I got name-dropped on the podcast this week (#239), it all stemmed from a conversation that Brian, Alex and I were having over the weekend about the future of rock music. Then subsequently, the future of the guitar, and the guitar heroes of our youth. As Brian said, I was naming Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, but unfortunately, my opinion was not expanded upon in the conversation properly, so I’m going to explain on here where I was coming from.
During my life I have seen 4 guitar related musical explosions that have directly affected the sales of guitars and guitar gear in general. Or course, I can only speak from my own observations, it’s probably different from your ‘angle’, whatever that may be!
The first one I remember was the late 1970’s (and I only really have a visual memory of this as I was young). We used to live in Greater London and one of the last memories I have of that area before we moved to Devon was seeing a full-on London Punk. Full Mohican haircut (is that moniker for a hairstyle appropriate these days? If it isn’t, I apologise for my ignorance) on top of the full Vivien Westwood style of clothing. At the time it scared me as I was only about 5, but, looking back at it now, I fully understand what was happening.
Punk came around due to the frustration of the music, the politics, modern culture and just about everything else. People needed an outlet, and that boiled up to the point of explosion and the extremes of these people became very famous. For us, it was the Sex Pistols who spearheaded this charge and at the time people thought “What the hell is that?”…
If you watch interviews with members of the movement discussing the musical aspect of this, it was frustration with music popular at the time and they need to push back against it. Just listen to John Lydon talk about the Eagles and you’ll understand where I am coming from. Subsequently (and most importantly, relevant this piece), legions of people picked up the guitar and joined in. This music was never on the radio, in fact, the major broadcasters of the day refused point blank to play any of the punk stuff. That is until it became SO big they couldn’t avoid it, even then it was only the parts that were the most commercialised, maybe one or two songs.
Fast forward a few years to the mid ’80s. Now, from the blues came rock and from punk came the attitudes of thrash. These attitudes were existing quite happily until that mad moment when the kids of the day first heard players like Satriani, Vai, Gilbert, Malmsteen and so on. Everyone who had been enjoying riffing out suddenly heard all the virtuoso music and thought “What the hell is that?”. This was, if I am being honest, the time when I looked at the guitar in a different light. I was already fully embedded in rock music, in particular NWOBHM, and loving all the widdlywiddlywiddly stuff, but those guys are responsible for more hours of me woodshedding than any other. With this, guitar sales shifted away from the Strat’s, Tele’s and Les Pauls and the pointy headstock era was born. Over here, that music was never on the radio.
The next one is a weird one, as for me it was a two-part instance that happened 4 years apart, but it came from the same attitude. Firstly, in 1988 Guns ‘N’ Roses exploded here, they were anti virtuoso and relied on that Les Paul into a Marshall tone… unlike the other bands they benefited from being played on the radio, well, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ was. Here they weren’t really regarded as a rock band per se, because the first song they became known for opened with the lines “She's got a smile it seems to me, reminds me of childhood memories, where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky”. That didn’t really sit with those of us that were used to headbanging along to “Ace Of Spades”. They were considered to be pop rock which explains why the ‘Use Your Illusions’ albums outsold ‘Appetite for Destruction’ at the time (although now, the first album flattens those completely) – I remember hearing ‘Welcome To The Jungle” for the first time and thinking “What the hell is that?” Sales of guitars peeked again and Marshall got to join in the party, although stopping making the 800 series in favour of the 900’s might not have been the best move ever as something was missing from those amps.
The second part of this joint explosion, and the one I think was the most important in my lifetime, was in 1992 when Nirvana fully exploded. Which, like G’n’R, happened because of one song on the radio… Nirvana gave the impression (to me at least) to be coming from the same direction as punk did. As a direct response to the music of the day, the virtuoso players seemed to have forgotten about the riffs and the songs, the over production. The reason this one sticks in my mind so much is because I was working in a guitar shop when this happened. Over the space of a couple of months my customers went from “Dad Rock” types or “Big Hair Shredders” to young moody kids who wanted to strum the hell out of their guitars, stare at their feet, and think the entire world was against them. Because, well, they thought it was. Strat’s, Tele’s, Jag’s, Mustang’s and interesting guitar sales went off the charts… the Les Paul’s died on their arse, we could shift a few Epiphones, but Gibson’s… nope. For years I had confused looking parents talking to me while their kids glared at me through their hair and grunted in response when I tried to talk to them. However, when they got a guitar in their hands their faces lit up. All I could see in the faces of the parents was “What the hell is that?”
