When writing a biography of this nature, it’s important to both seek the truth, whatever that might be, and to give a good sense of balance; allow readers to see things
from all sides – or as many as the author may be able to muster – so that they may make up their own minds about the characters and stories depicted. For that reason, I endeavoured to
make contact with AC/DC and their management when writing this book, to a) let them know what I was doing and, b) to allow them the opportunity to put their side of things and respond however they
AC/DC, though, as this book makes clear, do not engage easily – or much at all – with those they perceive to be outsiders. As I was told time and time again, while interviewing
various managers, record company executives, musicians, producers and friends that have worked with the band at various junctures throughout their 40-year career, as far as the Young brothers who
run the group’s affairs are concerned, you are either part of the AC/DC clan – privy to the inner sanctum and all that entails – or you basically don’t exist. Having also
dealt with the band and their entourage, in my guise as music journalist and broadcaster, on numerous other occasions over the years, I already knew this to be true. Therefore it came as no
surprise when none of my enquiries to their current management, in regards to this book, were met with any response at all. Or as one of the few current insiders told me off the record, ‘You
won’t even be on their radar’.
It is for this reason that, in some cases, there is no recorded response to some of the views held by others that were close to them that are now represented in this book. Fortunately, having
interviewed and met various AC/DC members – including Malcolm Young, Brian Johnson, Angus Young and Bon Scott – on various occasions stretching back from the late-Seventies, up to
present times, plus the dozens of people close to them that were interviewed specifically for this book, as well as taking careful note of other interviews they have all given to various media
throughout their career, I feel the band’s own views are as fairly and accurately represented as could possibly be expected. Indeed, the fact that none of the leading present members –
i.e. the Young brothers – have had any direct involvement in this book meant that I was beholden to no one in my telling of their story. I know from my own bitter experience working with many
of the biggest names in rock these past 35 years that full cooperation almost always means full compromise. And there are enough of those bloody-good-bloke fan books out there already. Instead,
what you have here is the closest anyone has ever been to discovering just what the real story of AC/DC actually is, and told without fear of being expelled from the brotherhood.
I hope both you and they will appreciate the honest, blood-spilling endeavour involved.
The author wishes to give his utmost thanks to the following people, absolutely without whom . . .
Linda, Evie, Mollie, Michael Wall; Malcolm Edwards; Robert Kirby; and Vanessa McMinn, Charlotte Knee, Ian Preece, Jane Sturrock, Jillian Young, Nicola Crossley, Craig Fraser, Dave Everley, Mary
Hooton, Joe Bonamassa, Roy Weisman, Dee Hembury-Eaton, Nicola Musgrove, Peter Makowski, Ross Halfin, Joel McIver, Ian Clark, Colin Gilbey, Diana and Colin Cartwright, Anna Dorogi, Mark Handsley,
Duncan Calow and Elizabeth Beier.
Highway to Heaven
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, South Australia, February 1974. It is the morning after the night before. When Bon awakes it only takes a
moment to realise this is not the usual Sunday morning trouble he is in. There’s the hangover, but that’s normal. A bump on the head and a few aches and pains elsewhere are also par for
the course. Bon’s a drinker and a scrapper. So what, mate?
But this is different. His eyes can’t focus. His body can’t move. His mouth can’t breathe. He twists in and out of consciousness before finally a face he doesn’t
recognise hovers over him, telling him the score. ‘You’ve been in an accident,’ the voice says. ‘You’ve been very badly injured.’ This is doctor-speak for
‘You fucked up, mate. Looks like you’re a goner.’
The quack gives it some more lip but Bon has blacked out again. A goner, gone again . . .
Later . . . the next day, the next moment . . . he overhears Irene talking it through with Vince, crying . . . broken leg, broken arm, broken nose, broken teeth, broken jaw . . . broken fucking
everything by the sound of it, why didn’t she just come out and say it? Broken dreams, that was the real cause of the pain. Twenty-eight years old, married, just about, but going nowhere,
already been everywhere, what it felt like. He’d had his chance. He knew it, everyone knew it. Nobody was supposed to talk about it but you could see it in their eyes, the way they tried not
to look at you but couldn’t help it.
What was left? Pop star, been there done it. Rock star, been there couldn’t quite manage it. Jail, ha, ha, ha. Women? There were always women. You didn’t have to
be the jolly fucking swagman to find a woman. Money . . . ah, what was the fucking use? Everything you’d ever nearly had they’d taken away. Wouldn’t even let you give it to them,
they just wanted to take it all then watch you wonder why.
Then Irene over the bed . . . ‘Don’t die, Bon, don’t die . . .’
Then Vince . . . ‘Come on, mate, you can do it . . .’
Then the whine of the machine as it flat-lined; God looking down at him, saying, ‘It’s time, Bon . . .’
