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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Fender release the ultimate accessory

I have expressed my dislike of Strats frequently to anyone who will listen, but I'm not sure I've ever fully explained why this is. I mean, my first guitar was a Strat (albeit a Squier) and I'm now a committed Tele fan, meaning the technically superior Strat should hold a certain allure for me. But it just doesn't. It does, of course, remain the best-selling guitar of all time. Even more worryingly, a colleague of mine who was a dyed-in-the-wool Les Paul enthusiast and the sort of person who would equate a single-coil pickup with a single-testicle scrotum, has not only bought a Strat but really likes it. I remain unconvinced.

Is it the sound, perhaps? My Telecaster is the only single-coil guitar I've ever played that I've really loved the sound of. It's got that rich, earthy, timeless twang. To date, I've played it in an indie band, a psychedelic folk band, a country band and a doom band and it's been a faithful companion all the way. Strats, though? I find they lack that primal punch that the Tele has.

It's not like none of my musical influences ever wielded a Strat, either. I'm not a fan of conventional 'lead guitar' at all, unless it's David Gilmour or Jimi Hendrix, who of course are both famous for playing Strats and nothing else. John Squire played one, Johnny Marr probably did at some point, Wilko Johnson has frequently upset decades of iconography by briefly exchanging his trusty black-and-red Tele for one. Even Radiohead's Ed O'Brien has wrangled some impressive sounds from Strats for the last 15 years or so, albeit ones with Fernandes Sustainers fitted that are basically for generating noise.

But, at the other end of the scale, you have what Mark Kozelek recently brilliantly derided The War On Drugs as, which is 'beer-commercial lead guitar s**t'. Yes, the Strat is the undisputed king of the middle-aged pub-blues noodling guitar. 99% of what ever gets played on Strats is minor pentatonic licks into an amp that can't be turned up loud enough to sound any good, strung into life by a 300 pedal that's basically a Tubescreamer whose components are made of unobtainium and myrrh.

Which is why, on browsing a GAK advert in the newest issue of Guitarist, I quite literally LOLed. Fender have released a hat. Finally, they have acknowledged that their guitar is central to the white-boy blues scene, second only to the hat in terms of a must-have piece of equipment. They may well have cornered the market here, especially if a few enterprising dealers offer a Strat-and-hat package for the Christmas period.

I look forward to the Rickenbacker bowl-cut wig.
8:34 pm - 0 comments - 0 Kudos
Wednesday, April 15, 2015

[insert genre here]-core - The genre of the idiot

The unsigned band scene, at times, is very similar to the British road network. It's very busy and it only takes one person to be an insufferable pillock to ruin it for everyone. Recently I've sat stationary on the M25 for nearly an hour while the Highways Agency wombles closed it to retrieve someone's wing mirror that had fallen off, had my journey home from work doubled in time and turned into a long (but very scenic) detour over the South Downs because some idiot managed to crash into their own caravan on the A23, and got home way after midnight on a Tuesday night because of a band acting like a bunch of right ball bags.

First, I should explain that this band plays, well, I'm not really sure what you'd call it. That sort of blend of moronic punk and moronic metal that I'd wager is very popular on UG. Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary once described his band's recorded output as 'music to drool into a bucket to', and I'd wager it's a good term to apply here. And, of course, anyone playing such boneheaded music is probably not going to be a reasonable person. I make a lot of generalisations about people who like metalcore or nu-metal or whatever you call it but I'm yet to make one that hasn't been proved true on many occasions.

Since I'm now bandless, I was opening this gig up as a solo artist. There were some friends of mine, a blues-rock outfit, headlining, and a remarkable duo on before them who sounded like the White Stripes stuck deep inside a K-hole. And this bunch of miscreants on second. The promoter was quite keen for the night to run smoothly as she and the headliners lived out of town, and for some reason possibly involving leaves on the line, the trains were being replaced by buses from 11 o'clock onwards. Anyone who's been on a rail-replacement bus will know this is an experience to be avoided at all costs.

The idea was, to cut down on changeover times, for The Ballbags (as I will call them) to set up before I went on. Since I was just playing my acoustic straight into a DI, I'd then step up, play my set, finish, unplug then they'd be away. This would have worked fine had the band got there on time with all their gear, which they didn't. They were about an hour and a half late, stumbling through the door 20 minutes after I should have started. Then, they dumped all their gear in the middle of the room and went straight to the bar. At this point the running-on-time thing had gone out the window so I was told I might as well go and play. So I did.

A respectable crowd had gathered by this point, most of whom were listening, apart from one consistent and very loud group of talkers at the side of the room. Through the stage lighting I could just make out... yes, it was that other band. Not only had they derailed the whole night with some cant about being stuck in traffic (probably the same traffic jam I got stuck in, and I managed to get there on time) but they didn't even have the respect to pay attention to anyone else on the bill.

