Malcolm Young: guitarist behind some of the most legendary songs in rock

The guitarist favoured a raucous approach to music: Getty
The guitarist favoured a raucous approach to music: Getty

Malcolm Young had to relinquish his role as rhythm guitarist in AC/DC, the hugely popular and durable Australian rock band with Scottish roots that he had co-founded, when he could no longer remember songs he helped to write and had performed for decades.

Dementia forced Young to retire in 2014, ending a partnership with younger brother and lead guitarist Angus, who said they had “created riffs nobody else made”. Barely three years later, Malcolm died peacefully, aged 64, with his wife, son and daughter present.

His death came less than a month after another of his seven siblings, former AC/DC producer and Easybeats member George Young, died aged 70. George enjoyed a worldwide hit with “Friday On My Mind” in the 1960s, inspiring Malcolm and Angus to form AC/DC in Newcastle, New South Wales, in late 1973.

Their parents had emigrated from Glasgow 10 years earlier. Another brother, Alex, stayed in Britain to play in Grapefruit, a psychedelic pop group given their name by John Lennon. Malcolm and Angus favoured an altogether more raucous approach, their five-piece blending hard rock ’n’ roll, boogie and blues in a style that also appealed to fans of heavy metal.

In 1976 the band relocated to the UK and by 1978 they had released five albums, which sold well in Australasia and Europe but had yet to break the United States. Their label, Atlantic, wanted to unite them with a “radio-friendly” producer in order to capitalise on their success as a live touring act in America. This meant ditching George Young, which Malcolm argued was “disloyal” to his brother and mentor.

The record company got their way and the sessions with Robert John “Mutt” Lange at the helm produced arguably their definitive album, Highway To Hell. All 10 songs were co-written by Malcolm, Angus and singer Bon Scott, another Scottish-born emigré. Its title track remains their signature song, though it took on a darker resonance in 1980 when Scott died of acute alcohol poisoning. He was replaced by Brian Johnson, formerly of Geordie.

While Angus adopted a schoolboy stage outfit, complete with short trousers and cap, Malcolm cut a more conventional rock figure with denim shirts and long dark hair parted down the centre. As the albums kept coming – there were 13 studio and three live sets between 1975 and 95, with titles such as For Those About To Rock We Salute You, Blow Up Your Video and Ballbreaker – he provided a visual and musical foil for his brother as well as backing vocals.

Malcolm played on Stiff Upper Lip (2000) and Black Ice (2008), but was then diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease was caught early and he recovered well but had to wear a pacemaker after an unspecified heart problem was discovered. By 2014, as the band prepared to record Rock Or Bust, for which the brothers wrote all 11 tracks, Angus had started to notice that the normally “very organised” Malcolm was increasingly confused and suffering lapses in concentration and memory. He was having to rehearse daily to remember his own material.

An announcement in April 2014 said he was “taking a break due to ill health” and he was replaced on tour by nephew Stevie Young. He retired in September and entered a care home in Sydney where, Angus said, he still enjoyed “his Chuck Berry and a little Buddy Holly”.

After his death his brother hailed him as “the driving force” behind AC/DC. He added: “As a guitarist, songwriter and visionary, he was a perfectionist and a unique man. As a brother we had a very special bond. Malcolm, job well done.”

Malcolm Mitchell Young, musician, singer and songwriter, born 6 January 1953, died 18 November 2017