Reflections occasioned by the death of Malcolm Young

AC/DC embodied the flattening of our culture. The whole concept was a jumble of derivations, from Young’s schoolboy outfit, settled on after a series of other ideas, and spurred by the over-the-top theatricality that so much of the early-1970s rock world was enamored with, to the high-registered screeching of first vocalist Bon Scott and his successor Brian Johnson to the minor-penatonic-driven guitar riffs that provided the hooks for its songs. The antecedents for each of these features had originally been done with a great deal more flair, and placed in contexts that, at least on some level, had something to do with something.

From the standpoint of cultural history, the story of the band’s formation is not without its interesting qualities. There was a sizable migration out of the UK in the early 1960s to Australia, and the Young brothers — including George — naturally felt a kinship with fellow expatriates when they settled in the Sydney suburbs. George’s band, The Easybeats, comprised of fellow Brits who’d wound up down under, became stars in Australia and had records chart in the UK and even the US throughout the rest of the 60s. But the songs George and his composing partner Harry Vanda wrote were pointing the way for the Young ethos that would become fully developed in AC/DC: predictable, simple chord changes and a boneheaded backbeat, generic hard rock that could have come from anywhere.

Even the name exhibits an utter lack of imagination. Angus and Malcolm Young saw a reference to electric current on their sister’s sewing machine. It’s clear from the logo they fashioned for it, and the names of many of the albums they inflicted on the world (High Voltage, TNT, Powerage, Ballbreaker) that the intent was to proudly convey a complete lack of any kind of subtlety. The message was, “Hey, we’re a bunch of testosterone-pumped guys fresh out of our teens who make no pretense about our output being anything other than an indulgence in the most primal of impulses. We make a big bang and a big boom, and that’s about the long and the short of it.” Consider the number of their tunes that have as their theme nothing more grand than the power of rock and roll. If the music is indeed powerful, do we need to be sold on that fact lyrically?

With regard to the antecedents to the above features, it’s obvious from a cursory listening that Led Zeppelin had been a major influence. Perhaps a completely untrained ear and mind unacquainted with any kind of cultural context would have no problem putting both acts in the same category. This would be an incorrect classification. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, guitarist and bassist respectively for Led Zeppelin, had wide-ranging experience as British session musicians prior to forming that band. John Paul Jones was classically trained and arranged the strings on tracks by the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, the band Jimmy Page spent two years in. Page had played on records by Burt Bacharach and Brenda Lee. Yes, Led Zeppelin did employ rather simplistic riffs (for which they got some rather bad reviews for their early albums), but other things were going on as well: touches of mandolin, recorder, and synthesizer, attention-grabbing rhythmic shifts and guitar parts that went far beyond the best-known figures. Led Zeppelin album cover art could be counted on to be visually intriguing, in contrast to the portraits in snarl and attitude offered by AC/DC.

Which is not to say that a case can’t be made for Led Zeppelin being overestimated. Weren’t they steeped in the blues?, one might ask, and didn’t they treat that heritage with a great deal of respect? Well, yes, but here I’m going to risk accusations of pop-culture sacrilege by suggesting that the primitivism that characterizes the blues has an outsized place in our estimations. The guitar, piano and vocal contributions of Charley Patton, Roosevelt Sykes, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy occupy a comparatively narrow musical territory. While books have been written about the stylistic intricacies of these and other blues greats, the fact is that the lack of sophistication is their main appeal.

We must say this for the blues — and blues-based rock — however: it provides us a musical launching point for broader cultural understanding. To really “get” Muddy Waters, one has to become familiar with the great migration of blacks from the ranches of Texas, the cotton farms of the Delta, and the lumber camps of Louisiana to the industrial cities of the north during the first half of the twentieth century. That, in turn, opens the window onto other cultural features of that phenomenon along with the music: food, dress, social conventions (the evolution of the barn dance from the southern days to the rent party custom practiced once these people arrived in the crowded tenements of Chicago, Detroit and other Northern cities). There is the tension between gospel and blues that most blues performers had experience with.

But there’s no such historical strain for us to tap into with AC/CD. Just four white guys from anywhere who need to rock off some excess adrenaline.

Which is why I was deeply disappointed to read a glowing tribute to Angus Young in Red State, of all places, by Susan Wright, of all people. She gives a cursory account of the band’s history, but for the most part, it refers back to her own experience:

AC/DC and the sound created by the Young brothers was pure booze-and-blues fueled rock and roll. These songs are still played at parties, before concerts, and in clubs all over the world. You can’t even think “rock and roll” and not think about AC/DC, somewhere in your mental discography of the genre.
Every jukebox in every pizza joint when I was growing up had several AC/DC songs for play.
Even today, the hipsters are wearing vintage AC/DC t-shirts.
This was probably my first favorite hard rock band, and I’m probably not the only one reading this that can say that.

Wright is such a fine writer, and has her head on refreshingly straight regarding the train wreck that is our current sociopolitical juncture, so it was lamentable indeed to see her lapse into this kind of meaningless gushing and trotting out of banalities about pizza joints.

But I have a feeling she was born well after I was. And that leads to its own set of sticky arguments.

Oh, so you have to have been born no later than the middle of 1955 to have a truly comprehensive understanding of Western cultural dynamics?

No, but it helps.

Mid-1955 was about the time cultural observers were beginning to take note of this new — well, it wasn’t exactly one genre, but rather an amalgam of genres the appeal of which to adolescents was becoming apparent to savvy marketeers — musical direction, and the general consensus was alarm. In fact, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland has some film clips from that era that are presented in such a way as to convey the message, can you believe what people back then found objectionable?

And the main elements of that first wave of rock & roll are those we find some two decades later in the music of AC/DC: the simplest of chords, crudely strung together and brutally hammered out on very loud guitars, unabashedly untrained voices, and the most repetitive of rhythms.

While rock has had its moments of truly sublime achievement, these elements are always fundamental features, drawn upon in some measure. Those early critics were not wrong that this new veneration of the primitive was a marked departure from musical evolution up to that point. And it permeated other art forms as well.

One of AC/DC’s best-known songs was “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” Looking over the band’s body of work, we see no reason to conclude otherwise.

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