Then they spent a brief glimpse of eternity doing the setup they should have done over an hour ago. This was a four-piece guitar band, none of whom were using more than one guitar or pedals or anything like that. I can't see how setting this up can take any more than 2 minutes. Oh, of course, they've got the typical metal drummer who has to have 87 different cymbals and arrange the bass drum and floor tom slightly differently to how the previous drummer had it, then hit every single drum as loud as they can while the soundman is trying to set the levels for everything else.

This band were awful. They overran their set time. They spent ages packing down then immediately left. The promoter vowed never to book them again, possibly egged on by me and the headliners... Now, my similar experiences with bands playing this genre include a drummer busting the skin of the bass drum from the house kit, meaning none of the other bands could play that night, and a guitarist leaving all his gear on stage after they'd finished to go and get a beer and talk to his mates while my band were meant to be setting up. Well, I figured that he had an ESP which probably wouldn't break if I shoved it to the side of the stage, which is what I did.

Still, though, I started out playing indie and in the Morrissey/Damon Albarn/Thom Yorke vein I'm thrilled to have someone to slag off. I just wish I could remember their name...
10:08 pm - 0 comments - 0 Kudos
Monday, June 23, 2014

One careless owner?

If you buy a second-hand car, which unless you're one of those very lucky people with a well-paid job and reasonable rent, you probably will, you'd expect it to come with a full service history, MOT certificates and so forth. This could be a problem if I ever decide to sell my car before it has a spectacular head gasket failure (which being a Vauxhall knocking on the door of 100,000 miles will probably be quite soon) - I have all the MOT certificates somewhere, but every time I've had it serviced I've 'forgotten' to take the log book to get it stamped, by which I mean that I lost it years ago. I've always thought that when you buy a second-hand car you should always be given a full profile of the previous owner, too, so you know what you're in store for. If it was a yob who thought the rev limiter was a target, the timing gear's probably shot to pieces. If it was owned by an old person, it will smell and 4th and 5th gears will probably have seized up due to having never been used. And if it was me, the next owner will spend all their time in the car picking American Hard Gums out of small gaps and wondering why every option on the CD changer gives them Bruce Springsteen.

The reason I say this is because every time you look at a 'guitar for sale' advert we are given a glimpse into the owner's life. Comes from a smoke-free home. Home use only. This always confuses me somewhat. Firstly, I know many people who smoke like chimneys, and I have been in bands with them. Not once have I lifted a bandmate's amp into my car and thought 'Bloody hell, this stinks of Cutter's Choice'. And bar the odd session sitting in the pit for a theatrical show, my Les Paul was only used at home. Unfortunately, my band at the time rehearsed at home, which is why it was still covered in scratches and had a big ding on the headstock where I dropped it. Something can be home use only, but if the person who lives in that home is a complete spanner the guitar will be in a far worse state than a live spare bought by a touring band.

Besides, smoking around guitars gives white pick guards a funky, aged-looking tint. Nowadays, unless you smoke, the smoking ban has made this impossible to achieve - you'd have to play all your gigs in tobacco specialists or the House of Commons bar. And another thing - I might have spent years subjecting my Tele to all sorts of cringe-worthy abuse but annoyingly, bar a bit of tarnish on the nickel hardware, it looks exactly the same as it did when I bought it.

So these are somewhat grey areas, which brings me onto another one - 'good condition'. I bought an Electro-Harmonix Cathedral in 'good condition' and was amazed when it arrived with me in the same condition, since it was packaged in nothing more than a Sainsburys bag then given to that bunch of cack-handed trade unionists who call themselves the postal service.

I have also just been stung buying a microphone in 'good condition' from Cash Generator, a nationwide branch of stores where you take your treasured electrical goods to exchange them for money for drugs. At 80 for a mic that retails at at least 120 new it seemed like a bargain. When it arrived and had a patch of a not entirely inert substance on it I should have been aware. How I laughed when I took it to a recording session at the weekend and realised it didn't actually work. The firm responsible also seemed worryingly keen to collect it to return it for a refund.

All this just brings me back to what I say time and time again - if there's something you want, go to a shop and buy a new one.
9:54 pm - 0 comments - 0 Kudos
Monday, June 16, 2014

Great Gretsch! What have you done?

