Friday, July 25, 2008


Although initially invented in response to a request by trumpet player Clyde McCoy, who'd asked the Vox corporation for an electronic device that could simulate the sound of a muted trumpet for use with a keyboard, the wah-wah pedal was quickly appropriated in the late 1960s by rock guitarists. In doing so, they defined both a musical period and instituted an aesthetic, one that, when realized through guitar virtuosos such as Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic, has been referred to as "psychedelic soul." According to Art Thompson, in an article published in Guitar Player Magazine titled "Wah: The Pedal That Wouldn't Die" (May 1992; my source for the article can be found here), Vox was the first company to have success with the wah-wah pedal. Thompson writes: "Vox's entry into the wah-wah pedal business came about thanks to Brad Plunkett, a twenty five year old engineer at Thomas Organ. Around '66 Plunkett was working on a circuit to replace the 3-position MRB, or voicing switch, with a less expensive potentiometer.... To test the idea, a guitar was plugged in and, as Plunkett describes 'all of a sudden people came running in to see what was making this sound--they just freaked out on it.'" Thompson continues:

Apparently Vox management saw lots of potential in this new gizmo, and it was subsequently introduced as the Clyde McCoy wah-wah pedal.... These early pedals were manufactured in Italy and have a picture of Clyde on the bottom. They were distributed in the U.S. by the Thomas Organ Company.... Vox also offered a non-signature model around this time that simply said "Wah" on the bottom plate; it was also made in Italy.

About the wah-wah pedal's subsequent development, Thompson writes:

The introduction of the Vox Cry Baby pedal around 1968 came about because the U.S. distributor, Thomas Organ, and the European distributor, JMI, both wanted to sell the wah-wah but neither wanted the other to have the same pedal. Vox solved this by slapping the Cry Baby name on the same model for the American market. The story goes that when Vox needed a new name for the pedal, they asked one of their distributors to describe the wah's sound. The response was "it sounds like a baby crying." Also at this time, Vox and Thomas Organ introduced a new model designated V846 that used a Japanese inductor made by TDK instead of the Italian made inductor. Most purists agree that this change degraded the sound of these pedals, but in the informal tests we conducted, our favorite (because of its almost human vocal quality and vomiting sounds) was an excellent sounding V846....The next major change ocurred when Vox came out with the King Wah, the first unit made completely in the United States.... Many of these devices offered extra sounds like fuzz, sirens, surf, tornado, and God knows what else.... As the late '70s approached, the wah effect was becoming unhip, and the number of manufacturers dropped accordingly.

Unlike the synthesizer, which has continued to undergo continual development well into the digital age, the sound of the wah-wah pedal is what it always has been, and hence has remained stuck in time, indelibly associated with a narrow period of rock history.

Early Recordings Featuring the wah-wah pedal

Cream - “White RoomWheels of Fire (1968)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)Electric Ladyland (1968)
The Temptations - “Cloud NineCloud Nine (1968)
Tommy James and the Shondells - “Crimson & CloverCrimson & Clover (1968)
Sly and the Family Stone - “Sex MachineStand! (1969)
Blind Faith - “Presence of the LordBlind Faith (1969)
Chicago - “25 or 6 to 4Chicago II (1970)
Santana - “Samba Pa TiAbraxas (1970)
Funkadelic - “Maggot BrainMaggot Brain (1971)
Isaac Hayes - “Theme From ShaftShaft (Soundtrack) (1971)

In 1972, Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" won an Academy Award for "Best Original Song," thus making it the first rock song featuring a wah-wah pedal to be honored with a major award.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Border Blasters

“Border blasters” is the phrase broadcasters use to refer to the so-called “X stations”—Mexican radio stations—because the call letters of every Mexican radio station begins with an X. Otherwise known as border radio, perhaps the best known of the border blasters was station XERB, the model for the station featured in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). Peculiar to the United States, border radio inspired countless rock and pop musicians, as the Mexican stations largely played music suppressed by the corporate owned, commercially oriented radio stations in the United States: not only were countless teenagers able to hear country and western, played by the likes of the Carter Family (pictured on the CD cover of Vol. 3 of the XET recordings) and Hank Williams, but blues musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. George Lucas, born in 1944 and raised in Modesto, California, grew up listening to the Xs, many of which featured eccentric disc jockeys such as Wolfman Jack, who would eventually make an appearance in American Graffiti. Lucas was one of those kids who listened to “50,000 watts out of Mexico,” as the Blasters sing in “Border Radio.”

As Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford point out in their book Border Radio, Mexican radio stations developed in the late 1920s as a response to monopolistic American and Canadian corporations carving up the frequencies—in doing so, shutting out Mexico—and, subsequently, in the 1930s, to federal regulations that required standardization of the format and proscription of the content. Station XED, in Reynosa, began transmitting in 1930. Fowler and Crawford write:

The men who first moved to the border began their broadcasting careers when the federal regulatory agency was but a twinkle in Herbert Hoover’s eye. These media trailblazers deeply resented the monopolistic power of the networks and the increasing government interference in their activities. They traveled from the hinterlands of Iowa, Kansas, and Brooklyn to a territory beyond the pale of American law, a sparsely populated land of ocotillo, grapefruit, and Angora goats—la frontera, the border.

Border radio operators came up with a unique method of sidestepping U.S. broadcasting restrictions: They built their stations just across the border, in Mexican territory, and worked out special licensing arrangements with the broadcasting authorities in Mexico City, whom they found to be much more agreeable than the stuffed shirts at the Federal Radio Commission. Like all radio stations licensed in Mexico, the border stations were given call letters beginning with XE, a brand that added to their mystique. To compete with the wide coverage of the established multistation networks, these operators created what were essentially single-station networks, stations with such extraordinary power that their signals could cover much of the United States and, in some cases, most of the world. Border radio operators accomplished this feat by hiring expert engineers to build special transmitters. While most radio outlets in the United States broadcast over transmitters with about 1,000 watts of power, border stations boomed their programming across America with transmitters humming at as much as 1,000,000 watts [station XERA].

Essential Recordings (with thanks to Mike Jarrett)
ZZ Top, “Heard It on the XFandango (Warner Bros., 1975)
Warren Zevon, “CarmelitaWarren Zevon (Asylum, 1976)
The Blasters, “Border RadioThe Blasters (Slash, 1981)
Wall of Voodoo, “Mexican RadioCall of the West (I.R.S., 1982)
Dave Alvin, “Border RadioKing of California (Hightone, 1994)

Essential Viewing
American Graffiti (1973)
Border Radio (1987)
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (Ken Burns, 1991)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Mellotron

The Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that was featured in early psychedelic music and later became an essential fixture of “Progressive” bands, was made possible by one of the spoils of World War II—electromagnetic tape. As Michael Jarrett notes in Sound Tracks (1998), "When U.S. troops invaded Radio Luxembourg, they "liberated" a tape machine and shipped it to the Ampex Corporation; further development was financed by Bing Crosby" (214). Technically considered, the Mellotron is a polyphonic, sample-playback keyboard system, the basis of which is a large bank of pre-loaded electromagnetic audio tapes, each of which consists of a pre-recorded sound. Each of the several magnetic tapes has roughly eight seconds of playing time: early user manuals strongly recommended that no key should be held for more than ten seconds. Playback heads underneath each of the keys allowed for the playing of the pre-recorded sounds, hence the reason it is considered a "sample-playback" system. Early Mellotron models, the MK-I and the MK-II, contained two keyboards set side-by-side: the right keyboard consisted of various selectable "instrumental" sounds (e.g., strings, flutes, various brass instruments), while the left keyboard consisted of rhythm tracks. The first Mellotrons--intended for the home, not for the arduous rock concert circuit--were made in Birmingham, England (although the prototype was initially developed in the United States), the reason why the earliest uses of the instrument were by British bands. Musician Mike Pinder (pictured above in the foreground, with the Moody Blues, playing a Mellotron MK-II) worked for Streetly Electronics, the company that manufactured the Mellotron, for about a year and half before joining the Moody Blues in 1967; he and the band are largely responsible for popularizing the Mellotron in popular music. Like the Moog synthesizer, also an electronic instrument, the Mellotron underwent development and refinement. The years of manufacture of the various models of the Mellotron are as follows:

Mellotron Mark-I (1962-63)
Mellotron Mark-II (1964-67)
M-300 (1968-70)
M-400 (1970-86)

The M-400 model, first sold in 1970, become part of the signature sound of the so-called “Progressive” bands of the 1970s. This model included tape banks that could be removed with relative ease and loaded with banks containing different sounds, including percussion loops, sound effects, and other noises. Hence, like pop music itself, the Mellotron is a consequence of electromagnetic tape.

