Friday, 1 July 2011


Hello Brummies and Music Lovers,

"Right then Bob, what made the 'sound' of the sixties so good?". This question was asked of me whilst at the boozer imbibing a 'warming' Brown and Mild, by a young musician with an interest in authentic sounds.  "Honesty, Energy and Skill" was my reply. Very concise answer but not a proper answer.

As a form of explanation, I used the Spencer Davis Group as the yardstick, because in reality there wasn't a Brummie band to touch them for their sheer raw sound during the early years of the sixties.
"The Spencer Davis Group?" he said "That was just Steve Winwood" he replied. Now I can fully understand his thinking because Steve is such a big name and rightly deserves his place in history as one of the greatest musicians ever, certainly the VERY best to have ever come out of Birmingham bar none. However, during the early days of the Spencer Davis Group, Steve was just the member of the band who happened to have phenomenal musicality and a voice that was beyond belief.  

The band itself however, was a 'true' band that were lucky enough to have a prodigious talent in their ranks.   As an aside, there was quite a bit of arrogance from certain members of that group but not from Steve himself, who was always very amiable.  Most importantly though, the group were the first band in Brum to play those early blues songs, at least two years before anyone else. There had no rivals in Birmingham of any note. The Moody Blues kinda copied their act when they formed later on.  Smart suited dance hall bands like The Modernaires or Mike Sheridan and The Nightriders were playing pop songs for girls to dance to and, whilst being good at what they did, they were not in the same class. 

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.  We young beat generation, Brummie musicians of the day only had our 30 watt amplifiers and a 30 watt PA system to work with and strings that could only be 'bent' with the aid of a very strong viking!
There was just one 'Volume' foot pedal available.  Yet to be invented, EQ, Gain, Flangers, Chorus, Gates, Compression etc, etc (as a soupson of useless information, in my youth the term 'Flanging' had a more sexual conotation).  

BOBS GOLDEN FACT: The first Distortion device was not commercially available until late 1965 - post the Rolling Stones 'Satisfaction',
however Chet Atkins had recorded an Everly Brothers track back in the 1950's that featured a Gibson fuzz tone device and Big Jim Sullivan had used that same device on PJ Proby's classic 'Hold Me' in 1964, pre-dating the supposed 'first use of a fuzz box' by the Rolling Stones and The Spencer Davis Group's  "Keep on Running' the year after.

The normal line up of any group, like The Dextones (left), would only have a combined total output of 120 watts between them. Having said that, we all played at some pretty big venues with that limited amplification and it always seemed to be ample.

The tight sound produced by the Spencer Davis Group and their 120 watts was quite amazing though and was attained through the use of pretty basic equipment and Harmony guitars that did not incur the national debt to own.  Of course, years of playing experience had honed their performance and their stage presence was electric in those R&B places creating a great atmosphere.    So, if you require the best 60's R&B sound you should buy what they used, it makes perfect sense.

Spencer Davis: Harmony Jupiter:

Steve Winwood: Harmony Rocket.
Muff Winwood: Harmony H22 Bass :

and finally Pete York with a basic Rogers drum kit, with just one small tom-tom and one floor tom-tom (not mic'ed of course).

It's no surprise they used Harmony guitars given that they were the biggest guitar makers at that time and there was little choice at the cheaper end of the market in those early days. Steve had already used a Hofner Club, so it was obviously a 'step up' in quality.  He said he'd been been influenced in that choice as it was the guitar model used by the great Hubert Sumner.
Their amplification was a mish-mash of different equipment 
but I think that Muff used an Ampeg bass amp.  That aside, they wouldn't have had anything greater than a standard 30 watt amplifier of the day because there was nothing much else available at that time. I think they were using Reslo Ribbon Mic's too, although I could be wrong there.
I recall being inside a club in Birmingham city centre where they were playing, around 1963-4, and right from their opening number I started thinking that my group had a lot of work to do if we ever wanted to be taken seriously.  I wasn't on my own, there were other musicians there too and they were easy to spot - they were the ones stood about with their mouths open, catching flies, knocked out by the tight sound of that band. After the gig we all walked out in a daze, some of them probably deciding not to play again.

Pete York was, and still is a very good drummer and I admired the way that he withheld his drumming prowess to work with the basic bass patterns of Muff Winwood who, in my opinion, has been much maligned over the years as a bassist, including some off hand comments from Spencer Davis himself which I think was a bit rich. For my part I would rather work with a bassist that plays the 'right thing' any day, than someone who wants to fly up and down the guitar neck like some demented baboon.