Brighton, being something of a mecca for all that is cool and rebellious, predictably has quite a lot of guitar shops for quite a small town. Obviously GAK is the one that everyone knows, and is in the unique position of being the biggest and also the least popular guitar shop in Brighton. Ask any Brightonian musician and they will tell you never to go to GAK and go to one of the smaller ones in there. I'm not really sure why this is - of course I'd much rather go to a vibrant little cafe rather than Starbucks or any of the other high-street bean-smashers if I fancy a coffee. There's a particularly good one, incidentally a few streets away from GAK, called Nordic Coffee Connection - simply going in there makes me want to buy a patterned jumper, look out the window and say "So. Today we have the rain" and form a symphonic rock band. But GAK is not one small branch of a huge amoral multinational corporation, it's still an independent company. The one in Brighton is the only one. They've just managed to be very successful by tackling the online market properly. It's also big and maze-like enough to actually get lost in, and one of the main corridors is filled with nothing but Fenders that aren't Strats or Teles - Jags, Jazzes, Mustangs, Bass VIs, you name it. That's why it's the guitar shop I always go to.

The other day, however, I had to leave before I got too cross. I'd bought a couple of packets of strings and a pedal power supply to replace the one that I'd broken and decided to have a look round. I went down Fender Offset Boulevard, turned right in the room with all the Les Pauls and amps in it, passed Lord Lucan, took another right, spotted Shergar looking at some pedals and reached the Gretsches. Here is when I saw the new Electromatic centre-block hollowbodies and my blood began to boil over. How in the name of God did anyone allow the Gretsch name to be plastered on these monstrosities?

Obviously, the Gretsch name itself conjures up many images. They're big guitars in garish hues, with a punchy, twangy tone to die for, usually wielded by people in similarly garish suits or leather jackets, and copious amounts of Brylcreem. The Gretsch poster guitar is the White Falcon, a sort of guitar Peter Stringfellow. It is clad in white, festooned with gold, and unspeakably vulgar and yet you still can't help but love it. Can you name another guitar where the colour you most typically associate with it is Day-Glo orange? The other guitars they make, of course, are the Jets, which are Les Pauls that actually look like they are from 1950s America and made mostly out of components from a Cadillac spare parts book.

The only problem with Gretsch is the same problem with that other great European-immigrant-to-the-US guitar maker, Rickenbacker. Yes, they sound unbelievable and they look even better, but as day-to-day guitars they're, well, idiosyncratic. Rickenbackers have weird necks. Gretsches, meanwhile, feed back uncontrollably if you turn your amp up past 2, are fitted with the Devil's own tailpiece, the Bigsby, and being bigger than most acoustic guitars and with headstocks the size of cricket bats are somewhat cumbersome. Oh, and if you are a bit too aggressive with your right hand, the guitar, floor and audience will quickly become coated in a thin veneer of what used to be the bridge.

Of course, Gretsch are now owned by Fender, champions of making guitars by nailing two bits of wood together. That's why things have changed over at Ivory Towers recently. For a start, all Professional-line Gretsches are now made in Japan, about the only manufacturing centre left in the world where you can guarantee things will be made properly by people who know what they're doing, rather than badly by communists. They've also redesigned the Gretsch pickup line to stop them feeding back in quite such a shrill, microphonic way. Then the Centre-Block series came out - essentially, the design principle of the Gibson ES-335 applied to a Gretsch. So it has a thinner body and a feedback-quashing centre block, making it a much more useable guitar, but from the front it's still noticeably a Gretsch - the bling is still there in spades. These are very good guitars, but at around 3000 a little on the pricey side. That's why I was eagerly awaiting the Electromatic versions to appear.

Well, they have. And while they may have removed the idiosyncrasies and cumbersomeness, they have also removed the soul and ended up with a thinline hollowbody that is exactly the same as every other thinline hollowbody on the market. Why are the pickguards black? Why not silver? And why is all the hardware made out of what looks like stainless steel? And call that a headstock? To add further insult to injury, they are available in two colours - black, with black hardware, or a sort of green that is worryingly similar to the colour of the Rover 400 my grandad used to drive. It's a colour that should just be called 'old'.

I can see what has happened here. Gretsch's new bosses Fender have walked in to the office and told them to stop running before they've learned to walk. Yes, you can release a guitar with a hot pink sparkle finish, hardware made from platinum-plated unobtainium, and a 19-position master tone switch, but only when you've made the Bigsby work properly. And while you're at it, fix the bridge down with something a bit more secure than chewing gum. The problem is, of course, that you already know that you go to Fender if you want a guitar that works. You go to Gretsch if you want a guitar that gets people's attention. Audi didn't buy out Lamborghini then tell them to start making 3-door diesel hatchbacks, they let them carry on making ridiculous supercars with vertical doors and gamma-ray headlights.

