The history of electric guitar is full of antiheroes but that archetype really came to the fore when punk rock plunged its greasy fingers into rock and roll's supper.
Posted on Jul 10, 2008 11:31 am
The history of electric guitar is full of antiheroes, starting with Pat Hare and Link Wray, but that archetype really came to the fore when punk rock plunged its greasy fingers into rock and roll's supper. Punk thrived on six-stringed upstarts in motorcycle jackets and ripped jeans, or - in downtown Manhattan - thrift shore sports jackets and drag. Here's a list of the 10 baddest:
01. Lou Reed
This quintessential hard-boiled New York rocker climbed out of punk's primordial ooze back when punk was just primordial ooze. As the founder and main songwriter of the Velvet Underground, Reed made the die punk would be cast from with his acerbic attitude, daring themes plucked from the demimonde (like heroin, homosexuality, and cross-dressing), and his snarling guitar attack - a buzzing, aggressive style that used sheer noise to reinforce his hard-bitten tales. The Underground were a controversial outfit during their 1964 to '73 reign, more spurned than accepted by the mainstream. But the foresight of Reed's approach has sustained him through a long solo career and won the Velvets their place in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Prime cut: "Sister Ray," from the Velvet Underground's 1968 White Light/White Heat.
02. Johnny Thunders
His transition from Manhattan leather shop clerk to scuzz-rock icon occurred when David Johannsen and Sylvain Sylvain joined his band Actress in 1971, transforming the glam shambles into the New York Dolls. The Dolls were the link between the Velvet Underground and what was to come - edgy and energetic, but with all the subtlety of a plane crash. They lacked the Velvet's intellectualism. However, their sardonic flair was fortified by a rat's-eye view of the city's bohemian culture. And Thunders emerged as the group's legendary guitar foil to Johannsen, slinging his TV Yellow Les Paul Junior with a raucous authority - and a self-destructive desire for substances. Thunders died in 1991 in New Orleans at age 38, with both drugs and foul play suspected of playing a role.
Prime cut: "Personality Crisis" from New York Doll's 1973 New York Dolls.
03. Lenny Kaye
This Queens Strat-slinger is a rock historian who also made history as punk high priestess Patti Smith's guitar foil since 1971, when they began performing poetry and music together. He went on to play lead guitar on the Patti Smith Group's classic albums, combining pure amped-up snarl with exploratory playing in the tradition of the MC5. He's also a '60s-music connoisseur. He has authored Grammy winning liner notes and also curated the first Nuggets compilation in 1972. Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era later became the Rosetta Stone of the early '80s garage rock revival. As a producer, he's worked with Soul Asylum, Suzanne Vega, and others.
Prime cut: "Radio Ethiopia" from the Patti Smith Group's 1976 Radio Ethiopia.
04. Johnny Ramone
Queens street kid John William Cummings grew up to be the architect of the classic punk rock guitar sound: all chords, no leads, no bull. All it took was $54 for a used Mosrite, then considerably more for a Marshall, and meeting fellow early rock and roll hound Jeffrey Hyman, who would become Joey Ramone in this band of faux brothers. From then on, it was history. After two years of struggling to get a toe-hole in U.S. clubs, the Ramones made a brief tour of England in 1976 and a series of new British bands, including the Sex Pistols and the Clash, sprang up in their wake. Although their influence was indelible, the Ramones never received the fame that was their due. Johnny hung up his guitar after Joey's death in 2001. Three years later he died after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer.
Prime cut: "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," from 1977's Rocket To Russia.
05. Steve Jones
Today Jones is a DJ and only occasionally a guitarist, and looks more like a friendly pub keeper than Johnny Rotten's bandmate. But back in 1977 Jones was the musical core of the Sex Pistols, a classic rock guitarist who was the sole member of the group who could competently play. And with a Les Paul hanging just above his knees, Jones helped detonate the cultural bomb the Ramones had merely assembled with the snotty, crass, elegantly rude Never Mind The Bullocks, Here's The Sex Pistols. His mad-dog Marshall/Gibson sound backing Rotten's nasal whine in "Anarchy in the U.K." truly changed the landscape of the musical world.
