Talk From The Rock Room: July 2015

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tools of the Trade: John Lennon's 1958 Rickenbacker Capri 325 - 'Yes, I Know I'm a Lucky Guy'

In today’s Tools of the Trade feature the ‘rock room’ will rant about one of the most famous guitars in the annals of rock and roll history. John Lennon’s 1958 Rickenbacker Capri 325 (serial number V81) is not only one of the most recognizable instruments in rock history, but an instrument that assisted in providing the soundtrack for the 1960’s as well as inspiring a host of prospective future musicians and garage rock bands. While much has been written and discussed about the guitar its importance cannot be understated.

The Beatles were in their infancy, learning and growing up in Hamburg, Germany. The year was 1960 the group was playing one of their numerous residencies and constructing the steps that would lead to their eventual musical world domination. Lennon, like all British youth was enthralled with American music, movies and of course instruments. While story’s swirl and spread in the mists of time, what can be confirmed is Lennon purchased his famous guitar in Germany in 1960. Lennon in his mind, immediately became a 'professional' with this instrument while also unwittingly pioneering an exciting and chugging extension of the 'Mersey Beat'

While amplifier shopping with George Harrison, Lennon first came across the solitary instrument in a guitar shop the location of which there is some debate. Lennon fell in love with the sleek alder body and 'futuristic' look of the ‘short arm’ guitar, referred to as such because of the 5/8’ width and 20.75’ scale of the also alder neck.  These specifications are stellar for rhythm players more than for lead players and the instrument fit Lennon’s needs perfectly. The guitar also featured a lustrous gold pick guard and a natural grain sweet honey finish, four rotary controls and three short pole toaster pickups.

The guitar came outfitted with Grover tuners and a Kaufman vibrola. Guitar aficionado’s often wonder why Lennon would decide on an guitar so demure in its specs. While I do not have the answer, the easy assumption is Lennon liked a smaller instrument he could grasp and really dig into. Fast forward to August 30, 1972 when Lennon appeared on stage at Madison Square Garden, his instrument of choice for his return to the stage was a Les Paul Jr. A bit bigger n the neck but similar in the way it fit Lennon’s stance, hands, and performing attitude.  When Lennon held the Ric on stage in the Beatles formative years the guitar looked like a weapon. Tucked close to his body, the instrument was ready to disseminate chrome lasers of rhythmic sound at Lennon’s urgent rock and roll insistence. The Beatles were the true early punks and Lennon's unique instrument, approach and sound identified him as the biggest rock and roll punk of all..
Reportedly, only eight of these unique guitars were made by Rickenbacker and luckily for rock three were shipped to Germany and one was eventually purchased by Lennon. The natural finish Rickenbacker was a first run and special in the aspect that its solid body contained no ‘f’ hole (later models would). As soon as Lennon purchased the instrument other unique modifications started to be made. If you are a ‘rock room’ reader and familiar with the Tools of the Trade series one consistency with all of the instrument stories is that the owners are often making modifications in a constant search for the perfect sound.
Soon after bringing the famed guitar back to England Lennon had the vibrola removed and refitted with a more substantial Bigsby vibrato bar in addition to removing all of the knobs and replacing them with Hofner knobs at first and later what look like TV/radio knobs. 

The guitar soon became Lennon’s go to instrument on stage. The thick wire brush tone of the Rickenbacker cut through the beer drenched smoke of the Reeperbahn clubs, driving the Beatles early amphetamine rhythms to lofty and kinetic peaks. The guitar has an instantly identifiable treble punch, that while situated in the pallet of the Beatles sound coagulated all of the Beatles instrumentation into one undulating rock and roll freight train. Lennon’s sound would also influence band mate George Harrison to soon move from Gretsch to Rickenbacker as well as influencing artists across the world, (McGuinn, Townshend) to base their respective groups’ aesthetic around the silvery shimmer of the Rickenbacker.