Ten representative rock songs featuring the Mellotron, 1967-1973:

1. The Beatles - “Strawberry Fields ForeverSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
2. The Moody Blues - “Nights in White SatinDays of Future Passed (1967)
3. The Rolling Stones - “2000 Light Years From HomeTheir Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
4. The Zombies - “Brief CandlesOdessey & Oracle (1968)
5. Cream - “BadgeGoodbye (1969)
6. David Bowie - “Space OdditySpace Oddity (1969)
7. King Crimson - “EpitaphIn the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
8. Genesis - “Watcher of the SkiesFoxtrot (1972)
9. Lynyrd Skynyrd - “Tuesday’s Gonepronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd (1973)
10. John Lennon - “Mind GamesMind Games (1973)

For those interested, a short demonstration from the mid-60s of the Mellotron MK-II, can be found here, while an interesting history of the Mellotron, by Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, can be found here.

Cheap Thrills and the Wonderful Undead

Previously, in my blog entries of May 16, May 31, and July 1 I have discussed my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the calendar year 1968 in the order in which they were released. I'll refer readers to my earlier blog entries for the explanation for such an unusual project (and all the pitfalls inherent in such an ongoing activity). Since I've already assembled it, I've gone ahead and posted August’s listening schedule. As I’ve stated many times before, I cannot claim my list is infallible, but I continue to work on it and to try and improve it. What I've discovered is that there were many albums released during the months of July and August 1968--more so in terms of numbers of releases in a single month than in any previous month--so as you can see, August’s list is rather long (assuming the information I've come across is accurate). Here's the dozen albums I have put together for August 1968:

The Beach Boys, Stack-O-Tracks
The Bee Gees, Idea
Blue Cheer, Outsideinside
Country Joe & the Fish, Together
Donovan, In Concert
The Everly Brothers, Roots
The 5th Dimension, Stoned Soul Picnic
Fleetwood Mac, Mr. Wonderful
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, You're All I Need
The Grateful Dead, [Two From the Vault] [8/23-24] [1992]
Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills
Jeff Beck, Truth
Ten Years After, Undead

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Great Lost Albums: One

I suspect I’m like most people who, faced with a long road trip, grab a stack of CDs to take along with them in the car. (I've never adopted the habit of taking my iPod; if I listen to an album, I have to first hold the actual material artifact in my hand, a habit acquired from the vinyl LP days, no doubt.) Listening to them in the solitary isolation of the car allows me to focus exclusively on the music, when I'm free of annoying distractions (Roland Barthes observed in Sade/Fourier/Loyola that pleasure is heightened through hermetic isolation, the sealing off of the outside world, which is how a libertine such as Sade can co-exist in a study along with an ascetic such as Loyola). Thus, in preparation for my trip this weekend, I selected five CDs from this month’s listening schedule (see my list of July 1968 albums)—and, at the last minute, a sixth, John Simon’s Album (released ca. February 1970), which has been available on CD for a couple of years now. I purchased the album on CD three or four months ago, but for various reasons I hadn't had the opportunity to listen to it. So, along with a few of the July 1968 albums, I took along John Simon’s Album (39:39), planning to listen to it if time permitted. I had every intention of listening to the Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord (released forty years ago this week), but I never made my way to it. Instead, I put on the John Simon album, and I’m really glad I did. I liked it so much I never got past it, playing it over and over--so much for In Search of the Lost Chord, unfortunately.

Let me say that I have known about the first solo album by John Simon for thirty-eight years, having learned about it, way back when, through a Warner Brothers Records sampler, one of those various artists anthologies WB started releasing in the late 1960s in order to promote and advertise the pop and rock artists then recording on the Warner Brothers/Reprise label. I first got hooked on WB samplers through a record titled October 10, 1969 (which I purchased for the sum of $1 via mail order), and subsequently started picking up the other samplers then available. If my memory serves, WB Records issued the 3-LP sampler box Looney Tunes - Merry Melodies (3 records for $3) in February or March 1971, which included, on Side 2, John Simon’s “The Song of the Elves” (his picture from the booklet included with that 3-LP set is reproduced above). I very much liked "The Song of the Elves"--Robert Christgau says it is the best song on the album--rightly saying that it is about elves who (falsely) imagine they are very tall, but gives the record a mere “B+”--and had I ever run across the album in the record stores, I most certainly would have bought it. I never did, because I never saw it--it went virtually ignored at the time, and no doubt vanished rather quickly. But recently, when I made the startling discovery that the album was available on CD, I immediately snapped it up. But I hadn’t listened to it . . . until this weekend.

