The 'Lost' Malcolm Young Interview: AC/DC in 2003

Malcolm Young
Mick Hutson/Redferns

Malcolm Young of AC/DC

The beginning of 2003 was a potent time to talk to AC/DC -- and Malcolm Young in particular. The group was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the time, and as part of a new deal with Sony, it was rolling out a full series remastered albums. It was also in an odd legal situation between labels that led to an eight-year gap between its Stiff Upper Lip album in 2000 and its chart-topping Black Ice in 2008.

We caught the late Malcolm Young in a loquacious mood back then, feeling somewhat nostalgic and sentimental -- but not about to let AC/DC rest on its laurels, either. In honor of the guitarist in the wake of his passing over the weekend, Billboard revisits the 14-year-old interview with the rock group to share some of Young's best tidbits.

Did you have a vision for AC/DC when you guys started, or was it just some guys with guitars seeing what happened?

Yeah, there was a vision -- that was basically that we didn't have to have day jobs and could get out and play guitar for a living, something you loved doing. It was great if you could give up your day job and spend more time on the guitar. That was our ambition and our vision, and it just got bigger and bigger as the band evolved. But there was no grand sort of plan, not like they have these days. We were just working class people, and we were just glad you could enjoy yourself making money, even if it was 50 bucks a week. And it's still like that. It's not changed.

Do you still feel like those same kids way back then?

We do, 'cause we were brought up in a pretty lower class system in Glasgow as kids. It was rough. You never got ahead of yourself. If you get too big for your boots, if you've got big dreams you're gonna get them broken or shattered. So we just kept things as they happened. You never take anything for granted. That's our attitude.

Is there anything in your background we wouldn't necessarily expect, like you and Angus in the church choir or something like that?

Nah, nah, nothing really like that. We weren't churchgoers. I remember my dad was unemployed in Glasgow once, and the vicar said, "Oh, I'll give you a job." He had to wallpaper one of these rooms in wherever it was. He spent the whole weekend, bought the wallpaper, and at the end this vicar says, "God bless you" and he didn't pay him, so we weren't very religious in that sense -- not towards the church, anyway. We were pretty normal fellas, normal kids, to be honest.

You had an older brother, George, who became a rock star with the Easybeats ("Friday on My Mind," "Good Times") as well as your first co-producer. What kind of impact did that have on you as fledgling musicians?

He could show you a couple of chords -- the other brothers as well. Everyone played a bit of guitar in our family. The Beatles had come along, and I think that really inspired George. When we immigrated to Australia from Glasgow, we were staying in a hostel for immigrants for three or four weeks and he put a band together with other guys there. We never really listened cause they'd just go off and practice. It wasn't until they made a record and he came home with it, and the next thing you know it was No. 1 Australia and we thought "Jeez, how did this happen?''

Did you already have musical aspirations of your own when that happened?

Me and Angus were playing guitar already, even before we left Glasgow. We were playing because all the brothers played guitar; that was the thing you did. But you certainly got the idea in our heads, by (George) doing well with his band, you sort of quietly dreamed about it, that you could do it too, one day.

Should we extrapolate from your subsequent work in AC/DC that you and Angus were the loudest of the brothers?

[Laughs] Yeah, I guess so. We were playing guitar before the Beatles, actually, picking up on things like surf instrumental tunes and things like that, doing them with the open strings because our fingers weren't big enough (to create) the pressure so you could get a big sound out of these big old acoustic guitars, cheap ones. We used to just fudge around, find the notes. It was from doing that we picked up the kind of heavy thing that became our sound. We spent a lot of time playing guitar. Me and Angus are pretty small; You can drink in Australia at 17 in the bars, and most of our friends got tall and looked 17 and were in the bars when they were 15. Me and Angus couldn't make it, though. They knew we weren't 18, so we spent a lot of time from 15 to 18 in the bedroom playing guitar. You just did it every day. You learned to talk and walk and play guitar.

Did your sister do anything musically?

My sister never played, but she likes good music -- all the family does. She just kept the peace, if you know what I mean, in amongst all the brothers. If she shouted, everyone shut up. No one would touch my sister, the respect she had.