By late 1963 Lennon would make another change to the guitar when he had it painted in its now famous jet black. The reason for this change has been the subject of much debate and speculation, but as history shows Lennon has a documented habit of messing with his instruments through artistic additions and quirky modifications. This trend started in the early years with the Rickenbacker, moved through the Beatles years with his refurbished Epiphone Casino, his solo era with the aforementioned Les Paul and into the late 1970’s with his ‘space’ guitar. Documentation speculates that Lennon’s painted the guitar to cover for damage that had occurred in the hundreds of stage performances, also that it was a request from Brian Epstein to match the Beatles new and slick public image. It could also to have been for conformity reasons with Harrison's black Duo-Jet. Regardless of the reason, this new appearance for the guitar coincided with its movement to iconic status right along with the Beatles ascending popularity.
Lennon would use the guitar on stage for their famous debut on Ed Sullivan and through the recording of the Beatles 1964 LP Beatle For Sale, its tone solidifying the Beatles early sound. The Ric would eventually be replaced by a newer model in early 1964 when Lennon was given a new Rickenbacker 325 in addition to a twelve string version from the guitar company. The original Ric would disappear for a few years but always held a sentimental place in Lennon’s heart. 

Songs that illustrate the guitar doing its work and disseminating its tones of special note can be found in the early black and white footage of the Beatles at the famed Cavern Club in 1962 which I have included below.  The Rickenbacker is the central impetus of the band’s sound in this era, scrubbing the crowd into a frenzy and encouraging the power of the revolutionary music. ‘All My Loving’ from With the Beatles is another sterling example of the resonant and resounding Lennon tone and approach. The Rickenbacker churns under the melody of the track, its electric chording, exceptional and exciting. The two volumes of the Beatles BBC collections spotlight the Rickenbacker on the majority of the tracks, its aforementioned 'ring' nestled in sympatico with Harrison's more placid country tonalities. For an example of Lennon making it 'howl and move' check out 'You Can't Do That' where Lennon takes the mid tune solo for a ride on the rails with an aggressive round of string bending.
By the mid 1960's for all intents and purposes the guitar had been retired. In 1972 post Beatles, Lennon commissioned to have the guitar restored to its original specifications. According to various reports the guitar had seen better days, but after a lot of TLC, electronics work and general repairs the guitar was returned to its original glory. Today the instrument looks like it did when Lennon walked into the Hamburg music store those many years ago, except for a white pick guard which for  unknown reasons replaces the original gold that adorned the guitar when it was built.
Currently, Yoko Ono owns and cares for the instrument and it makes rare and brief appearances now and again, most recently at the John Lennon Museum in Tokyo, Japan. The elements of its construction still retain the musical ghosts of the past making it one of the most, if not the most iconic guitars in rock history.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Put the Boot In: Harry Nilsson - 1971 The Music of Nilsson 'Listen to My Song'

Jamming visually and audibly today in the rock room is a stellar video document of Harry Nilsson ‘In Concert’ from the aptly titled The Music of Harry Nilsson broadcast in 1972. Ironically, Nilsson never performed live in concert and this particular performance was recorded in the studio with the audience applause overdubbed after the fact. This is no way affects the absolutely stunning performances contained herein. There is plenty of intimate footage and sticky sweet songwriting to go around. The half hour special plays more like a movie short or long play music video using goofy effects and some cool animation spots to accompany the music.

Luckily this performance captures one of the most extraordinary singer/songwriters of our time in an emotionally stirring and low key setting. Nilsson’s personality is put beneath glass for the duration of the performance, bearing his soul and sharing his gift through truthful renditions of many of his finest compositions. The entire half hour performance is available because of the loving time and effort of an enterprising fan. Clips have been put together seamlessly and from multiple sources to create perfect representation of the 1972 BBC broadcast. It could be and should be an official release.

The concert features Nilsson solo, with voice and piano (sometimes guitar) and some silly shenanigans to keep things interesting and to deflect some of the cameras from their subject I’m sure.
The performance opens with the dampened blue and rolling saloon introduction of ‘Mr Richland’s Favorite Song’, a shifty narrative outlining a confused rock star and his equally special admirers.  Nilsson’s vocals are gripping, wringing the storyline from the songs shadowy melody. The verses of ‘Richland’ move in and out of the Nilsson original and 1969 hit for ‘Three Dog Night’, ‘One’ and back into ‘Mr. Richland’ seamlessly. The song then continues into a wordless scat sung outro jam where Nilsson rises and falls with regal resonance, a beautiful conclusion and opening.

