The Complicatist : Look Ma, No Words

Doing it lyrically, but without lyrics

by Gordon Campbell

For some inexplicable reason, a slew of instrumentals became hits a couple of years after the birth of rock’n’roll. The people who made most of them came and went without a trace : Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, Preston Epps, Kokomo, Johnny and the Hurricanes …This column links to a few of them. It also features a similar array of acoustic guitar legends from Bayless Rose to Robbie Basho to modern guitar wizards like James Blackshaw, and onwards to uncategorisable non-vocal modern acts like Holy Fuck. This month is about emotions too immediate – or too diffuse – to put into words.

1. DJ Vitalic : ‘Poney Part Two’ Vitalic has played the Boiler Room at the Big Day Out in recent years, but this was his breakout track from his breakthrough 2005 album, OK Cowboy. It is also the most ridiculously mind-altering celebration of dogs (in slo-mo magnificence) ever committed to video.

2. Holy Fuck “Red Lights” / “They’re Going To Take My Thumbs” For balance, here are undeniably cute pictures of cats, though “Red Light” also qualifies by being a great driving song. Toronto’s Holy Fuck first toured New Zealand in late 2008 to even better effect than their Laneways effort this year. I’ve also included their terrific“ Thumbs” track that kicked off the second season of Breaking Bad.

3. Bayless Rose : Frisco Blues OK, this churningly mysterious track dates from about 1930. For decades, almost nothing has been known about Bayless Rose – who he was, or whether he was black, white, Creole or points in between. The few scraps known about him were pulled together late last year on Blindman’s Blues Forum.

IMO, “Frisco Blues” strikes the perfect balance between poignant sorrow and optimism – maybe the perfect expression of the Piedmont ragtime blues style commonly associated with Mississippi John Hurt.

4. Elizabeth Cotton : ‘Vastopol” Jorma Kaukonen “ Embryonic Journey” Talking of Piedmont style, here are a couple of wildly different examples. Elizabeth Cotton (who wrote “ Freight Train”) had one of those fluke careers only possible in the folk music revival of the late 1950s. After giving up her early musical interests to raise a family and join the church, Cotton was working in a department store when she found a lost child, little Peggy Seeger. Later, she accepted the offer of a housemaid job from the grateful Seeger family and years later, picked up one of their guitars and started playing – and to the consternation of this very musical family, she proved to have been a musical genius all along. A left hander, Cotton played her ordinarily strung guitar upside down. “Vastopol” is named after an open D tuning associated with Russian sailors from the Black Sea. Lastly, here is Jorma Kaukonen’s masterful take on Piedmont style, recorded at the height of Jefferson Airplane’s fame in 1967. Forgive me for the gratuitous hippie chick visuals, but this is the only version of the original track available on Youtube:

5. Bill Doggett : “ Honky Tonk” Reg Owen : “Manhattan Spiritual”
Hard to pick whether this Bill Doggett perennial or Booker T’s “Green Onions” is the most timeless instrumental hit of the past 50 years, but tonight, we’ll give this one the nod. British bandleader Reg Owen had an unlikely hit in 1959 with “Manhattan Spiritual” a great big city dance anthem from the other side of town.

6. The Ventures “Wipe Out” The Rock a Teens “ Woo Hoo”
Sure, the best known version of “Wipe Out” was by the Surfaris, who remained one hit wonders – partly because their manager (whose manic laughter kicked off their hit recording) had placed their music with eight different labels at once. This live version of “Wipe Out” by the Ventures features some amazingly athletic drumming. Talking of which, “Woo Hoo” ( by one hit wonders The Rock-A Teens) not only featured a crazed 12 bar drum solo, but a rhythm guitar solo as well.

7. Robbie Basho “Rocky Mountain Raga” and “Orphans Lament”
Leo Kottke : “Train and the Gate/Vaseline Machine Gun”
Peter Walker : ‘ White Wind”
James Blackshaw : “Cross ( The Glass Bead Game) “

Acoustic guitar time. Fans of the current acoustic guitar master James Blackshaw will know the debt that he regularly concedes to Robbie Basho – who among other things, was the only major musician to die because his chiropractor tried a move on his neck that misfired. Some 25 years after Basho’s death his music has lost none of its wild, unearthly feeling. The raga track I’ve chosen has a few vocal moments, but the playing seethes with awe for Mother Nature in all her rocky mountain ways, more so than Joe Walsh never imagined.. “Orphans Lament” is an anomaly here – it being a vocal with piano number – but Basho’s singing is unearthly, and prefigures some of the best qualities of Antony and the Johnsons.

The tour de force piece by Leo Kottke is a live medley that fuses a track he wrote for Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven, alongside an even older superhands showcase called “Vaseline Machine Gun.” Moving right along, Peter Walker’s Rainy Day Raga album (and the track ‘White Wind” in particular ) made a huge impression on me when it was first released, and the Tompkins Square label have just released Walker’s first new record in 37 years. Lastly, there’s James Blackshaw himself in live performance tying all the above together.

8. Sandy Nelson “Let There Be Drums”
Nelson was a precocious session drummer – he played on the Phil Spector/Teddybears breakthrough hit “ To Know Him Is To Love Him” – before having a string of meticulously re-recorded instrumental hits starting with “Teen Beat” – which his manager decided to re-mix everytime he did another pressing, meaning there were about eight versions of the track available during its couple of months in the charts. This was Nelson’s other mega-hit, and benefits immeasurably by the guitar lines contributed by Richard Podolor, whose subsequently successful career as a record producer included Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”.

9. Link Wray : “ Rumble”
And here, finally, is where it started. If I could find a Youtube upload ,I’d go for Wray’s “New Studio Blues” but there is no escaping the giant shadow cast by this sullenly magnificent recording. According to legend, the track got its name because the daughter of Archie Bleyer (the record company boss who released it) thought that it sounded like those gangs in West Side Story –which is perfect, if you think of it as being equal parts juvenile delinquent menace on one hand, and swaggering theatrical bullshit on the other. Rock’n’roll!