Tuesday, October 16, 2018


Alvin Lee, pioneer rock guitar hero and leader of the British blues band Ten Years After, died the other day at age 68 from a complication following what's been described as a routine surgery. Lee was not one of my favorites at the time, the late Sixties through the Seventies, mainly because despite his obvious skills--he played the blues clean and speedy and was the first man in rock and roll whose instrumental reputation was based largely on how fast he could negotiate relatively simple blues changes--I thought his guitar work and songwriting were strictly ordinary. Many bands were writing better blues-rock songs and riffs--Hendrix, Cream, Fleetwood Mac--and any other upcoming white blues guitarists, British or American, were more interesting as stylists. Clapton had the phrasing, Peter Green had the tone and soul, Johnny Winter had the speed, fluidity, and variety of approaches to make the basic structures new and invigorating. Nothing Lee ever put on record equaled the elegance of Mike Bloomfield's blues playing at his best; Lee, as Lester Bangs suggested, was more an IBM punch card: insert and listen to the machine crank it out, dependably fast and nerve-wracking, as all efficient machines do.I would wager that Lee is the guy where the whole who--is-faster guitar theatrics came from. It began with Lee, back in the days when young males were starved for heroes who weren't comic book characters or lead singers and older jazz critics who should have known better than praise what they could not hear correctly when too many people were surprised that rock musicians could have technique and chops, and continued to absurd extremes through the glorious music of Johnny Winter through the galvanic jazz-fusion convulsions presented by John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell and onward, through the Sixties, Seventies, Nineties to this current time, when there is technique and speed to spare, but little that is soulful, moving. Save for the off-center improvisations of Allan Holdsworth, a guitarist. 

He combines speed with a sound that seems to replicate the subtle cues of a voice wordlessly indicating a mood with a sigh, a scream, a slight moan; there is no John Coltrane in the batch of fretsters. Instead of passion, there is the only rage born of computer game shoot-ups and a history of film violence; the guitars are fewer expressions of human emotion than musical wrecking balls, heavy, stupid things connected to severe chains of severe retarded belligerence. Coltrane's serpentine register leaping solos were a high-velocity response to equivalent streams of emotion. Raging, arguing, laughing, crying, singing to praise to God and damning the Devil in his hole, JC's improvisations limned an inner terrain of spiritual conflict with an epoch-changing technique; the rapidity of bebop modernism, with its breakneck time signatures and scalar improvisations, had found an emotional basis.  This was not a replication of the human voice when the persona that owned it felt merely joyous or had the blues; this was the river of emotion where the emotions were multiform and simultaneous. That was the miracle of Coltrane's extemporaneous poetry. What Coltrane had introduced, rapid improvisation as a virtue in service to confirming personal Humanity is lost in large measure among the guitarists who've followed Alvin Lee. By design or by accident, their thinking is in line with Italian Futurism, a school of artists obsessed with machinery and the speed of production they made possible. Destroy the present and the past at once, crash headlong into the future with the biggest steam shovel and wrecking ball you have, and rid Humanity of its faux notions of beauty and truth that only constrict us. There is not much room here to be happy or sensible, only busy and constantly, warily angry. The emphasis on firepower has infected the core fan base for this sort of stuff; it is not friendly from the reconnaissance I've been willing to do.  

 Go to YouTube for performances by Joe Satriani, Buckethead, Malmsteen, and other rock technicians and then scroll down to the viewer commentaries. Sooner or later, the discussions devolve to cruel flame wars regarding who is the most fleet fret monger is. I thought it had been settled in the Seventies when Johnny Winter came on the scene and showed how you could play accelerated blues and still be inventive and soulful. The topic, though, merely mutated and remains, to this day, one of the most absurd of obsessive niches in music fandom. Here's a demonstration of Lee's technique and style, as you're likely to find. He was a solid musician and had good command. He was limited, though, and recorded several albums in a role where he offered substantially the same solo over and over. I stopped paying attention years ago. Still, the good stuff I still listen to; there is a first-rate up-tempo blues called "Me and My Baby" that I can't find at the moment where Lee and Co. just get into a swinging groove and play the blues naturally. His guitar work on that is bittersweet, melodic, spare, and right, in the best tradition of BB King. Would that he had done more of that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, here's his version of "Help Me." It's a perfect demonstration of Lee's technique and style, as you'll find. Even though I lost interest in his music overall decades ago, Mr. Lee deserves respect for helping to change the perception as to what a rock guitarist should be. The ongoing results of his innovation have given us both glorious and grating results, but, I would argue, that is the aim of every artist who wants to be an influence to change the way their craft is conducted. In that respect, Alvin Lee hit it out of the park.

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