Saturday, 21 September 2013

That Old Beatnik Jag/Jazzmaster Vibe

For me, and many others of course, certain styles of electric guitar conjure up particular vibes, they shape the atmosphere for creating certain kinds of music. Generally, for most folks for example, the Strat exudes the classic late 60's Hendrix space cadet voodoo vibe. Its a personal thing of course: what to me might seem like a relatively uninteresting, overblown, pointy piece of wood ('Super-Strat'), to you might trigger the vast cosmic technical universes of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani.

There's one guitar in particular that I've never owned but always had a bit of a thing for. I recall first seeing one in a photo in a music paper around '79/80, being played by some pale, emaciated zombie guy with blond hair. The band he was in had a boring name - 'Television' - and I'd never heard any of their music. The guitar he was holding looked so dated and visually jarring next to the intense, punky persona of its owner.

Remember, back in the late '70's retro wasn't really very cool, apart from the 50's cheesiness of GREASE and HAPPY DAYS for the kids - .. 'The Fonz' anyone?

The 'Space age' was still 'in', and TV shows like TOMORROW'S WORLD showcased breathtaking new inventions that were going to revolutionize our dull lives: Microwave ovens, LCD watches, flying cars, personal computers...errr, the Rubik's Cube. Anyway, you get the idea.

Musical instruments were not safe from this silicon tidal wave either of course, anything that could hold a tone had a chip stuck in it, or was turned into a sparkly jagged thing that looked like a Star Wars X-Fighter.

There's an irony to all this of course. Anything that's supposed to look 'Space Age' and embody the dynamic of the future, can only ever be a product of its particular zeitgeist, or how we think the future will or should be like at that particular moment in time, which, a few years along the line often looks hilariously dated and just plain WRONG. (Those beige cat-suits that we were all supposed to be modelling in 1980 never really took off did they Mr Gerry Anderson!)

This tapping into the Sci-Fi vibe is nothing new to guitar manufacturers of course: Leo Fender created a pair of Star Ships called the 'Stratocaster' and the 'Telecaster'. I mean, just think about those names for a little while - 'They're guitars Jim, but not as we know them'.

This weird and wacky mash of nostalgia and future shock has created strange hybrid creatures in the guitar world: what exactly is a 'modern' Custom Shop, 1950's, vintage, reliced Stratocaster??? its an electric guitar manufactured with new materials, modern digital tooling and CNC machines, and then made to look 50 years-old. Its an ersatz time capsule, an object made in the future to remind us of how we imagined the wonders of this future/present in a more innocent and romantic past.

Its actually a real head-fuck attempting to compute all the philosophical connotations of a new/vintage reliced guitar! Just give me 'The Matrix', its easier to understand.

The Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar have something a little more closer to home, as regards styling I think. Once again, we have a bit of a Sci-Fi theme going on, but this is more like a 50's De Havilland Comet airliner, or the tail fin of a Cadillac Coupe De Ville.

The Jazzer and the Jag always embody the mojo of the Beat writers for me: Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso and so on. They somehow represent the Hobo spirit of travel, movement and poetry.
I know I may be reading too much into this (bear with me), but there's something in those particular Fender models that sends me right back to a Greenwich Village coffee shop, or a San Francisco crash pad in the 1950's.

I think a lot of 'modern' Jazz and Jag players tapped into this thing too. Something about these guitars appeals to the more poetic side of a musicians hunger for expression.

In the band mentioned above - Television - Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd traded jazzy, avant-guarde post-punk riffs on Jazzmasters and Jaguars, Elvis Costello created some of his greatest tunes on a secondhand Jazzmaster, and Johnny Marr wouldn't be Johnny Marr without his jangly Jag's. These were, and are, all great songwriters who were drawn to a guitar that was highly unfashionable when they started out.

Something about these guitars seems to invite cutting edge sonic exploration too, just think of Nels Cline, Dinosaur Jr/J Mascis and the wonderful wall of noise that was and is Sonic Youth.

Jag's and Jazzmasters will always retain that subterranean Beatnik vibe for me. I have a dream of finding one for a tenner in an old antique shop next to a battered old copy of 'On the Road' ... or am I just being nostalgic for an imagined future in the past?

~ H Allen