For this post I had intended to explore some of Bob Dylan’s live output from the 60s and its lasting impact… but I find I’m having to postpone that for another day because I want to take this opportunity to thank one of rock’n’roll’s pioneers and (as the rock and roll guy recently discovered, kind of first-hand) a true gentleman.
Yes, I’m talking about Roger McGuinn.
His music and the music of The Byrds is never really off my turntable and I recently posted a piece looking at one of Pete Seeger’s most underrated LP’s – the masterpiece Rainbow Race, which in turn got me thinking about all Seeger’s great songs and one of my favourite interpretations of one such song popularised by Pete, The Bells Of Rhymney, as performed by The Byrds and latterly by McGuinn himself, acoustically on that beautiful Gene Autry design Martin 12-string of his.
Having first heard the acoustic version on the excellent McGuinn disc Live From Mars, from 1997, I was keen to find a performance I could watch.
I saw the man himself perform the song on tour and also explain the fascinating connection with George Harrison’s cut If I Needed Someone from Rubber Soul – music fans, you know what I mean.
All the professionally recorded video performances I could find of McGuinn in later years seemed to be of him performing a host of other songs, all great of course, but I couldn’t find this particular one, so… the rock and roll guy reached out to Roger himself on Twitter and asked – can we have a performance?
Amazingly, the very next day Mr McGuinn obliged.
Now, isn’t that just the coolest thing?
Maybe others had asked too, but that doesn’t matter.
What matters is the passion for this music is still there.
The purpose of this blog is to project my love for music, film, television and the arts into an arena where anyone can read and share that passion and maybe, just maybe, become inspired by it enough to want to write about it too… or even to create some new art themselves.
In Roger McGuinn, we have a genuine legend… a man who was there when all this stuff was happening, sometimes making it happen himself but also a man who, at the age of 78 (sorry Roger), still wants to share his love for music and is still willing to go the extra mile for the audience, hungry to hoover up as much of this magic as possible.
What a gent.
What a sport.
If I can play the guitar and sing to even a tenth of this man’s ability when I’m a similar age, I’ll be pleased.
As a result, the rock and roll guy would like to share just a few examples of where Mr McGuinn has been inspirational over the years and hopefully this in turn, in a small way, will help bring the music to new ears.
Putting folk music to a Beatle beat
The first of McGuinn’s slam dunks in terms of lasting influence came when he realised the music of the Fabs wasn’t just about catchy tunes and screaming fans… To his musician’s ear, the elements of The Beatles sound were crystal clear.
Supposing you were to play the old folk favourites with a Beatles-style backbeat?
With the genius of Bob Dylan on the scene to provide the material, it wasn’t long before the breakthrough came and that electric version of Mr Tambourine Man stands as one of the epoch moments in pop music history, as well as being one of the great discs of the 60s, or any era.
A few Bach licks in there on the compressed 12-string and the sound was born.
Instantly recognisable and NEVER bettered.
Progressing into new territory with technology and space-themes
Now, your average pop act probably would have been content with the hit and then vanished into obscurity.
Fortunately for us, The Byrds had more to offer, much more in fact, as an earlier post of mine explores just some of their records from the late 60s.
Entitled “So much more to The Byrds than jangly guitars”, I never meant to suggest that the jangly guitars were somehow a lesser element to their sound, but rather that the impact of that sound, in 1965, was so memorable that there was a danger of it eclipsing every other worthy thing the group went on to do.
And boy, did they?!
That’s for another post, but for now, McGuinn’s fascination with world sounds and jazz helped propel the group into more unexplored sonic territory.
He and his colleagues also began emerging as talented writers themselves.
We all know The Beatles were pushing the boundaries and leading the way in studio production as their live output became constrained by the sheer size of the shows and logistical issues.
We all know the resulting records were masterpieces.
But they weren’t the only group trying new things.
McGuinn in particular was fascinated by space exploration and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, and this produced some era-defining records.
Check out the songs on Younger Than Yesterday.
A tireless devourer of new technology, McGuinn has always been interested in using it either as a thematic basis for an idea or to actually create novel music or both.
There’s some great footage out there of him demonstrating an early form of mobile phone in a briefcase!