Fuck it, so what? I was already dead before they brung me in here, said Bon to himself.
God shook his head sadly. Bon looked at him square like he was going to give it to him then changed his mind. For the first time he felt . . . scared. No, not scared. That was for poofters. More
just . . . worried. Seeing his mistake. Feeling sorry for Irene and Vince and his poor mum and dad.
Bon told God: ‘I don’t care about dying. You know that. I just care about . . . you know.’
‘I know,’ said God, infinitely patient yet not willing to stall.
‘I’ll tell you what. Give me back five years and I’ll fix things, alright, God?’
God, who had heard it all before, began to tune out.
‘Listen, you old fuck, five years, that’s all I’m asking for. What’s that to you? Fuck all!’
God paused. God could do what he liked.
‘Five years, right, to sort things out, then you can have me back, all right, God?’
Silence. Deep, forever deep, silence . . .
‘Five years, you cunt! To do things properly this time, learn to keep my big mouth shut and look the other way when things get a touch too much. Five years, that’s all, fuck’s
sake. Then I’m your man. What do you say, mate?’
‘We are going to be huge, mate. Bloody huge . . .’
That’s what the Young brothers would tell anyone in Sydney that listened. Nobody did though. Who the hell did they think they were anyway? A couple of arse-hanging-out larrikins from the
shit end of the stick. Pretty boy Malcolm with his long hooligan hair and Angus, his nutty little skinhead brother; neither of them barely more than five feet tall; aggressive little fuckers stick
one on you quick as look at you.
They didn’t even look Australian; didn’t even sound it. Instead they looked and sounded like what they were: jocks from ‘up the road’. Scotland, where the sun never
shined, and the wind and rain lashed the gritty black smoke right into your poor, squinty eyes.
Born into the woebegotten schemes of Cranhill, runt of the litter to the Big Four east Glasgow schemes of Easterhouse, Pollok, Castlemilk and Drumchapel – the high-rise estates the
government replaced the violent black-brick tenements with after the war, the Young brothers were rough-and-tumble snot-noses, playing in the shadow of Cranhill’s water tower with all the
other waifs and strays. Proddies, paying lip-service to the Union, but part of a larger clan; respecters of no man outside it. Some said it was the lead in the pipes that made the Young brothers so
short. Others said it was down to sheer bloody-mindedness. They didn’t want to grow up and be part of your world. They were happy where they were, thanks pal, down here close to the
As fellow Glaswegian and musician Derek Shulman, who as an American record company executive would help drag AC/DC’s career from the doldrums in the early Nineties,
says now: ‘A clan is exactly what they are. Despite all the success that would come their way, they never stopped looking at the world as us against them. It was all about family, about
blood. And you were either totally one hundred per cent in that incredibly tight circle, or you were completely out.’
Accessed from the M8, to the east of Glasgow, visiting Cranhill now, it’s still a bleak place, the skyline dominated by three tower blocks that loom over the rest of the scheme. With a
population of less than 5,000, it is a place of poverty, mass unemployment and deprivation. It bears no relation to the dreams of its post-war planners, when all its newly built streets were named
after proud Scots lighthouses like Gantrock and Bellrock. All except for Longstone Road – named after an English lighthouse – which is where local residents agree the Youngs lived 50
years ago. One resident, Malcolm Robertson, says the house they lived in is still standing as all the houses on the street are the original post-war structures, but no one can agree on which
A mixture of maisonettes and traditional stone-built council houses, Cranhill is over three miles from the nearest shopping centre so most don’t bother. Front gardens are strewn with
rubbish and although, in keeping with similar schemes, the area is surrounded by greenery, it only serves to add to the sense of isolation about the place. According to another former resident of
the Glasgow schemes, Billy Sleath, it’s still an improvement, however, on the world the Youngs grew up in. ‘People go to places like Cranhill now and think it’s a pretty grim
place. But you should have seen it in the Fifties and Sixties. Smoke from the factories and shipyards, smoke from coal fires and cigarettes, the air was thick and black. And it affected everything.
The walls were all black; the windows tarred. It was positively satanic.’
William Young and his wife Margaret already had six children before Malcolm (6 January 1953) and Angus (31 March 1955) were born. William had been a ground mechanic for the RAF during the Second
World War. After it he’d found work as a spray painter; one of thousands of tiny cogs in the steel and shipping industries until, in his forties, he found himself on the
dole, one of the many discarded and suddenly unemployable middle-aged men in a city where poverty and joblessness were becoming its defining features.
