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The Quiet One: Malcolm Young by Joe Elliott

Def Leppard's Joe Elliott pays tribute to the man who held AC/DC together.

For a rhythm player, I can’t think of anybody better than Malcolm Young. He was the glue that held AC/DC together. The way that Malcolm held it down, it allowed Angus to go off as – excuse the pun– the live wire that he is. In that early line-up you had Angus and Bon Scott going off like two people on elastic bands, flying away and then shooting back. And then you had this rhythm section.

Generally speaking, a rhythm section is just drums and bass. AC/DC’s rhythm section was drums, bass and rhythm guitar. As far as I’m aware, Malcolm never once took a solo. He barely ever moved away from his amp, except to go up to the backing-vocal mic and shout: “Oi! Oi!” He just stood at the back, with one eye on Phil Rudd, knowing full well that on the other side of the stage you’ve got Cliff Williams, who never moved an inch, and had the best right hand in the business when it came to timekeeping. Cliff didn’t really need much of a left hand. As a rhythm guitar player in that band, Malcolm was phenomenal. He had such a metronomic feel.

Malcolm and Angus came from the right place. Their roots were R&B, Chuck Berry and all that stuff, but a little further out from that you could tell that they’d listened to Peter Green and a lot of the Rolling Stones. They had that simplistic ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude.

We opened for AC/DC on the Highway To Hell tour in 1979, but I’ve no idea what Malcolm was like as a person. I’m not saying he was shy, he just kept his cards close to his chest. He’d acknowledge you – a nod, like, ‘How are you doing?’ – but he would never sit down and have a chat like Bon did. I found that AC/DC was cliquey. Bon and Cliff were very amiable, but when it came to the Australian side of AC/DC they were very standoffish. In fairness, Angus came into our dressing room a few times, but Malcolm didn’t really talk to us.

When we started working with Mutt [Lange, producer for AC/DC and Def Leppard], he told us that it was an absolute joy to have Malcolm doing the rhythms, because he was just on it. Some of their earlier records were out of tune, but with the albums that Mutt produced – Highway To Hell, Back In Black and For Those About To Rock – the sound was so much more focused, not just for Malcolm but for all of the band. In those records you can hear the left and right guitars so well. The interplay between them was fantastic. And Mutt wouldn’t have just taken one performance for a track. He was the only guy that ever had the balls to tell them: “No, we’ll do that one again.”

Highway To Hell is a stunning record. Back In Black – hard to argue with, isn’t it? But for me, Powerage is AC/DC’s best record. It’s got everything – amazing songs, great performances. Listen to Powerage now and you’ll really feel what a great player Malcolm Young was.

This month's issue of Classic Rock features a special tribute to Malcolm Young, including tributes from the world of rock. Get it from all good newsagents or right now via a TeamRock+ membership.

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