Gretsch have always had that damn-the-torpedoes attitude, and should still have it. Their current project manager is Joe Carducci, who came from SST, the legendary record label that the 80s American underground scene centred around, releasing albums by countless hardcore bands, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and many others. When Carducci joined the label, every other employee was a member of Black Flag. It's time he sticks it to the man again.
12:14 pm - 1 comments - 1 Kudos
Sunday, August 25, 2013

Yet another crushing letdown

Having a meal on a long journey is always going to be a disappointing experience in Britain. If you're on the road, you generally get relegated to a motorway service station (rightly dubbed 'cathedrals of despair' by the great Bill Bailey) and charged 20 for a fry-up that consists of a measly rasher of bacon, some sausages made from old tennis balls and a fried egg that's clearly come from a bird much smaller than a chicken - a sparrow, perhaps - all washed down with a lovely mug of hot brown. Hot brown what, you can never be sure - it could be tea, coffee or Castrol GTX. Of course, almost all rural pubs do a decent slap which is why recently, whilst driving to a wedding in a part of the country with no motorway access from Brighton, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, I had visions of pulling into a delightful old pub in the Dorset countryside for a Ploughmans. But since it was single-carriageway roads, in the New Forest, in the summer, I spent the whole journey stuck behind caravans and lilac Korean hatchbacks so was running about an hour late by lunchtime, so I had to settle for a disgusting egg mayonnaise sandwich from a petrol station.

None of this, though, can bear you for the horror of having to eat on a train journey, especially in the south of England where anything to do with the railway network is priced way beyond the reach of mortal man. When I was coming back from a gig in London on the train once, I arrived in Victoria station (not so much a station as a vast retail and dining complex with some rails attached to it) feeling quite peckish. Somehow, I ended up paying 8 for a cheese and ham sandwich and a can of Diet Coke.

Most trains on the London to Brighton line have a trolley service but this is yet another disappointment. Generally it will sell sandwiches with the following fillings - cheese. 9.95 each. Then there's a few warm bottles of Fanta, some overpriced tea where the heinous crime is committed of introducing the teabag, water and milk to the polystyrene cup all at once, and as the announcer once announced on one train journey - 'a selection of waters'. How can there be a selection of waters? There isn't such thing as a selection of waters, there is water.

None of which in any way brings me on to some very interesting and overdue developments in the world of planet guitar. The first of these is that Gibson clearly read my blog - their next hi-tech guitar isn't dressed up in garish hues and carbon-fibre tinsel - it's the guts from a Firebird X, the fourth generation of their onboard wizardry, fitted to a nice old-fashioned sunburst Les Paul. It actually looks like a guitar that you'd play, not team with silk pyjamas and a velvet smoking jacket.

Then, Gretsch have decided to release some hollowbodies that would actually work as everyday guitars. Rather than constructing the bulkiest and most impractical body they can, finishing it with wattle and daub then slapping on as much hardware as will physically fit, they have thinned out the body thickness to ES-335 proportions and shoved a centre block in the middle to quash the uncontrollable feedback that you get from a Gretsch hollowbody if there's a slightly overdriven amp anywhere within 5 miles of the guitar.

They may be in the Professional range and therefore eye-wateringly expensive, but when quizzed about whether an Electromatic version was in the pipeline, the heads of Gretsch's R&D reportedly said they couldn't confirm or deny anything whilst nodding vigorously. I'm hoping that by the time I can afford a Gretsch Electromatic hollowbody, these ones will be out, and I'm hoping that since they aren't the size of the Milky Way they'll be cheaper than the standard hollowbodies.

But then, came the inevitable crash back down to Earth. Squier have released a Vintage Modified version of the Cabronita Telecaster. If you're unfamiliar with this guitar, it's a Telecaster with a brace of Filter'Trons and, well, that's about it. It's a rough and ready rock and roll machine and a serious contender for the most outright cool guitar for about the last 20 years. It started off as a Custom Shop-only model, before Fender noticed how a lot of people liked the idea and were beginning to shoehorn Filter'Trons into stock Teles, so they released a Mexican version. And now, Squier have stuck the Vintage Modified moniker on one and it's less than 300. This is something I have been waiting for for some time. In recent years, this marque has been home to everything from some Frankenstein'd Strats and Teles to J Mascis Jazzmasters and Bass VIs - Squier is now no longer a 'my first guitar' brand but a serious player and the Vintage Modified ones give a lot of entry-level Fenders a run for their money.

So what is the disappointment? Well, think of what a Tele with Filter'Trons is evoking. It's leather jackets, Brylcreemed hair, sweaty dive bars, whisky and absolutely no more than three chords. Sadly, the Squier version is available only in black, dark greyish black or black, with a white pickguard - as I have said before this is the most boring and unoriginal colour scheme it is possible to have on a guitar. Where's the Candy Apple Red, Lake Placid Blue, Seafoam Green or the other garish finishes from the Fender catalogue? Clearly, anyone who buys this guitar just wants a Gretsch but either can't afford one or can't be bothered to put up with all the idiosyncrasies, but nobody buys a Gretsch thinking 'I want something that's nicely subtle and understated'. No, you buy a white and gold one, or a bright orange one. Not a black one.

