Ah, electricity, always that same 60-cycles-per-second hum with you. Records spin, lights light, refrigerators hum. You never alternate, even if your current does, and we thank you for that. And this week, we thank you for the electric guitar, as well.
Electrical amplification and magnetic pickups facilitated the guitar’s post-War ascendancy as a lead instrument, if not the lead instrument. The electric guitar’s crystal-clear tones brought new color to musical settings and its versatility, like the piano’s, allowed its easy use as a lead instrument or in a rhythm section. When electricity wasn’t enabling new styles of music altogether (e.g., rock ‘n’ roll), it was creating new potential for the guitar within existing styles (e.g. jazz, country, and rhythm & blues).
Electricity is one thing, but it took that special type of mind to see beyond just the electric guitar’s newly competitive role within group, combo and orchestral settings. The previously discussed Johnny “Guitar” Watson pushed the outer bounds of echo for 1950’s “Space Guitar.” Studio guitar whiz Vinnie Bell wired primitive versions of Wah-Wah and distortion pedals. Ike Turner’s guitarist Willie Kizart would use a damaged amplifier to get the distortion on 1951’s proto-rock ‘n’ roll “Rocket 88,” and instrumental guitar visionary Link Wray (“Rumble”) legendarily did the same by poking holes in his speakers. Bo Diddley’s hand-rigged tremolo units, session guitarist and inventor Del Casher’s tape-delay experiments – the list of early innovators goes on and on. Worlds and traditions might have separated these individuals, but their efforts were guided by sonic potential and the weird fun of altered signals, electricity, and guitar noise.
It was the British Invasion and Beatlemania which finally established the electric guitar as the de rigueur rock ‘n’ roll instrument. With it came amplifiers capable of crushing volume and an assortment of futuristic audio gadgetry. The first commercial Echoplex tape-delay units, and, later, fuzzboxes and Wah-Wah pedals seized upon the previous generation’s innovations, expanding the tonal horizons and psychedelic possibility of the guitar for the thousands of teenagers who snapped them up.
Even guitar feedback, though not an “effect,” had found its place in pop music by the mid-‘60s. A previously undesired consequence of audio equipment amplifying its own signal (resulting in ear-piercing squeal), feedback’s first putative use in commercial rock ‘n’ roll was the introduction to the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” from 1964. But before the Beatles, the Small Faces or the Who did it, amateur musicians must have recognized some potential in feedback beyond just its capacity to flatten an audience. There’s something I find appealingly conceptual, subversive almost, about feedback, this infusion of chaos into commercial ’60s music.
This week’s selections could barely be remembered as commercial, of course. Still, they epitomize much of what I love about the wilder and woolier ‘60s garage bands: you listen to their racket enough and suddenly they become sleek, conceptual art.
1. The Romancers, Love’s the Thing (Linda)
Like Thee Midniters (“Whittier Blvd.”), Cannibal & the Headhunters (“Land of 1000 Dances’) and the Premiers (“Farmer John”), the Romantics hailed from East Los Angeles’s Mexican-American community, home to one of the sixties’ most interesting homegrown rock ‘n’ roll scenes. These were versatile groups with repertoires of ballads, Top 40 hits, greasy R&B; instrumentals, soul, jazzy horn numbers and Latin pop – and the showmanship to match. Led by brothers Max and Robert Uballez, the Romancers never had a hit beyond East L.A. but, like these other groups, they put out a few records and played some wild, wild rock ‘n’ roll on occasion, too.
“Love’s the Thing.” It’s hard to imagine what role this selection’s breakneck tempo and clanging, over-the-top guitar breaks might have played during the Romancers’ live shows, except to stir audiences into some sort of epileptic hysteria.
From 1965, this selection was produced by Eddie Davis, a champion of the East L.A. sound. “Love’s the Thing” was released on Linda, one of the many small labels owned and run by Davis in the 1960s.
2. The Rock Shop, State of Your Mind (Rowena)
Little is known of the Rock Shop, though they seem to have been based in California. It seems likely that the Norm Flint credited as producer and director was the same Norm Flint who was a DJ at KMPX FM, San Francisco’s pioneering late ‘60s commercial rock station.
This inspired proto-punk nugget, from 1967, degenerates into one the stranger guitar breaks of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll; the bass, vocals and drums drop away, leaving only bare squalls of guitar noise. It’s striking, if nothing else. There’s metaphor in there too somewhere. As if the Rock Shop might have just as easily been deconstructing American pop as they stripped away the layers of “State of Your Mind,” exposing that same 500,000-volt core that begat every howling American garage band.
3. Our Mothers Children, I’ll Make You Sorry (Falcon)
A band that never released anything commercially, Our Mothers Children (sic) were, if the Grande Ballroom gig posters and online recollections are any indication, a familiar name on the same Detroit/Ann Arbor rock ‘n’ roll scene from which the Stooges, the MC5, the Amboy Dukes, SRC, and many other bands emerged.
First things first, however. This record is actually an acetate disc, a glassy, highly perishable medium used to demonstrate songs (for deejays or record producers) and to otherwise afford an expedient copy of recording sessions. A medium never intended to be permanent, acetates might begin life with passable sound, but, after just a few plays, fidelity drops. A few plays more and whole guitar parts might be seen shearing off the needle in a shower of black lacquer flakes.
“I’ll Make You Sorry” is a record that I’ve played four times, which is three times too many, but here it is, at least for the archives. Those caveman drums still come through just fine.
What happened to Our Mothers Children? What were their live shows like? Why did they never record commercially like their Michigan compadres? For every question this record answers about how Our Mothers Children sounded, it asks a dozen more.
Recorded in Royal Oak, Michigan (their motto is “…the place to come to, not pass through on your way to somewhere else”), circa 1967, this is a cover of a minor hit by Chicago’s Shadows of Knight.
The flipside, “Down Down,” is an original, and another ball of tension that I hope to return to for a future post.