Thankfully, by then the first five of William and Margaret’s kids – Steven (1933), Margaret (1936), John (1938), Alex (1939) and William (1941) – were old enough to fend for
themselves, though they all still lived at Longstone Road. Outside the pub, music and football were the chief distractions. The only sister among the seven brothers, Margaret, 17 at the time
Malcolm was born, had a record box containing such scratchy illicit confections as Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The boys could all play a bit too; Stevie knew how to squeeze a tune
out of a piano accordion; John was a wizard on the guitar. Alex was thought to be the most musically gifted, though, a jack-of-all-trades on guitar and, later, saxophone, clarinet and bass. By the
time wee Malcolm and even more wee Angus had started at Milncroft primary school – where the school song began, ‘School that is set on a hill, we salute you!’ – Alex
looked to be on his way as a professional musician, working at US Air Force bases in West Germany, playing with Tony Sheridan, whose 1962 hit ‘My Bonnie’ was huge in Scotland (and who
later found more lasting fame for once having used The Beatles as his backing group, during their Star Club days in Hamburg).
Though it wasn’t yet apparent, the real musical talent in the family, however, was George, seven years older than Malcolm, but whose dreams initially focused more on his football skills;
he was thought at one stage to be good enough maybe for a trial with his beloved Glasgow Rangers. But it wasn’t to be, George’s dreams of soccer stardom finally laid to rest when the
family emigrated to Australia when he was 16. At which point, inspired by Alex’s example, George also began to learn guitar.
Born contrary, neither Malcolm nor Angus showed any signs early on of following in their big brothers’ footsteps, most of their earliest memories centring on their shared experiences of
school playground brawls, habits that would stay with them throughout their adult lives. George was good with his fists too but Malcolm and Angus were killers. ‘Cos of
their size people would get the wrong idea and take them on,’ recalls former AC/DC tour manager Ian Jeffery. ‘But let me tell you they never lost a fight. Didn’t matter how big
you were, the brothers were fucking scary. They would go in, do their business, and leave you on the floor.’ Even after they’d moved to Australia, whenever the brothers had ‘a
blue’ with someone, it was their Cranhill blood that took over. Angus would later laugh and say he wanted to go back and rid it Angusland. ‘I might drive up to the water tower and
put my flag up’ – emblazoned with the now famous AC/DC lightning bolt logo. ‘It would be just like the Hollywood sign.’ Note the sarcasm masquerading as irony. The fact was
you had to be tough to get by in Cranhill, and Malcolm and Angus, as Ian Jeffery notes, ‘weren’t just tough – they were fucking tough’.
Nevertheless, life was hard, relentless. Prospects, such as they were, were limited to the shipyards, the factories and the dole. When Angus got knocked over by a car after school one day, his
father decided enough was enough and began to talk seriously about taking advantage of the Australian Government’s £10 immigration package, known as the Ten Pound Pom scheme (£10
per adult; kids for free). It was the winter of 1963, the worst on record, given its own rotten name, the Great Freeze, snow up to the top of the front door, ice causing all the pipes to burst. The
idea of swapping such heart-stopping drudgery for a life on the beach, as the Youngs thought of Oz, suddenly seemed like a bloody good one. The only one of the family who didn’t fancy it and
eventually stayed behind was Alex, who, at 23, was on his way to pop stardom, he felt sure. The rest of the Youngs had no idea what lay in store for them when they landed at Sydney Airport, though
eight-year-old Angus would make an immediate impression on fellow passengers by throwing up all over the baggage-claim area.
Arriving just as Australia was sliding into its own version of winter, whatever sun-filled visions the Youngs had of their new home before they got there were soon overtaken by
the reality. It rained for six weeks solid after they arrived, causing them to joke they’d brought the weather with them. Not that anybody was laughing too hard. Obliged
to spend those first months shacked up with other immigrant families in sparse, barrack-like living conditions at the Villawood Migrant Hostel (now the Villawood Detention Centre), in
Sydney’s poorer western suburbs, they would awake each morning to find snakes and lizards sharing their warm, dry bedding, or the biggest blackest spiders they’d ever seen making their
own purpose-built homes among their few belongings. ‘They had us in these tin huts, and it rained, relentlessly,’ said Malcolm. ‘When you got up in the morning, there was two
inches of water in the hut and black worms swimming through it.’
William and Margaret began to feel they had made a terrible mistake, as did everyone huddled there waiting for the rain to stop and the new life they’d been promised to begin. One night
they could take it no more and burst into tears, holding on to the bairns to stop them shaking. What had they done? Why had they allowed themselves to be dragged from one hellhole into another? But
then the morning came and the clannish spirit began to assert itself again. No good crying over spilt milk. It was too late to go back now, said elder sister Margaret, fierce in her determination
to hold the family together and force them to make a go of it.
