy with a stop and go rhythm that finds an unrelenting drive courtesy of Malcolm’s relentless power chords and Bon Scott’s gut-busting wail. When Malcolm and Angus break into a call and response duel midway through, “Rosie” rises to the occasion.
“It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” (1975)
Here again, AC/DC followed a formula, with Malcom’s opening riff marking the song’s emergence and his steady strum providing the song’s sturdy undercarriage. As the lyrics portend, there’s nothing more to the intent other than to extol the pleasures of pure unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll and the joys of being in a band that defiantly struggles for success, fame and glory. Nevertheless, the unrelenting riffing underscores the drive and determination needed to make that dream come true. The surprise addition of bagpipes in the mix makes this a standout of the band’s seminal setlist.
“Back in Black” (1980)
Malcolm’s blocky chords and stop-start riffing gives “Back in Black” a certain authority that was always at the hallmark of AC/DC’s most memorable songs. It’s typically simple but effective, a tribute to the recently deceased Bon Scott done in a way that reflected his authoritarian style. It was little wonder that the band remained steadfastly protective of the track; when the Beastie Boys sampled the song without permission and later sought to include it on an upcoming compilation, AC/DC turned them down. “Nothing against you guys,” Malcolm was quoted as saying. “But we just don’t endorse sampling.”
“For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” (1981)
Strutting and searing, this particular AC/DC anthem remains one of the most indelible offerings of the band’s catalogue, a statement of purpose that offers wholehearted dedication to the pure joys of hardcore rock ‘n’ roll. The title track for their eighth album overall and the follow-up to the immensely successful Back in Black, it was, according to Wikipedia, inspired by the book “For Those About to Die, We Salute You,” which takes its title from the final words spoken by gladiators to their emperor “Hail Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.” Angus later explained, “We had this chorus riff, and we thought, ‘Well, this sounds rather deadly.’ We were trying to find a good title…and there’s this book from years ago about Roman gladiators called ‘For Those About to Die We Salute You.’ So we thought, ‘for those about to rock.’ It’s a very inspiring song. It makes you feel a bit powerful, and I think that’s what rock n’ roll is all about.” The band typically closed their concerts with this song, firing off a continuous canon barrage as part of the final send-off.
The title says it all — after all, subtlety was never a hallmark of AC/DC’s sound. Again, it’s Angus who sets things up via a twitchy intro, but it’s a steady pace of the power chords that helps unleash its intent. Malcolm is unflinching throughout, no small accomplishment considering the fact that the song threatens to fly off its axis at any moment. Credit Malcolm with holding it all together and adding the emphatic break that leads into the compelling chorus. Here again, we’ll defer to Angus for explanation. “It started off from a little trick I had on guitar, he says in the liner notes for The Razor’s Edge rerelease. “I played it to Mal and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a good rhythm idea that will sit well in the back.’ We built the song up from that. We fiddled about with it for a few months before everything fell into place… AC/DC = Power. That’s the basic idea.”
Few songs as effectively sum up the sentiments in their titles as the explosive “T.N.T.” As always, Malcolm’s frantic rhythm sets the pace. Widely used as a theme song in various applications, it’s a rugged, resilient and riveting statement of purpose that summons the explosive force and frenzy that the band clearly had at its command. “Cause I’m T.N.T./I’m dynamite (T.N.T.) and I’ll win the fight/(T.N.T.) I’m a power load/ (T.N.T.) watch me explode.” It’s the surging passion of Malcolm’s power chords that light the fuse.
“Hell’s Bells” (1980)
Another bonafide AC/DC anthem, “Hell’s Bells” was carefully constructed so as to leave an emphatic effect on the listener. It begins, naturally enough, with the tolling of bells, followed by a lead guitar riff from Angus which sets the stage, after which Malcolm joins in and sets the melody in motion. The other members of the band follow suit, and in short order, the song progresses forward with a full throttle. While the arrangement is chilling, it ultimately depends on Malcolm’s signature rhythm guitar to sustain its undertow.
“Touch Too Much” (1980)
Perhaps along with “Gone Shooting” the AC/DC song that most doesn’t sound like an “AC/DC” song, this rocker almost sounds like a Def Leppard B side, but rocks with a late 70’s sleaziness and attitude, that stands apart from the paint by numbers of other AC/DC tracks. This track was so beloved amongst the hard rock sect that the recent Axl Rose lead AC/DC tour brought this Highway to Hell nugget back.
“Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (1976)
With its sinister leer and dire sense of edgy insurgency, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” is the kind of song that gets under the skin almost immediately, thanks to an understated refrain that comes across as both perverse and persistent. It finds the singer — in this case, Bon Scott — inviting people in need of counseling to either call or visit, promising that in return, he will perform all sorts of unsavory acts to heal their ills. Unfortunately, the phone number mentioned in the song happened to be an actual number belonging to an Illinois couple, causing them to file suit against the record label after they received a multitude of prank calls. Once again, Malcolm’s persistent riffing gives the song its edge and intensity, a full on assault that looms large throughout the entire experience.
“Let There Be Rock” (1977)
Other AC/DC tracks might be defining commercially, but the grinding chords of “Let There Be Rock” speak all volumes about AC/DC. Raw, distorted, growling and angry, Malcolm’s Gretsch makes for a primal narrative here. With Malcolm now gone and the future of AC/DC and hard rock in limbo, this track has never been more necessary to hear and live by.