How did what we know as the AC/DC sound come to be?

We sort of, from the get-go, I said it was a rock 'n' roll band. We're gonna play rock 'n' roll. That's how we went, and that's how it's evolved. I was still playing guitar like a piano to get a vibe of a Little Richard song, so it was things like that, playing rhythm around where the rhythm came from on the record, but with two guitars. I'd listen to a song and say, "Hang on, I like that piano thing," so I'd play the guitar like that and get the vibe from it, and it just evolved from the get-go. It was pretty obvious what to do; You don't think about rock 'n' roll, you just do it.

How did you and Angus develop as a guitar tandem?

From the get-go, I was wise enough to say, "Well, I'm playing rhythm 'cause Angus could really soar with the leads." I used to mess around a little bit with lead at the time but not much; Angus, he was just so much better, he just went for it and it was brilliant. My place was sitting with rhythm, and I love rhythm. I've always loved it.

So how did Angus wind up in the schoolboy outfit?

Well, he just took off with it. I think George said to him once, "You think everyone's just checking you out when you're standing there, so in the end I started moving about a bit on stage 'cause they think you're nuts, then, and they don't care." I think Angus used that approach. George had never done what Angus did, but Angus with his schoolboy uniform said, "They all think I'm fucking nuts anyway, so I may as well act nuts..."

And then it took on a life of its own.

It took us by surprise. He just did it. He didn't say, "I'm gonna do this" or "I'm gonna jump around like a madman." He just got on and did it. He put the act with it, straightaway, picked up a bit of Chuck Berry with the duck walk and what have you. I think he brown-eyed the audience once, 'cause there were a couple of smart-ass guys up front, and that's where the dropping his duds came from. It sort of evolved through all these pub gigs in Melbourne and Sydne, and stayed with us ever since.

Since then you've really embraced big, spectacular staging -- quite a leap from the pub circuit.

Well, not really 'cause you’re up there playing and you want to make sure you don't skip a beat here for there. But once we started playing bigger venues we figured we had to give people, especially people in America, they pay good money for tickets and they want to see things. They want lights. They want this and that. We understood that. The band's all about entertaining; We took that on board, but at the same time we tried to say, 'Whatever we used, can it be on the album?' like the bell [from "Hell's Bells"] and things like that, and the cannon {from "For Those About To Rock..."]. So we tried to at least present it as it wasn't a gimmick, it was actually on the record, so that gives us license to do it onstage. So we took it that way, and at the same time we're giving people more than just a great band on stage. This is an extra, it's all part of it. Now it's expected all the time, so unless you go do a small venue somewhere as a one-off here and there, you want people to go home elated and love the bell, love the cannon. So we just kept going all the way. It's value for the dollar.

Talk about the beginning of it all with High Voltage.

When we got together with Vanda and Young, my brother George and his partner in the Easybeats, we'd go into the studio and they'd say, "What do you got?" I think we had about five songs. They were still rough, just from trying them on stage. They still had to be sorted out with a little bit here and there, and we put the rest together in the studio. We didn't have time to think, to be honest. We just went for it. We'd go a gig and we'd go into a studio for two hours after the gig, knock out a tune or a backing track, things like that. It was all patchy how we did things, and it was done that quick, everything. At the end of the day you'd hear it and go, "Shit that is good, isn't it?" So that album was really thrown together pretty quickly.

What was it like be working with not only a producer but a producer who was also your older brother?

They would force you -- "Come on! You've got to do something a little rock 'n' roll! Come up with a title, we'll get a rock 'n' roll 12-bar behind it," and we sort of just got in there and did it. We used to do a lot of writing in the studio; Again, we didn't have a lot of time, so we would come up with a guitar riff and they'd always say, "We need a title. Angus, you're good for a title, give us a title." "TNT!" And he had a little line to go with at the time, and Bon had his ideas, "She's got balls" and things like that, and there were other ideas we had lying around. So we just put them on a bit of paper and went through 'em. You have to get an album done -- and quick, 'cause had no other time.

Guitars are AC/DC's hallmark, of course, but you surprised everyone with the bagpipes on "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)." Where's that come from?