I've got a suggestion for Squier then - they should be renaming the Vintage Modified series the 'National Rail catering trolley series'.
7:08 pm - 0 comments - 0 Kudos
Thursday, August 15, 2013

I think I've worked it out!

Regular readers may have noticed that I don't like really expensive guitars that don't look expensive. I'm not even talking about a standard Les Paul in a solid colour here, I'm talking a 4000 Les Paul copy finished in brown. Why, I always ask myself, would anyone buy that? It's like winning the lottery and deciding to celebrate with an all-stops-pulled-out holiday to Belgium.

But, today I think I worked out the answer, and bizarrely it comes from the American car industry. As the very wise philosopher Jeremy Clarkson (4 BC) once pointed out, in Europe the very notion that a normal person could own a car didn't really appear until 1950. It still hasn't appeared in Spain. Yet, the history of America's early car industry goes something like this - the internal combustion engine was invented, then an hour later 40 million Ford Model Ts were on the road. The Americans have always had the car from its earliest incarnation, and just accept it as being there. While over the pond we dream of huge amounts of brake horsepower and Ferraris going sideways around corners, Americans discuss their favourite cars in terms of how many crates of beer you can fit in the back and what the biggest U-Haul trailer you can tow with it is. It's a tool, not a luxury good.

It's why, in America, owning a company that makes a pickup truck is basically a license to print money. To make a pickup, in case you don't know, you get a few body panels made from pig iron then weld them to a chassis that will be familiar to anyone interested in 19th-century railway rolling stock and shoehorn in an engine out of an old Corvette. This is then sold at the same price as a normal car, but made for an outlay of $3. As a tool, a day-to-day biffabout, pretty much any pickup has it on my Corsa.

Then, compare this to the world of the electric guitar. Acoustic guitars, especially archtops, before this generally worked on the principle that the more lavish and extravagant (and expensive) they were, the better. Then along comes the Telecaster, the first electric guitar to realistically be in the reach of mortal man. As I've said before, this guitar is a triumph of engineering - Leo Fender wanted to make a guitar that was easy to play, practical live with but also able to be produced in large numbers on a production line. That's why it has a slab body, some very basic electronics and not a lot else.

And yet it outsells pretty much every guitar going, apart from one other notable model made by Fender. Because it's such a simple guitar, Fender are able to knock them out a lot cheaper than any of their competitors. A Mexican Fender, that's a proper Fender and not one under some budget marque, is lower-priced than an Epiphone Les Paul, Gretsch Electromatic or PRS SE. These guitars are over-engineered, with carved tops and back-routed electronics - a gadget-laden BMW compared to the Telecaster - a Mustang with a thumping great V8 under the bonnet.

Is that why discreet-looking guitars are so popular? Because we were given the perfect tool to begin with as the yardstick by which all others are judged? Yes, my Telecaster is finished in Candy Apple Red but it's still about as glamorous as a wheel stud off a tractor that's been dipped in gold Hammerite. Every time I see one of the Select Series Teles, with a gaudy flamed maple top and gold hardware, I think 'God, that looks hideous'. And remember, most of Fender's colours came from the American car industry - see previous comments about pig iron and huge V8s, and add something about suspension from a Medieval ox cart. To the gigging musician - realistically the only person who's going to drop a few grand on a bespoke hand-made guitar - practicality is the most important thing. They don't want a guitar that looks flashy, they want one that isn't going to fall apart. That's why you don't see many guitarists playing 5 function gigs a week with a White Falcon. It's why David Gilmour has one black Strat and one red one, not a Jaguar.

It could also be why British music seems to be in a bit of a lull at the moment. Jaguar are owned by an Indian company, Vauxhall by Renault and Aston Martin by Ford, Rover are no more and all our other cars were built badly by communists in the 1970s.
6:28 pm - 0 comments - 0 Kudos
Monday, August 12, 2013

Oi! Johnny! No!

One of the few things that has, on occasion, brightened up my drive home from work is laughing at people's personalised number plates and the ridiculous expense that has gone into them for what, as far as I can tell, is a complete waste of money. Like the one I saw the other day, which said SLK 240. I know you have a Mercedes SLK240 because it's already written on the back of your car. In fact, during my driving test (the one I actually passed) the examiner actually missed me forgetting to indicate at a roundabout because we were too busy laughing at the car in front of us, driven by a man in a rugby shirt with a registration plate that read RU04 GBY. We dearly hoped we'd pull up next to him at some traffic lights so we could ask him if he played ruohfourgby.

