Tag Archives: John Lennon

Stuff Riffmaster Knows: The Beatles & Their Gear

Riff Banner28127_10150190489000591_536200590_12508602_5992375_nI’ve been playing in a rock and roll band with Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner since the very early 1980’s. Not only is Pete a gifted shredder of the Fender Stratocaster, he knows more about rock and roll than it’s probably healthy to know. Especially where it concerns The Beatles — who, Pete will happily tell you, he actually saw live at Shea Stadium. (Pete was also at Woodstock. Yeah. That Woodstock.)

Young Riffmaster with axe.

Young Riffmaster with axe.

Over the years, my band mates have exchanged thousands of Emails in an informative and entertaining chain of rock trivia, history and lore that is sometimes staggering in its detail. Never more so than when our own guitar hero, Riffmaster Pete Van Wagner, drills down into the details of the equipment used by The Fab Four.

What follows is an Email that Riffmaster recently sent. Riff’s response was prompted by a photo of The Beatles in the studio, Emailed to the band by our brilliant drummer, Rockin’ Ronny Crawford.

From the Riffmaster:

What’s got me going a little bit crazy is the tan Vox amps in the September 1962 Black Eye studio photos. Prices for these amps have gone through the roof on the vintage market. But what’s the story with The Beatles’ tan Vox amps? I’ve always seen them with black Vox amps. When I first saw these photos I thought that maybe the amps were Abbey Road studio amps.

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In earlier 1962 photos The Beatles are seen at the Cavern playing Gibson and Fender tweed amps.

This is April ’62:

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That’s George’s Gibson GA-40 amp on the left behind John. That’s John’s Fender Deluxe amp on the right behind Paul. That’s Pete on the drums.  Also note John’s Rickenbacker guitar, that he bought in Hamburg, is still it’s original Natural tan color.  More on this later.

But here they are at band practice at the Cavern with Ringo in August. Pete’s out, Ringo’s in. The old Fender and Gibson amps are gone and the tan Vox amps are in. Hmmm. So I guess they are The Beatles’ amps, not Abbey Road’s.

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Here they are at the Cavern not long after the September recording session. Black Vox amps. Also shirts, vests and ties.  Brian Epstein’s been here. Note Ringo’s drum head still reading “Ringo Starr.” My brain is starting to hurt. The happy faces indicate how happy the Boys were with their free new Vox amps — and with Ringo Starr on skins.

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Luckily I have the book, The Beatles Gear.  Hopefully I’ll find answers there.

Here’s the story:

d1343f6b36d6a7d549fb9996a2adad91The Beatles came into EMI’s Abbey Road studios to record “Love Me Do” and three other tunes using their old Gibson, Fender and Paul’s TruVoice amp with what’s been called a coffin speaker cabinet. The TruVoice hummed a lot and the other amps weren’t much better. George Martin told Brian Epstein that The Beatles would need professional gear if they were going to continue to be recording artists. George also told Brian at this time that for the next session he, George, would provide a drummer as Pete wasn’t up to the task.  

Brian went out to buy new amplifiers but was told that the Beatles still owed money for the TruVoice amp.  Brian payed off the Beatles’ unpaid loans to Hessy’s Music shop in Liverpool and bought the tan Vox amps for George and John.  Paul continued to use the Coffin speaker cab (on the far right in the picture above) with an unknown amp powering it.  Hessy’s suggested to Brian the he contact Vox and try to work out a deal with Vox direct.  Brian did and was given the black Vox AC30 amps in exchange for free use of The Beatles in any Vox promotion.  And so it was that The Beatles were given free Vox amps for their entire career and Vox got to use the Beatles as free endorsers for years to come.

Note below: John’s Rickenbacker has now been refinished in black.

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Shea Stadium 1966.  Their last tour.  I’m sitting over on the first base line with my cousin Michelle.

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Penny Lane: Then & Now

My daughter Emilia is traveling in Liverpool, the home of John, Paul, George and Ringo:  The Beatles.

Getting Free

The monumental Beatles fan I am, the moment I got to Liverpool, England, was the moment I made sure I got myself to all IMG_0716the Beatles’ landmarks: Paul McCartney’s childhood home, John Lennon‘s childhood home, Strawberry Fields, St. Peter’s Church, and, of course, Penny Lane. I, of course, know all the lyrics to Penny Lane (as any halfway-decent Beatles fan should), and all the while I roamed the Lane, the lyrics were bopping through my head. How does the Penny Lane of today hold up to the Penny Lane McCartney immortalized in song? Well, let’s have a look at the lyrics.**

Verse #1:
In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello

Now, in my travels on Penny Lane, I found 2 barbershops, neither…

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It Was 49 Years Ago Today…

Beatlesbanner1101934-004-CD2C8F59I was just a young, working class Cleveland boy — two months shy of my 6th birthday — and what happened on this day, 49 years ago, at 8:00 pm ET on Sunday February 9, 1964 became an unforgettable moment in my life.

