When I pick up a “[Some #] Greatest Guitar Players” list, I dread having to wade through the usual soup of Clapton, Hendrix, B.B. King, etc. to get to those names lurking at the fringes who have really expanded the possibilities of the instrument in the years since the blues and “classic” rock ruled the roost, the ones I haven’t heard absolutely beaten to death by greyhairs who insist rock hasn’t been great since [insert year they turned twenty-five]. So here is my semi-scientific list of what I consider to be the top 50 rock-related guitarists (or guitar tandems) since the advent of punk in 1976, which is a nice arbitrary dividing point. Continue reading
Desmond Dekker & The Aces – 007 (Shanty Town) (1967, Pyramid)
Why It’s Perfect: Ask most people what reggae sounds like and you can bet dollars to donuts (or cash to cannabis, if you prefer) they’ll think of Bob Marley. I’m not excluding myself here; I might drop a little knowledge during this post, but don’t be fooled, I don’t really know dick about this genre. What I do know is that all genres go through stages of differentiation from the genres that spawned them. Rock, for example, started out as a combination of R&B and country, and if you listen to Berry or Holly or early Elvis, you can see where the parts haven’t quite fused together yet. Within a few years, the blues and country had been melted so thoroughly that only their synthesis, the streamlined, adjective-less rock, remained. By the time Marley became a superstar, reggae had hit that point, and moreover, his music was so influential and beloved that his particular style had become synonymous with the genre itself.
What I like about early ska and reggae is that it doesn’t yet inhabit its own universe … Continue Reading
Ultravox – Vienna (1981, Chrysalis)
Why It’s Perfect: When I was younger, I somehow got it into my head that Vienna was actually Austria’s national anthem. Can you imagine if there were a country whose anthem sounded like this? What a strange place it would have to be. The thoroughly processed majesty of its chorus sounds like a kitsch Also Sprach Zarathustra, the climax of an old commercial for high-end consumer electronics: BEHOLD the new Phillips Magnavox CD player! The most pristine digital audio device on Earth, now no larger than a toaster oven!
Les Paul & Mary Ford – How High the Moon (1951, Capitol)
(This video is actually Paul and Ford playing live over the original recording. I include it because it includes a bit of Paul explaining how the song was recorded.)
Why It’s Perfect: How High the Moon is a single from 1951, but it doesn’t sound like it’s only sixty years old. It’s like a radio transmission that’s travelled far beyond our solar system, the signal decaying imperceptibly over the lightyears until only the highest, whitest musical frequencies remain. A sort of ghost image of a pop song.
How High the Moon’s trebly lunar sound is a result of guitarist and recording genius Les Paul’s meticulous, labour-intensive way of making records. At a time when most performances were usually recorded to a single track and overdubbing was almost unheard of, a man of Paul’s talents could easily have made his way in the business purely on the strength of his musical ability. But Paul was a recording nut, and he loved to work with the newest audio technology in order push it beyond its makers’ intentions. Continue reading
Big Joe Turner – Shake, Rattle and Roll (1954, Atlantic Records)
Why It’s Perfect: This is rock n’ roll, regardless of what Peter Frampton and his pasty ilk might have you believe. It’s kind of mindblowing that adjective-less “rock” has been bleached to the point many discerning music fans avoid it like the plague, because the driving boogie at its heart remains irresistible in the right hands. Big Joe Turner’s take on Shake, Rattle and Roll is a milestone recording, a watershed in both the evolution of the genre and in the development of swagger. I mean, goddamn does this man have his swag on or what? He wakes up in the morning, tells his woman to clean herself up and start cooking, calls her the devil and then shake, rattle and rolls her again. If just one day in my life could unfold like that, I’d be twice the man I am today. Thrice, possibly.
Shake, Rattle and Roll was state of the art rock n’ roll and a breakthrough recording for Big Joe, but he’d been active on various regional circuits since the late ‘20s, and he hadn’t yet met a rhythm he couldn’t comfortably shout over. The musical foundation here is Turner’s familiar jump blues, a springy, horn-based R&B sound that just makes you want to sway along on the balls of your feet with your hips swinging ridiculously* (* may be just a “me” thing), but it all seems to roll in some new, un-blues way, the simple handclap n’ snare percussion landing on a different dance beat. There isn’t much guitar I can detect, but between the percolating piano and heaving brass you don’t really notice, while Sam “The Man” Taylor’s shit-hot sax solo thunders up the middle like a leatherheaded running back.
It’s easy to ridicule the moral crisis early rock n’ roll incited given how tame this all sounds now, but there was an unabashed sexual joie de vivre to this stuff that frightened the buttoned-down white culture of the time. I mean, by the standards of the time Shake, Rattle and Roll is absolutely filthy. “I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store” has to be on any list of rock’s greatest double entendres (One-eyed… like you know, his… oh, never mind), and the way Turner just about licks the line “I can look at you till you ain’t no child no more” buries R. Kelly in the smut sweepstakes. Edgier still (and notably absent from later, cracker renditions) is the line “I’ve been holdin’ it in, way down underneath / You make me roll my eyes, even make me grit my teeth”, which Turner particularly slurs so as not to incur the censor’s wrath. But he’s definitely making reference to his staying power. By which I mean, his ability to withhold ejaculation while under the tender duress of a vagina. I love living in 2011.
Shake, Rattle and Roll was written by the only black man on Atlantic Records’ payroll, the rock n’ roll songwriting pioneer Jesse Stone (under a pseudonym), became Turner’s signature hit, and helped shape the music we all listen to today. As if I care; I jam this just about every week because it’s just a damn fine pop song, and I encourage you to do the same.
Defining Moment: Has to be the “one-eyed cat” verse. It’s a perfectly skewed turn of phrase.
Other Great Songs by Big Joe Turner: Big Joe recorded for nigh on sixty years, so his catalogue is formidable, if not all that diverse. To borrow a term from the awesome George Starostin, Big Joe Turner was King of “Creepy Black Guy Music.” If you were to condense his best stuff into one disc, it’d blow away most any other record of its time(s). Between the fierce piano boogie of “Roll ‘Em Pete,” “Cafe Society Rag,” “Around the Clock,” “Corrine, Corrina,” and “(I’m Gonna) Jump for Joy,” you’ve got a great set of jump blues primers.
Here’s a TV appearance of the man performing his song. Great fun! (Does anyone under 60 say ‘great fun’?)