Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The #23 Guitarist of the Rock Era: Angus Young

There are many elements to be considered in evaluating guitarists.  One of them is akin to the old tree in the forest question:  If a guitarist plays and there is no one around, do they really make a sound?  Well, #23 makes a sound alright!

#23:  Angus Young, AC/DC
43 years as an active guitarist

Angus McKinnon Young was born March 31, 1955 in Glasgow, Scotland.  He is the co-founder, songwriter and lead guitarist for AC/DC.  Young is famous for his energetic performances and schoolboy uniform on stage.  

Angus and his family moved to Sydney, Australia in 1963.  Young first became interested in music after hearing Little Richard.  He credits his brother Malcolm as being an influence, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and Freddie King.His first instrument was the banjo, which he re-strung with six strings.  

His mother soon bought him an acoustic guitar, which he began playing.  Angus took to the guitar, and bought his first Gibson SG circa 1970 from a second-hand shop.  He went to Ashfield Boys High School in Sydney.  Young played in a local group called Kantuckee.  That band soon split and reformed under the name Tantrum. 

Young was just 18 when he and older brother Malcolm formed AC/DC in 1973 with Angus on lead, Malcolm on rhythm, Colin Burgess on drums, Larry Van Kriedt on bass and Dave Evans on vocals.  Angus tried several stage costumes, such as Spider-Man, Zorro, a gorilla, and a parody of Superman he called Super-Ang, before deciding on his schoolboy look. 

Burgess was fired and the band went through several bassists and drummers.  The group looked for the right lead singer, also, until Bon Scott, then with the group Fraternity, joined.  AC/DC performed at a massive school holiday concert that helped launch their career and led to the group being signed to the EMI-distributed Albert Productions in Australia and New Zealand.

Scott replaced Dave Evans as lead singer in 1974 and the band quickly went into the studio to record the album High Voltage.  The lineup was Scott, the Youngs, bassist Mark Evans and Phil Rudd on drums.  High Voltage was only released in Australia and their second album, T.N.T. was released only in Australia and New Zealand.  AC/DC appeared regularly on Molly Meldrum's Countdown on ABC-TV and soon the group was one of the most popular in Australia.

The success on Molly Meldrum's Countdown was nothing compared to what the group would soon experience.  AC/DC signed an international recording contract with Atlantic Records in 1976 and toured throughout Europe.  They received considerable exposure, opening for Styx, Aerosmith, Kiss, Cheap Trick, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath.

The group's third album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap was the first to be released internationally, although it did not catch on until later.  In 1977, Mark Evans was fired after the recording of Let There Be Rock because of personal differences with Angus.  Cliff Williams replaced Evans in the lineup and the group released Powerage in 1978. 

For their next album, famed producer Robert "Mutt" Lange was brought in.  Highway to Hell in 1979 was AC/DC's breakthrough; it was their first album to reach the Top 100, and in fact peaked at #17.  The album thrust AC/DC into the upper tier of heavy metal acts.  It featured loud, simple riffs and powerful backbeats.  The album featured the non-apologetic title track and "Touch Too Much", "Get It Hot", "Girls Got Rhythm" and "Walk All Over You".

Now that they were known, AC/DC set out to record a follow-up, but on February 19, 1980, Bon Scott passed out after a night of heavy drinking in London.  He died the next morning of acute alcohol poisoning and the lead singer who had finally given the group the sound they wanted was gone.

Replacing a guy like Scott, who fit in perfectly with the AC/DC sound, was not an enviable task.  But the group hit a home run with their hire of Brian Johnson.  In fact, AC/DC did not miss a beat.  Johnson, it turns out, was a guy that Bon Scott had thought was a great rock and roll singer and the group sought him out after Scott's death.

The group resumed songwriting for their new album, then began recording at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas.  Once again, Lange produced the album and Back in Black was released in 1980.  The LP became not only AC/DC's biggest album of their career but one of The Top 10 Albums of the Rock Era*, according to Inside the Rock Era.  To achieve an album of that quality in light of Scott's death is all the more amazing.

Back in Black contained the title track and "You Shook Me All Night Long" as singles.  Neither made the Top 10, but those two, as well as others on the album, are among The Top Unknown/Underrated Songs of the Rock Era*.  Back in Black reached platinum status three months after release, and by 2007, it was the second highest-selling album in the world with 45 million copies sold worldwide.   

In 1981, AC/DC released the album For Those About to Rock We Salute You.  The explosive title track and "Let's Get It Up" both reached the Top 15 in the U.K.  The group was nominated for an American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Band.  In 1983, AC/DC made the mistake of dropping Lange as their producer and it showed, as they never reached their top performances again.

Alcoholism and drug use led to further deterioration.  Phil Rudd and Malcolm Young got into a fight and Rudd was fired within hours afterward.  Simon Wright was brought in to replace him on drums in the summer of 1983.  Flick of the Switch was released in 1983  and Fly on the Wall in 1985.  Both were unsuccessful and ripped by critics.

