A couple of weekends ago my peaceful weekend was interrupted by a phone call from a nice man called Ray. I was expecting a call as the following I was due to play a gig and the support band had found themselves without a drummer hence I was to be called to stand in. My original brief was that this would be a blues band, easy peasy, however as Ray eventually explained (he rambled a bit it must be said) the blues gig was off due to the rather un rock and roll reason that their guitarist of choice had got ‘a bad case of gout’. The plan would be that we would play some early 60’s classics, Ray was a bit vague on this he mentioned there would be some Chuck Berry (yay) some Elvis (ok) and possible some Shadows (oh er). I didn’t press him for more details, I was due in work for 9am the next day after all and Ray wasn’t getting any more concise so I agreed a time to meet at the gig and ended the call.My early purchase of K-Tell’s 25 rockin and rollin greats had at last paid off, I had played that record to death so I knew at least 25 rock and roll songs but, I realised I didn’t know that many Shadows songs so a trip to Spotify was needed.
One of my favourite periods of music history is the early 60’s in Britain. Rock and Roll had just happened, it had taken us a few years to pick on American styles and quite frankly we weren’t that good at it yet. Rock and roll was now being played by ex skiffle and jazz musicians up and down the country. The early 60’s were almost as austere as the post war years, guitars were actually quite hard to get hold of and decent equipment virtually unobtainable. Bands would travel up and down the roads of Britain (there were virtually no motorways) in completely clapped out vans devoid of seat belts, heating, radios and in fact often devoid of seats. At the end of the trip there was the joy of playing a local ballroom where hopefully the equipment would work and were the band would be safe from being beaten up by the local youths. If they were luck there might be a bag of chips on the way home unless it was Sunday which was when God had declared everything should be closed.
At this period The Shadows were gods themselves by virtue of the fact that they were really good. Guitarist Hank Marvin was a real hero especially with any young man forced to wear spectacles. Marvin was a shockingly good player but also had an amazing tone to his guitar which even today sounds both ancient and futuristic. Terry Meehan on drums had quite a few jazz chops which made for a series of exciting breaks, Jet Harris had one of the first ever electric basses in Britain and could play it well. On rhythm guitar was Marvin’s Geordie mate Bruce Welch who, as we shall see in a minute, was to be one of the most important men in rock.
The band were actually pretty good singers and cut some vocal tracks as The Drifters but soon developed their Shadows personas by backing Cliff Richard. Being required to do less singing they worked on their patented Shadows instrumental sound and became the heroes of all aspiring musicians by being both very good and imitable.
There was no rock career path in those days, most bands carried on for a couple of years until they got fed up with living off chips and being beaten up by teddy boys. They then went back to being milkmen or whatever, end of story. For the lucky few there was a career in light entertainment and sure enough as soon as Mersey beat came along The Shadows could be seen chucking custard pies at each other on stage in a provincial panto.
Most of the bands in this early period of British rock and roll were not actually that good, that was unsurprising, there was no way we could do a crash course in American culture in a couple of years. The Shadows were head and shoulders above everyone else but there was another rival for best British band.
Johnny Kidd and the Pirates were responsible for possibly the two best British rock and roll tracks ever namely ‘Please don’t Touch’ and ‘Shaking all Over’. While the Shads, really by virtue of their link with the people’s favourite Cliff Richard could enjoy a bit of mainstream success Johnny Kidd was still dragging his final incarnation of The Pirates round the dance hall circuit by the time of his death in a car accident near Bury in 1966.
And so we have the two really significant bands whose legacy lives on today by virtue of the fact that they influenced so many of the next generation of rockers.
This is where we come to the importance of Bruce Welch. The bands that followed copied either The Shadows or The Pirates in a very significant way namely did they or didn’t they have a rhythm guitarist?
The thing about a three piece band (that’s in terms of musicians not just numbers we are talking about singers can be a separate person or one of the other band members doubling up.) is that it make everything a bit simpler and more direct. Everyone in the band has to work a bit harder, and there’s also a bit of a problem with the sound dropping out when the guitarist takes a solo, but a three piece tend to rock a bit harder. The four piece, of course have a far broader musical palette, solos often sound better with some chords underneath. The Shadows would have been crap without Bruce Welch they needed to sound nice, on the other hand Black Sabbath were fine with just the one guitarist. The Who began life in The Shadow’s mode but when Roger Daltrey heard The Pirates he jettisoned his own lead guitar for the sound of a three piece .
The power of three can arise in strange places, apparently The Hollies were so enthralled by the sound of the Pirates that they just didn’t plug in Graham Nash’s guitar for live gigs. The three is the power trio harder and heavier but perhaps less inventive than the four piece.
And so until The White Stipes were invented bands had the choice of whether they wanted to be The Pirates or The Shadows.In fact it stems from the days of Mersey beat, the biggest live rivals to The Beatles were proto power trio The Big Three who allegedly (there’s very little recorded evidence) had the live power to blow the Beatles offstage. At the beginning Buddy Holly complicated things by having 3 and 4 piece bands!
And so bands spilt into two camps
The Who, Cream, Led Zep, Black Sabbath, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, The Jimi Hendrix Experience ,ZZ Top, Motorhead, The Police
The Beatles, the Stones, The Clash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Television, Status Quo, AC/DC
So for few years at least, the choice for most bands were one of two blueprints. Personally I’m a sucker for a bit of rhythm guitar from Crazy Horse to Television it’s nice to have a bit more going on while the lead is showing off but in terms of main stream rawk the three piece is the most enduring form.
And it’s all traceable, in Britain at least, to The Pirates.
More about The Pirates in the 70’s next week.