It really is ridiculous at times - I remember reading recently that the numberplate 1XX had been sold for 30,000. Unless both of your names are Xavier, I see no reason why you would need this, a bit like that Lynyrd Skynyrd Les Paul that has Lynyrd Skynyrd written down the fretboard - completely pointless unless you're actually in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then we have a friend of mine called Raoul, who got the personalised numberplate R40 ULM but slightly reconfigured so it said R4OUL M. Then he moved to Yorkshire for work purposes at about the same time that Raoul Moat went on the rampage and soon got rid of the plates because he was sick of his car getting vandalised every time he turned his back on it for a few seconds.

And it's for this reason why I would never buy, say, a completely stock Telecaster with someone else's name written on the headstock for a vastly inflated price. I already own a perfectly good one. In fact, if you buy a Candy Apple Red Telecaster and hang around somewhere near the bar at a Water Tower gig so the bassist gives you a bumper sticker, then stick it on the pickguard between the two pickups, you can have your very own Flooding Rivers signature Telecaster for very little money. I've explained before that I find signature guitars to be a complete false economy.

However, a few interesting ones have come along recently. Rob Chapman has two, for example, which he apparently designed from the ground up with input from the members of his forum - they may still essentially be Superstrat/Les Paul copies but the idea's nice. Then there's the Johnny Marr Jaguar.

He of The Smiths and countless others has long been one of my favourite guitarists, his extraordinarily intricate playing turning indie music on its head and being inflicted with so much groove and mojo I can sometimes even tolerate the frontmen he associates himself with. Although having been associated with pretty much every guitar going at some point - Rickenbackers, Telecasters, Les Pauls, SGs and a 12-string ES-335 - in recent years he's become a convert to the Jaguar and immediately set about taming Fender's idiosyncratic beast.

First, the pickups have been revoiced to give a higher output but retain that classic Jaguar twang. The vibrato has been adapted so it works, and the whole assembly has been moved closer to the bridge to increase string break angle, and tone and sustain as a result. The rhythm circuit has been retained but simplified, and that archaic series of pickup slider switches done away with - Marr once lamented that one combination was indeed both pickups off, pointing out that it's one you tend to find by accident whilst playing to a huge crowd at a festival. So, it's gone and been replaced with a good old Tele-style 3-way selector.

The point is that this is a Jaguar redesigned for the working guitarist. It's no longer the black horse in Fender's stable, but a workhorse that you could do a 2-hour gig with, night after night. Yet, purely because it bears the great man's insignia on the headstock it remains at a price out of reach by mere mortals who want nothing more than a decent guitar. Leo Fender the engineer wouldn't like this.

The whole thing seems like a step backwards to me. Here we have a great piece of design, a quantum leap forward in the evolution of the Jaguar. If you ask me, Marr's improvements should be phased into the entire Jaguar line down to the humblest Squier, but instead they're restricted to a limited-run high-end guitar, most of which are going to end up being unplayed in glass cases. You don't pay through the nose to own a guitar with a Bigsby (named after Paul Bigsby) or Floyd Rose vibrato. Or a guitar with Les Paul or Leo Fender's name on it.

And besides, Johnny Marr is from Manchester so no guitar bearing his name should cost any more than ten and six and a cup of tea.
9:47 pm - 0 comments - 0 Kudos
Saturday, July 20, 2013

It's driving me loopy

Like many others, I have that traffic alert feature on the radio in my car. If you're listening to a CD it switches to the local radio station whenever the traffic news is on. It's quite handy because obviously if the road you were planning on driving down is shut because some berk in a BMW ran out of talent during a stupid lane-changing move and crashed you can go a different way. Quite a few times on the way home from work it's saved me from spending 2 hours sitting in stationary traffic.

It is quite annoying though, partly because of the way it thoughtlessly interrupts whatever you were listening to. On Mogwai's seminal debut album Young Team is the track Like Herod, a few minutes into which a monolithic slab of guitars and white noise kicks in at deafening volume, giving the impression of being in a coffin with the lid repeatedly being slammed shut. What the original studio version does not feature is news of a tailback on the M4 near Reading delivered by BBC Radio Sussex. It's even worse when it decides to pick up every radio station in the south of England, all of which do their traffic reports almost at the same time, not quite. That's why, this morning, Nick Cave was interrupted four times whilst rattling through We Call Upon The Author To Explain. At one point I got the travel news from Radio Berkshire, which is very, very far away from where I was.

The other problem is that, despite living in Sussex and getting BBC Radio Sussex, the report decides to start at the northernmost extreme of the station's broadcasting range, which is Surrey and south London. So, on the way home during rush hour every night, they feel the need to tell me about the various queues on the M25 (usually between every junction and every other junction, in both directions). It's rush hour on the busiest road in the country, of course the traffic's going to be heavy so stop wasting time telling me so.

