TNAG Notes #16 by Stephen Bennett
Apparently, it’s a long time from May to December and, as the days grow short (having reached September), today’s autumnal but reliably action-packed outing turns its thoughts to great opening lines in popular music - as ever, so you don’t have to – and takes a shallow wade into the backyard paddling-pool of acoustic amplification. Mainly because a deep dive into such shark-infested waters demands some serious commitment. Not only that, for this fortnight’s regular, Fab Five feature, we take a typically myopic squint at Great Lead Guitarists Who Aren’t. And if all that doesn’t grab you, go and play some guitar immediately.
As summer once again drags itself off for another long, damp and depressing kip (what is it about seasons that they keep coming round like that?) Notes finds itself, not for the first time, on a transatlantic flight during which the laughably-titled ‘entertainment’ screens have packed up. Deprived of yet another synapse-shorting rampage through ‘King Kong: Return to Skull Island’ we have chosen to beguile the time, instead, in familiar nerdish discourse with our (worryingly numerous) hip and trendy imaginary friends; the topic up for debate being, ‘Best Opening Lines in Rock Songs’.
The Maxwell Anderson gem at the top of the page comes from an earlier, arguably more sophisticated, time when wit and wordplay were the de rigueur lyric requirements, so, with that in mind, we confined our selection-base to the no-less intellectual but generally more emotionally in-your-face ‘electric’ era.
Now, TNAG Notes has never been one to bandy existential philosophies with Mary Poppins so we’ll start at the very beginning. Hence…‘Awopbopaloobop-alopbamboom’. You can’t really argue with that. And Little Richard would probably shoot you if you did. What’s so significant about that titular introduction to two minutes of pounding, wailing, high-octane sheer-nonsense is that it makes no concessions to anyone who isn’t immediately prepared to switch off all pre-programmed critical faculties and just ‘dig it’. It is the magical ‘Open Sesame’ of Rock’n’Roll and, as such, the key to the entire Cavern-full of treasures. It’s the reason why the warden threw a party in the county jail and why everyone knows what to avoid after hearing that ‘it’s one for the money’.
For any game to be worth the candle, however, it has to have rules. A great opening line has, therefore, to do a number of things. Principally, it must define a specific world via the language spoken there, set the scene then drag you right into it. The story, the emotional hit, the twist in the tale, all build out of those first few words that grab you by the ears then, if the artist is as good as his or her opening promise, don’t let go until the needle skids across the centre label.
Bruce Springsteen is a master of the art. ‘The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves.’ In seven words we’re set up with character, location, socio-economic circumstance and probably, to an audience even remotely attuned to the artist’s familiar narrative palette, the time of year. As with so many examples of pure genius, it all looks so effortlessly simple.
Joe Jackson is another. There could be no clearer set-up for the extended sneer-fest of a disaffected, angst-ridden, self-pitying loser than, ‘Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street.’ Bob Dylan’s earlier exercise in abandoning lovelorn lyricism for bitter put-down, in ‘Positively 4th Street,’ is a similar triumph of the sour over the sweet. Again, that first line puts the boot straight in and the rest of the song just carries on kicking. No one had really tried it to that extent before, especially in ‘folk’ music, and singers suddenly discovered, as a result, that protest songs didn’t have to be about just politics anymore.
Even Bob, though, would doff his old forage-cap to the man he once described as the ‘Shakespeare of Rock’n’Roll’ and to perhaps the finest opening couplet in the history of rock music. If the original pieces of the R&B jigsaw featured random combinations of cars, girls, cruisin’ and inventing your own way of talking in order to keep the squares at bay, then ‘As I was motor-vatin’ over the hill/I saw Maybellene in a Coupe-de-Ville’ locks them all into place in just two lines of priapic pop perfection. No one ever managed it so well, or so often, as Chuck Berry. Paul McCartney, like Dylan, certainly thought so, and as storytelling openers go, despite the stylistic and geographical gulf between them, is there really that much difference between, ‘In the heat of the day, down in Mobile, Alabama’ and ‘Wednesday morning at five o’clock, as the day begins’?
Strange how we rarely think of the hook of a song as being delivered in the opening line.
There Can Be Only One…
At least, until a better one comes out. You can pretty much guarantee, though, that the notion of ‘One Pick-up to Rule Them All’ is always going to a subjective matter. Our regular reader will be all too aware, though, that we don’t do subjective. Instead, we quite reasonably assume we’re right all the time. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Electric players have it easy – you’re basically just wiring up a plank (so much for attracting that elusive second reader – Ed.) Acoustic players are permanently locked in the horns, woofers and tweeters of a frequently maddening dilemma. To wit, why does my amplified acoustic sound so crap?
As promised, this is indeed a shallow dip, culminating, in fact, in a single suggestion. The most impressive on-stage acoustic sound this column has ever witnessed came from Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer playing a 30s Kalamazoo KG-11 and a Collings DH2 respectively. Both guitars were fitted with K&K minis then run through mic-ed up AER cubes. Obviously, all kinds of factors come into play; the venue (outdoors, in this case), who’s working the desk, the material, the dynamic interplay between the musicians, even the weather, but as Holy Grail sound-moments go, this was as close as it gets.
