Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Sublime 'Spikiness' of Mod Guitar

There is a particular guitar sound that has always intrigued me in its quintessential Englishness. It is epitomized in the sound of Paul Weller (especially his Jam days), Pete Townsend of The Who and the mid-to-late 70's British Punk sound - The Clash rather than the Pistol's. I think the best way to describe this noise is: Mod stiletto, Zoot suite sharpness, melded with testosterone fueled adolescent aggression.

The 'Mod Sound' exemplified by Weller and Townsend is all about PHYSICALITY. There's that intense amphetamine charged prickliness, which is translated into Townsend's 'windmills' and stage leaps and Weller's spasmodic, barely restrained jerkiness in The Jam to the present day. But this aggression and physicality would seem at odds with the music if their guitar sound wasn't (and isn't) intricately bound up with that slightly psychotic body rhythm.

Townsend's guitar on 'My Generation', 'The Real Me', Weller's jagged riffs on 'Going Underground', 'Eton Rifles' and 'In the City' - to name only a handful - all have that glassy, 'clean', twangy resonance that reminds me (and many others I'm sure) of my first tentative explorations on the instrument.

Back in the late 70's and early 80's there weren't exactly a plethora of cheap, digital effects floating around as of today. If you were starting out and wanted an amp with such esoteric additions as the mystical 'reverb' or 'echo' you had to lay down serious cash. And don't even think about nice shiny analogue overdrive and distortion pedals.

This lack of cash and it's attendant poverty of all the fancy effect 'tricks', triggered a DIY Punk aesthetic in the aspiring apprentice guitar hero. Replete with his five or ten watt practice amp and cheap (and very dodgy) Asian import, the only way he or she could approximate a half-decent guitar sound was to hit those open chords very hard and very quickly and turn the volume to max to add the tiniest amount of overdriven distortion.

I could never get a Deep Purple or Black Sabbath growl when I was a kid, but there was definitely a stage when out of frustration rather than design (this guitar sounds fuckin' shit!) I just began whacking the thing in crude, inarticulated adolescent existential angst - Hey Presto! We have Messrs Townsend and Weller in my humble underpant-strewn teenage bedroom ... sort of.

I mean I was using a very disgusting Les Paul copy at this time, remember - not even a Telecaster, or the requisite Rickenbacker. But still, I could get somewhere 'near' that classic Mod sound. That's the secret though I think. It was a combination of anger, physicality and the limits prescribed by the equipment. Lack of cash forced me to play clean.

Not of course that Mr Townsend and Mr Weller were so strapped for the readies that they were FORCED to play Mod guitar...although, on reflection, a lot of those guitar trick boxes were not readily available to young Pete when he started out in the early 60's...

Johnny Marr said in an interview a while ago about never understanding the fascination with artificial guitar distortion as there was nowhere to go back to from there. I perfectly understand what he means. A clean guitar signal will naturally distort and compress when played in a certain way with the right amp setting. There must always be a bit of light and dark, and this is often best exemplified by the physicality of the player, him or herself.
In this sense, the electric guitar becomes a percussive instrument too.

I know I mentioned the Clash and some of the early punk bands having this 'aesthetic' too. And now I think of it, I can see a continuation of that speeded-up Mod vibe in the Telecaster slashings of Strummer and Co.

Oh, and by-the-way, the Mod's and the Punks both had a predilection (or addiction) to amphetamines too. They were always fellow travellers in so many ways, but the Mod's always had a better dress sense and more interesting chords (and guitars: ever see a Punk with a Rickenbacker?)

In the next post I will compare and contrast chordal based, working-class, amphetamine-based rock in contrast to scalar and multi-modal, middle-class, downer-based 'noodling'. So there.

~ H-Allen