Wednesday 27 June 2012

Bert WEEDON: 22 Golden Guitar Greats

(#176: 20 November 1976, 1 week)

Track listing: Dance On/Wipe Out/Wheels/Diamonds/40 Miles Of Bad Road/Yakety Axe/Kon Tiki/Ginchy/Pepe/Sleepwalk/Guitar Boogie Shuffle/Walk Don’t Run/Scarlet (sic) O’Hara/F.B.I./Sorry Robbie/Marie (sic) Elena/Shazam/Perfidia/Man Of Mystery/Hava Nagila/Albatross/Apache

When Bert Weedon died earlier this year, a couple of weeks short of his 92nd birthday, I wonder how many people still remembered him or what he had done. Indeed, I cautiously posted something on the I Love Music message board about his passing, and many American readers were astonished to discover the extent and significance of his achievements, as he was little known outside Britain. Growing up in mid-seventies Britain, I had no real idea who Bert Weedon was either. He was often on television, turning up on variety shows or game shows, a genial, middle-aged fellow who always got a warm reception from the audience, and I mentally filed him alongside Henry Cooper or Lionel Blair, a celebrity well known for being a celebrity, an all-round sporting chap who regularly turned out and did much good work for the Variety Club of Great Britain, and so forth…but what had he actually done in the first place?

I knew from listening to the Double Top Ten show on Radio 1 and reading Tony Jasper’s 20 Years Of British Record Charts, 1955-1975 that he had had some success as a guitarist in the late fifties and early sixties. From the weekly magazine series The Story Of Pop I also realised that he was rather more significant than chart data alone might disclose, but didn’t really feel the need to delve deeper. And when he appeared on TV screens in the autumn of 1976, cheerfully advertising his 22 Golden Guitar Greats, I had him firmly pegged down as light entertainment.

Listening to this album now – which in its day sold over a million copies – the unwary might justifiably wonder what the fuss was about. Twenty-two easy listening renditions of instrumental oldies from what was already a rather distant past, performed by a fifty-six-year-old man in smart suit and moustache (apart from Perry Como, the oldest living individual performer to have a number one album up to this point?) – what did this have to do with something like The Song Remains The Same?

It could hardly be acknowledged at the time that without this self-effacing, courteous man from East Ham, The Song Remains The Same could arguably never have happened, and that not only was he the chief architect of British rock music, but he was also (so to speak) instrumental in getting the guitar recognised as a legitimate musical instrument in his country. Weedon spoke many times about how he felt, even as a teenager in the thirties, he was on something of a mission to push the guitar to centre stage; until he did something about it, the instrument was chiefly known in Britain from its appearance in singing cowboy films. He initially took lessons from a classical specialist, James Newell, who didn’t have much time for jazz or Western swing (Weedon’s two main musical passions at the time) but convinced Weedon of what the instrument could express; he also taught Weedon something of yoga, Buddhism and philosophy.

After war service he began to establish himself as a guitarist, principally on the dance band circuit, working with Ted Heath, Mantovani, the Squadronnaires and others; with his jazz hat on, he struck up a long working and personal relationship with Stéphane Grappelli. At one engagement he found he had contracted TB, and was out of action for some months and also told to avoid working in smoky nightclubs and dancehalls. Initially perturbed, he opted to become a studio player and quickly gained a reputation as a session musician.

It was while working with Cyril Stapleton’s band that the breakthrough happened. Stapleton gave him a copy of an obscure import record he had sourced from the States – “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley – and rather than turning his nose up (as virtually every other British musician of his generation did) Weedon welcomed the new music and adapted his style accordingly. Through the fifties and early sixties he kept a foot in both camps; he worked with many young British rockers, including Tommy Steele and Adam Faith, but was also first call guitarist for visiting American superstars, called upon to back Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and others.

Somewhere in the midst of all this activity, he carved out a career for himself as a named musician. His first and biggest hit was a cover of “Guitar Boogie Shuffle,” originally written and recorded by one Arthur Smith in 1945 but a big US hit (on reissue) for Philadelphia group The Virtues in the spring of 1959. Others followed (two of which, “Ginchy” and “Sorry Robbie” are also re-produced here); he was first off the block with “Apache,” arranging the song from the original sheet music, but unaccountably sat on his version for several months before releasing it, only for the Shadows’ cover to have conquered all in the interim.

It’s fair to say that as the Shadows rose, Weedon’s star dipped a little, but he remained a busy and popular musician. His greatest legacy, however, was his 1957 guitar tutorial book, Play In A Day, inexpensive and easy to follow. The equivalent of Sniffin’ Glue’s “three chords, now form a band” manifesto a generation later (significantly, taking effect at the same time as 22 Golden Guitar Greats), every British rock guitarist of note bought the book, learned from it, practised for many months and developed; it has been cited as an essential starting point by, amongst others, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Mike Oldfield and, inevitably, Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch – while it might be a slight overstatement to suggest that British rock could not have happened without Play In A Day, Weedon’s book was the crucial catalyst, and if the mind baulks at so many Shadows covers on the present album, it might reasonably be argued that without Weedon these records might never have existed in the first place.