After the simulated audience participation, Nilsson bounds into ‘Got To Get Up’ from  1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, his succinct piano melody evoking a melodic hustle and bustle and the inevitably of time. This rendition is sparse in comparison to the big sound of the studio rendition, but is no less effective. Nilsson’s colored piano trills that conclude the song are especially inspiring.
‘Walk Right Back’ follows, a cover song probably learned via the Everly Brothers, the song weaves and bobs on a delicious Nilsson piano line. Two Harry’s share the piano bench harmonizing together. Verse two begins and a third Harry appears lending the sparkling counter melody and eventually some wheezing harmonica. The footage is 1970’s antiquated with its split screen, but stunning in its portrayal of Nilsson’s stratified vocal styling’s and quirky sense of humor.  The triad of Harry’s segue into a honky-tonk appearance of ‘Let the Good the Good Times Roll’ and conclude with a glimpse of Nilsson watching himself amidst a snoozing crowd of onlookers.

The delicate simplicity of “Life Line’ from  Nilsson’s 1971 LP and story The Point makes a welcome and rare appearance. His performance here reminds me of a John Lennon home demo tape in its scarce but effective lyrics and chanted piano mantras. Nilsson’s influence on Lennon is obvious when this track is analyzed. Nilsson uses vibrato and vocal droning effects to enunciate the succinct lyrics. His voice is indescribable in its perfect expression of Harry’s soulful air.

Nilsson looks out at a staged disinterested crowd and then gazes into a television screen placed on his piano, where an animation for the cartoon adaptation of Harry’s LP The Point  illustrates the fairytale lyricism of ‘Think About Your Troubles’. The songs natural progression of events and tic-toc cadence is aurally excellent and acts a cool little interlude.

The soaring contrasts of sorrow and ‘Joy’ a song not yet released by Nilsson until Son of Schmilsson make an appearance here and revel in the context of a celebration of love and the eventual loss of that love. Nilsson again sings with passion and his vocals are rich, vibrant and flexing, he sings like the professional hired hand at an upscale 1920’s saloon. The song is a highlight of the performance and possibly a highlight of all available Harry footage. Only one person claps at the songs conclusion though.... as you will see on the accompanying video.
‘Are You Sleeping’, another feature from The Point is joined by the animated footage and is the studio version as far as I can tell. The dreamy wandering of the song plays against a cartoon background of stars and again acts as a diversion from featuring Nilsson in more footage humorously.

Nilsson next dons an acoustic guitar and sings ‘Without Her’ from 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show in a version that stays remarkably true to the original minus the swirling strings. Each line is dressed in angelic falsetto and wordless ‘do do do’s’ that add a carelessness to the expressed desperation illustrated in the narrative. The performance is a classic portrait of an artist at the top of his game and is an additional highlight.

Nilsson’s classic track ‘Cocunut’ follows 'Without Her' and is performed by three gorilla’s in bowler caps, one on piano, one on percussion and one on guitar. Those familiar with the pop culture effect of the ‘Cocunut’ song will be interested to know that the song is only played on one chord. Again, this performance has a home demo feel, with Nilsson’s perfectly layered vocals and the spacious one man (3 gorilla)instrumentation constructing the song. The accompanying video, well, check it out and call me in the morning, just the good Dr. says.
The performance and broadcast closes with ‘1941’ as Nilsson’s sneakered shoe taps and his fingers pluck out the acoustic melody. The song’s lyrics use years to express the circular way that family’s often find themselves in the same traps the generations the precede them.  Autobiographical in a sense, the song reminds us of heritage and the way some of us are doomed to repeat the mistakes that our parents did. The camera pulls away and rises as Nilsson fades to black and white his heart felt oooh’s and moans like gentle fingers on my neck. Just when it gets right to the edge of the nerve, color returns and Nilsson is tagged with a direct hit of a cream pie to the face. Just when the listener is in danger of getting too deep or taking the tale a bit too seriously, Nilsson reminds us of the humor and enjoyment present in all of his music.

1971’s The Music of Nilsson should be preserved forever with an official and specially packaged edition so fans and prospective listeners may be able to witness this special collection of performances. Humor, poignancy, revelations and secrets abound through the songwriting and instrumental expressions of Nilsson. The abilities on display during this concert range from ragtime singing, jazz sensibilities, compositional prowess, revolutionary arranging, storytelling and deep humor.  Nilsson was a man of multifaceted abilities; the aforementioned document captures a few of them for eternity and all of our musical enjoyment.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Take One: Rod Stewart - 'Lost Paraguayos' 1972 'You Know I Wouldn't Tell Ya No Lie'

The focus of today’s ‘Take One’ feature is a idiosyncratic little ditty composed by Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood and released by Stewart (in some countries) as the flip side to his 1972 number one hit ‘You Wear It Well’. ‘Lost Paraguayos’ is a humorous narrative set to the quintessential and solid instrumental backing group Stewart used exclusively at the time. The song is available as an album track on side A of Stewart’s classic 1972 solo LP Never a Dull Moment.

The song spotlights the deft arranging talents of Stewart and showcases the usual Stewart suspects, Micky Waller on drums, Stewart collaborator Martin Quittenton on acoustic and of course Ronnie Wood on guitars and bass. Stewart’s compositions often had a unique folk thread running through their foundations and this track concentrates on Stewart's blending of both pastoral folk elements and pub rock. His vocals can never be doubted in this era and this track allows for argument that he was the best rock vocalist of the time.

A ticklish acoustic filigree begins the song with the campfire accompaniment of a solitary tambourine. The song bobs around expectantly with Rod sweetly laying out his reasoning for abandoning his overnight love. Stewart first lists what he likes about his lady before initiating the litany of reasons she can’t join him on his journey. Stewart sings to his female companion with buzzed buoyancy, explaining to her that the inclement weather is bringing him down and he must be on his way to some ‘South American sun’. He admonishes his lady friend that she’s too young to come with him, she may cause him trouble and that ‘she sure don’t look like his daughter’. The story follows a pebbled road to camp but will soon find its way to the expressway as Stewart plans his musical getaway.

Stewart’s marvelous vocals are made more enjoyable by his suspiciously hearty laughing the follows the lines ending with, ‘Ya know I wouldn’t tell you no lie’. The brisk rustic strumming works in conjunction with the eavesdropping nature of the narrative, coloring a wonderful scene developed as well through Stewart’s lyrical humor and the sympathetic instrumental arrangement. 
The songs humble beginning in a contemporary folk setting patiently shifts to exuberant rocking and rolling by the halfway point. The contrast between the ‘shade’ of Stewart's current situation as opposed to his eventual destination of fun and sun is the crux of his debate with the unseen lady of the song as well as the basis of  his many excuses to her. The changes of  Stewart's emotional state are reflected by the developing instrumental dynamics that take place throughout the duration of the track.

A sunny water front mid song guitar breakdown following the fist verses elicits the big ‘bang-bang’ drums and bass that enter for the third verse.  Woody, in the sneaky way that made him famous begins to play a beautiful muted counter melody on bass under Stewart’s ascending and now urgent vocalizations. The layered acoustic guitars exude vibrant tones that bring to mind other legendary and helplessly catchy Stewart tracks from the era, ‘Maggie May’ and the ‘A’ side to this song ‘You Wear It Well’.  The song's anxiousness continues to increase as I can envision Stewart already has one foot out the door and one eye on the Southern reaches.
A  Mexican Banda joins in on swelling horns as Stewart bids ‘farewell’ in a series of excited vocal exclamations. Woody catches up from behind on electric guitar and offers the street musicians a descending melody line played in perfect, yet gently contradictory time to the horn licks. The clear blue guitar line reminds me of the introductory Chuck Berry ’Sweet Little Sixteen’ lick, but placed in a brand new context. 

The song soon reveals a huge fadeout reaching the crest of a musical arc as bottles pour, the breeze blows and the celebratory destination of the sun is reached. Stewart reports lyrically, ‘Good Bye honey, it aint' funny’ on the fade, while a dusty street dance has been initiated and glorious musical independence has been achieved. The bass is particularly active here and a gold star must be offered to Woody for his assistance in composing the multitude of melodic interplay the dresses the songs framework.

Rod Stewart’s 1972 track ‘Lost Paraguayos’ is not only an ace album track and ‘B’ side, but a testament to the strength and wealth of material available to Stewart in what must be considered his finest era. The early 1970’s find Rod Stewart as an artist at the top of his game and releasing quality music as a solo artist as well as with the ‘Faces’. ‘Lost Paraguayos’ encapsulates the direction of his music at this time and highlights its most attractive elements in a well thought out and perfectly arranged pop number.