TNAG Notes #26 by Stephen Bennett
Paris! The City of Lights. Yes, chers lecteurs et lectrices, Notes is on tour (what, again? – Ed.) visiting the fabled fleshpots - sorry, guitar shops - of Europe so that You Don’t Have To. And make no mistake, it’s not easy, especially on a Monday when they’re all shut. What is it with the French and their Mondays-off thing? That and the two-hour lunchbreaks. Infuriatingly, especially to a Particularly Vocal and Currently All-Too-Prominent Demographic, it is, of course, part of what we…the sort-of-British…once used to value as a proud declaration of their national identity. We used to have one of those in England, remember; something to do with cycling vicars stirring lemon curd with cricket bats on the village green to the strains of Elgar’s “Indignant Variations”. Happy Days. But we digress.
They like their guitars, the French. Electric guitarists ‘over there’ speak of vintage amps in hushed, reverential tones and nod knowingly on hearing the eye-wateringly over-inflated prices being asked in this or that shuttered Pigalle backstreet ‘boutique’. Handy tourist tip: never look skeptical or attempt any form of disarming, fellow-guitar-nerd humour in such places. This is Paris, after all. Just saying.
Come with us, then, as we stroll the elegant fin-de-siècle boulevards, inhaling the romantic ‘parfum mélangé’ of Gitanes, cat pee and dam, abandoned sleeping-bag. Join us as we emerge from the Blanche Metro Station, beneath the shadow of Montmartre and the Folies Bergère, that battered jewel of the 9th Arrondissement, to head for the little knot of streets that comprises the city’s (adopt accent here) “Music Village”. The first thing you’ll notice is a kind of gear-zoning around the Rue Victor-Massé and the Rue de Douai, the two main guitar-shop drags. As a rule, if you want a mic, there’s a mic shop. If you want a pedal, there’s a place devoted exclusively to pedals, and so on. The main advantage of which is, if you’re looking for a vintage Tele, you won’t generally have to climb over pianos and drum-kits to get to one. In Paris, the guitar shops, on the whole, sell guitars – and that’s it. With the aid of a few hooped sweaters and Gallic shrugging lessons, TNAG would fit right in.
Though we’re not naming any names – at least until the next paragraph but one – there’s one place on the Rue de Douai that really is a must-visit. It’s tiny, it smells a bit off and Monsieur le Propriétaire has an almost comically suspicious and off-hand nature that dissolves into genuine enthusiasm the moment he senses a fellow lover of all things ‘Vintage’ (that being your Google shop-name clue for the day). He sits in the middle of his tiny empire playing jazz all day, on anything from a D’Angelico archtop to a 50s Strat, and there’s nothing he won’t have a forthright opinion on. In French. Regardless. Calling in there might just be worth the Eurostar fare on its own. And yet…
Most of us expect something special from Paris. We can find grumpy-git guitar-sellers anywhere in the world, to be honest, and without looking too hard, either. So, we come back to that word again – romance – and, yes, we’re actually going to say it, that ever-elusive ‘je ne sais quoi’. Where, then, do we find that little bit extra, that added ‘frisson’ no other place can match? Those days are gone, I hear you say. Well, almost…but not quite.
Jump back onto the Metro and take the Ligne 1 to the Palais Royal then head east along the Rue St. Honoré before taking a left on Rue Jean-Jaques Rousseau. We’re only going into so much detail because it’s so ridiculously hard to find. But it’s worth it. The 19th century, brass glass and wood-covered arcade of the Galerie Véro-Dodat is a (very well) hidden gem. It’s everything you’d expect of the French capital; chic little cafés, art dealers, snooty couturiers and, perfectly out of place, what is without doubt the best guitar shop in Paris, by a mile.
The tiny magasin/atelier that used to be known as RF Charle, run - as per the initials - by Rosyne and her husband, François, is now the Galerie-Casanova since Jérôme of that name took over in 2018. The place has been a hub of the Jazz Manouche guitar scene for years so, if you’re looking for that rare Selmer Maccaferri to round off the collection, you’ll probably find it here – “Ah, yes. One of Bireli’s, monsieur” - but there’s always been a lot more to this crowded little treasure-trove than just (!) the spirit of Django. It’s all vintage stuff – from 30s Martins to pre-CBS Strats, Loar-period mandolins to L-5-style jazzers and the whole experience is a treat, from the creaky back stairs to the antique doorbell to the dark, polished-oak counters. Don’t go in the morning, though. Jérôme doesn’t open ‘til two in the afternoon. Did we mention this was France?
And while we’re here…concerts. Is it just us (okay, just me) but once you’ve reached ‘un certain âge’, wouldn’t you rather just stop in and have an early night? If not, there’s still the inevitable trepidation – a kind of buyer’s remorse before you even get there – that usually manifests itself in that familiar tension-between-partners discussion as to whether you could’ve saved a hundred quid if only you’d opted for the CD, a bottle of wine and a lavish take-away ‘banquet’, instead. Well, here’s one that warrants both the effort and the expense – the annual Django Reinhardt Festival close to the Gypsy maestro’s old gaffe at Samois-Sur-Seine, just outside Paris. It’s usually in early July so the nights are warm, it’s easy to get to (Fontainebleau is well served by public transport), the little island where it’s staged is a picture-perfect, Impressionist’s delight, and where else do you get to see lightning-fingered eight-year-olds jamming with grizzled Manouche masters around the picnic tables. Tales of overcrowding and overpricing are frankly, in our experience, nonsense. This is a (surprisingly small-scale) guitarists’ celebration of virtuoso guitar music and the overall atmosphere is a thing, once sampled, never forgotten. Venez nombreuse (as they say)!