There are many "great lost albums" in the history of rock music--the Beach Boys' Smile, say, or Big Star's #1 Record, for instance, this not including those "lost" records that were never recorded, such as the album Buddy Holly might have made had he heard the Beatles--and John Simon's Album is most certainly one of them. It is an utterly amazing, unaccountably neglected but grand record, an essential piece of Americana. It belongs in the constellation that would include the pre-World World II, pre-Swing Era music favored by Randy Newman, The Band (one of the songs on the album, “Davey’s On The Road Again," was co-written with Robbie Robertson; Simon produced Music From Big Pink and its follow-up, 1969's The Band) and Allen Toussaint (think of Toussaint's, not Glen Campbell's, haunting, evocative, "Southern Nights." Not surprisingly, both Allen Toussaint and John Simon were involved in the Band's landmark 1978 film, The Last Waltz.) As Mark Keresman observes in the CD's liner notes, John Simon's music "does not 'sound like' The Band; rather, it is like The Band," meaning it is a sophisticated amalgam of blues, R&B, country, turn-of-the-century pop music, and, on John Simon's Album, ragtime and early New Orleans jazz. Given his highly successful history as an album producer (in 1968 alone, he produced most of Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends; Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills (albeit unacknowledged), Blood, Sweat, and Tears's Child is Father to the Man; the Band's aforementioned Music From Big Pink; Leonard Cohen's first album; others), he was able to assemble a remarkable group of musicians: Leon Russell and Eddie Hinton on guitar; Alice deBuhr and Jean Millington (Fanny); Harvey Brooks (The Electric Flag); Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson (The Band); John Hall and Wells Kelly (later in Orleans); legendary jazz sessionmen Richard Davis and Grady Tate; Jim Gordon, Bobby Whitlock, and Carl Radle (all three later members of Derek and the Dominos); Delaney Bramlett; and others.

As history would have it, John Simon's Album was released by Warner Brothers within the same three/four month period which saw some albums released strongly favored and endorsed by the critical establishment: Van Morrison's Moondance, James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, and The Small Faces' The First Step. Were these records the reason it went (popularly) ignored at the time? No, but with the rather uninspired title, the fact that John Simon was better known as a producer (assuming he was "known" at all), and the fact that the critical spotlight was focused elsewhere, the album, alas, sank like a stone. It is one of the virtues of the CD Era that great "lost" albums such as this have been rescued from oblivion.

How to explain the "lost" records that fell through the cracks (without succumbing to what Robert Ray calls "the myth of the avant-garde," that is, that the initial neglect and failure of a record suggests its brilliance?) It is true that popular music, rather like the Darwinian "state of nature," is a hopelessly over-crowded, over-populated field, but can that explanation alone account for why a great album virtually ignored upon its release? Yes . . . in the sense that at any given time there are many, many albums out there, and some are bound to be overlooked because of sheer numbers. No . . . in the sense that some records are, frankly, "harder to sell" than others, more difficult to assimilate--the problem of the avant-garde. Remember that singer-songwriters immersed in Americana, such as Randy Newman, achieved some degree of success because his songs were successfully merged with the mainstream, meaning they were interpreted by others: the Three Dog Night had a big hit with "Mama (Told Me Not to Come)," for instance, and Harry Nilsson did an entire album of Newman covers (Nilsson Sings Newman, 1970). Of course, John Simon wasn't as prolific a songwriter as Randy Newman, it is true, perhaps another reason John Simon's Album is one of those "lost" records. On the other hand, despite its strong critical endorsement, and lingering reputation, Randy Newman's 12 Songs (1970) has never earned massive popular acclaim, in the sense of sales.

But no matter: John Simon's Album has earned the endorsement of Time, reminding us that greatness is not merely sales, but durability. It's that sense of durability that allowed me, finally, to hear it. I'm very sorry, John Simon, to be so late (the critic's worst nightmare): it took me 38 years to find it, but I finally did, and it is remarkable.