Shortly after setting up home with the future Mrs Slender, she expressed a wish to grace our bedroom wall with a rather attractive photograph of your author entertaining possibly dozens of ecstatic punters on stage at that Mecca of rock’n’roll debauchery, The Pied Bull in Islington. Not wishing to appear too immediately vain I sought sibling advice before agreeing. “Is it OK to have a picture on the wall where you’re playing guitar?” “Err, depends” wavered the Oracle, “what make of guitar is it?”
Joking aside, this was clearly the correct answer. Or question. As anybody who has ever been in a band will testify, as much as we pay lip service to the idea of our, ahem, “axe” as a mere tool, secretly we’re all thinking – does this make me look enough like Brian Jones? The choice of guitar is motivated more often by the choice of our heroes than it is by the sound it makes. Ironic then that so many of us have at some point resorted to playing a cheap Les Paul copy.
As an aside I have to say that the chances of me putting together a generation defining band are now more remote than ever. In view of this fact I would be happy for any of you to use my idea of Les Paul Copy for a band name. Failing that, feel free to choose from Bongo Leatherland, The Earl Shiltons or Fab! Gear. Or should that be The Fab Gears? You decide.
One man for whom financial necessity lead to the mother of all inventions was pathologically unsympathetic serial bowl-cut wearer, Johnny Ramone. When The Ramones formed in 1974 the once popular Mosrite guitar company had first found itself out of favour and then, since 1968, bankrupt. Consequently second hand stores were awash with the unfashionable albatrosses providing a cheap source of mojo 4-star for a generation of less educated guitar players seeking to tank up the rock’n’roll Cadillac. Fred “Sonic” Smith of The MC5, Pat Smear of The Germs, Ricky Wilson of The B-52’s, Todd Rundgren and later Kurt Cobain all cashed in, but it was the former John Cummings that made the model his own.
Like the aforementioned pudding basin do, the leather jackets and the cheap sneakers, Johnny’s Mosrite is an indispensible part of Ramones mythology, arguably because it was so wrong. Anyone cynically putting together a punk band which traded in classic jukebox rock’n’roll riffing and iconic rebel clothing would undoubtably have had Mrs Cummings’ cantankerous boy playing a Gibson 335 or Gretsch country gentleman. This of course would have been like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa – no rebellion in copying Chuck Berry. When it comes to tearing up rock’s rule book, you need help from The Ventures.
One man who needed no help from no one when it came to placing facial hair on priceless artworks was (regular readers will have guessed by now) Bo Diddley. Here’s two pictures of Bo. First with a production line guitar from his sponsors Gretsch.
Nice. But surely we can do better? Course we can! Just send our boy into the woodshed with a cigar box and THIS is what comes out.
I remember once reading an interview with Queen’s Brian May (I’m so sorry, I have no idea why. Maybe I was running a temperature) in which he was praised for making his own guitar. Iron joinery screws used for the pickups were, it transpires, responsible for giving the Farrokh Bulsara Combo its distinctive operatic wail… But it was (and I hope I’m not blinding you with technical audio terms here) a shite guitar. It has curves and stuff, like a real guitar. Loser.
I think it was Antoni Gaudi that said something to the effect that whilst the straight line is human, the curve is divine. Well how’s that going to help you soundcheck? Bo on the other hand, armed with a guitar that looks like it was designed by Homer Simpson, is most definitely flesh and blood, a man, made 21 with something in his pocket that could keep a lotta folks alive. Eventually even the good people at Gretsch were forced to agree and throwing up their hands said “Sod it. Have it your own way Bo, we’ll make ’em square.”
Having excelled himself in the service of the man born Ellas Otha Bates, Homer Simpson then went on to design the perfect Kid Slender fantasy guitar – the Vox Phantom. We may not, you and I, agree on the respective merits of The Ramones, The Ventures, Bo Diddley or Queen but on one thing we are, I believe, unanimous. The Vox Phantom: it’s absolutely off its head.
Released in 1962, Homer (or to give him his correct name, Thomas Jennings) had clearly taken to heart President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon, believing, it would seem, that said man would be needing to play a suitably space-age guitar when he got there. The Phantom had a dazzling array of nobs, knockers and effects and was built to operate in stereo via connections to twin amplifiers.
Unfortunately this combination of cutting edge technology and iconic design is rather at odds with the six strings and a fretboard setup that most people learn to play. And, it must be said, with the standard issue two hands and ten fingers that they learn to play with. Bear in mind also that rock’n’roll goes hand in hand with himalayan egos and that most guitarists object to being upstaged by their plug-in baby. The Vox Phantom was just… too much. It had the unfortunate effect of completely upstaging its… operator?
And operators there were. Jimmy Page had a bash before modestly hiding his bushel under a twin-neck. Ian Curtis it seems owned several but made the grave error of influencing the nascent Spandau Ballet by playing them at armpit level. Even Sterling Morrison – coolest musician ever: OFFICIAL – of Kid Slender lodestars The Velvet Underground, was unable to make sense of the damn thing and promptly flew the mothership back to planet Gretsch. The sad fact is that the Vox Phantom was a charming orphan unable to find loving parents to make it their own. Or was it?
Appropiately enough we need to travel to the future. 41 years into the future. Mr Jennings baby has become middle aged, synthesizers have become commonplace, the common cold has not been cured. And a band called Ladytron have released a single called “Blue Jeans”. I like it. A lot. It has an endearingly clumpy primitive electro feel like DAF or early Human League, but the melody is pure 60’s beat girl. The lyrics? Well, I’m deaf remember. It might be about a claustrophobic affair whilst trying to get by on a student grant but don’t quote me on that.
It was some few years further into the future though that I thought to search youtube and there they were. Four angular, intense scousers, staring at the floor, thinking about Philip K Dick and sporting the mighty Phantom. I felt like punching the air. Not since Steve Claridge scored the last second winner against Crystal Palace in the 1996 Division 1 play-off final have I felt such a vesuvian surge of adrenalin. And it takes mere seconds before you realise that there is unequivocally no other guitar that a guitarist from this band could reasonably play. I say guitarist you see, as I have never bothered to learn the names of the band members. They’re just… Ladytron. A unit. I refuse to concede the possibility of solo careers or even a life outside of the band. The mundanities of paying the rent and feeding oneself are so clearly alien to these people that the only logical conclusion is that they spend most of their lives in a Sigourney Weaver-like suspended animation, emerging only to make videos and perform. Like my favourite TV programme, the Avengers, Ladytron have only a passing acquaintance with real life, with its litter, uniformed police and urchin children on BMXs. And like Steed and Mrs Peel they boast both impeccable style and perfect content.