2e76b29da002e58a18b357d85a67a91ae0a2392aOn that incredible, magical, epochal day, The Beatles – Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — made their first live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City. There were just three TV channels in those days – and most televisions in America had their rabbit ears tuned in to the Sunday night broadcast that marked the U.S. debut of the rock n’ roll band that would soon transform international pop culture.

Beatles_399x400Upon their arrival in New York and in the months to follow, I was besotted by The Beatles. My older brother Peter and I would hang out beneath our neighbor Dino Zaccardelli’s bedroom window on West 33rd Street, listening to the glorious, transformative album that Dino’s mom had just bought for him: Meet the Beatles.

I vividly remember how Peter and I listened to that thrilling album over and over, playing passionately along on badminton rackets posing as guitars. Unfortunately, we rocked out while standing on his older brother’s car – and that got is in trouble. (We left a lot of jubilant, rocking footprints on his hood and fenders.)

220px-IntroducingtheBeatlesAt the time, I had no clue that Meet the Beatles was actually the second Beatles’ album released in the United States. Ten days before the release of Meet the Beatles, Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records released the Beatles’ first U.S. album, Introducing…The Beatles.

As far as my brother Peter, Dino and I were concerned, Meet the Beatles was where it all began – and The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS 49 years ago was our introduction to full blown Beatlemania.

usa_meet-the-beatlesFrom those indelible days in February 1964, my life was changed in ways I am still learning to appreciate. To have grown up during Beatlemania is a formative, fundamental  blessing that subsequent generations cannot possibly understand or fully appreciate. (Because they take rock & roll for granted.)

My daughters learned to love The Beatles.

RR0910_603_lgBut I was grew up with The Beatles.

49 years ago – my brother Peter and I got lucky.

All us kids got lucky.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

YEAH!

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Is this John Lennon’s long lost cousin?

I’ve been in Evanston, Illinois this weekend (or was it Liverpool?), and I ran into a fellow who purports to be John Lennon’s cousin, Lon Lennon. (See photo above.)

The guy is the right age. Older than me. Plus, he has as uncanny knowledge of rock and roll trivia, especially The Beatles, all the British Invasion bands, and (oddly enough for an Englishman) The Beach Boys.

One thing though: I’ve seen him play a ukulele. However, I’ve seen Paul McCartney play a ukulele.

And I know George Harrison was a ukulele player.

So, he might actually be a legitimate Beatle cousin.

Somehow, I don’t think we’ve heard the last (have we even heard the first?) of Lon Lennon.

Did Lon introduce John to the ukulele? Or was it the other way around? I should have asked Lon when I had the chance.

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Aliens Among Us?

In his 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, author Erich von Däniken speculated that the religions and technological advancements of some ancient civilizations were the work of ancient astronauts who were welcomed to Earth as gods.

Now, I dig contemplating the mysteries of Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and those crazy ancient lines dug into the rock on the Plains of Nazca in Peru (pictured below) – but I can’t say I subscribe to von Daniken’s theory.

However…

At various times in human history, certain people have appeared on the scene who were so far ahead of their peers — intellectually, artistically, scientifically, philosophically and morally – that you have to wonder just where the hell they came from. Were these geniuses simply the result of natural human evolution? Were they the special blessings of a loving God, eager to advance His human experiment? Or did they somehow drop out of the sky as the gift of extraterrestrial overlords, desirous of seeing human civilization grow and prosper for reasons we can’t yet fathom.

The following 15 great minds were so far advanced for their time that it seems entirely plausible that they were, indeed, space aliens plunked down among us to enlighten humanity and move us Earthlings forward: or at least the result of divine intervention. Either that, or humankind just got lucky.

I admit that this is an entirely Western list. I’m sure students of Eastern culture would rank Buddah and other Asian greats in this elite category. But I don’t know a damned thing about Eastern culture beyond the legend that claims Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy – which is hard for a proud Italian like me to endure. Maybe that’s why I’ve never delved much deeper into Asian studies.

At any rate, here’s my list of 15 possible alien geniuses dropped out of the sky into the world of mortal men.

1. Socrates (469-399 B.C.) What most school kids know about this leading light of ancient Greek philosophy is that he got in trouble for corrupting the youth of Athens and was made to execute himself by drinking hemlock. (Probably the first and only reference to hemlock most of us will hear in our lives.) Among those Athenian kids learning at Socrates’ feet was Plato, who also did some pretty advanced thinking of his own – and wrote a classic account of Socrates final days. Socrates work is the foundation for the study of Western philosophy. Tuition-paying parents can blame Socrates for the fact that their sons and daughters will earn a college degree that almost guarantees poverty. More than two centuries after downing his hemlock cocktail, Socrates is still corrupting the kids.

2. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Another great Greek philosopher, Aristotle was a student of Plato. He taught Alexander the Great. (Which is a good thing if you’re Greek and a bad thing if you’re Persian.) Aristotle was a great writer — the first to explore logic (long before Star Trek’s Spock). He is considered one of the central figures of Western philosophy. Back in the day, Aristotle and his followers were known as the Peripatetic school, after the ancient Greek word peripatetikos, which means “given to walking about”. He must have been a fast walker, because, to this day, students find it hard to keep up with Aristotle.

3. Jesus (1-33 A.D.) For the moment, let’s just set aside the divisive two-millennia long debate over whether Jesus was a god or a man – or both. Even if he was no more than a Galilean carpenter’s son, his “love your neighbor as yourself” philosophy was revolutionary. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was certainly not the prevailing attitude of Jesus’ time – and few people live up to that Golden Rule today. But it’s a philosophy that could save humanity, if only we’d all live by it. Whether you’re a deist or not, read The Beatitudes — and marvel at all that wisdom flowing from an impoverished, poorly educated guy from an oppressed backwater of the Roman Empire. Turning water into wine was a nice trick, but the transformational ideas Jesus expressed were truly miraculous.

4. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Where in the hell did Leonardo da Vinci come from? Okay, so he’s one of the best painters of all time — and one of the great scientists and inventors, too. The same guy who painted The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa also drew up plans for a helicopter and a tank. His notebooks are filled with brilliant ideas – which he liked to write backwards! (My wife is the only other person I know who can do that with ease.) How good was Leonardo? Da Vinci was so good that Michelangelo was jealous of him. Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man: painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, engineer and jazz hipster. (I made up that last one.)

5. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) Simply amazing. To call William Shakespeare the greatest writer in the English language still sounds like faint praise. A supreme poet, a brilliant wordsmith, and an unparalleled playwright, he created nearly 40 plays and about 150 sonnets – and they all kick ass. Hamlet not enough for you? MacBeth not enough? King Lear? Othello? Romeo and Juliet? It’s just silly how incredible the Bard’s body of masterworks is. You can’t go through life for a day – you can hardly live through one hour – without hearing or reading or seeing a phrase written by Shakespeare. And half the time you don’t even realize it! Bill Shakespeare is not simply the greatest writer in the English language: he is the English language.

6. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) The second great Italian on this list, Galileo was a revolutionary astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. He’s been called the “the Father of Modern Science – and for good reason. He’s the guy who figured out some fundamental things about gravity, the laws of motion – and that little business about the Earth moving around the Sun (rather than vice versa). The great authority of Galileo’s time, The Catholic Church, rewarded him for his discovery of this essential astronomical truth by charging him with heresy and threatening to torture him if he didn’t take it all back. Galileo was in his 70’s when they and took him to the church dungeons to show off the instruments of torture they planned to use on him if he didn’t recant. Knowing the Church had already burned his scientific predecessor Giordano Bruno at the stake for heresy, Galileo recanted and spent the last seven years of his life under house arrest. Nice, huh?

It was a memory of such state-sponsored religious tyranny that led people like the next man on this lost to espouse the separation of church and state.

7. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) Ben Franklin is not just one of America’s Founding Fathers. Given his Olympian libido, he might be literally our founding father. But his infamous satyric exploits aside, Ben Franklin is still an incredible character: the most multi-faceted Renaissance man since Leonardo da Vinci. Franklin was an innovative author, humorist, printer, politician, inventor, and scientist. His legendary kite-flying experiments advanced our knowledge of electricity. He wrote hundreds of wise and witty sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac, invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, the odometer – and contributed to much of the philosophy and lawmaking that gave birth to the government of the United States of America. Oh yeah — and as our first ambassador to France, Franklin was instrumental in bringing the French into our revolutionary war against England. Game over. Bow down to Ben.

8. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) Born in a log cabin and largely self-educated, Abe Lincoln overcame the disadvantages of a hardscrabble frontier life on the edge of American civilization to become the central figure in saving the American experiment from itself. How did such a rough-hewn man become the supreme poet that wrote the Gettysburg Address – or his second inaugural address? (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…”) And it’s not just Honest Abe’s flair for poetry that rings down the centuries – it’s also his uncanny leadership in the Civil War. No American president since George Washington (and possibly James Madison) faced a more grave threat to America. But Washington had already won his war before he took office as President – and Madison’s English invaders also had Napoleon to deal with. Lincoln faced a wholly internal threat. He persevered and won. And he freed the slaves, too. He was the right man at the right time. Did we just get lucky? Or were our alien overlords looking out for us?

9. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Naturalist Charles Darwin took a great scientific leap forward — and infuriated generations of Biblical fundamentalists — with his pioneering research on natural selection leading to his theory of evolution. Without Darwin’s tireless voyages and observations and his bold assertions of evolutionary theory, many of the great scientific and medical advances of the 20th century would have been impossible. No scientist since Galileo has pissed off more small-minded religious conservatives than Darwin. That alone is a fine reason to celebrate his landmark achievements.

10. Mark Twain (1835-1910) We all had to read Mark Twain’s books in school — but Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are just the tip of the Twain iceberg. Twain’s literary, journalistic, intellectual and humanist advancements are still underappreciated in his own land. But the more you read Twain’s works, the greater he becomes. In fact, Mark Twain may be the greatest writer in the English language since Shakespeare. What couldn’t this guy write? Drama? Check. Comedy? Check. Adventure? Check. Political commentary? Check. Travelogue? Check. Philosophy? Check. Twain wrote it all – and he did it in a voice that still sounds contemporary today. Do yourself a favor and get his newly published autobiography. Mark Twain is the American literary colossus. (And no, let’s not replace the N-word in Huck Finn with “slave”. Twain knew what he was doing.)

11. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) In his own time, Thomas Edison was like Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg combined. Is there any modern appliance that we now take for granted that Edison didn’t invent? The incandescent light bulb, sound recording devices, the phonograph and the film camera would be enough to make him a legend – but Edison did much, much more.

In his New Jersey laboratory, The Wizard of Menlo Park pretty much invented the modern world. Without Edison, there would be no vinyl records – and thus, no late 20th Century rock & roll. ‘Nuff said.

12. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) In a violent century marred by two world wars, pogroms, massacres, bloody civil wars, nuclear bombs and revolutionary struggles against colonial powers – Gandhi achieved independence for India through non-violence. And he did this in a region where tribal, religious and ethnic violence was a way of life. Gandhi showed humanity a way forward, just as Jesus did two millennia before him. And, like Jesus, Gandhi paid for his non-violent vision with his life.

13. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) Martin Luther King brought the non-violent humanism of Jesus and Gandhi to America – combined with soaring, moving poetry not heard in the political realm since Abraham Lincoln. As a result, he helped America to advance civil rights and form a more perfect union. What was Martin Luther King’s reward for his genius? Alas, the same reward that Jesus, Lincoln and Gandhi got. (Noticing a pattern here?)

14. Bob Dylan (Born May 24, 1941) How did a 22-year old kid from a backwater like Hibbing, Minnesota write “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”? Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation by merging folk music and rock and roll with cutting-edge social, political and passionately human commentary. Dylan’s influence on popular culture since the early 1960’s is impossible to measure. My favorite Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks, is the most romantic collection of love and loss poems since Shakespeare’s sonnets — and you can sing them. In my estimation, the greatest poets in the English language are Shakespeare, Lincoln and Bob Dylan.

15. Lennon & McCartney (Met Saturday, July 6, 1957) The only partnership on this list, Paul McCartney and John Lennon are the greatest songwriting team in history: their influence on popular culture in the second half on the 20th Century and beyond is immeasurable. Eleanor Rigby, In My Life, Yesterday, Let it Be, Across the Universe – the list of their undying classics goes on and on. What would your life be without Lennon & McCartney? Kind of like a life without Shakespeare. Maybe even worse. After all, you can’t dance to Titus Andronicus. We tend to discount the geniuses amongst us. It’s said that true genius is never appreciated in its own time. But Lennon & McCartney are either once-in-a-generation geniuses – or space aliens dropped into working class Liverpool during World War Two.

A couple observations about this list:

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is not on the list because his big scientific breakthrough (E = mc2) led to the atomic bomb. That may not be fair, but consequences matter. Nobody else on this list came up with anything that directly cost lives. UPDATE: The wise and fair minded Jim McCutchen reminds me that Einstein is NOT the only one on this list to have his work misused to the detriment of mankind. Jim is correct. Now, I am keeping Einstein off the list simply because I am not a big fan of math and because his hair looks too much like Mark Twain’s.

Of the 15 geniuses on this list, more than half were severely punished for their gifts to humanity: two were executed (Socrates and Jesus), four were assassinated (Lincoln, Gandhi, King and Lennon), and two were persecuted by religious fundamentalists (Galileo and Darwin).

Who would you put on this list?

Who would you take off this list?

And where do you stand on the whole Chariots of the Gods thing?

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John Lennon…

1940 — 1980 — Forever

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