The vastly different sides to George Young’s genius
George Young’s sad passing serves as an opportune time to reflect on his incomparable legacy.
A time to sit back and realise just how immense his body of work is and how thrillingly diverse his talents were in terms of songwriting and production.
Music would not be the same without George Young. And the respect with which Australian music is held would have been far harder earned if it weren’t for the incredible body of work he and his partner Harry Vanda produced.
"They nurtured the artists in a way that they helped them in the songwriting, which is what their strength was, structuring the songs," former Alberts CEO Fifa Riccobono told Double J in 2014.
"So every artist that started working with us, starting with AC/DC and Rose Tattoo and The Angels, all these artists were encouraged to write for themselves with George and Harry's assistance."
As we reflect on the impact that George Young had on the pop music landscape in all its forms, here are a few of the key parts to his career that made him a truly brilliant, completely unpredicatable force as a performer, songwriter and producer.
Australia’s early pop music champion
The Easybeats fit right in with the big British Invasion pop groups that were doing big business around the world in the mid-60s. But, at the same time, there was something different about this bunch of immigrants who called Australia home.
Their take on pop was rarely as sweet or exploratory as their peers like The Beatles and Rolling Stones, but it hit with a certain dizzying velocity that made them stand out. Their songs hit hard, each instrument would hit you with force and those big pop choruses were even more brash still.
They were the first Australian band to have a big pop hit overseas – the significance of this must not be understated. They were the band that told the world they needed to pay attention to Australia, that little country that must have felt so inaccessible in a time where travel was onerous and computers were practically a pipe dream.
The contribution has been widely recognised and long may it continue to be so. But, more importantly, the songs still absolutely kick arse.
The architect of heavy metal
George Young was in AC/DC for a short time, but it was as that band’s producer that he made arguably the biggest mark of his career.
Vanda and Young produced Let There Be Rock, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, T.N.T., Powerage and High Voltage, five of the most influential rock’n’roll records of all time. They were dirtier, nastier, punchier, cheekier and more aggressive than anything we’d heard before and much of the sheer force of that sound is down to the fabled Vanda and Young production.
There are very few heavy metal bands on the planet who don’t turn to the work of AC/DC as being remarkably influential. Those records changed lives; they made people rebel against societal norms and convinced guitarists to push their fingers and amplifiers to the limit.
Yes, the band is to thank for most of this, but you can’t underestimate how much influence the men in the producer’s chair had in empowering these kids to make such a fine racket.
Of course it wasn’t just AC/DC who benefited from the George Young touch. Peers like The Angels and Rose Tattoo also found out what a Vanda and Young production could do to their sound.
"Those guys [Vanda and Young] have just got a real feel for rock'n'roll and when you work with them long enough it rubs off, fortunately,” Doc Neeson told triple j in 1982.
The love song mastermind
A man who has had such an indelible impact on heavy metal has no right to also be responsible for one of the sappiest and most celebrated mainstream love songs of all time. But George Young was no ordinary man.
‘Love Is In The Air’ is one of Vanda and Young’s biggest ever hits. It was a top ten smash all over the world and has been covered by the likes of Tom Jones and Kamahl.
John Paul Young is quick to credit its writers with much of the success he has enjoyed throughout his career.
"They are amazing," he told triple j in 2014. "George Young famously said 'You can write a song about anything'.
"I've only had one [song] in the charts that wasn't theirs, which was 'Soldier Of Fortune' back in '83."
The song reportedly came about after quite a bit of trial and error. Vanda and Young were trying to nut out new ideas and just generally trying to see what would stick.
"Harry and George were looking for a follow up to 'Walking in the Rain' and kicking around ideas,” Jane Albert, author of House Of Hits: The Great Untold Story Of Australia's First Family Of Music, told Double J in 2014.
“They had the basic music idea for 'Love Is in the Air', but they didn't have a song title for it. Harry and George had a book of song titles where they jot down names every time they thought of something. George said 'here's one, 'Love Is in the Air', let's try this'.
"They noodled around with that for a little while and came up with the tune, brought JPY in to record it and that was good, but they ended up with about 50 different takes – a shoebox full of cassettes. They were so immersed in it that they couldn't possibly work out which one was the best.
“So, they sent the box of cassettes up to Ted Albert and within an hour or so he came down and said 'yep, this is the one'. That went on to become this extraordinary international hit which has been re-recorded a million times.”
The reluctant pop star
Harry Vanda and George Young wrote and produced smash hits for their friends and family, but they also managed to keep some of the gold for themselves as well.
Flash and the Pan was a studio-only project the two men put together as something a bit different from their regular work. It seemed like everything the men touched turned to gold, as their first single ‘Hey, St. Peter’ became a top-five hit in Australia and charted handsomely across Europe and the US as well.
The project lived on for well over a decade and resulted in six albums and a string of hits that remain among the finest examples of new wave pop ever constructed. It was another feather in the already hugely decorated cap of Vanda and Young, and another one that proved they could make great records in just about any genre they tried.
George Young has passed, but we can only imagine his brilliant music will live on forever.