You have to love that passion.
Understanding the importance of folk music
McGuinn understands that folk music is about culture and communication and that it is organic, developed by and for the people.
That’s why it survives and why, when mixed with other, sometimes newer, forms of music, the result is an enriched hybrid.
Using the springboard of Dylan’s wonderful words (and memorable tunes), The Byrds produced the famous ‘folk-rock’ sound, which soon morphed through ‘space-rock’ to ‘psychedelic-rock’ to ‘country-rock’.
Each time a paradigm shift and each shift representative of McGuinn and his colleagues’ unflinching appetite to explore new ground, taking the best of what was on offer and moulding it into something new.
The output was phenomenal.
So many great records to explore and the rock and roll guy recommends them all.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is obviously a great example of this rock hybrid sound, where country comes to the forefront in a big way.
The influence of Hillman and Parsons is indelible on this record, but it surely would never have happened were it not for McGuinn’s enthusiasm for new forms and passion for musical inclusivity.
Trust me readers, if you’ve never heard that record – get it and give it a listen or three.
Musicianship and development of a signature guitar
I was lucky enough to see McGuinn’s solo show a few times and let me tell you – this guy can play guitar!
As someone who dabbles, I can say with the utmost certainty that Roger does not make it easy for himself.
His incorporation of ‘arpeggios’ and elements of that Scruggs-style syncopation associated with the banjo is, as any musician knows, incredibly difficult to perfect.
You can spend a lifetime trying to do it.
McGuinn uses a flat pick and moves the others along the fingers so that four are involved.
The result is a glorious sound – but it takes dedication to re-educate yourself to play it.
Associated with the Rickenbacker for the electric 12-string, of course there are ‘signature models’ out there bearing his name, but perhaps his most idiosyncratic contribution to the world of instruments is the 7-string Martin he plays a lot these days.
Not content with inventing new sounds and styles of music, he’s also invented new instruments to play them on.
Now that’s a serious contribution.
Curating and recording the folk den
In recent years, McGuinn has been a strong advocate for home production and promoting the rights of the artist.
Music needs the big names to speak out so that it can continue to develop and fight against the blandness of corporate mediocrity.
His love of folk music led him to develop the folk den project, basically collecting folk songs, recording them at home and then making them available for a new audience, thereby ensuring that these essential cultural records survive and pave the way for more inventiveness.
Those ‘passing folk chords’ he heard in Beatles hits can be appreciated by future audiences and maybe something new and real can come from it.
Using the platform of the internet to broadcast these gems from the past shows again that willingness to bring together two seemingly incompatible or unrelated elements to create something new and beautiful, surely the bedrock of all great art.
Keeping the music alive for the people and communicating
I remember tuning in to an appearance by McGuinn on Later… with Jools Holland in 1997 and being fascinated to hear what he would do on the show.
I seem to remember Massive Attack were on the bill that night too and I can remember thinking, can an acoustic guitar stand up alongside the kind of sound they were producing?
I saw Massive Attack live around that time by the way and they blew me away – one of the most interesting commercially successful acts of the 90s and beyond.
Needless to say, McGuinn’s musicianship on that show totally stole the show.
A blistering version of Eight Miles High and a jaunty So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star had the studio audience eating out of his hand.
This was one supercool professional, not phased at all by the juggernaut power of the current bands.
He was doing things on that 12-string that made me want to get one.
So, I did.
That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?
Playing the music and making others want to play it too.
But beyond that, I just want to reiterate how refreshing it is to be able to communicate with someone of Roger McGuinn’s obvious musical calibre.
Most rock stars want to be mysterious and enigmatic.
He wants the music to be heard.
And we want to hear it.
So, once again, Roger, heartfelt thanks for that performance of one of our favourite songs, which you didn’t have to do, but you did and it has made our year so far at therockandrollguy.com.
You once sang, “It’s not the singer, it’s the tune.”
Well, while that may generally be the case, sometimes the singer can legitimately be lauded as just as important as the music and sometimes even more so, especially when they’ve helped enable the music not just to survive, but to develop and to inspire future generations.
That must surely be the greatest achievement of any serious musician and artist.