In 1986, AC/DC released the soundtrack to the movie Maximum Overdrive, called Who Made Who, which included older songs as well as newer ones such as the title track "Who Made Who".  The album Blow Up Your Video was recorded in France and released in 1988.  It was nominated for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance at the Grammys.

After a tour, Wright left the group and was replaced by Chris Slade.  AC/DC's next release, Razors Edge, did better than any album since For Those About To Rock...  Razors Edge included "Thunderstruck", one of their best songs, which peaked at #5 on the much-smaller segment of the population, the Mainstream Rock chart.  "Thunderstruck" was nominated for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Video at the MTV Video Music Awards.  "Moneytalks" peaked at #23 overall, becoming one of the group's biggest hits. 

AC/DC was nominated at the Grammys for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for the album in 1991 and for "Moneytalks" in 1992.  Several concerts on the subsequent tour were recorded for the release of the album Live.  AC/DC headlined the Monsters of Rock show.  The following year, the group recorded "Big Gun" for the movie Last Action Hero, and it reached #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart.

In 1994, Angus and Malcolm invited Rudd to several jam sessions and he was eventually rehired to replace Rudd. The group released Ballbreaker in 1995 and Stiff Upper Lip in 2000.  Stiff Upper Lip reached #1 in five countries but hit just #7 in the United States.  The title track was a #1 song on the small segment known as "Mainstream Rock".  

AC/DC signed a long-term deal with Sony Music in 2002, then appeared with the Rolling Stones and Rush at the Canadian Rocks for Toronto concert before 500,000 people.

In 2007, AC/DC released the triple DVD Plug Me In, which featured seven hours of footage.  AC/DC released their first studio album in eight years in 2008, called Black Ice.  The album debuted at #1 in 29 countries and has been certified Multi-Platinum in eight.  The group supported the album with an 18-month world tour that encompassed 108 cities in 28 countries and included an audience of over five million people.  AC/DC was nominated for "Rock N Roll Train" for Best Rock Performance by a Group at the Grammy Awards and Black Ice also earned a nomination for Best Rock Album.

In 2010, AC/DC released the soundtrack for the movie Iron Man 2 and headlined the Download Festival at Donington Park and after six previous nominations, the group won their first Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for the song "War Machine".

Young has used Gibson SG's throughout his long career.  He has also used a modified version of the SG that Jaydee guitars made called the Jaydee SG.  This guitar featured signature lightning bolt inlays on the fretboard.  Seeing this, Gibson then proceeded to make a custom SG for Angus featuring the same lightning bolt inlays.  It features a pickup designed by Young (the Angus Young Signature Humbucker) in the bridge and a '57 Classic Humbucker in the neck.

Young has been faithful to Marshall amplifiers throughout has career, from the JTM45 to JTM50s and JMP50s to the multiple stacks of custom JMP100's that are used live.  Young uses the reissued version of the 1959 Marshall amplifiers and BX 4x12 cabinets loaded with Celestion G12M "Greenbacks".

Young has never used a lot of effects, preferring to hone his sound with his natural ability.  He began using the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System in 1977 as a compressor and a booster in his signal. 

Angus plays a blues style in both the minor and major pentatonic twelve-bar blues.  The twelve-bar blues is the root of all blues music.  A pentatonic scale is a musical scale based on five notes per octave, in contrast to the normal seven-note scale (a heptatonic scale).  Young also blends in elements of Scottish folk in his guitar playing and he ultilizes one-handed pull-off arpeggios (where several notes in a chord are played in sequence rather than together).  And he plays with great emotion and energy.  

There are many styles of guitarists represented among The Top 100*; you have those that can sit on a chair onstage and play with a stone cold expression on their face, and then you have an entertainer like Angus Young.  He not only plays wild solos but he is a show himself.  He jumps all over the stage, he runs back and forth in front of the crowd.  He has climbed on the back of another group member and played an extended improvised solo while smoke came out of a satchel on his back.  He often does the "duck walk" made famous by Chuck Berry, and occasionally he throws himself into a spasm, kicking, shaking, and spinning in circles, all the while playing the guitar.  Yes, Angus Young is a great entertainer!

The Recording Industry Association of America now shows AC/DC as the fifth-best-selling band in the Rock Era and the ninth-best-selling artist, having sold over 200 million records.  In 1988, the group was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Assocation's Hall of Fame.  In 2000, the municipality of Leganes in Spain named a street Calle de AC/DC in honor of the group.  The following year, Melbourne, Australia renamed a street as ACDC Lane.  AC/DC were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2003.  In 2006, Kerrang! magazine gave their Legend Award to AC/DC, calling them "one of the most important and influential rock bands in history." 

The wild Angus Young has proven with a career that has spanned 43 years that he is at the forefront of guitarists.  He plays incredible riffs and solos, is just as good live if not better, and is one of the best showmen the music business has ever seen.  Angus ranks #23 for the Rock Era*...

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