The very first song I truly obsessed over was not much of a song at all. Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, centred on the track “Machine gun”, carried me through a long summer in perhaps 1988, until the cassette got chewed up in my boom box.
I bet I could still recite just about every note of the long, long solo from memory, but if I’m honest the guitar that led it was hardly a structure of hooks, or verse and chorus, or any other guidelines to follow through the track like popular music “should”. There was bass and drums of course, but they melted behind a musical journey, over those 13 minutes, that was Hendrix’s alone.
I realise now that I wasn’t really following that journey with him, though. What led to my obsession was the tone. The uncomfortable embrace of that slightly warm, slightly jagged stratocaster. If he could have played a test tone on it, I would still have been carried along.
For me this begins to explain why other bands I like can be tolerable to me while they are not to (lots of) others. Dinosaur Jr, then My Bloody Valentine, and then Sunn O))). I’ve moved further and further down this line towards tone over tune.
I can be really miopic about it too. The best example is one that makes all these other bands’ tones pale into insignificance, compared to the one from a section of just ten seconds that I spent a good few years fixated on.
Before we go any further, go and listen to that few seconds if you can: the very first ten seconds of Sebadoh’s “Not Too Amused” in fact, from 1993’s Bakesale album.
Done that now? Good.
Sounds really average to you, I bet. Just some overdriven guitar on another indie-rock staple. But for me, this tone drove an obsession that lasted many years.
That sound, to my mind, is both heavy and clean, energetic and yet so very dark, serious without being macho. It might have managed to be the heaviest sound I had ever heard in fact, and yet it was just a hint of that darkness, behind a lightness of brighter strings mixed through it.
I was trying to be a musician of sorts at that point in my life too, and the opening ten seconds of “Not Too Amused” was the sound I need to replicate in my own ham-fisted guitar sound. If I got there, I think I felt, I had a chance to really do something special, and perhaps I’d be the next big deal.
Spoiler: I never did. I spent many hundreds of pounds buying and selling different amps and pedals, and began to learn recording technique to see if I could fake that tone on an album. I furiously tried to tweak volumes and EQs and drive, but it was a hopeless cause. That ten seconds has always remained out of reach.
But this is not an entirely sad story. Best to keep your heroes at a distance, where you can wonder at their sleights of hand. Without that ten seconds, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt like Sebadoh were worth following around the country on tour through the 90s. And perhaps if I had managed to capture it, so my appetite was sated, I would have given up on the journey I have taken ever since, through tones from angelic to vicious.
Words by Nick Parker.
PS – I guess I can’t be alone in this kind of obsession. Given all the depths of a song – layers and trajectory and style and all – don’t the rest of you dig in to this point of ridiculous fixation? Please, save me from my isolation – tell me about the minutiae of your music taste, so I feel like a bit less of a nutter.