While the older members of the family wondered what had hit them, George, for one, was already finding his feet. Nearly 18 and impatient to explore his new horizons, he made friends easily in
the communal dining hall. It was in the basement laundry room, however, that he met the people who were going to help shape his destiny – and eventually that of his younger brothers. Two
Dutch immigrants named Dingeman Vandersluys and Johannes Vandenberg. Like George, both played guitars – Johannes, the more adept of the two, could already play rudimentary solos, while
Dingeman, less adept but good at keeping time, thrummed away at the bass strings. For handiness, George, who struggled to pronounce their names, called them Dick and Harry. Noting how everyone
tripped over their names they soon settled on being known as Dick Diamonde (sic) and Harry Vanda.
Comfortable with the gang mentality that had dominated his Cranhill upbringing, George began bringing Dick and Harry with him everywhere he went as they began to explore the
wider environs of Villawood, strolling up to nearby Leightonfield railway station, watching the trains coming and going and imagining themselves going too. When they began bringing their guitars
out with them they would attract a crowd, especially of girls. One local lad, himself a recent arrival from England, another little tough nut named Stevie Wright, didn’t like the idea of
these strangely accented new boys getting so much attention and wasn’t slow to show his feelings towards George, accusing him of being the brother of another local hard case he’d
recently had ‘a tumble’ with. Unmoved, George refrained from headbutting him – his usual rebuke to anybody foolish enough to try it on – and simply laughed. As fiery as his
younger siblings but with a cooler head on his shoulders, George was already thinking several moves ahead and before long Stevie had begun joining in, singing with him and Dick and Harry.
They got good at doing rudimentary versions of Beatles songs and other Top 40 stuff. Australia may still have been regarded by the rest of the world as a cultural backwater – literally,
the ends of the earth – but it had radio and TV like any other civilised country and the cornerstone rock’n’roll artists of the Fifties and early Sixties had had the same impact
there as in Britain and America. When the hostel began to organise ‘Wogs and Rockers’ nights – in reflection of the multi-ethnic backgrounds of its inhabitants, they cheerfully
explained – George and his new best mates offered to perform too. Only snag: they needed a drummer. Enter yet another Ten Pound Pom: Gordon ‘Snowy’ Fleet. Already in his
mid-twenties, Snowy wasn’t hired for his looks but the fact he could actually hold down a beat – and hit the drums really bloody hard.
When the Young family were finally able to move into a small house of their own – at 4 Burleigh Street, near the police station – in the better-off Sydney suburb of Burwood, Stevie
Wright moved in with them. ‘Getting lost in amongst the clan of the Youngs,’ he later recalled. ‘I loved it and they shared their love.’
By then the group had a name – The Easybeats, inspired by Merseybeat, but with their own sun-baked twist on it. They had also begun to make a name for themselves on
Sydney’s nascent live pub and club scene and in 1964 they signed a management deal. The man who talent-spotted them, Mike Vaughan, was an ambitious young former estate agent with one
priceless connection in the music business: that of producer Ted Albert.
Ted was the 27-year-old son of Alexis Albert, titular head of J. Albert and Son, one of the oldest, most powerful music business companies in Australia.
Typically of the Albert family’s trailblazing history, Ted hit pay-dirt with practically his first signing, Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, who gave the company its first nationwide
Australian hit in the summer of 1964 with their cover of Leiber and Stoller’s ‘Poison Ivy’ – famously keeping The Beatles from the No. 1 slot on the Sydney charts just as
the group was touring Australia for its first and only time. It was a feat that briefly made Thorpe into a national hero of Ned Kelly-size proportions and over the following years he and his group
enjoyed a handful of further hits – until they were left to choke in the fumes of Ted’s next big signing: The Easybeats.
Ted was happy to allow his pal Mike Vaughan’s new group to audition for him at the Alberts-owned 2UW Theatre. Surprised by how well they did, he offered to produce a single for them, a
recording of a song George and Stevie had written together called ‘For My Woman’. A mid-paced sub-Stones blues number, most memorable for George’s skin-tight rhythm guitar and
Harry’s proto-psychedelic guitar solo, covering up for decidedly undercooked drums and over-laid by a distressingly repetitive three-line verse-cum-chorus, ‘For My Woman’ was
released in March 1965, to great excitement at Burleigh Street. But instead of becoming the instant hit George and the family fantasised it would, the first Easybeats single was a stone-cold
Showing that Cranhill us-against-the-world spirit though, George and Stevie simply went to Ted with another song they had written, ‘She’s So Fine’. Not dissimilar to its
predecessor – bare-minimum lyrics laid over a semi-catchy tune, except more up-tempo and featuring the kind of snub-nosed staccato opening AC/DC would later develop into
monster riffs like ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ – Ted, whose own never-say-die attitude had also been inherited from his self-made family, gamely recorded it and put it out, in May 1965.
Three weeks later it was No. 1 all over Australia. A month later it was still there and the legend of The Easybeats had begun in earnest.