The lever behind the album was Warwick Records, a newish entrant to the budget TV-advertised compilation market, whose address – 120 King Street, London W6 – now houses the Hammersmith Holiday Inn. They tended to specialise in easily leasable (or re-recordable) compilations of hits by artists not quite in fashion; their roster included Vera Lynn, the Bachelors, Ken Dodd, Adam Faith and Frankie Laine, and their Various Artists albums incorporated things like David Hamilton’s Hot Shots. Quickly, however, Warwick realised that getting studio musicians in to re-record well-known hits of old was much faster and cheaper than obtaining leases for the originals, and so earlier in 1976 Instrumental Gold appeared, a collection of largely non-guitar dominant hits (although “Apache” again appears, as does Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser”), largely from the pre-Beatles era, re-recorded by sundry stalwart British jazzers and sessioneers, Don Lusher, Stan Roderick, Jack Emblow and Gordon Langford among them, and spent five weeks at #3 over May and June. Clearly the “songs more important than the artists” market was still a goldmine waiting to be tapped (although the album’s version of “Telstar,” credited to “The Mellotronics,” is decidedly more bizarre than the original).

22 Golden Guitar Greats was designed as a sort of sequel to Instrumental Gold and Weedon was called upon to pick, choose and record the tracks (this we sort of gather from the anonymous sleevenote, written by someone for whom English was clearly a second language). Weedon went into the studio – not just any studio, but Konk Studios in Hornsey, owned by Ray Davies and the Kinks – with a band of rep reliables; Andy White, who played on “Love Me Do,” is the drummer, Rex Morris, whose provenance went back to Lord Rockingham’s XI and who played on “All You Need Is Love,” “Revolution 1” and “Honey Pie” (not to mention all of Weedon’s original hits), is on tenor saxophone, and Bill McGuffie, from the Radio 4 satire show Week Ending, is one of the keyboard players. The whole was co-produced (with Chris Harding) by none other than Brian Matthew, the venerable BBC broadcaster who now presides over Radio 2’s hugely popular show Sounds Of The ‘60s, a programme whose core audience is I feel not too far removed from the one that largely bought this album; in other words, elderly people who were always secretly rather disappointed with the Beatles, looking back to merry days of Craig Douglas, Jimmy Justice and the Fourmost, clinging onto their memories like oxygen masks. The recording engineer was Roger T Wake, an important figure in British jazz and improvised music of the period; among his other credits are Westbrook’s Citadel/Room 315 and Louis Moholo’s Spirits Rejoice!. The “Golden Guitar” may have been a tribute to Weedon’s golden Hofner, although it is not clear whether he used this on the record.

What about the record itself? Well, I don’t mean to render insult – quite the opposite – by comparing it with Italian café music, but that’s what it reminds me of (or perhaps French, in the M Hulot’s Holiday soundtrack way); “Dance On” and “Wheels” are exactly the sort of thing you’d hear while eating your tub of coppa whisky ice cream on a hot Wednesday afternoon in Venafro (listen to the work of the Marino Marini Quartet and you’ll see what I mean). Or, closer to home, Biggar in Lanarkshire, or Portobello, near Edinburgh, or maybe even Blackpool out of season, which latter might be the loneliest place in the world; distant echoes of British studios, polite, muted playing (Weedon’s guitar on “Wheels” made me think, for no good reason, of “Pink Frost” by the Chills) – and yet the slight reggae lilt to both of these tracks makes me wonder how good a reception this album might still get had it been recorded in Jamaica in 1964.

On the whole, the British covers work better than the American ones. There is no whooping or cackling on Weedon’s “Wipe Out,” although White’s drums here are outstanding – indeed, White stops just short of walking away with the record, as his work on “Diamonds,” “Scarlett O’Hara” and “Shazam” proves. Meanwhile, McGuffie treats the track as a jazz workout, daringly morphing McCoy Tyner block chords before the rest of the band come back in, just as it is about to turn into a Bill Evans Trio tribute. But the Duane Eddy tracks do not really work, since Weedon did not grow up in Tucson and Brian Matthew is not Lee Hazlewood, so they are proficient but no more, and the yelps and whoops on Weedon’s “Pepe” are, to put it mildly, forced. He does better with the Ventures (who indeed covered “Ginchy” in return), his “Walk Don’t Run” pitched noticeably higher than theirs. “Yakety Axe” is the Benny Hill theme.

Of the five Shadows covers (seven if you count the Jet Harris/Tony Meehan ones, and leaving “Apache” aside for the moment) it would be unhelpful for me to say much about them at the moment, since I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to say that I will be getting back to the Shadows themselves very soon; suffice it to say here that Weedon’s tone and intonation, as they are generally on the rest of the record, are very much classical in nature, very clean and precise (and so the nearest direct stylistic heir to Weedon in British rock is probably Brian May, who likewise tends to be very careful with the notes he picks and avoids ungainly smudging), and in terms of dealing with a group who were essentially half Weedon’s age, there is a definite teacher/pupil symbiosis going on here; how far ahead (if at all) the pupils jumped from their teacher remains to be seen.

