TNAG Notes #21 by Stephen Bennett
When it was famously suggested to the American literary giant, Joseph Heller, that in all the many years since its publication, he’d never been able to match the towering achievement of “Catch 22”, he delivered the lightning repost, “Neither has anyone else”. Ouch. I was reminded of that exquisite zinger watching Jakob Dylan doing such a sterling job of sifting through the matchless catalogue of mid-60s gems mined by the singer-songwriting denizens of Laurel Canyon – still as much an idea as a geographical location - in the scented-candle, musical warm bath that is the new Netflix concert film, “Echo In The Canyon”.
It would be hard to imagine a musician so utterly doomed to universal scepticism as one saddled with the double-edged sword handle, Son of Bob. Especially one who sings well, writes well, looks good on camera and is, without doubt, in the sprawling, random rag-bag of modern folk-rock, an enduring Good Thing. And yet… we refer the jury to the irrefutable earlier testimony of our star witness, Mr. Heller. His words ring true not just in relation to Jakob’s irrepressible old man but to the much-loved material he’s chosen to celebrate.
All of which (tenuous preamble) being the result of an afterthought triggered by another of the film’s many nostalgic, talking-head talking-points. Early on in the proceedings, the great Tom Petty declares, without so much as a ‘possibly’, that the era’s defining moment, one that set the tone – literally - for guitar-based pop and rock bands from 1965 on, is crystallised within the opening ten seconds of The Byrds’ debut album, “Mr. Tambourine Man”. That riff, that sound, that 12-string Rickenbacker. Hmm…
Well, it certainly launched the whole concept of ‘folk-rock’; something Roger McGuinn saw, initially, in the simplest of terms as ‘a rock band playing folk songs’. George Harrison was particularly taken with that soon-to-be signature Rickenbacker jangle (see, “If I Needed Someone” which pretty much swallows the McGuinn, ‘Bells of Rhymney’-thing whole) and was even, in 1964, fortunate enough to latch onto only the second 360/12 ever made. The guitar had been offered to John Lennon, who, off-handedly re-shaping history as he was so often wont to do, suggested it might be better suited to The Quiet One, who was, at that very moment, laid up in bed. Being quiet. Needless to say, the sickly George was delighted to nab the guitar for himself and the rest is, well… Harrison. But hang on a minute, I hear you say, who’s influencing who, here? If George got his before Roger got his..?
The truth is, ’65 was a busy year and there’s probably never been another period in rock history that allowed for so much generous cross-pollination, especially in a Transatlantic sense. Everyone was stealing from everyone else and no one seemed too bothered about it. Apparently, for a brief micro-moment, the music actually meant more to bands than percentages and copywrite restrictions. Gentler times, reader. The point being that from that primeval 12-string mud there emerged a giant ever-evolving hybrid whose sonic DNA, more than fifty years later, still contains those few chiming Rickenbacker chords. From the Buffalo Springfield in California to The Stone Roses in Manchester to Teenage Fanclub in Scotland, dozens of bands have modified the formula to fit their own template. Reason being…it still works. That familiar, jangling, ultra-melodic uplift is just as affecting now as it was back in the mid-sixties.
So maybe Tom’s right and that intro really is the touchstone for all that came after. Nah. Much as we love you, Tom, in the rebellious, Devil’s Advocacy spirit of pub-style debate, we humbly beg to differ. The most influential guitar intro ever recorded..? Hold my beer…
For a short burst of guitar sound to inspire a generation of followers, it’s got to be about much more than simply the order of the notes or the tone of the instrument. Maybe it’s the opening salvo from a soon-to-be iconic artist or it’s the musical distillation of a specific moment in history. Whatever, it has be cool, arresting and perhaps most significantly, downright steal-able. Trouble is, as one contender raises its hand, a host of others, its close relatives, start waving in the background. There are hundreds of killer intros lining the endless highway of rock’n’roll (and clearly far too many David Brents – Ed.) but with a bit of judicious sifting it’s possible to spot a few of the out-of-nowhere, creative-spark moments that made guitar players sit up, say “what the hell was that?!” and contemplate how to navigate, for themselves, a brave new world not previously imagined. So here we go…
The only thing “Smoke On The Water” changed was the amount of time you were willing to spend in a guitar shop. And Jimi Hendrix disqualifies himself from the off. Those intro riffs, unforgettable and awe-inspiring as they still are, didn’t really change anything on the wider guitar landscape by nature of the fact that they were just so bloody hard to emulate. We admire them, shake our heads and move one. The influence debate often turns to the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” at this point. Unfortunately for this particular argument, that famous five note riff that led to the wanton knifing of speaker cones across the nation – allegedly – was only a supercharged reworking of the same five notes over which Muddy Waters had boasted of his awesome manhood in, “Mannish Boy” ten(ish) years earlier.
It’s arguable that the massive, slurring Les Paul stammer that opens Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” is merely the monstrous love-child of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and “I Feel Fine”, though the latter certainly did sound startlingly bold and original in 1964. “Layla”, too, fabulously rousing note-flurry though it is, seems to be only another unruly branch of that same tree.