Over the next two years, The Easybeats became to Australia what The Beatles were to Britain: the first home-grown talent to equal the success and popularity of overseas superstars like Elvis
and, of course, The Beatles themselves. Though as a producer Ted was no George Martin, he had great ‘ears’, the most valuable possession in the record business, and an almost intuitive
gift for sifting out material with commercial appeal, then honing and capturing that sound on record. As such, The Easybeats came with an instantly recognisable musical identity, which helped build
a fan-base more quickly. Also similarly to The Beatles, all their important hits were originals, written initially by George and Stevie, with Harry becoming more involved as time went by. Between
1965 and 1966, George and Stevie provided The Easybeats with four No. 1 hit singles, three Top 10 hits and several other chart singles. They were so prolific the Oz press started writing of
‘Easyfever’ and began referring to Wright and Young as ‘the Australian Lennon and McCartney’. And just like Lennon and McCartney, they had enough material to provide hits
for other artists too, notably ‘Step Back’, another No. 1, this time for Johnny Young (no relation) in 1966.
Despite their success, George never lost his Glasgow edge. When, during an outdoor radio promotional appearance one afternoon in Sydney, a crowd of nearby labourers began shouting insults,
calling them poofters, George’s initial reaction was to play it cool, ignore them. When one of them then aimed a punch at Stevie’s back, however, George decided to have a wee word. The
singer watched in petrified glee as George strolled over and kicked the ringleader in the balls then dropped his nearest mate with one punch.
Easyfever came with the same unsettling side-effects as its British counterpart Merseybeat. At a show before 5,000 mainly female fans at Brisbane’s Festival Hall in
December 1965, the set had to be abandoned after 15 minutes when police began to panic at the outlandish crowd scenes. With the band bundled into a taxi, hundreds of Easyfever-stricken fans set
about demolishing the car, as the freaked-out band members huddled inside, shielding themselves from broken glass. Facing off with a gang of hard nuts was one thing, learning how to survive a
tsunami of hormonal teenage girls quite another – and much more frightening.
While the rest of the family revelled in George’s good fortune, Malcolm and Angus were still too young to fully appreciate how things had changed for their older brother. The first inkling
Angus had of the very different new life George was suddenly leading occurred when he came home from school one day to find hundreds of screaming girls on the street outside the house. A teen
magazine had given George’s home address out and now the police had to be called to try and control the huge and very excited crowd that had descended like locusts. Never one to be outgunned,
Angus skipped round the back and over the garden wall. What he hadn’t bargained for was the tenacity of George’s fans, a great cluster of which followed him round the back and over the
wall, then crashed as one through the backdoor, knocking him over in their rush to . . . do what exactly? He had no idea. It was his first close-up experience of pop fandom and he watched
fascinated as the police fought to clear the house.
Malcolm, now in his teens, had already made up his mind what he could do about it and began taking his guitar practice more seriously. With George hardly around any more, though, it was his
older brother John that Malcolm got most of his early encouragement from. ‘Those were great days,’ he would later say, ‘I was just going into puberty and we were getting all these
screaming girls, a couple of hundred of them, hanging outside our house for a glimpse of The Easybeats.’ He added: ‘Me and Angus used to hang out there with them thinking, “This
is the way to go!” That planted the seed for us . . .’
Just like school in Cranhill, Burwood public school was a washout, Malcolm picking up where he’d left off, fighting anyone who got in his way, inside and outside of class. Other pupils ran
scared of him. Teachers gave up on him. When Angus followed him into Ashfield Boys High School, in 1966, he recalled, ‘I was caned the first day. The guy said,
“What’s your name?” “Young.” “Come out here, I’m going to make an example of you.”’
Unlike his good-looking brother, Angus was gawky in school photos, wearing glasses and an ugly sneer, He was not a popular student; his best friend at Burwood, Jeff Cureton, says they were
‘larrikins’: getting up to mischief, buying fireworks at an old fruit shop in Stratfield and letting them off in the street while hiding behind bushes. Once they bought a box of cigars
but got so sick trying to smoke them Angus vowed he would never smoke again. Which he didn’t, until the next day when he was back on the cigs, bought singly in those days. No matter what
antics he got up to, Angus was always forgiven though, the baby of the family, indulged by his mother, who Cureton recalls as ‘a really nice lady’. As long as you didn’t get on
the wrong side of her fiery Scottish temper, that is. When the headmaster reprimanded Angus for having long hair, ordering him to get it cut, mother Margaret went in to see him the very next day,
telling him exactly what he could do with his orders. No one told the Youngs what to do, least of all some jumped-up bookworm with a bald head.
It was also at Ashfield Boys High that they met Steve Armstrong. Malcolm was ‘the pretty boy of the two’, remembers Armstrong. ‘I got the impression that [Angus] was always in
the shadow of Malcolm, especially where the girls were concerned. None of us had a hope in hell of getting a girl when Malcolm was around. He had them all and I mean all of them. [But] Angus had
that real attitude and was not frightened to display it to anyone.’
