Plato, Nietzsche and the Genius of Malcolm Young: Gifted Songwriter and Guitarist
By Cyrus Manasseh c.2019, c. 2020
“Without music, life would be a mistake. I would only believe in a God who knew how to dance.”
For the ancient but important Greek philosopher Plato, music had been something which both touches and conditions the psyche.1 In fact, Plato had been able to see that music is a “philosophically oriented formation and education of the psyche” which contributes “to the philosophical cure of the soul as a very efficient manner of treating a vast array of psychic responses ranging from perception, emotion and desire to rational content.”2 Speaking about this fact, when one turns attention to Malcolm and Angus Young, we see that there is very little doubt that the two Young brothers in the popular music group AC/DC’s great secrets to their special sound had been the curious interplay between them. Although much of what the pair had created in the many vast years between 1973 and 2014, seems to have been technically simple – very few groups within popular music have been able to actually match it with what apparently seems so little effort in terms of creating something so inspiring and captivating. They seem to have been able to greatly touch and condition an enormous amount of people’s psyches. Between them, the two brothers created a magic formula, in which they knew how important the maxim that less is more really is.
“Music also addresses “cognitive abilities involving perception, attention, memory, language, action and emotion.” 3
For Plato, “music and gymnastics both serve to cure the soul.”4 In The Republic, Socrates establishes the idea that they influence those who are spirited. In relation to this, if we look a little at Angus first we see that he is someone who knows how to make music interact with the soul which in turn is connected with the psychology of the person and it is what Plato had discussed as musical ethos:5 Extremely spirited, one might say, that perhaps, for the period he had played with his brother, he was one of the most underrated, though best guitarists, and although much of his playing seems to have not always been very sophisticated, I would argue that his overall musicianship is certainly something which is more than meets the eye. In fact, Angus’s musicality is something which is full of pleasure. He never gives too much away all at the same time, and like great blues artists Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, in his playing it is sometimes like he is speaking directly to you. Though sometimes appearing primitive and technically simple perhaps, it is always exciting and emotive. In particular, Angus’s playing – (which includes a deep vibrato sometimes reminiscent of rock guitarist Paul Kossoff’s from the group Free (1968-1973) whose playing had also been filled with much blues feeling), reveals a wonderfully deep musicality, frequently laced with short phrases, which never seems to have too many notes.
“In the Laws music plays an educational role throughout the citizen’s life… musical education pays considerable attention to the notion of pleasure.”6
In relation to this, Angus’s playing educates us while giving us pleasure. His contrasts of major with minor scales which were combined with single notes which he often contrasted with double stops in the way the Italian Classical violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), had done to create drama, suspense and humour in his 24 Caprices (composed between 1802 and 1817) were always done with humour and vigour. In fact, many of the best rock guitarists like Jimmy Page, David Gilmour and Jeff Beck for example, can always communicate emotion and a deep spirit while also saying something special in their playing, and when we listen to Angus, we find that he too did something similar, educating, giving us pleasure and leaving us always wanting more. Friedrich Nietzsche had said, “We listen to music with our muscles”7 and in this regard, Angus’s playing can be classed in the same vein as B.B. King, George Harrison and Chuck Berry, all of whom make us move our muscles, while often transporting us on a little journey. On stage, Angus was never static and always greatly showed himself to be enjoying what he did, giving much pleasure to all. With his own version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Duck Walk’, he always knew how to build the momentum of the guitar solos he played both on record and live for his audiences. Often, by beginning his guitar solos quite low on his guitar neck in the first position, – and then moving up to position two in middle neck position, he then would finally climax in third and final position all the way up the neck. He had used this expressive system in songs such as Problem Child, You Shook Me all Night Long and Stand Up.
“To do great things is difficult, but to command great things is more difficult.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Yet despite Angus’s obvious musical accomplishments, behind it all, influencing to a great degree the band’s overall musical success had always been Angus’s older brother Malcolm Young. In the overall equation of AC/DC, Malcolm Young perhaps needs to be acknowledged above all. Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy was that the strong were born to lead – they lead because this is who they are – it is not about their choosing to do it but they do it because this is who and what they really are. Leadership is something existing inside their soul.8 Malcolm had been a great mentor to Angus and had brought out the best in him. Raising the group’s sound and status to a higher level in addition to having been the brains behind it and its heart and soul, and unlike other groups such as The Kinks or Oasis which contained within them a certain amount of sibling rivalry, Malcolm was always a great support for Angus helping create a musical and theatrical context for him to shine in.
