It’s hard to precisely define the moment when the simplicity of the early rock and blues era rolled into the madness that followed it – fantastic, joyous, complex, exciting madness – but madness all the same!
So I’m going to choose one record that I think defined the changeover from the Rock’n’Roll and blues era, and that of the early guitar pop bands, to a louder age.
Ray and Dave Davies kicked guitar playing into a dirtier and grittier mode. The sound of the little Elpico amp on the record, reputedly distorted by the slicing of the speaker cone with a razor blade, drives one of the most instantly recognisable riffs in Rock history – one that plays a reprise part much later in the story of rock guitar. Some claim it to be the pre-cursor to heavy metal. It was August 1964.
Two inventions at around the same time would herald the rise of the guitar sound that left a young man from Surrey lauded as a deity. The Marshall Amp, (most notably the Bluesbreaker), and the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster.
This sound of the 1960 Les Paul, with the treble booster thrashing the front end of the Marshall Bluesbreaker combo is undoubtedly the sound that made Clapton the most famous guitar player on the planet in the 1960’s. And Clapton was directly responsible for the amp itself, having gone to Marshall and specifically asking for a JTM 45 that he could fit in a car.
But of course, Clapton’s rise wasn’t to stop there. Less than a year after that recording in 1965, he and Bruce had formed Cream and released the ‘Fresh Cream’ Album. Something else was changing in rock music – the single was becoming less important and the album as an art form was gaining strength. Depending on your standpoint, it could be the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end (where all roads lead eventually to Johnny Rotten). For me, it was dawn of the era of the Virtuoso guitarist.
And just at that time of course, one James Marshall Hendrix was discovered in New York by Chas Chandler of the Animals and the rest is of course history. I shan’t repeat his story here as it’s one everyone knows – but needless to say Hendrix ripped a hole through the UK guitar scene with ‘Are You Experienced’ like no-one else before him, and things were never the same again.
Another guitarist who took the volume to new levels was far from a virtuoso of the Hendrix, Beck or Clapton mould. Pete Townshend wasn’t blues man – he was a mod. He was a rebel with a cause, to tell the world of the British teenager’s anger and angst. And he wanted to make sure they heard it! He wanted volume. Lots of Volume. He went to Jim Marshall with a specific request – a 100W amplifier. This was quite an unusual request at the time, as speaker technology could barely cope with what was already being thrown at it – but boasting a single cabinet loaded with eight 25W speakers, the Marshall 1959 superlead was born.
The Who’s road crew soon had enough of the over sized speaker cabinet, and it was sawed in half – and the 4×12 cab completed the set.
Jeff Beck recorded his first (and to my ears still his finest) solo album, ‘Truth’, over four days at De Lane Lea studios in Soho in May 1968 with Rod Stewart’s raw angry vocal complimenting the biting aggressiveness of Beck’s guitar.
On 4th October the same year, the New Yardbirds began their first UK tour. Their album wouldn’t be released until January 1969, by that time under their new title, Led Zeppelin. But between those dates, the now legendary supergroup Cream held their final concert at the Royal Albert Hall in November.
Cream’s farewell concert was notable not just for the headline act’s planned swansong, only 2 years after its inception. On the bill that night was an Irish progressive blues and rock trio – Taste. The proud owner of what was reportedly the first Strat in Ireland, Rory Gallagher was a slightly unconventional rock star, rather quiet and softly spoken. But with his guitar, simply incendiary.