Angus had also beaten Malcolm to the punch when it came to wanting to play guitar. He’d begun back in Cranhill by getting older brother Alex to show him a basic 12-bar blues, based on what
he’d heard from his sister Margaret’s Chuck Berry records. From there he was up and running. Indeed, it would be the only lesson he ever had. Now in Burwood, he began plucking away at a
customised banjo that found its way into the Burleigh Street house, unwittingly forging a style that would become the signature of his style in AC/DC, from the wheel-spinning
motif he lays over the top of early cross-burners like ‘Let There Be Rock’, to the spurs-jangling riff of later street-corner classics like ‘Thunderstruck’. When Angus did
finally talk his mother into getting him a cheap acoustic guitar, to his disgust he was told he’d have to share it with Malcolm. ‘When we were kids we fought like cats and dogs,’
said Angus, ‘and then when we started playing guitar it was even worse. He wouldn’t let me in his bedroom because he’d say, “Angus has got a photographic memory. Play a lick
and he steals it.” Whenever I’d walk in the room he’d say, “Get out!”’
Unlike his younger brother, Malcolm (who also never had a lesson) took his cue as a budding guitarist initially from the surf hits that had swamped the Australian charts in the mid-Sixties.
‘Hangin’ Five’ by The Delltones had been a favourite but it was the instrumental hit ‘Bombora’ by The Atlantics that he found easiest to learn, and that inspired him
to keep practising in the early days when his little hands could barely grasp the guitar neck let alone hold down the strings. Malcolm loved the primitive drums and the flash way Jim Skiathitis
played the guitar with his teeth. The Atlantics were a group of teenagers from Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and if they could do it . . .
Malcolm’s and Angus’s guitar-sharing quarrels were finally solved – and Malcolm’s determination to master the instrument was given an extra boost – when, in 1968,
the year he left high school, Harry Vanda gave the older Young brother, now 15, the electric Gretsch Jet Firebird that he’d actually been playing onstage on tour with The Easybeats. Forced to
play with an open tuning until his hands grew large enough to manage more, like a lot of short teenagers, Malcolm was aggressively self-conscious about his lack of height. At a time when most of
his mates were having mid-teen growth spurts, Malcolm’s body seemed unchanged. It meant he didn’t need to shave yet and couldn’t get served in the pubs his mates were now becoming
frequent visitors to. So he simply stopped going, and spent most nights at home in his room, fiddling away at the Gretsch.
Angus, still smaller than Malcolm, though he would catch up eventually, came at the guitar from a different angle. He hated surf music. ‘When I was young and first heard harmonies, I
thought, “That’s too nice”. The Beach Boys always reminded me of the nice kids in school.’ Good at art and music, but utterly uninterested in sports,
Angus had had it with school anyway and, like Malcolm before him, left as soon as he was legally allowed. ‘I left just turned fifteen because school’s school and I was a bit of a
truant,’ he later explained. The teachers would ‘cane you on the hand because you didn’t have the ability [even] if you genuinely didn’t know answers. Art and history were
okay, but all the other stuff . . . ah, you didn’t need it.’
Maybe not. But as far as William, their father, was concerned, and despite the evidence to the contrary presented by George and even Alex (now living in London and working for The Beatles’
newly formed Apple record company), he remained as convinced as ever that music was not a career option for his two youngest sons. Putting his foot down, he demanded they take up an honest trade
and both Malcolm and Angus drifted through a succession of short-lived jobs, purely to keep the ‘auld man’ off their backs. Malcolm actually got a job in a bra factory, while Angus
worked briefly in a print shop. But with some money of their own in their pockets at last, and freed from what they saw as the tyranny of school, neither boy felt hard done by. Their Cranhill roots
still showing, they understood the value of a hard day’s work – an attitude they would carry over eventually into AC/DC, which to this day they continue to refer to – at least in
public – in working-man’s terms. ‘I’ve never felt like a pop star,’ Malcolm was insisting as recently as 2008. ‘This is a nine-to-five sort of gig. It comes from
working in the factories, that world. You don’t forget it.’
Not that they gave up on their playing. Through the week both boys would spend their evenings at home, playing their guitars and dreaming. In both instances, they received huge encouragement
from their brother George. As Dave Evans, another young face on the Sydney scene with one eye on becoming a singer would recall: ‘To have people like Stevie Wright coming round to the house,
and all the other members of The Easybeats, was probably just a normal way of life.’ Adding, ‘It wouldn’t have been foreign to them to have great ambitions because they’d
already seen it demonstrated with George.’