There is one acoustic pick-up, however, that has us wondering, ‘what do they know that we don’t?’ It’s a reassuringly chunky, matt-black sound-hole bar that almost seems to have gone out of its way to define the absolute visual epitome of ‘functional’. Still, for Richard Thompson, Michael Hedges, Jackson Browne, the Stones, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, David Lindley and a raft of other acoustic legends, the Sunrise S-1 (and latterly S-2) passive sound-hole pick-up has been the automatic choice for years and that seems unlikely to change. Why would it, when the guitar sound conjured by all those players so regularly touches the sublime?
Built in California, entirely by Jim Kaufman, at a rate most tiny cottage-industries would call ‘small batch’, what’s so surprising about the Sunrise is that many people have never heard of them. First of all, they certainly don’t come cheap. At around $700 for the pickup plus the ‘no knobs’ preamp/buffer box and installation kit’, this is a serious undertaking for the serious player.
Indeed, finding one can be a bit of a Grail Quest in itself. You’re more likely to hit the dreaded ‘out of stock’ barrier on consulting the very few dealers who actually retail them on behalf of the manufacturer. But there’s clearly a reason why this unassuming thoroughbred with the workhorse looks has been the go-to unit for so many top pros since the 70s. All the tech-spec stuff can be looked into elsewhere, the main thing anybody wants to know, where magnetic/passive, stick-on amplification is concerned, is ‘what does it sound like’. We could say ‘warm’, ‘rich, ‘mellow’ – none of which we can back up from the page. Suffice to say that The Sunrise sounds like all those iconic artists listed above – players who inspire us, and who so many of us have often aspired to sound like. Listen to them. You’ll get the idea.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five!
Yes, it’s back, the hottest opinion-shaper in town. And it’s at this point that we take a brief detour to record – in yet another hell-in-a-handcart moment, that the term ‘opinion-shaper’ is now featuring at the top of a CV somewhere near you. Next to ‘influencer’. Maybe Brexit will prove beneficial after all and we’ll see the return of the ducking stool. But we digress…
What does a lead guitarist actually do, we hear you ask? In the narrowest of terms, it plays solos. Yet some of the great rock players of the classic era, right up to the present day, have rarely recorded a solo in the true sense – of that out-front, deep-breath, launching-out over a repeated riff or across x-number of choruses, of a thing that starts all coy and single note before piling in with the full IKEA kitchen range before collapsing, spent, back into the reclining vocalist’s arms for the sweaty last verse. Is The Edge a lead guitarist? Certainly not in the sense just outlined. Neither is Johnny Marr nor Andy Summers. The responsibility involved in holding up the orchestral end of a pop three-piece probably precludes that title. Yet Paul Kossoff, Rory Gallagher, Stevie Ray et al are all ‘proper’ lead guitarists – and, essentially, trio-dwellers, though no doubt the Blues is a factor there.
Still, here are a few ‘indefinables’ by way of stirring this fortnight’s fomenting controversy-pot and – more nobly, we trust – encouraging the resurrection of a few classic albums.
- Can anyone think of a Pete Townsend solo? He’s another sort-of-trio stalwart, of course, and arguably the reason for a million happy practice-room declarations along the lines of, “Hooray, we don’t actually need a piano.” Townsend’s melodic, power-chord majesty is so all-consuming and integrated into serving the song that to drop out and noodle over bass and drum backing would be to completely abandon what The Who were – and still are – all about.
- In rock-equivalent terms, Keith Richards is the architect of the Palace of Versailles, so sees no threat in letting Mick Taylor polish the mirrors every now and again. That’s when he’s not being the gargantuan, voodoo Swamp Creature lurking beneath the steamy surface, content to let little Ronnie snap away at the odd chorus-long catfish. Solos…? Please.
- First outing for the controversy-helmet (on our heads, not his) is Jimmy Page. More perhaps through the Led Zeppelin years than before or since but…tricky one this...is Jimmy really a solo-er? Or is he rather the Davy Graham-influenced, blues-based Pete Townsend on whose shoulder the entire Zeppelin edifice stands? In keeping with the band’s god-like status, then, his is not so much a guitar sound that ‘does’ - it just ‘is’.
- Helmet, pads and box for this one; consider the mighty David Gilmour. Now, here’s a man whose protracted guitar forays have grown adults punching the air and bellowing, “Go on, Dave”, football-crowd-style almost before the first note is out there. And yet it could be argued – as it is here – that Gilmour’s solos are actually precise though subtly-extended melodies, controlled variations that draw on the song’s formative motifs and mood.
Doh! So, in trying to deconstruct the notion of solos, we’ve only gone and defined them!
- Finally, the lead players in 99% of all British rock bands formed since around 1977, who count as one here because they’re all pretty much doing the same thing in working to subsume, rather than promote, an individual voice. Not necessarily a bad thing. While America turns to jam bands to fill the live void left by the likes of the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band by celebrating the extended-soloing prowess of John Mayer, Trey Anastasio, Warren Haynes et al, we in the UK have opted for the orchestral route whereby the song’s musical underpinning is entirely the responsibility of the machine that makes the chords. A raft of high-tech effects pedals have, or haven’t helped, depending on your point of view but it’s worth considering that while punk never did sweep prog aside, it may well have seen off the good/bad old-fashioned guitar solo as a staple of 21st century rock music.
See you next time! SB
by Stephen Bennett