Prime cut: "God Save The Queen" from the Sex Pistols' 1977 Never Mind The Bullocks, Here's The Sex Pistols.
06. Mick Jones
Following that famed Ramones tour, Jones, Paul Simonon, and Joe Strummer formed the core of the Clash, the most important band of the punk revolution. Important not only for their hell-bent playing, but for their politics and their ability to evolve, quickly moving from punk's signature three-chord grind to a more elaborate vision of the music that incorporated dub, reggae, rockabilly, African and Eastern sounds, and even the echoes of London's dance clubs. They eventually overturned punk's anti-corporate apple cart by becoming large enough to tour arenas. And until his dismissal from the band in 1983, Jones' mix of brashness and focus made him the Clash's musical heart. He's gone on to other groups, including Big Audio Dynamite and Carbon/Silicon.
Prime cut: "I'm So Bored With The U.S.A" from the Clash's 1977 The Clash.
07. Tom Verlaine & Richard Lloyd
Both have gone on to distinguished careers as guitarists and solo artists, but from 1973 until 1978 - during Television's original run - Verlaine and Lloyd were punk's answer to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts (or Miles Davis and John Coltrane). Their entwined style of soloing created an elaborate sonic architecture, turning their albums Marquee Moon and Adventure into breathtaking rock and roll thrill rides. Subsequent regroupings haven't quite captured their original fire, but for sheer ensemble playing the only challenger to Television in punk's original wave was the Patti Smith Group.
Prime cut: "Marquee Moon" from Television's 1977 Marquee Moon.
08. Robert Quine
Nobody else played like Quine, a disciple of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground who developed a knack for breaking the backs of melodies, shaking strings like a hyper-caffeinated B.B. King, and spewing out some of the most angular, jittery guitar lines ever laid on tape. From his debut on Richard Hell & the Voidoid's classic first album to his later work with Tom Waits, Brian Eno, Marianne Faithfull, Lloyd Cole, Matthew Sweet, and eventually his hero Reed, the seemingly unflappable, Ray Ban-ed Quine pursued his singular vision. It was a shock to his fans - but not necessarily to his friends, who knew he was depressed following the death of his wife - when Quine committed suicide in 2004.
Prime cut: "Blank Generation" from Richard Hell & the Voidoids' 1977 Blank Generation.
09. Ricky Wilson
The original guitarist of the B-52's exemplified punk's anything goes attitude. With no musical training Wilson developed his own tuning, using only four or five strings - tuned in fifths - on his old Mosrite as he taught himself to play. And so his style, based on heavy, muted strokes, sonic bombs, and other colorful effects largely accomplished by his eccentric picking, was unique almost by default. It also allowed Wilson to cover the low end of the bass-less outfit from Athens, Georgia. Although the B-52's debut album is a classic from the era when punk rock began its transition to new wave pop, Wilson did not live to see the group's peak of popularity. He died in 1985, one of rock and roll's first acknowledged victims of AIDS.
Prime cut: "Rock Lobster" from the B-52's 1979 The B-52's.
10. Billy Zoom
"I want a huge open tone that sounds as live and reckless as possible," says the X guitar slinger, whose pompadour, sparkle-finished Gretsch guitars, and broad smile are as much his trademark as his grinding, powerful chordal attack. Zoom's style traces back to Steve Jones and Johnny Ramone, and much further to Link Wray, Eddie Cochran, and Western swing. But the zeal he has for whacking out open-stringed barre chords with deadly speed, accuracy, and unflappable cool is entirely his own.
Prime cut: "The Hungry Wolf" from X's 1982 Under The Big Black Sun.
Read the entire Ted Drozdowski's article at Gibson.com.