The Stones have had their moments, of course – many of them – and Free’s “All Right Now” takes some beating when it comes to the kind of slamming high-caffeine jolt that’s fuelled the mighty AC/DC ever since. No. We need to dig deeper into the back of the intro wardrobe; back past that dusty old Eddie Cochran box, past Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”, Link Wray’s “Rumble” and The Chantays’ burbling “Pipeline” until we inevitably light on that big, battered suitcase of the Blues.
In narrowing down the field, Bo Diddley falls by the wayside as, whenever we hear that iconic “shave and a haircut” scratch, we just default to “that sounds like Bo Diddley”. Likewise, Jimmy Reid. Everyone stole his signature, boozy rolling rhythm but, neither deconstruct-able nor embellish-able, it’s always been the latest imitators ‘doing Jimmy’. Closer to the mark is the screeching-tyre, 12th fret take-off announcing any number of Elmore James’s joyous slide celebrations, yet a moment’s reflection catches the shade of Robert Johnson doing it years earlier, albeit without the benefits of electricity. B.B. King’s stinging single note intros forged Peter Green’s sublime early Blues brilliance but B.B. himself acknowledged he was mostly channelling the spirit of T-Bone Walker. And so on.
So, basically, it’s impossible to come up with a definitive, intro-that-changed-the-world. Unless, of course, we compromise a little bit. Scandalous, I know, but needs must if we’re ever going to get out of this virtual tap-room with a smattering of sanity intact. Therefore, and without further ado, we declare Chuck Berry’s classic, “Johnny B Goode”, to be the winner. Ah, you say, but Chuck nicked it from a Louis Jordan track already, by 1958, twelve years old. Possibly. But listen to “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” and it’s not really that similar. What you’ll hear, though, is a fanfare, a bugle call, a declaration that something big is about to happen. That’s why “Johnny B Goode” is the one. The right sound, the right notes, the right artist and, fundamentally, the right moment in history are all bundled into that one, short, collar-grabbing blast of noise that picks you up, shakes you, let’s you hang for a second then drops you right into the future of 20th century guitar-based rock. So there.
Yes, it’s…This Fortnight’s (Frustrating) Fab Five!
Enough with the intros! What about the fade-outs? How many fabulous tracks vanish over the horizon like old-time movie heroes, leaving us wanting more and, for better or worse, setting up endless sequels. Alternatively, how many beleaguered engineers have been dispatched to the volume knob after a collective band-panic induced by the lead guitarist’s seeming inability to come down from the lightning-lashed summit of Mount Shred? Answer: a lot. Fortunately, we’re sticking to the first category.
- Fittingly for a bloke who went on to advise the Pentagon on weapons technology, nobody trails off into outer space with quite the rocket-powered élan of Steely Dan’s Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter at the end of “My Old School” from 1973. The whole track is a thrilling work-out from start to finish with guitar hooks so memorable they even survived the translation into brass riffs in later live performance. More musical missiles, please, Jeff. If you wouldn’t mind.
- The term ‘ubiquitous’ always seems to carry a vaguely pejorative whiff. In 1978, it seemed like Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” was coming out of every van and pub speaker in England. Critics forget just how different and refreshing it sounded at the time – for a time – before pure, unfussy, high-class musicianship fell out of fashion again. Not glam enough, Mark. Or something. Still, not long after he’s announces that ‘it’s time to go home’ you get the sense Mr. Knopfler is just warming up for a lock-in that’s going deep into the early hours. Grand!
- Slipping away into the void? David Gilmour’s always at it; “Comfortably Numb”, from 1979, being a prime example, yet nowhere does he swoon and die more affectingly than at the end of Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” on 1984’s oddly undervalued “Give My Regards To Broad Street” soundtrack. Gilmour sounds a little more off-the-leash, too, than in his more structured, almost-but-not-quite-solo moments with Pink Floyd, generating some properly impolite raging against the dying of the tape.
- What were you thinking, Chas Chandler?! Of all the times you should’ve just left the damn thing running. It’s hard to believe, considering its Olympian status in the Strat-o-sphere, but Jimi Hendrix’s seminal “Little Wing” from “Axis: Bold as Love” is only two minutes and twenty seconds long. The last fading forty seconds witness the maestro at the height of his jaw-dropping powers; just getting going before, well…he’s just gone. Sublime. Tragic.
- And finally…the one you’d surely remember if you’d ever heard it in the first place. Pure Prairie League didn’t really pull up many trees after their 1972 highpoint, “Bustin’ Out”. While “Amie” was the big Poco/Burritos echoing hit, the albums finest few minutes come with the false ending fade-out of “Early Morning Riser”, one of the finest country-rock, extended guitar solos ever captured on vinyl. Okay, there aren’t that many but still, it’s not hard to see why Little Feat later turned to Craig Fuller as a lead-player with the chops to augment one of the most technically accomplished bands around.
And a post-script. Spare five minutes over the next couple of weeks to listen to “When The Train Comes” by the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver from their superb 1976 album, “Reach For the Sky” - the one with “Arms of Mary” but not the original (and better version of “Sailing”). The soaring lead breaks throughout come courtesy of subsequent session-stalwart, Tim Renwick, Al Stewart’s ex-lead player who later featured in a live iteration of Pink Floyd. It’s glorious, uplifting stuff. Iain Sutherland, the singer, died on 25th November. Lights out up there in snowy Ellon this weekend.
See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett