Monthly Archives: July 2008

12-Strung

When we think about the 12-string guitar – if we think about it at all – we associate it with the ‘60s. More precisely, we associate it with the Byrds, whose dense California jangle was such a tonic amidst the waves of British Invasion pop in the mid-‘60s.

The association is not undeserved. On 1965’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the spellbinding “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Eight Miles High” that followed, the instrument was so fundamental to the Byrds’ aesthetic that all of the 12-string’s ensuing adherents – ‘60s cult-rockers Love, for instance, or REM and Tom Petty in later decades – have been doomed to inevitable Byrds comparisons.


The Rickenbacker 360/12


But the 12-string guitar, despite its exoticism and profusion of strings and metal hardware, was not just some newfangled hunk of space-age electronics in 1965. Its strings doubled in identically tuned pairs, the 12-string guitar had been around in acoustic form since before the turn of century. 19th century Mexican Mariachi musicians played them, as did pre-War Southern blues troubadours like Blind Boy Fuller, Rev. Gary Davis, and Blind Willie McTell. Later, Pete Seeger, emulating his folk hero Leadbelly, would pick up the 12-string, Seeger’s followers in American coffeehouses (including the young Roger McGuinn, then an aspiring folkie) doing the same in turn.

Such was the state of pop music in 1964, though, that it would be a visiting Brit – the Beatles’ George Harrison – who would be presented with a prototype of the American-made Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar, one of the first electric 12-string models.

An acoustic 12-string guitar is louder and fuller sounding than its 6-string counterpart; electrical amplification adds something more – something akin to cavernous space. It took just a few magically ringing notes at the end of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” (hear here) to inspire Roger McGuinn to switch over to the electric 12-string in 1964 – a switch fated not only to become the signature sound of the Byrds, but also to precipitate something of a passing vogue for the instrument. Sonny & Cher and Barbara Lewis featured the instrument on some of their mid-‘60s releases, for instance. So did the Mamas & the Papas. And, not insignificantly, so did this week’s three selections.

Alas, it was a phenomenon that remained mostly such – a passing vogue. Perhaps because the 12-string doesn’t lend itself to showboating solos or fat rock ‘n’ roll riffs. Perhaps because one doesn’t just go about knocking out plainspoken melodies on the instrument. Perhaps it’s the extra labor of its tuning. Chiming waves of sound might spiral magically forth from them, but, for whatever reason, the instrument has always remained something of a specialized whirligig, the Concorde of guitars.

1. The Mods, Days Mind the Time (Cee Three)
We might be forgiven for momentarily thinking the Mods English. Listen closer and you hear it, though – that unmistakable lack of polish that persisted around even the most vigil
ant stateside Anglophile musician. Something like the reek of Baron Cologne and Budweiser. Americans!

The Mods, in fact, hailed from Ft. Worth, Texas, a scene that produced some amazing ‘60s garage bands. It was scene, too, that, for want of fuller description, lacked musical subtlety (well documented on Norton Records’ brilliant three-volume Ft. Worth Teen Scene series). Which makes 1966’s “Days Mind the Time” that much more compelling. City elders fretted over wild-eyed Fort Worthians like Larry & the Blue Notes and the Barons, giving the Mods just enough time to record this class-act anomaly. For all of its clipped accents, “Days Mind the Time” is stunning, a blend of impeccable arrangements and soaring harmonies, all steeped in 12-string jangle.

Consisting of multi-instrumentalist Scott Frasier (drums), Chris Hawkins (guitar), Eddie Lively (vocals, guitar), and Don McGilvery (bass), “Days Mind the Time” would be the only 45 that the Mods produced, sadly. Frasier, along with Lively, would go on to record in the Texas band Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit, and Greenhill, who released an excellent, though wholly unrecognizable, album of psychedelic folk-rock in 1968 on the Los Angeles-based Uni label.

Thanks to my well-worn copy of Fuzz, Acid and Flowers for much of the information about the group. A special thanks, too, to Westex over at the must-read Lonestarstomp, the unrivalled king of its kind. Tex must have been in some sort of crazy mixed-up psychosis when he sent me home with this same 45 last summer.

2. Dale & the Devonaires, Never Be Free (IGL)
Dale & the Devonaires, were formed in the
early ’60s in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and forged in the state’s homegrown scene of the 1960s.

Truly they were a product of the heartland. The Upper Midwest’s circuit of performing venues – especially its ballrooms – created a vibrant regional infrastructure where there might have otherwise been towns isolated by windswept prairie. The region’s stable demographics, too, meant that rock ‘n’ roll combos might expect a larger local following – if not a longer life-span – than their counterparts in the faster-paced suburbs of Dallas, say, or Phoenix or Los Angeles.

Indeed, Dale & the Devonaires – comprised at their core of Dale Black (vocals), Dave Bringle (keyboards), Dick Malloy (guitar), Frank Segar (guitar), Larry Lind (bass), and (Jack Yates) – would remain a fixture of the region well into the early ’70s. If the quantity of their output – just two 45s – never fully represented the extent of the
ir popularity, they compensated through quality. 1966’s “Never Be Free,” followed a year later by “Come Back to Me,” are haunting, minor key nuggets of the highest order.

“Never Be Free,” produced at another cornerstone of the Iowa scene – Milford’s prolific, teen-oriented IGL Records & Recording Studios – features the 12-string prominently, of course. And the instrument does here what it does best, imbuing teen love with melancholic mystery. Landlocked, lovelorn males suspect it, and “Never Be Free” seems to confirm it: there is a thrilling jezebel lurking somewhere in the heart of every female upperclassmen.

The group was a 1997 inductee into the Iowa Rock’n Roll Music Association Hall of Fame (thanks to the same site for much of the information). For more on Dale & the Devonaires and Iowa’s IGL Records, see Arf Arf’s two-disc archival compilation of the label. Highly recommended.

3. The Other Four, Once and For All Girl (P.L.A.Y.)
They began at one end of the 1960s as teen rock ‘n’ rollers the Man-Dells and came out at the other end, in reconfigured form, as psychedelic rockers the Brain Police. And, in between, they put out three 45s as the Other Four. They would continuously adapt themselves to the times without necessarily being innovators in their field, achieving local popularity in their various permutations without realizing chart success.

A well-worn trajectory for the ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll band to be sure, though the Other Four released some truly memorable 45s. “Searching for My Love,” their first 45 as the Other Four, is ringing, minor key pop straight from the Zombies and Searchers songbook. Their second – this selection – has all the right moves for 1966: commercial harmonies, mystical reserves of teenage energy, the briefly de rigueur 12-string.

The group, which consisted of Norman Lombardo (vocals, bass), Kenny Pernicano (drums, vocals), Craig Palmer (vocals, keyboards, bass) and Don Sparks (vocals, guitar) for “Once and For All Girl,” recorded the song at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios, and, for obvious reasons, it was strong enough to attract the attention of Decca Records. To which Decca quickly set about transforming the Other Four’s manic verve into bland, fatal irrelevancy for their third and final 45, “How Do You Tell a Girl.”

Vocalist Norman Lombardo and one-time Other Four guitarist and keyboardist Rick Randle would reconvene a year or two later with a few other local San Diego musicians, self-releasing an obscure acid rock LP as the Brain Police in 1968. Incidentally, Don Sparks, who played on “Once and For All Girl,” enjoys an active career in television.

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