This more or less leaves seven tracks worthy of closer attention. Of these, three are re-recordings of Weedon’s own hits, and the enthusiasm and commitment he and his band show when he is on his own territory are immediate. “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” is effectively Page One of British rock, let there be light, etc., and almost a literal textbook demonstration; Weedon starts out with the simplest of patterns and then gradually and methodically introduces other, slightly more complex variations on the theme. But in comparison to the polite 1959 original (produced by a very young Tony Hatch) this reading has far more vigour to it, and one can tell how and why he went down so well at the Roundhouse in 1970 (recorded on the splendid but hard to find Rockin’ At The Roundhouse); suddenly everyone is raising their game; there is real ebullience and teamwork, McGuffie at times veering off towards Taylorish elbow-on-keyboard abstractions. “Sorry Robbie” is a cha-cha which quickly cha-chas somewhere else; Morris’ grainy tenor is so impressive both here and on “Ginchy” that it intertwines with both tracks’ underlying proto-ska feel so effectively that you remember that we are just three years away from “One Step Beyond.” Likewise, his effortless take on “Hava Nagila,” the essential rite of passage for any tyro guitarist in those days – faster, faster! – is performed with absolute assurance; he even drops in a quote from Eddy’s “Peter Gunn” towards the end, as though trying to demonstrate a point (to which I will return).

“Ginchy,” though, is the revelation; with his introductory E minor/tremolo arm epilepsy “glide” chord, Weedon invents My Bloody Valentine, and the track then proceeds into what I can only term “klezmer ska”; there are also hints here of what will happen with Roxy Music and, indeed, Led Zeppelin. If the slightly menacing/out-of-synch tone of the track is familiar, it could be because Weedon co-wrote it with Jack Jordan, writer of the sinister “Little Red Monkey,” which, in its 1953 hit version by Frank Chacksfield, is probably the first British hit single to utilise an electronic keyboard.

Weedon also does well with the brace of American slowies. His “Sleepwalk” is tidier than the Shadows’ rather fumbling version (although Marvin’s fumbling is a great part of their version’s charm) which even McGuffie’s Tatum voicings cannot disrupt. But his “Maria Elena” is better still, and although Brazilian duo Los Indios Tabajaros had the big hit with the tune in late 1963, it should be remembered that Jimmy Dorsey took the song to number one on Billboard in 1941; given that Xavier Cugat also had the original hit version of “Perfidia” in 1943, it is worth noting that Weedon probably not only remembered the originals, but played them at the time, in the various dance bands in which he worked. So maybe he is reaching out to a longer and more distant memory here, but the deceptive delicacy of his rapid fire single notes – all cotton bud kisses – not only points the way to Mike Oldfield and, indeed, to the Jimmy Page of “The Song Remains The Same” and “The Rain Song” but also reminds us that in the late forties, with Julian Bream, he provided the music to a London stage production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Morris’ desolate Sven Klang sax joins in for a mournful abandoned dancehall scenario; all very impressive indeed.

But it is with the last two tracks that Weedon perhaps reveals the real subtext behind 22 Golden Guitar Greats. “Albatross” is the only song here to date from after 1963; the “pulsating sounds of the Guitar,” as the sleevenote has it, is otherwise strictly limited to that idyllic lotus of a time (to the record’s core audience) between Elvis going into the Army and the Beatles going up the charts. When things were good, and you could still make sense of them. Peter Green – another Play In A Day disciple – was inspired to write it by Santo and Johnny’s original “Sleep Walk” and by the inspiration of the Shadows in general. Its emergence at the end of 1968 suggested coming out a long sleep in a long, dark tunnel; what has changed, since we came out the other end and found ourselves still to be alive? So Weedon plays it, very faithfully (the high guitar call-and-response also suggesting the influence of “Indian Love Call”), but with a bit more twang than Green. Keep note of that “twang.”

For the entire record finishes with “Apache,” and not the Shadows’ “Apache” either, but “Apache” as Weedon himself originally envisaged and arranged it. And it is a markedly different affair from the Shadows; musically far busier, rhythmically much rougher; for the first time on the record, Weedon distorts his notes, plays faster, more jaggedly (there may even be some laughter in the background), and then we realise the record’s real mission. Pushing forty as the Shadows, and then the Beatles and everything else, took hold, one might be forgiven for thinking that the original John the Baptist of British rock had simply been left behind, that everyone else had caught up with him and long since overtaken him. But no, that’s not what he’s doing, or saying, or playing, here; what is happening is…

…he is playing “Albatross” like Hank Marvin and “Apache” like Peter Green…

…and so proving that the rock he helped invent was, and is, a circle, and everything comes around, and everything owes everything to everything else. “We could go on and on,” says the rather optimistic annotator…but really there is no need; at this moment we realise exactly who Bert Weedon was, and why he still matters. And, yes, when I was growing up, I also knew him from a line in a Bonzo Dog Band song: “We are normal and we dig Bert Weedon” (written by Neil Innes, and we’ll be getting back to him soon enough), but really most things in British rock were normal until it started to dig Bert Weedon.