“They must have amused each other – so similar were they, yet so different. If not for their overlapping fascination with amplification and musical instruments, they might not have become friends.”
-from The Birth of Loud by Ian S. Port (page 34)
For my fourteenth birthday my father drove me to a music store on the corner of Sherbrooke and Decarie. They were having a clearance sale and the prices were irresistible. Back then rock music ruled the airwaves and for a future superstar preparing to purchase their first axe there were two camps, each respecting a blues-based guitar god born with the name “James”: The Late American icon Jimi Hendrix and the legendary Brit Jimmy Page. One either wanted the smooth, contoured Fender Stratocaster preferred by the former, or the low-slung cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul, the choice of the latter. For me there was no contest: Jimi was my man and I wanted a Strat! But they were too expensive, even at a reduced cost. So I opted for a knockoff called a “Profile” with a maple neck and fingerboard, white pick guard, and yellow and black body that looked just like a classic Strat and had pretty decent tone. That was good enough for me…to start with anyway. I few years later I saved up enough to upgrade to a top-notch candy-apple red Kramer K-1000 with a rosewood fingerboard that was shaped like a Strat, but to date I have never had a chance to play the real McCoy.
At the time I knew little about the history of the solid-body electric guitar. I knew that its creation was credited to Les Paul, but I had no idea he was also an established musician. I even remember an appearance he made on Late Night with David Letterman in the 80’s where he was introduced as the inventor of the electric guitar.
But what was the real story?
That is the subject of The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll by award-winning writer, journalist and music critic Ian S. Port, a new book from Scribner that challenges that aforementioned myth.
The Birth of Loud follows Leo Fender and Les Paul from their early days as a tinkerer and musician respectively, to their roles in the development of what would become the musical instruments that would change popular music, and through the influence of everyone from Elvis Presley and The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen and U2, the world. The book includes stories from their private lives and their unique personality quirks, and by the end I had the feeling that I got to know and understand the main protagonists.
The iconoclast volume goes on to shatter preconceived ideas about the creation and evolution of the electric guitar, “an instrument that simply can’t be attributed to one single person.” (Page 96) And Port makes sure many others whose contributions have not been recognized, like Paul Bigsby and George Fullerton, get their due.
The author’s style is strong, smooth, direct, tight and terse; he doesn’t digress into needless, distracting side stories or unnecessarily complex technical jargon. (Leave that kind of writing for those willing to dig deeper into engineering manuals.) Port hits the ground running and does not waste a single word. At the risk of sounding immodest (like that has ever stopped me bofore) I adore any book that tells me things that I was not already aware of; I have read extensively of the history of rock ‘n’ roll and still The Birth of Loud surprised me with some facts, not the least of which was something that wasn’t really delved into: That Les Paul essentially invented the music video!
We exist in an unfortunate world where popular musicians no longer possess the skills acquired through years of study, practice and sacrifice; where some DJ simply plugs in a laptop and presses “Enter” to get the party started. That’s why it’s comforting to read about an era when music was played live to appreciative audiences; when artists improvised and fed off the energy of the crowd. The history of the electric guitar, (as well as the amplifiers, also covered in the book), and the history of rock ‘n’ roll are intertwined, and for anyone like me who longs for those days, The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘N’ Roll is the book for you.
Now please “excuse me, while I kiss the sky!”