George also kept his brothers’ interests going with regular packages home of records and music magazines, stuff that he’d come across on his travels. With The
Easybeats now based full-time in London but regularly touring America and Europe, he was able to provide his brothers with what, for Australia then, were ahead-of-the-curve insights into music and
artists that had barely been heard of back home. The brothers would spend days and weeks pouring over such treasures, adding them to the sum of knowledge they were also now gathering from
Sydney’s own radio and television pop shows. Saturday mornings the whole family would gather round the TV, giving their opinions on the latest chart hits over endless cigarettes and pots of
tea. When George was home on a visit he would join in, then encouraging Malcolm and Angus by playing along on bass as the two younger lads thrashed away on their guitars. He would shout out chord
changes, to see how easily they could switch. But the noise was so loud sometimes they didn’t hear him – or pretended not to, unwilling to take instruction even from their pop star big
What they did listen carefully to was the practical advice George was able to give them on things like which guitar strings to use, how best to use pick-ups, how to change the tuning if you
wanted, which amps to use. Or not, depending on how the younger two saw it. George was especially useful in pointing them in the right direction in terms of who the really cool new gunslingers were
in Britain and America. Names alien then to most Australian ears like Eric Clapton, whose Beano album with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he forced them to pay close attention to; Peter
Green and Jeremy Spencer from Fleetwood Mac, another band no one in Sydney yet knew anything about; and from America Mike Bloomfield, the dazzling young hotshot guitarist who’d enabled the
Paul Butterfield Blues Band to become an internationally renowned act, then helped Dylan metamorphose into an electric rock artist. George also reminded them constantly to keep listening for the
best that the old school in America still had to offer, like their beloved Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Lessons the boys took to heart: ‘You can’t forget Chuck Berry,’ said
Malcolm, ‘I mean, just about everything he did back then was great.’
Malcolm and Angus were quick to make their own discoveries too. ‘The first time I heard “My Generation” by The Who that was something,’ Malcolm told
Australian writer Murray Engleheart. ‘The Beatles and the Stones were the big thing and then all of a sudden this thing sounded heavier. That changed my whole thing. Later on I guess
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and I’ll give you two more, “Honky Tonk Women” – and then “Get Back” by The Beatles. That’s just pure
rock’n’roll as it evolved, I reckon.’
The next logical step was to play in a band. Soon the brothers had gone from slowing down records on their record player to learn the chord changes of various songs, to actually playing those
same numbers live. Supporting himself with a string of dead-end jobs – sewing machine repairman, apprentice fitter-and-turner, warehouseman – Malcolm began with the amusingly aptly
named Beelzebub Blues, aka Red House and/or Rubberband, depending on the sort of gig they had wangled. The five-man band, fronted by Malcolm’s pal, singer Ed Golab, featured the same drums,
bass, two guitars line-up that AC/DC would later adopt, but with Malcolm on lead guitar.
‘Malcolm was a great lead player,’ recalls Ian Jeffery now, ‘maybe even better than Angus at that stage. In the early days when I began working for them you’d see him do
a brilliant solo or guitar-break sometimes. But he was an even better rhythm player – probably one of the best ever – and his genius was to spot that – and the fact that Angus was
a better frontman as a guitarist.’
That was all for the near future, however. In the meantime, Malcolm very quickly made a name for himself as the pint-sized guitar-killer who could rip through songs by everybody from purist
blues-rockers like Blodwyn Pig, Savoy Brown and Clapton in his Bluesbreakers guise, to more self-consciously progressive new blues-rock gods like Black Sabbath, Clapton in his psychedelic Cream
phase, even Jimi Hendrix in his all-guns-blazing Are You Experienced showman phase. Even at that incredibly early stage, as a teenager barely out of school, there were to be no concessions
to Top 40 familiarity. If the audiences had never heard of Blodwyn Pig or Savoy Brown more fool them. Malcolm’s only concession: a heavy rock version of ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles. By then, recalled Golab, Malcolm Young ‘was the guitarist’ on the scene.
Rehearsing at an old scout hall which they’d broken into and now slept in when they were too drunk to go home, fun though blasting out cover versions was, Malcolm already had bigger ideas.
He and Golab would drink beer and talk into the small hours about making their own original music, not like The Easybeats or any of the other copycat Australian groups. But something with an
identity of its own, something different. By the time Malcolm was 18, they were writing their own songs, taking inspiration from the new album-oriented songs of Stevie Wonder and the burbling
sounds of innovative new American groups like Santana, whose Latin-influenced sound Malcolm saw as another expression of the R&B grooves he loved best in rock music. Rock was becoming
pretentious, groups like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple relying on virtuoso techniques over simple grooves. Stevie Wonder and Santana had all that and the ability to make you move your feet
and jump in the air. For a while, he even tinkered with jazz chords, working out how songs were written by playing them on a keyboard. For someone who would later make a virtue out of jettisoning
such above-their-station ideas, young Malcolm was incredibly studious about music. People thought he only played rock’n’roll because that’s all he knew. But he never rejected
groups or songs before understanding intimately what it was they were actually doing.
