The sound of obsession

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.

 

4 comments

  1. Wow. Didn’t even need to play the song, know exactly the tone and the riff…. definitely remember thinking yes, this is the best band on the planet….

    Coincidentally my tone obsession was always the Isle of Wight Version of Machine Gun…. listened to it at least once a day for years… couldn’t get enough of that creamy and aggressive at the same time fuzz…. so much happening in a 1-chord song… Don’t get me wrong I love the Gypsies version(s) as well but something about doing what he did with the alleged sound issues he was having that night…. really pumps my nads!

    For what it’s worth: current tone obsession is John Dwyer of Oh Sees.

    Thank you for writing this, it made my day.

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  2. Hey Nick, those 10 seconds are very much worth obsessing over. I also have become attached to some other Sebadoh guitar and bass lines, one that had me going for a while was ‘License to confuse’, probably more cheerful than ‘Not too amused’, but still intriguing for me. One song that I obsessed over was ‘Out on the Grass’ by Supernovice, which appeared in the 1995 Punk Sucks compilation. I think that’s a prime example of a little known song that had an immense impact on me. Which goes to prove that good music has nothing to do with well known music.

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  3. Don’t know if you’re a nutter or not, but you’re not alone. There’s one sound on ‘Kind of Blue’ that’s worth the whole album for me…

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  4. Sebadoh’s very odd tunings and utterly unique guitar tones and atypical melodic and sing structures have had me obsessed with them since the early 90s as well, you’re definitely not alone! There are so many songs really, and it’s not like it’s technical virtuosity we’re taking about here. I share it with someone and they either totally get it or are line, “wtf is this?” but for me it just strikes this magnificently unique, magnetic sonic voyage in my brain.

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