What I would like to know is what it finally gets to 10 minutes later, which is what the local roads in Sussex (the county the station is broadcast from) are like, by which time I'm normally stuck in whichever traffic jam it then describes as a post-apocalyptic wasteland where all hope of being home in time for The Simpsons is gone.

In many ways, this brings me onto looping pedals, which I believe to be the most infernal and hateful device ever created for guitarists, beyond PRSs and cheap digital modulation effects with the subtlety of an oil rig. Mainly, the way that the acoustic singer-songwriter has hijacked them, thinking it makes them different because nobody else in the world is doing it. There they are, spending 10 minutes layering up chords and riffs to make a boring song sound slightly more full. A bit like topping up a can of magnolia paint.

And to be honest, they're no different to the traffic alert feature in my car. It takes 10 minutes to get to the point, by which time I'm bored and want to listen to something else instead.
10:30 pm - 0 comments - 0 Kudos
Monday, July 08, 2013

Three old albums to go and rediscover

In my mind, there's two types of debut albums. There's the ones where a band creates something truly original and timeless, and those where the band simply wears its influences on its sleeves. That's no bad thing, though - The Jesus And Mary Chain's Jim Reid once said that Psychocandy existed long before the band had even formed. The band bonded over a love of the art-noise of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, and the timeless pop of old Motown singles. Smash the two together, drench it in feedback and lo-fi production, and you have a timeless album. Radiohead's first album sounded like Dinosaur Jr, Pixies and REM because that's what they were into at the time, but look what they turned into. Sometimes, when a band is so far into their career (particularly if they make it big on their 2nd or 3rd album or whatever) you can forget what they sounded like in the beginning. Here are three debut albums, then, to go and dust off today.

The White Stripes - The White Stripes

One of the best thing about discovering the White Stripes is that, unless you were one of the handful of people in Detroit who bought the band's debut album when it came out, you can go back further and discover an even more raw and chaotic sound. People who clicked onto them when Seven Nation Army came out and thought White Blood Cells was a bit raucous will be blown away - it's the closest document they've ever made to the thrilling mess of their live shows. Meg's lumbering, anvil-heavy drumming sounds like it was recorded in a shed, whilst Jack makes his Airline guitar wail like a banshee, roar like a chainsaw and drop Big Muffed riffs that could level buildings. There's three tempo changes in one song, and all this is just in the opening song Jimmy The Exploder. There's the surrealist Vaudeville of the traditional American song St. James Infirmary Blues, complete with whisky-soaked bar-room piano. Jack screams nonsensical lines like "Maybe Jackson does the Astro!", drops in a Son House cover halfway through Cannon and rails against the motor industry of his hometown of Detroit in The Big Three Killed My Baby. Backed by production so brutally lo-fi it makes it sound like every single band before or since have plugged into reverb and compressors and done countless overdubs out of sheer shame, it's thrilling stuff.

Beck - One Foot In The Grave

Going back to the Beck pre-Loser/Odelay and you find a remarkably different artist - gone are the samples, the pop songs and the musical chameleonism, in its place is an artist firmly in touch with his blues, punk and folk roots. This album sounds like a bizarre long-lost jam between Doc Watson and The Replacements. Recorded in Beck's home with friends contributing various instruments to the album, it's only half an hour long and most of the 16 tracks don't make it over 2 minutes. It opens with a deftly fingerpicked rendition of Skip James' 'He's A Mighty Good Leader', an interpretation of a gospel standard. The country-blues vein continues throughout the album - on the likes of Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods, his foot-tapping and sparse, clunky resonator playing open a direct conduit through Beck to the Mississippi Delta. I Have Seen The Land Beyond is the greatest song Woody Guthrie never wrote, and Hollow Log is simply a great folk tune. Much of the remainder of the album, though, is a lo-fi punk mess, all scratchy guitars, 90-second songs with no structure or chorus, discordant and whining harmonicas and slide guitar. Coming back here from Odelay or Midnite Vultures is like listening to a completely different artist, letting Beck the folk singer come to the fore. You can imagine him, battered old acoustic guitar in hand, touring these simple heart-on-sleeve songs around dingy bars until he wrote Loser and the rest became history...