The energetic and effective  drum, bass and rythmn guitar combination forged a real throbbing pulse, providing the perfect platform for the talents of Steve Winwood's voice and considerable guitar skills.  In fact, had Steve not had such a dynamic voice he would probably have become famous for his guitar (or organ/piano) playing alone, his guitaristry seems to be overlooked by most people but he really had an emotional feel to his technique that generally only comes through many years of playing and his Harmony Rocket sounded brash and confrontational.  That emotional feel was one of the things that diferentiated him from Spencer Davis himself who was a bit workman-like by comparison. 

These days people are used to the technically produced sound that emanates from some PA system with banks of filters and more knobs than the combined cast of Baywatch.  Now I don't want to come across as "It was tough back then" but we had to make the best of what we had, and a PA was something to sing through and nothing more, if you were lucky it had more than two inputs plus a treble and bass control.  What you heard was the 'honest' basic, overdriven, amplified guitar sound which was incredibly exhilarating and thankfully, revitalised by Punk groups following the over-produced and effect laden sounds of the 70's.

You can refine sound, time and time again, but risk ending up with something sterile, and in an instant that ragged sound that conveyed so much excitement has turned to "an afternoon with The Corrs". The Spencer Davis Group were THE 'Groups Group' who delivered the best R&B sound in spades and I'm glad that I was one of those who had the privelege to experience and learn from it.   If they hadn't found fame it would have been a crime.
The more commercial songs of the later years and the making of the "How to commit musical suicide film"  The Ghost Goes Gear, destroyed most of their 'cred', the writing  and recording of the kids TV theme tune 'Magpie'
took care of the rest!

Luckily for us, owing to older recording techniques we have been left with a great LP of  theirs and I strongly recommend that you get hold of 'Their First LP" issued in 65, prior to their commercial success and preferably on Vinyl.  Put it on yer turntable, crank up the volume and enjoy the raw sound of the Harmony Guitar Kings of Brummie R&B.
Their manager took all their money but we have a great piece of history here.

It is amusing to me to read of someone paying thousands of dollars/pounds buying a 50's strat or Gibson and a vintage amp to get the authentic sound and then connect it to 30 assorted footpedals or rack mounted effects.  You can buy the cheapest of guitars and connect them to that equipment and get the same result.  It's just farcical....more money than brains.   For my part I've never owned a foot pedal or anything else that adds an effect and intend to keep it that way. 

Steve Winwood related bits:
1. Eric Clapton was influenced to change to a Stratocaster after hearing Steve play one.

2. "Steve Winwood saw me as a threat" 
- a quote from Dave Mason that has me in fits everytime I think about it.  Don't know a about a 'Hole in My Shoe",he must have had one in his head!

The 60's was a time of change, not only musically speaking but also in the fields of literature, art, dance and fashion and last month saw the passing away of two iconic figures that featured in the world of 60's music.

The first being Carl Gardner, lead singer for The Coasters.   The years prior to the "Swingin 60's" were dominated by Rock and Roll and Doo-Wap and from this mixture came the finest band of that genre, The Coasters.  They were hugely popular and their songs influenced most early groups that were forming.   The Coasters first record release was the brilliant 'Searchin' that was played by most bands and would become The Hollies first hit.  Birmingham's first pop group to appear in the chart's, The Applejacks, featured several Coasters songs in their act, Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak to name but two.

The second did more to raise temperatures of the young men of England than a Vindaloo with extra sauce.  I speak of Flick Colby, the leader and choreographer of Pans People.   This line up of fashionable, gorgeous, young dancers were real leaders of their field, having fun 'strutting their stuff' and the only dance group to feature on the legendary 'In Concert' series.   Flick Colby's routines were raunchy and were a flagship for those days of change when female sexual freedom broke the chains of moral and righteous indignation of the previous decade.  I think they appeared in Birmingham at either The Carlton or the subsequent Mothers, one night?  Could be wrong though.
I don't give a shark's fart what cold blooded feminists think, these girls were the business, of their time, and not a moustache amongst them!!  Right on Sisters.

Right folks that's it from 'yer man.   Time for summer hols and that sort of thing. Me and the lovely Lucy have yet to plan our outings cause there's nothing worth seeing this month in Brum.  I wish you all well and hope that football tempers will have a chance to die down and common sense prevail following the recent cross city upheavals.    

Keep Breathin'

Copyright:  Bulls Head Bob