Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sharp Dressed Men in Three Piece Suits: guitar, bass, and drums

Today The Who will excite thousands (millions?) of duped listeners at the Super Bowl, with tapes, extra musicians (?), and a rhythm section that while serviceable, couldn't shine Moon and Entwistle's shoes. 

Me?  I'm gonna sit here and reminisce about loud three piece bands and their glory.

I just watched an old youtube video of The Jeff Beck Group, recorded live at the Fillmore East in New York city sometime in 1968 ( ),  and it reminded me just how cool and exciting the classic three piece band can be in the hands of the right few men.  I'll list 'em:  Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, The Who, Cheap Trick (I'm including bands with stand alone singers - my blog, I do as I must here).  I'll maybe think of a few more along the way, but you get my drift.

The act of presenting a guiar and a voice with just a rhythm section to support them is a brave act for a guitarist.  It's treacherous territory to attempt such a stunt - it takes equal parts of talent and cajones to pull this off.  You've got to cover a tremendous amount of territory in this position.  You must fill up a lot of space, all the time, and still manage to not become boring or repetative.  If you've never tried it, you can't know the responsibilty I'm speaking of here.  The only braver act may be that of the slitary troubador.  Can you say that your guitar playing can assume this?  That's a lot of faith in your abilities.  Says a ton about the player, says a ton about you.

The Who were the first major three piece rock outfit, and that's appropriate, given the equal sizing of Pete Townshends' talent and ego.  Townshend knew exactly what he was doing, and outfitted himself with a rhythm section as powerful as himself, ensuring no dull moments.  Townshends tones and playing also quickly came to supply a wealth of musical geography, covering an immense territory.  His rhythm playing went from a whisper to a howl to a scream, often in the same tune, and never did anyone get bored at a Who show.  The man's lead playing is sometimes short shrifted by those who consider technical abilities more important than soul and the ability to communicate, but to my thinking he may be as exciting a soloist as has ever lived, breathed and busted a guitar.

Go straight to The Who's Live at Leeds, for more than ample proof of this.  Or check out their set at The Isle Wight 1970 show.  Townshend not only entertained with his incredible showmanship, he also lead a band through a two hour show with just his guitar.  This is heroic stuff.  He transverses the tundra from the proto-metal blues of Shakin' All Over to the gorgeous chording that makes See Me, Feel Me so moving.  His playing on Pinball Wizard astounds me to this moment.  You've heard it so many times that you forget that he wrote it and played it anew at one point.  Pete is the Christopher Columbus of rock.  He not only discovered America, he conquered it, and along the way laid a template for those who followed.

Following The Who to America were two sensations of the british post-Beatle music scene.  Born almost simultaneously, The Jeff Beck Group and The Jimi Hendrix Experience both took the blues and applied their own twists, resulting in music that still resonates with audiences and players alike.

Jeff Beck must only shake his head at the riches and success of Jimmy Page.  There's no question that Page is an immense talent and has earned everything he has, most of which he stole from Jeff Beck.  And there's no real question that Beck did fine on his own and has no qualms with the man. Still, the facts remain.  I know, I can hear it all ready.  Yes, Page is the best arranger/producer/writer  this side of The Beatles - I love his work - but the man never met an idea he couldn't glom, and Led Zeppelin was certainly (at least at first) a play from Jeff Beck's playbook.

The Jeff Beck Group consisted of Beck, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood , and drummer Mick Waller.  Beck supplied volcanic guitar, spewing molten licks in every direction, as Wood played lead bass as surely as Entwistle had in The Who.  There's talk of Beck and Woodie reconvening this lineup, and while it seems unlikely, I'd love another taste.  The youtube clip I mentioned earlier gives credence to the opinion that if Beck had so desired, his band may have out-Zeppelined Zeppelin.  Beck and Wood entertwine magically, and Stewart was once a tremendous rock shouter.  The album, Truth remains a classic example of how exciting a three piece band can sound.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience came to be that same season in 1966 in the same town.  London certainly set the tone for the sixties when it came to musical invention.  Hendrix took the blues, Dylan, and The Beatles to place they'd never been, would never go.  It's important to note that these bands were working with almost absurdly primitive equipment at this time, without the benefit of decent monitors to hear themselves while playing live.  They were truly flying by the seat of their pants,and this realization makes it even more thrilling.  Hendrix created the guitar hero for American audiences.

Ready to have your mind blown?  At the same time Hendrix and Beck were rehearsing their armies, Eric Clapton busied himself recruiting Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form Cream, who debuted in July of '66.  You've got three of the most innovative and exciting three piece rock bands in history, all literally getting their acts together simultaneously, and in the same town.  I can barely fathom this, can only just get my arms around it.

So you've got these four groups setting the world on fire when Jimmy Page finally lays the Yardbirds to rest and creates the most successful three piece with a singer band in history, Led Zeppelin.  Page took Townshends' lead even a bit further, supplying Zeppelin's records with layer upon layer of guitar tracks, often using different tunings, instruments, amps, and effects creating orchestrations never before concieved.  He may not have been first, but once he got going Page certainly became arguably the most elaborate guitar sculptor in rock history.  I still get amazed with great regularity when I headphone up to some Zeppelin tracks.  I suggest you do the same.

I don't mention too many specific examples in these blogs.  I assume you're smart and ambitious enough to do your own homework, so I do no hand-holding - i just suggest directions.  There's too many resources and music is too available for me to ruin the hunt for people.  I remember the search for great music and suggest everyone do their own.

ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons took this all in and decided to join the fray, having all ready, of course, been legendarily being paid homage to by Jimi Hendrix for earlier exploits.  ZZ Top Americanized he three piece vision by combining a dose of greasy Texas blues with the histrionics of the british axeslingers.  Never as musically adventurous as his brit counterparts, Gibbons still managed to produce album after album, show after show of guitar genius for a great many years.  Ten years on, Gibbons decided to join the crowd and offered up synths and drum machines to the Tejas stew, and millions of listeners didn't seem to mind, though I still prefer mine straight with no chaser.

CheapTrick formed about the same time, and brought a Beatles-esque vibe to the three piece for the first time.  Rick Neilsen seldom gets his true due as a guitarist and writer.  His success at both is stunning, a fact perhaps hidden by his image and team player mentality.  Cheap Trick's live sound is immense, echoing the previous partnership of a strong rhythm guitar and an adventurous bass that made The Who such an incredible locomotive.  Sure sometimes Zander straps on a guitar, but Cheap  Trick basically remains another fantastic example of the three piece concept.

I think I'll leave it there.  That should get you started thinking about just how hard it is for a guitarist to take on the resposibility of being the sole melodic instrument leading a band, and how cool the results can be.  I could write another 10,000 or so words on the topic, but hey, this is a blog.  I'll leave the fun part to you.  You go out and do the homework, find the music, get inspired, who knows, maybe even start ya up a three piece .

Happy guitaring, and thanks to Chris Wright for this morning's sermon on the three piece.

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