From the beginning, Malcolm Young had led and commanded AC/DC both on and off stage. In fact, in the early 1970s, when Malcolm invited Angus to join the group, the brothers had shared lead guitar responsibilities complementing each other by interconnecting various motifs and creating a specific and especially engaging musical formula. Arguably, under Malcolm’s leadership, it was the simple with always the right sound which saw the intertwining of the two brothers make AC/DC so popular, and from the beginning Malcolm Young, and his little brother had beat out a hypnotic intertwining rhythm between them - “a twin guitar assault”9 that would continue until the duo would finally no longer exist.
On their earliest albums High Voltage, TNT and Dirty Deeds – one hears how commanding and confident Malcolm’s trademark rock rhythm guitar playing actually was from the beginning, indicating where a great amount of the band’s powerful trademark sound had always come from, giving us, perhaps the impression that he was actually a better guitarist than his little brother. Often, on these albums, like all the others in fact, while Angus Young doodles over the top, we hear Malcolm’s energy and drive in a rhythm that is always consistent, clear and coherent, holding it all solidly together. One has only to listen to the beginning chords of “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock ‘N’ Roll)’, from their album High Voltage (1976) and Malcolm’s gritty and persisting Gretsch electric guitar rhythm guitar announcing loud and clear to all listeners across the globe the sound of AC/DC.
“ To produce music is also in a sense to produce children. ”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
For Plato, “great souls and creative talents produce “offspring” which can be enjoyed by others: wisdom, virtue, poetry, art, temperance, justice, and the law (340s BC).10 In fact, on AC/DC’s first four albums, you can hear the true essence of the group and what Malcolm was truly capable of, which is music of emotion and expression - all from the gut. It was Malcolm’s hard and grainy guitar sound that would so greatly “define the band”, and go on to impact so much hard rock for many years after. Malcolm’s sound would be loaned out by the guitarists in Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, Slayer Anthrax Metallica, Korn and System of a Down.11 In Australia, in addition to countless groups also greatly inspired by Malcolm’s guitar sound, in the 2000s, the sound supported and helped create the global success of Jet and Wolfmother. If we think about the size of the influence of AC/DC selling over two hundred million albums and so many adolescents over the last forty years wanting to take out their anger on an electric guitar and a Marshall stack amplifier in the garage we cannot under-estimate the influence and effect Malcolm has had on rock n’ roll in general.
“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything”
In the early 1970s, after witnessing many of the most popular bands coming out to Australia and impressing audiences, taking inspiration and encouragement from Malcom and Angus Young’s brother George Young’s success in The Easybeats – Malcolm, Angus and AC/DC had become committed to promoting themselves as a live rock ensemble. Having rock star and guitarist George Young as a brother, as well as the support of Easybeats guitarist Harry Vanda, made guitar practice for Malcolm and Angus Young absolutely essential. With George Young and Harry Vanda, Malcolm and Angus Young were able to have people to guide them. Sounding like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Easybeats were an exciting outfit and Australia’s first rock group export, which governed the Australian music scene between 1964-69.12 The success of The Easybeats helped furnish the young Malcolm and Angus Young with examples of how to be successful musicians in the music industry.13 Utilising songs by the bands Free, The Rolling Stones and singer/composer/guitarist Chuck Berry, and some original songs from Malcolm, by which to increase their capabilities, they fine-tuned their stage craft from 1973, discovering and finding the look, the right members for the band and going out on tour in England.
“In music the passions enjoy themselves.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
With Malcolm and Angus Young’s passionate electric performances greatly contributing to making the group an exceedingly popular Australian export,14 Malcolm took AC/DC’s live sound into the studio, inspired, guided and encouraged by Harry Vanda and George Young, who would produce the first four AC/DC albums giving them “free scope to be as raw”15 as possible without using much gimmickry. The band’s first single ‘Can I Sit Next to you Girl’, had conveyed their potential and the essence of what they would become until the end, and from this time, the group never failed to deliver. After High Voltage, T.N.T., Let There Be Rock, Powerage and Highway to Hell, the way that Malcolm and Angus Young connected with their music from album to album, was truly explosive. While Angus’s guitar solos on these albums all show and contain an enormous energy and rock n’ roll spirit, which cannot be underestimated for the fun and excitement they gave to the fans, they were all achieved under Malcolm’s support and watchful eye.
“Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
After Bon Scott’s sad departure, under Malcolm’s leadership, AC/DC’s focus and Malcolm and Angus’s connection would remain as strong and as united as ever.16 In particular, with Malcolm’s persistent vision, (in an age of High Modernism when there were still real masterpieces of art and music being made), Back in Black (1980) was a masterpiece – an opus of pure entertainment, which revealed the group at their very best, and although the album had revealed everyone in the group as stars in their own right, in particular, the album would showcase Malcolm Young’s skills in great leadership. AC/DC albums that came after, such as For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981), Flick of the Switch, Fly on the Wall (1983), Stiff Upper Lip (2000), Black Ice (2008) and Rock or Bust (2014) would also reveal Malcolm’s great competence and stamina until he was sadly forced to retire from the group in 2014 due to illness. Sadly, his death would come one month after his brother George’s in 2017.
“E ducation in music … is most important because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul.” 17
Plato had said that “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.”[xviii] Full of enormous perseverance and dedication, Malcolm’s musicality and personality was the main engine behind the band. To a great extent, he had been the creator and architect of AC/DC and in the overall scheme of things, he must be recognised as a true and great visionary in popular music. As a gifted songwriter and guitarist, he and Angus Young strove for perfection, and for millions of fans around the world, found it. As the driving force of the group and its solid centre and heart, Malcolm was someone who never went against his will and what he wanted to do, always taking great satisfaction in all that he and AC/DC had achieved with an allegiance to the fans which had been incomparable.18 For Plato, “…the education of the soul by music comes about by virtue of a ‘homoeopathic’ mechanism which presupposes a kind of music whose rhythms and harmonies possess a mimetic property ... the manner in which musical education is envisaged by both depends on an anthropological point: Plato’s view of the role of pleasure in the human soul had important consequences for the manner in which the citizens of the Laws will be educated during the entire course of their lives.”19
1 Pelosi, F., Plato on Music, Soul and Body, Cambridge University Press. 2010, p.16.
3 G. Leizerovici, Music and Auditory Transportation: An Investigation of the Music Experience, Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario. 2014, p. 23.
4 Pelosi, F., Plato on Music, Soul and Body, Cambridge University Press. 2010, p. 40.
5 Ibid. p.42.
6 F. Woerther, ‘Music and the Education of the Soul in Plato and Aristotle: Homoeopathy and the Formation of Character’, Classical Quarterly 58.1 89–103 , 2008, p.96.
7 Freidrich Nietzsche cited by O. Sacks, “The Power of Music,” Brain, Volume 129, Issue 10, October 2006, pp. 2528–2532, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awl234 (accessed May 18, 2020)
8 D. L. Cawthon, “Nietzsche on Leadership: The Power of the Will,” St Croix Review, 2001, http://www.stcroixreview.com/archives_nopass/2001-08/cawthon.html (accessed May 22, 2020)
9 “AC/DC - The First Chapter (1973-1981), Australian Documentary Told By Angus Young.” Exclusivevids1000, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAg_gIkIAxc (accessed May 18, 2020)
10 Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 1 (Charmides, Lysis, Laches, Protagoras, Euthydemus, Cratylus, Phaedrus, Ion, Symposium) 387. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/plato-the-dialogues-of-plato-vol-1#lf0131-01_mnt867 (accessed May 23, 2020)
11 “Malcolm Young’s guitar playing underpinned AC/DC's sound,” Double J, 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/doublej/music-reads/features/malcolm-youngs-guitar-playing-underpinned-acdcs-sound/10266764, (accessed May 20, 2020)
12 Fricke, David. “The Easybeats: Where Are They Now? Catching up with the band behind ‘Friday on My Mind” (1986). Rolling Stone https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-easybeats-where-are-they-now-106418/ (accessed May 18, 2020)
13 “AC/DC - The First Chapter (1973-1981), Australian Documentary Told By Angus Young.” Exclusivevids1000, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAg_gIkIAxc (accessed May 18, 2020)
14 “AC/DC: Dirty Deeds.” 1091 ON DEMAND, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kDHkez70LM (accessed May 18, 2020)
15 “AC/DC - The First Chapter (1973-1981), Australian Documentary Told By Angus Young.” Exclusivevids1000, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAg_gIkIAxc (accessed May 18, 2020)
16 Maria Popova, ‘Nietzsche on the Power of Music’, Brain Pickings, 2015, https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/09/18/nietzsche-on-music/ (accessed 20 May, 2020)
17 Plato, ‘The Republic, Book III, (360 BCE) Translated by Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.mb.txt (accessed May 20, 2020)
19 F. Woerther, ‘Music and the Education of the Soul in Plato and Aristotle: Homoeopathy and the Formation of Character’, Classical Quarterly 58.1 89–103 , 2008, p.102.
- Quote paper
- Cyrus Manasseh (Author), 2019, Plato, Nietzsche and the Genius of Malcolm Young. Gifted Songwriter and Guitarist, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/703444