This is the meaning of life
To tune this electric guitar
--Talking Heads, “Electric Guitar”
According to Dik de Heer’s exhaustive In the Can page, on Friday, January 15, 1960, rock guitarist Duane Eddy completed the recording of his acoustic album Songs of Our Heritage, a strong candidate for rock music’s first “unplugged” album. Eddy, known for his “twangy” guitar—a 1956 Gretsch model 6120, aka a “Chet Atkins Hollow Body” (an example of this particular 1956 production model is pictured above)—had been extraordinarily successful with a series of rock instrumental albums in the late 1950s, beginning with the colossal best-seller, Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar—Will Travel, which entered the charts in January 1959 and remained there for the next 42 weeks. With Songs of Our Heritage (Jamie Records, 1960), he unplugged, performing a number of American folk tunes, including “John Henry,” “Streets of Laredo,” “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” “Mule Train,” and others.
Duane Eddy, along with guitarists such as Link Wray (who in contrast to Eddy’s “twangy” guitar played a “fuzzy” or distorted guitar) and, later, Dick Dale, eroticized the electric guitar, transforming it into a hypermasculine symbol of phallic power. Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” and Wray’s “Rumble” were much more than rock instrumentals featuring the electric guitar: the guitar became a signifier of masculine rebellion. (There’s a direct link, for instance, from Wray’s “Rumble” to Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” as both are “biker” favorites.) The Who’s Pete Townshend has said that he was compelled to learn the guitar because of Link Wray’s “Rumble.” Likewise, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival said he picked up the guitar because of the bold image of Duane Eddy standing before his band, his authority determined by the fact that he wielded the scepter-like electric guitar. In retrospect, Jimi Hendrix’s act of setting his guitar on fire at the end of his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival seven years later seems not so much a “sacrifice” in the ritual (religious) sense as it is an act of self-emasculation. Sigmund Freud would no doubt be compelled to explore the question as to why no guitar heroes in rock music have ever been female. He'd probably give the same answer as he did in Civilization and Its Discontents in his speculations as to why women are no good with baseball bats.
The album cover of Songs of Our Heritage reveals the extent to which rock musicians (and hence rock music) consciously or unconsciously identified itself with a certain set of distinctive values (among them, the American frontier) all of which helped distinguish it from Pop. According to Mike Jarrett’s wonderful Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Vols. 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998), a book I find myself returning to again and again, rock music has defined itself against pop by a number of associations derived from the signifer of the guitar. I’ve only listed a few of these structural oppositions here from Jarrett’s more comprehensive list (pp. 68-69 in his book):
To which one might “hard” and “soft,” as in “hard rock” vs. “soft rock” (i.e., “pop,” sometimes derisively referred to as “bubblegum,” the later associated with “boys” or "boy bands" rather than “men.”) The symbolic underpinnings of this structural opposition hardly need to be made explicit.
In response to what I anticipate to be the many objections the psychoanalytic approach I’ve employed here, I’ll simply point out the way certain American filmmakers subsequently appropriated this music for the aural backdrop in films exploring hypermasculine violence (its later use proves the point). Oliver Stone used “Rebel Rouser” in Natural Born Killers, while Quentin Tarantino used Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” and Wray’s “Ace of Spades” and “Rumble” in Pulp Fiction. And David Lynch has used the so-called “dirty boogie” inspired by Link Wray for songs such as “Blue Frank." Have a listen "Blue Frank," included on the Twin Peaks: Season 2 soundtrack, that was used in Fire Walk With Me during the Partyland scenes, the corresponding sonic counterpart to scenes of eroticized violence.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
This is the meaning of life