At the same time, Malcolm wanted to be taken seriously, couldn’t stand it when he was still mistaken for a schoolboy. Ed Golab recalled how even in their late teens Malcolm was still
‘looking like he was twelve, thirteen, just because of his height. And it was something that I guess he always had a hard time with, cos all his girlfriends were sort of really young girls
who thought that he was a very young boy. And that was always a problem for him.’
By contrast, nothing ever seemed to be a problem for the apparently charmed seventh son of the family. Unlike Malcolm, Angus seemed utterly unconcerned about what people thought of him. While
Malcolm grew his hair, bought tight-fitting flared trousers and was fond of a tinny, Angus had become a skinhead, replete with shaved head, bovver boots and who-gives-a-fuck
attitude. Malcolm used to joke and say the reason Angus got in fewer fights than him was because no one wanted to fight him. He certainly had an air of intimidation about him. Unlike Malcolm,
though, the only brew Angus liked was tea, and if that wasn’t handy, milkshakes – and, of course, cigarettes. Everyone in the Young family smoked heavily, didn’t know anyone that
By the time he’d left school and begun putting his own bands together Angus had also inherited a smart new electric guitar, care of George’s connections: a Gibson SG, as used by
everybody from Chuck Berry to Jeff Beck. (He adored the latter’s hit ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, a song the musically-snobbish Beck himself abhorred.) Unlike Malcolm, who liked to
practise the guitar alone, Angus was happy to invite pals into his bedroom to see him rock. No meticulously learning chords for Angus, either. He just plain wailed away and that was it. Recalled
one astonished visitor, Herm Kovac, ‘He’s on the dressing table, he’s kicking his legs up, he’s jumping on the bed, he’s just all over the place.’ At the end of
which Angus grinned at Herm and said, ‘What do ya reckon?’ Herm looked at him and said, ‘Do you know any chords?’
Angus also had a battered old Hofner guitar which he’d plug into a 60-watt amp and turn up to maximum volume and crash-bang-wallop on until his parents threatened him with his life if he
didn’t stop. By the time he was 11, he could replicate Hendrix solos and blast out the chugging riff to ‘I’m A Man’ by the Yardbirds. He wasn’t fussy, as long as it
was loud and he could jump around while playing it, Angus was happy. Not choosy, he loved – and played along to – Australian bands like The Missing Links and The Loved Ones as much as
he did The Animals and Chuck Berry. He became obsessed with Little Richard’s 1957 classic ‘Keep A-Knockin’’, replicating the feverishly honking sax break on his guitar and
repeating it over and over until his mother Margaret again had to physically threaten him. The riff in various forms would eventually become the backbone to some of AC/DC’s greatest moments.
(Interestingly, ‘Keep A-Knockin’’ would also become the song that later ‘inspired’ Led Zeppelin to knock out ‘Rock And Roll’.) One
thing Angus did share as a musician with his brother was a mature appreciation of music that went way beyond his years – or the popular later perception of them in AC/DC as uncouth
rock’n’rollers who’d never got past ‘Go’ in their musical education. When his sister Margaret took Angus to see Louis Armstrong perform at Sydney Stadium, he was in a
deep swoon for days afterwards.
Known as ‘The Banker’, for his knack of saving every dollar he could, Angus had no qualms about spending his pocket money on records, taking the bus into town to buy imports. He also
became a frequent visitor to the local library where a kindly librarian helped him order music books and magazines from overseas. He would sit in the library for hours at a time, pouring over
yellowed copies of Downbeat magazine, cooing over articles and pictures of blues guitar heroes like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Not that he was a solitary kid. Another pal from those times,
an American immigrant a year older than Angus named Larry Van Kriedt, who could also wield an electric guitar with an impressive swagger, recalls always seeing Angus with ‘a gang of friends
around him’. They were ‘tough guys’ and, although Angus was the smallest, he was ‘the ring leader’.
A quietly spoken newcomer, when Van Kriedt found himself being picked on by bullies, Angus, half their size, would ward them off with the words: ‘If you touch him I’ll see you in the
ground!’ Angus was, his new friend deduced, ‘a pretty assertive sort of guy. He got into trouble quite a lot and he attracted a “gang” culture around him . . . But I always
felt he was very honourable and loyal.’
Honour. Loyalty. Toughness. And an ability to pick things up quickly as you went along while following no one’s rules but the ones you made for yourself. Cranhill may have seemed like an
increasingly distant memory to Malcolm, Angus and George Young as they began to find their way on the sun-baked streets of Sydney in the Sixties, but its shadow would continue to cloak their souls
every step of the way.