That was another one that was just done in the studio from the title; We just threw some chords behind it and what have you. I think it was George who said, "Maybe get some bagpipes on that," 'cause the chords that were in it, they were ringing. You've got these open G chords in it, and when the two guitars hit on this G string it was giving off a vibe like it could be pipes in there. So George said, "Why don't we try some pipes in with the lead [guitar] solo?," like an answering thing. Bon actually could play flute, not bagpipes, so he got the canter from the bagpipe and played the melody, and then we did the drones separate and put it on and it sounded fantastic.

He's been gone for a long time, but do you feel like Bon is still a part of AC/DC, at least in spirit?

He's always there. He never left the band. That's just the way we are. We're very tight as a unit...He's always there as far as we're concerned...You just never forget. There's too many stories with him, with Bon. It just creeps in every day; if it's not one of the bands, it's a fan. It's great for us. It just shows you how popular and how long back it remains. The more time passes, the bigger Bon gets, in a way. I think it's great.

When AC/DC was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), that seemed like a dubious sort of distinction for an act as irreverent as you.

[Laughs?] That's exactly right! And that's how we feel about it. I know we came up for it a few times before and we were rejected, too. So it's a bit of a sweet thing in a way, but to us it's not an honor. We just had to go through with it, in a way; I think it might have been better if we were ignored again! [Laughs] And there's the other side of it, too; there's not a lot of rock 'n' roll in that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is there? Not true rock 'n' roll.

Steven Tyler inducted you into the Rock Hall. How did that happen?

We asked for Steve, 'cause when we thought back about when we first came to the States, it just sprung to mind straightaway, well...Steven Tyler. I think we were doing sort of club dates and things like that in the in the States and [Aerosmith] heard we were in the country and they got us put on as a support act for 'em. And when [Tyler] would do interviews he would talk about us, too He got us onto "the Midnight Special." What really sealed it was when we were on a gig with Foreigner, who had a big hit record at the time and it was a big stadium. Aerosmith was on it, too. Foreigner didn't want us on there for one reason or another, and it was Steven Tyler who said, "well, if you're gonna drop them we're not playing either." I thought that was brilliant. So when we look back we thought he was the man who helped the band when we first came to the States, and we're grateful for that.

How involved were you guys with the new reissues?

Basically not a real lot -- the packaging is what me and Angus were mostly concerned about, that the packaging is quality again because it had all gone adrift and sorta got cheapened up a bit.

No bonus tracks, though.

We're a minimalist band in that respect. When we record, we'll knock down the backing tracks, try some vocals...and do a sort of rough work-up on them. At the end of the day it becomes ``Well, these are, we'll use these tracks.'' So you just work on them and forget the rest and put your energies into the ones that are good songs...Really there's nothing lying around at the end. There's a couple of backing tracks, that's it. Nothing to go with it. No vocals. And that's the way we worked.

These new CDs seem louder.

They are louder, mate. That's the big plus. I stuck one on the other day, and I stuck the new one on to compare it, and it was a good, I'd say, 30 percent louder, maybe more. But to me, I like vinyl. If you want a good sound, listen to the vinyl.

What's the status of the next AC/DC album?

Well, we never stop, to be honest. We write all the time...and it's just a matter of when everyone's in the same spot and we get together and take it up a gear. There's plenty of ideas flying around at the moment, music-wise. I'd say we'll start -- this is a guesstimate -- probably around September, maybe sooner. We'd like to sort of get in to do it; we're itching to do it again. We're certainly gearing up for it.

This will be a strange album in a way; you're kind of a lame duck on East/West, with your Epic deal starting on the next album. Do you think it'll have any effect on how they work the album?

In today's world, I don't know; abnormal seems to be normal these days. We'll just do our duty; we want to make good albums. We'll deliver our best that we can do. We certainly won't just give them a bit of tripe, because it's your fans who go buy it, so we want to make a great album for them. It hasn't hindered our side of it, and hopefully they'll (promote) it when it comes out. I know at the same time that Epic Records will support it, `cause it'll be in their interest. We're just the band, man; we'll make it the best we can. It'll sound like AC/DC, I'll promise you that.