After that everything kind of flatlined again, until the radio picked up on Oasis and Blur. I’m not going to say much, but, (as someone working in a guitar store at that time) if I ever hear a kid play Wonderwall again I’m going to scream. So, net result, guitar sales spiked for a few years. I can directly relate this movement to when the 60’s guitar music thing happened, the fact that most Oasis songs appear to have a riff directly borrowed from that era further proves my point. Bizarrely, this appeared to bring up the sales of acoustic guitars more than electrics, but the raise happened across the board. There was no “What the hell is that?” moment though, unless you happened to see Liam Gallagher be interviewed without an interpreter.
So, where does this leave us now? The thing I find most interesting about it is that half of these movements happened without the support of radio in any way. One (albeit two bands) came from just one song being on the radio and the other was pure pop music, so radio play was inevitable. Punk was NEVER on the radio. 80’s rock (whether it be NWOBHM or the more extreme elements of it towards the end of the decade) was never on the radio… Actually, that’s not entirely true, “Soft Metal” or whatever it was called, often was. it was usually some disgusting “oh baby I love you” style song with heavy guitars in the chorus and a nice wailing solo, but the rest wasn’t.
All this leads me to the discussion Alex, Brian and I were having over the weekend which prompted the podcast and which has now prompted this piece. I was saying that “we need the next Nirvana to hit” (and I say this as someone who isn’t really a big fan of them) but did they ever promote sales in guitars to the ‘kidz’. Brian’s main argument is that “People don’t listen to the radio anymore, so there will never been another big guitar group”… However (over here at least) that never stopped the punks of the 70’s and the rockers of the ’80s. In fact, it was what made them. Being overlooked was what defined them.
What’s next? Who will be the next supergroup to explode sales of guitar gear? If you look at the way most of those bands came about, the ones that caused guitar sale peaks in my lifetime, it was because they were standing against something. Now, that may be a political stance but, at the core, mostly it was about the music. Right now, popular music (in my humble opinion) has never been so crap (yeah I know, I sound like my Father). Well, maybe the mid 90’s pure lollipop pop scene, but the jury is still out on that, time will tell.
Politics right now is at the most divisive I can ever remember it being, music is consumable. The music industry is churning out gallons of forgettable sewage and vacuous crap that does nothing more constructive than make the likes of Simon Cowell even more disgustingly rich than they already are. Instant fame is touted as the only answer, fame is handed to the lucky few, young impressionable kids on a plate on televised talent shows and most of them are instantly forgettable – and then forgotten. How many kids watch these talent show with a dream, not understanding the odds of even getting an audition for them? The internet affords us access to endless hours of new and great music, giving artists the impression that they have the chance to be bigger than The Beatles… but can they ever be? Of course they can’t. No one ever can be. But can a band come along that stands up against the drivel? Stands up against the politics? Stands up against the system and the ‘machine’ that runs everything?
It’s time we had another Nirvana, another Sex Pistols. It’s time for another band that can rise up and smash everything to pieces. Like Punk, 80’s rock and grunge, this explosion will NEVER happen on the radio. The radio is as much about music these days as MTV is. This explosion will happen from the internet. From an independent source as that is always where the life-changing music comes from. There are endless great bands out there at the moment, my daughter spends most of her free time these days working out “Panic! At The Disco” riffs on my guitars so the hope is there, but it’s not fully realised yet. What band is going to come along and speak to her fully like the Pistols and Nirvana did to people of her age at that time? I have no idea, but the world is begging for it.
We don’t need another guitar hero at all; the age of the guitar hero is dead. We need another Steve Jones. We need another Kurt Cobain. These were the anti-heroes that exploded guitar sales. We need someone to put a finger up to the industry and make a stand against it. The guitar itself is not dead (as Blake points out on the podcast, everyone is looking at Guitar Center and saying “Man, the guitar is dying” as their sales are going down) but are those people looking at the underground independent manufacturers that are thriving? No, they are not, because the media is only interested in reporting the companies that have shareholders to keep happy....
The one thing that is obvious to me is that what is actually dying, albeit slowly right now, is the corporation strong hold on the MI industry and music in general. The underground is rising, the next Sex Pistols or Nirvana are posed to maximise on the ambivalence of the general public and I hope that they will shake it to the core.
We need another “What the hell is that?” moment. We need another guitar anti-hero.