Coldplay - Parachutes

By far the least fashionable choice on this list, seeing as how they've somehow spent the last seven years or so becoming international megastars by essentially being a piss-poor U2 tribute band. But spin Coldplay's first album and you'll remember that they used to relish in simplicity and great songcraft. Opener Don't Panic clocks in at barely over two minutes, propelled by a simple acoustic guitar rhythm and pattering drums, with a beautifully simple chorus and guitarist Jon Buckland sprinkling angel dust over proceedings with economic chordal and slide lines shimmering with phaser and delay, and like all good opening tracks it sets the tone perfectly. The album may have the stadium-filling Shiver and Yellow, but the melancholy Trouble, quietly groovy High Speed and the very definition of restraint on the likes of We Never Change and Sparks are a million miles from the overblown stadium bluster that would become the band's norm. Even closing track We Never Change, when it eventually reaches its climax, still feels like it's holding back. There's no endlessly effected guitars here, no 80s synths, no highfalutin' deployment of choirs and orchestras, just the sound of four men in a room making a timeless album. The absolute highlight, though, is the ghostly, windswept Spies, with its droning slide guitars, Chris Martin eerily cooing in falsetto and instrumental breaks that sound like the ghost of Johnny Marr. All this makes the moment towards the end, where it explodes into a full-on post-rock wall of noise, all the more thrilling and dramatic. If the noir dream-pop of Mazzy Star or the low-key, restrained drama of Tindersticks is your thing, you could do a lot worse than listen to this album.
6:42 pm - 2 comments - 0 Kudos
Saturday, June 22, 2013

Do it for the Butthole Surfers!

A while ago I read a book called 'Our Band Could Be Your Life - Scenes From The American Underground 1981-1991', a profile of the American 80s punk and indie scene - Black Flag to Dinosaur Jr via Minor Threat, The Replacements and Sonic Youth. I enjoyed it very much so I've lent it and recommended it to quite a few people. Everyone I know who has read it has been utterly entranced by the same chapter that I was - the chapter about the Butthole Surfers.

The underground's most bizarre freakshow consisted of frontman Gibby Haynes, guitarist Paul Leary, drummers King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa and a steady stream of bassists, who typically managed a few months before being driven to insanity and fleeing. The band spent their formative years touring America in absolutely horrendous conditions, travelling in a Chevy Nova that had been covered in barbed wire and the skulls of various animals. Inside, the back seats had been ripped out and replaced with plank flooring. This allowed two members to travel in the front seats and the remaining three to lie prone in the back - this included all 6'4" of Haynes and his dog, a female pit bull called Mark Farner Of Grand Funk Railroad.

At one point, the band had so little money that they were reduced to scavenging in bins for food and earning money by collecting glass bottles and handing them in for recycling.

Eventually, the band became notorious on the underground circuit for their live shows, which were like being trapped in some sort of surreal nightmare. Strobe lights would flash for the duration of the show. Haynes would often perform naked, scream crude, incomprehensible lyrics through a megaphone and set fire to parts of the drumkit. When a friend of the band, Kathleen Lynch, began dancing naked on stage during their shows, Haynes reportedly had sex with her on stage at one gig. A projectionist would project stomach-turning films behind the band - footage included autopsies, people having epileptic fits, traffic accidents, and the heavy artillery in the band's film arsenal - a medical training video of a man undergoing penis reconstruction surgery after a farm accident. Sometimes the band would play the film backwards. Then, wondering how to mess with people's heads even more, they began interspersing this footage with nature documentaries and serene footage of sea life.

That's if there was even anyone there to see it - at one European gig, Haynes elected to clear the entire audience. He walked on stage and began screaming like a banshee and smashing beer bottles against the wall until the audience all eventually left. The band then started playing their regular set. A few people began to creep back in, but the band stopped and Haynes began screaming again until they left. This went on for the whole night. On the same tour, whilst playing at a Dutch festival, the band became concerned when Haynes had gone missing five minutes before their stage time. He was eventually found at Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' set, brawling with the audience and being kicked in the groin by a jackbooted Blixa Bargeld.

The point here, and there is one, is that there's lessons to be learned from the Butthole Surfers. First, when they signed to a major label and slipped into the peripheries of mainstream consciousness they proved that hard work will eventually pay off. They became a proper band. And whilst their music may not go down in the canon of rock's classic works (Leary described their recorded output as 'music to drool into a bucket to') they still managed to polarise the opinions of everyone who encountered them. I doubt anyone left a Butthole Surfers gig thinking 'They were alright' or 'They were nothing special'. They were not a band one forgot in a hurry.

The other day a friend of mine, a fellow hard-working member of the Brighton gigging circuit and myself were lamenting the overly competitive and overcrowded nature of Brighton's music scene. It is absolutely impossible for one band to draw a large audience or easily gain a following or reputation, simply because any gig will probably be competing with about 10 others in the town. And since all the town's musicians seem to hang around together, you end up in the situation where none of your friends come to your gigs because they either have gigs of their own that night or need a night off after four nights of gigging and rehearsing in a row, with the annoying reality of having to go to work in the morning thrown in there too.

What we need is a catalyst - a band that stamps their mark by being truly uncompromising. Brighton needs a band that everyone who encounters them either loves or hates.

And your town may be in the same situation, so sort it out. Form a band and do something that people will remember. Do it for the Butthole Surfers.
4:56 pm - 0 comments - 2 Kudos
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