But let us leave the Continent behind (again) and wave our blue passports once more in the direction of er…home. While there’s been far too much talk of England, of late - how we’ve forgotten to celebrate all our Septic Isle’s attendant virtues since we went all wet and inclusive, what with all that pointless, namby-pamby nonsense like Learning Languages - we guitar aficionados (!) really do neglect ‘some of our own’ at the expense of names more exotic and far less likely to travel upstairs on the 82 bus, clutching a battered guitar case, heading for a support gig at the Band on the Wall or the 2i’s Coffee Bar in Soho. So, here’s a mini-homage to a few of them in your fantastic favourite feature…
Yes, it’s…This Fortnight’s Fab Five!
There’s a bit of a twilight zone in the history of great British electric guitar-playing. It’s loosely located between the tidal waves of rock’n’roll in the mid-to-late 50s and the glorious peaks of the Blues Revival, led principally by John Mayall via the soloing skills of Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page; all of whom you could class as pretty decent, granted. But what about those who never quite emerged into the spotlight. They could play, too. The pop explosion of the early 60s needed electric guitars – if only as another physical manifestation of all the stuff your parents didn’t like - to light the fuse. The two and a half minute singles that would carry the message to the masses needed launching fast or the tide would be missed. Hence, rather than mess around with all those snotty pop kids, the big recording studios needed top players who could turn up, deliver just about anything then go home and remain anonymous while the brats got the credit. Nothing changes.
- Big Jim Sullivan was one such. It’s more than likely Jimmy Page wasn’t known as “Little Jim” around the studio scene because of any physique or age factor - after all, there was only three years in it and JP’s a big lad. Big Jim’s all over the 60s pop charts, decorating the hits of Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield with elegant fills on the 345 he picked up at Ivor Mairants for a handy three-hundred quid. Alongside the criminally underrated Joe Brown, he toured with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent before adopting a more sit-down role in later years with Jones’s live band then sinking into the ultimate non-rock armchair with the James Last Orchestra. Surely a bit of an ordeal for the finest guitarist ever to come out of Uxbridge.
- Oh, go on, then. Jimmy Page. ‘As Tears Go By’, ‘Tobacco Road’, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Here Comes the Night’…the list goes on, mostly comprising tracks distinguished by their memorable guitar riffs. Page was the ‘insurance man’ brought in to make sure the studio investment didn’t tank. If he was on the record, it was probably fireproof. Even The Kinks and The Who (much to Pete Townsend’s chagrin) were subjected to early bouts of Page hand-holding. He went on to develop those riffs.
- Imagine already having a rock-star name so cool you’d never have to dream one up, then spending your entire professional life in brilliant but almost total obscurity. Come on down, Vic Flick, mightiest of UK session men and THE musical voice of James Bond. And how very English to have played those immortal Surf-Rumble lines on a Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe. Groovy! While Vic backed just about every British hitmaker of the early 60s, his highlights, in our humble opinion, include the rock-solid, (Olympic White) Strat support behind two-hit wonder, Crispian St. Peters, and his instrumental ‘Ringo’s Theme’ in the film, “Hard Day’s Night”. Viva Vic Flick!
- Let us dispel the fetid air of the damp London studio, reader, for the sunlit uplands of Manchester and a six-string wizard who is surely the Ryan Giggs of UK pop. Since 1963, Tony Hicks has spent his entire career as a one-club man; writing and playing for The Hollies since he was 18. Hicks was an integral part of that creative team, alongside Graham Nash and Alan Clarke, introducing distinctive musical ideas via his technical and melodic mastery of just about anything with strings on it. Hugely underrated, Hicks is still one of Britain’s finest guitar players. The Hollies brilliant back catalogue reveals groundbreaking guitar exploration wherever you look.
- And finally, where would any of us be without Burt Weedon? Yes, in the YouTube era, ‘Play in a Day’ is now regarded as a quaint piece of English nostalgia but for most of the above names it would’ve been a must-have purchase. Albeit from a distance, and for a significant period in the development of the UK guitar scene, Weedon taught everybody. Another London boy, before he became synonymous with teaching, he worked on sessions cranking out hits for Tommy Steele, Adam Faith and Billy Fury while accompanying the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole and even Stephan Grappelli on stage. Versatile, to say the least. And, should you spare a couple of minutes to catch a grainy TV clip on the aforementioned ‘computer platform’ you’ll discover a brilliant teacher and all-round nice bloke. Funny how great ‘old school’ players like Chet Atkins are revered in the US yet the British seem to remember Burt Weedon, if at all these days, as a bit of joke. Wrong.
Don’t get me started. I’m in France. See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett