In lavish praise of the electric guitar - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #34

Pure Reason Revolution. Photograph - Vikki Nye
Today my In Search of Space weekly margin doodle thing takes a little bit of a step back. Usually we take time out to celebrate a single spinning black void of awesomeness, and occasionally open it up to give a big ‘hell yes’ to an artist or person; but today we’re gonna go a bit bigger and praise an invention and through it, and entire way of life. I thought I’d do this because I’ve had a few drafts of this kicking about for various people and have never finished one, it’ll serve as a bit of a respite from my usual ranting so that I can rant about something else, how novel. So take off your coat, order yourself a drink, sit down, not in the big chair, I’m going to sit in that and tell you about the electric guitar because every artist I've drooled over on here has used one.


Something happened all over the world in the 50s. Something massive and important and revolutionary. The cold war was it its coldest. The Berlin air-lift and the Suez crisis behind us and the Cuban missile crisis and the inhumanity of the Vietnam war still to look forward to. This revolution didn’t happen in every place and hasn’t properly happened everywhere even yet, but it started in that corner of time in the world. Something was invented that was to change the world fundamentally forever, a huge hairline crack in the way society had been built up to that point and something we take completely for granted now. The teenager. That magical time when you’re old enough to go out on your own and think you know enough about the world to experiment with drink and drugs and sleep deprivation and radical magazines (and trousers) and romantic entanglements with the opposite (or same, not judging) sex but before you have things like children and a job and a secret desire for death. Previous to the fifties, teenagers didn’t exist. Certainly people moved inexorably through the teenage years; but you wore short-pants for about three quarters of it and then slipped into a suit and began life as an adult with nary a day between the two. It was during the fifties that young people started demanding a time of adolescence. The opportunity of those years between childhood and adult-suicide watch was slowly embraced and exploited by those currently rocketing through them. This was due entirely to the electric guitar. Let me explain.

Any kind of culture, to be distinct from others needs several things. Fashion, ideas, music and slang. Rock and roll provided all of these things. The newly formed rock and roll bands of the fifties and early sixties in America and Britain were revolutionary and truly unprecedented. Sure it all seems pretty tame now, but at the time people thought it would corrupt the youth. The electric guitar as an instrument had been around since the 30s and had largely stayed confined to a part in American Big Band music. A single man vibrating strings off pickups could compete with the whole bass string section of a big band because of amplification. This was appealing to the early rock and roll bands, to have volume. Electric guitars were (relatively) cheap to pick up and very easy to learn and most importantly, you couldn’t get louder for less. The electric guitar was also, up to that point, characterless. It wasn’t part of anything. It had no associations with the parental world. This also appealed to rock and roll musicians as they could imbibe the image of the electric guitar with their own ideas and also build the electric guitar as a symbol into their own understanding of the world. Electric guitars allowed new stories to be told in music, new emotional avenues to be signposted and thoroughly explored and the newfound teenagers were just the people to explore those avenues of sound with the ever-increasing library of pedals, amplifiers and other effects that can be placed on an electric guitar. So teens had music, and with it came new slang and new ideas. Political and emotional and sexual ways of being that parents didn’t know but sure didn’t approve of. New ways of seeing the world and understanding it. New ways of understanding ourselves. This also coincided with the perfection of small portable radio technology, so now teenagers could have their own music and didn’t have to listen to what their parents wanted to. Music was a connection point. DJ’s became cultural icons and had interesting things to say that were as new and exciting and revolutionary as the music they were broadcasting. People who met up to talk about rock and roll in rock and roll bars started to talk about sex, about drugs, about war, fashion and money. The people who got together dated and took drugs because rock and roll had got them out of their homes and into bars their parents didn’t know. They decided that the war in Vietnam was not okay and a hundred other things. Truly George Beauchamp changed the world more than any other person.

The electric guitar is an icon of our age, and I mean more than our time period. For generations X and (wh)Y it is one of the things imprinted on our cultural memory. People holding guitars adorn our postered bedroom walls and tees. It’s the reason our parents (and later our neighbours) ask us to turn down the music and slam our bedroom doors. The electric guitar and the music that comes out of it has started more revolutions than Marx, freed more minds than the contents of Hunter Thompson’s cupboards and worried the olds and the squares and the establishment more than drugs, guns, religious zealotry, economic collapse and nuclear Armageddon put together. More drugs have been taken to the sound of an electric guitar’s unmistakable wail and thrash. More sips of bourbon, snorts of coke and burning of bras has been done with electric guitar music in the ears and in the heart. It is undeniable that teenagers changed the world more profoundly than any unified movement ever could; and teenagers wouldn’t have been possible without rock and roll; and rock and roll wouldn’t be anything without the electric guitar. The most important invention of the last or indeed any century.

Rock and roll is something I feel really passionate about, and I don’t think many other people realise what a continually revolutionary force it could have been if we’d managed to keep it out of the greasy hands of greedy corporate hustlers. Rock and roll is a force. It isn’t unified, there isn’t a dress code or a minimum scale of competence required for entry. The more of a freak you are the more welcome you are. There’s room for everyone and a huge place for young people to seize the world from their forebears. It is superb fun and immensely important. It is a place for people with something to say, not literally but emotionally. To say something so beautiful and powerful that it comes right out of the speakers and hits you square like an intercity train. It can plant ideas like a mortar shell exploding amongst what you think you know. This music exists today, it never stopped. But the bits of rock and roll that are still honest aren’t listened to very much and bits that are listened to are straining against chains of committee design and corporate compromise. It’ll never be too late for the rock and roll revolution, any time you want to start it just wander into your local shop and grab a record to start your journey, rock and roll already has a million ready-pressed revolutions available in a store near you and a million more eagerly waiting to be written by the next generation of distortion evangelists; but if fear it is already too late. Society has already hit a point where horrific banal inconsequential drek that in any previous era record shops would rather have go bankrupt than sell is lapped up eagerly as great, record shops themselves being sacrificed to the god of iTunes 79p plastic crap spectacular, masterpieces sliced up and tampered with and left on the record room floor while mediocre fluff wins awards and inanities sit at number one.. The revolution is ready, but I fear the world is already past the point of no return. Those of us using rock and roll genius as a jumping off point to define our own lives are now in a minority, but we don’t care because we know that transcendental, powerful, raw, visceral, beautiful challenging works of art are still worth making even if nobody looks at them. Great rock and roll isn’t made for money or fame or glory, great music is an end in itself.

Written under duress by Steven.

P.S. This was fun, maybe I’ll do another one sometime, would you like that?
P.P.S I never mentioned any names in the last paragraph, so if you thought I was insulting your beloved landfill indie band then that says more about you than it does about me.

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