For as long as people have been making music, those people have been trying to make the music they make louder. A longer stick. A bigger rock. Hollow out that log. Yodel in a fjord. Steel strings on violins instead of gut. Church organ pipes the size of a redwood. Mr. Jolson, sing into this megaphone. All are technologies of loudness. As with so many technologies, the 20th century saw technologies of loudness, as it were, boom. Just as the A-bomb was the mid 20th century techno-game changer, the perfect embodiment of our urge to destroy ourselves and each other, the electric guitar, is the mid 20th Century techno-game changer in the never ending urge to turn it up. Listen to this Count Basie-led group from 1938; perhaps the earliest recording of an electric guitar solo anywhere. This solo, with its twangy tone and cool arpeggios, is played by the great arranger, trombonist, and guitarist Eddie Durham.
Guitars, which before played background chords or single note lines over minimal accompaniment—you can hear the master of acoustic rhythm Freddie Green behind the solos on this cut—could now hold their own against trumpets and saxophones as instruments soloing over the whole band: a huge innovation.
Now, electrifying a guitar by putting a magnet wrapped in wire under the metal strings—thank you William Clerk Maxwell—and then running the current produced into another gadget that uses the current to move a column of air electric doesn’t just make the sound louder. The pure waves of the vibrating strings are really, really hard to accurately reproduce. So the bad news is that all kinds of wild imperfections—aka noise, aka distortion—creep in to “spoil” the accuracy of the reproduction. You can hear them in Durham’s solo. The good news—which took until about 1950 to discover—is that some of those wild imperfections actually sound great, often better than the pure, but naked, sound a of string vibrating in the first place. A loud guitar is nice, but a distorted loud guitar, distorted the right way….ahhhh.
Many guitarists since Durham have made distortion and noise part of their signature sounds, but only a few have explored distortion itself as a medium of expression. Jimi Hendrix was the master. Jeff Beck, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Derek Bailey, Eddie Van Halen, Glenn Branca, Fred Frith, Thurston Moore and Nels Cline have done great stuff. But the history of making a guitar sound like it’s never sounded before, and inserting that sound into the popular lexicon, simply cannot be written about without one of our featured artists: Adrian Belew.
Discovered in a bar band by Frank Zappa, front man for King Crimson, sideman for David Bowie, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, fellow CHF 2011 presenter Laurie Anderson, Nine Inch Nails and countless others, Belew has been pulling an astonishing palette of sounds from his instrument for nearly 40 years and, as you’ll see in the clips below, bringing an unsurpassed ebullience, intelligence and musicianship to everything he does.
Here he is on tour with Bowie back in 1978; one of the great bands of the era. This is “Jean Genie,” with Belew taking a great solo around 2:20. But I could have also chosen the great version of “Heroes” with Belew doing the Robert Fripp parts, “Beauty and the Beast”, and a bunch of other great stuff from this tour or other efforts with Bowie that continued through the 1990’s.
Here he is on the1980 Remain in Light tour with Talking Heads—absolutely at their peak—on “The Great Curve.” Who could not enjoy the solo which begins at 2:05?
(Notice how in these last two clips he is clearly upstaging Bowie and David Byrne—the late 70’s /early 80’s rock equivalent of dunking over last year’s festival headliner Kareem Adul Jabbar.)
Or here he is hand-picked by Robert Fripp to front the mighty reformation of King Crimson in 1982, doing his song “Elephant Talk”. The solo at 3:20 is pure Belew.
Or earlier this year in a more meditative mode in a live solo performance
We can’t wait to hear him talk about and make guitar noise on Nov 13th.
811: Sun, Nov. 13 5:00 - 6:00 PM
Tags: Adrian Belew, Count Basie, Eddie Durham, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, King Crimson, stratocaster, electric, guitar, noise, distortion, fuzz