Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Guitar Heroes

Eric Clapton, Carl Radle, and Duane Allman liv...
Clapton, Radle & Allman (Wikipedia)
by Dominic A Pearce

So, where did the guitar hero come from?

It seems strange to think that the guitar, pretty much the worlds most widely recognised penis extension, has evolved from the tanbur, the sitar and the lute but hey, that's life.

Fortunately, the story of the guitar hero starts WAY after the story of these instruments and I'm choosing to drop us in at around about the electric guitar's humble beginning - the 40's.

The 40's were the decade that gave us the guitar as we know it today; Les Paul and Leo Fender quite literally carving out a niche in the market with solid bodied electric guitars that were smaller, cheaper and more robust than previous guitars had been, perfect for throwing across a stage and playing behind your head, upside down or inside out.

All that was needed now was a guitarist who could wow and dazzle the masses, someone who was more icon than man - a hero. Luckily instead of one we got about twenty.

Clapton, Allman, Page, Richards, Hendrix, Harrison, Beck, Santana, Knopfler, Ronson, Gilmore, Young, etc etc etc. Guitars just took over. And for good reason, they were loud, fluid and they had the look. To a fledgling generation they were dangerous and a symbol of the counter culture; if you didn't want a job, screw it, just pick up a guitar and change the world.

Unfortunately, it could never last. The self-indulgent nature of the guitarist took over with a greater and greater strangle-hold on the song-writing of the mid to late 70's; stone cold riffs became wet meanderings, the hair cuts becoming ever bigger and the trousers ever tighter. The guitar hero had become the guitar wanker.

But the guitar wasn't licked yet, from the ashes - I can only assume of a flaming guitar that had been played whilst the guitarist hung from a chef's rotisserie on stage surrounded by adoring virgins - the guitar re(de)-invented itself and punk was born.

A new generation of guitarist took over, competing with one another to see who could produce the most abhorrent noise and live the most debauched lives. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash; Johnny Ramone of The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys' East Bay Ray are just a few of these 2nd generation guitar heroes who were actively a million miles away from their beatnik predecessors.

For all their differences however, the punk revolution was very much a case of history repeating itself, the punks rebelling against the older generations' tastes just as the hippies had done a couple of decades before and, again, at the centre of it all was the guitar.

It seemed very much that if you wanted to revolt - get a guitar. If you wanted to start a social upheaval - get a guitar. More importantly, if you wanted to be cool and get a girlfriend - get a guitar. Obviously, if you wanted none of these things then you got a bass.

For some however, the punks went too far. I mean there's sparse and stripped back and then there's shit. To solve this, the guitarists decided to invent post-punk and alternative rock.

Punk suddenly had structure and a plan with post-punk bands like Television, Joy Division and Wire, testing where punk and the guitar could be forced but then, when hugely popular once more, suddenly, somehow, the guitar dropped off the map.

It had become uncool and as with most things it was the 80's to blame. Guitars were abruptly too organic, too messy and came with at least 90% not enough chrome attached. Synths reigned and electronic loops took over the mainstream, the guitar surviving - just - with the advent of metal, hair metal and Slash's hair/hat combo.

With a degree of good fortune the alternative rock scene survived also, in colleges and universities, delivering such luminaries as Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and The Smiths. There was a lot of harking back to genres gone by at this time.

The Smiths and R.E.M. conjured up the jangly pop sounds of The Byrds which could be juxtaposed with the more angular riffing reminiscent of Led Zeppelin found on a Dinosaur Jr. album. There were also the Pixies milling about but they're not comparable to much and let's not even get started on the punk/funk/jazz/folk of the Minutemen.

And so it continued until the early 90's where the guitar took place in yet another sea change and grunge and brit-pop exploded onto the scene, complete with a new set of heroes to be adored.

Of course, with a huge new movement in music a new generation of kids had to be coming of age, this time the 'nevermind' generation were taking over declaring that guitars were good, maybe, but who cares.

Nirvana were huge and so were Oasis, Weezer and Manic Street Preachers, whilst Johhny Greenwood and Radiohead began to take over the world and the lives of another generation of guitarists. The guitar and the guitar hero had come up trumps again.

So, where does all of this leave the guitar standing today? A certain amount of years on and the guitar is still going strong but there seems to be a lack of world changing-ness about the situation or if there isn't, I haven't heard anything to make me change my mind.

I'll wait still, of course, as it is pretty obvious by now that the guitar always has a trick up its neck. God forbid, however, if the latest revolution was that awful, awful game.

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