Blue Monday – Fats Domino and the lost dawn of Rock n’ Roll – Book Review


Blue Monday – Fats Domino and the lost dawn of Rock n’ Roll – Rick Coleman

FATSI’m part of a Facebook group called ‘The Record Den’ where like-minded sad O.C.D. suffering record collectors and enthusiasts of a superior popular musical past share their likes; in this case mainly Rhythm and Blues from the 40s and 50s, Soul from the 60s and Progressive Rock Lps from the 70s (yes there’s always at least one truly sad Chemistry Teacher who clings to his Yes and Rush Lps with a sweaty desperation and requires public validation for his self-imposed disability).

A short while ago and whilst suffering from a lack of reading material I asked for suggestions for my next book and bedtime indulgence. I focussed my fellow collectors on what I felt I required. A book that would illuminate the popular 40s and 50s world of Rhythm and Blues music. And ‘Blue Monday’ was suggested to me, in amongst a few others as befitting my requirements. My fellow record junkies were flowing in their praise of Rick Coleman’s book.

I was shocked to discover that it is the ONLY biography of a man who was essential to the world of Rhythm and Blues and centrally important and present in the operating theatre at the birth of Rock n’ Roll. ‘It’s a boy, and he’s got a D.A. and a white T-Shirt on, with 20 soft pack Marlboro already tucked into the short sleeve, Mr. Domino, you must be very proud…’

The book

The book rather wonderfully features as a first step a map of New Orleans, detailing the various districts and locating for all to see important and key features of the city’s music-scape and Fats Domino’s present and historic placement in that geography. Before even beginning to read I found myself wandering the streets, and linking the locations of his various family homes with photographs in the book, shortly thereafter going on Google Earth to street view the various locations as they appear now. Sadly one or two destroyed entirely by Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans City Governments fraudulent re-claiming of unattended and un-mended land left behind by people too poor to return to it in the stringent allotted time-frame. As you can see, I was fully engaged with this book within seconds of opening it. No mean feat, as I generally don’t get past the first half chapter of books that are poorly conceived or poorly written or both, as is more normally the case.

Rick Coleman takes the reader through Fat’s history, his childhood, his background, placing it strongly and forcefully within the context of New Orleans as a city formed from the sweat and blood of the African diaspora, Catholicism and the indivisible early French settlement of Louisiana. I found the section that revolved around Congo Square, an area established as a location of Black African cultural expression from the city’s earliest days, incredibly interesting and engaging.

Rick Coleman uses the location as a cypher for the changing role and social mobility of a multi-layered Black city culture that shifts and moves with changes in the religion of the region and the political upheaval of Civil War America and ingress of Protestantism. All the time keeping the reader in touch with the music soil of the place, that same substrate that gave rise to a crop of musicians, singers, writers and producers, that included Fats Domino.

The book touches on Fat’s links with other musicians of the era, his long and fruitful if sometime difficult relationship with Dave Bartholomew his writing partner, arranger and frequent band leader. We hear about other movers and shakers of the City at the time; Smiley Lewis and Professor Longhair feature amongst fellow New Orleans musicians and the shifting line up of Fats Domino’s own touring band and the individuals mini stories are well told. We learn about his rise to fame, his signing to and early career with Imperial Records, and movement onwards to other labels, the never-ending tour schedule and the tragic loss of band members to the musicians seeming drug of choice at the time, Heroin and the tragedy of car wrecks reaped through too many miles on the road.

In short the book is well-formed and paced, tells the tales well, fills one in on just who Fats Domino was, what and where gave birth to him and in turn Rock n’ Roll. It’s a real lesson and a Rockin’ Good read. Heartily recommended. If I have one minor criticism it is that the last decades of an artist no longer truly central are skimmed over and compressed in a way that leaves the finish of the book underperforming like a damp firework. A pity as the rest of the book is an explosion of images, information, sights, smells and a vivid retelling of one of the greatest and least lauded artists of the Rhythm and Blues and Rock N’ Roll era.

DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE – Amanda Petrusich – Independant Book Review


Do not sell at any price by Amanda Petrusich – a book review

Do not sell at any price, available in lots of places..
Do not sell at any price, available in lots of places..

Let’s all get this straight from the start, I bought this book, I was not invited to give my opinion on it, but in the true tradition of peevishness, pugnacity and of irascibility I shall.. so nah!

I shall speak in perpetuum of the interminably un-ending indulgence of this writer’s fondant fancy froufrou, this lady’s lace work of metaphor and of the hyperbole of hype. The replacement of anything corporeal with the mere sweaty glaze of insignificancy.

There is something bothersome about the way in which this stripling (yes I’m downwardly ageist) seeks to engage with the very real world of the record collector. Seeking as she does to share in its glories and it’s potholed routes to discovery. Yawningly. In the terminating pages making reference to the fashionistas disposition for the veracity of the ancient and actual, as opposed to the fraudulent and counterfeit age of the binary digit, she I believe exposes herself for what, perhaps she is, a being lost in the porridge of ‘Bang on Trend’.

Simply Put

There is nothing to this book, it is smoke and mirrors, vapour lifts off it like the fog on page 192. There is no substance, no grit, no spunk (to coin a truly American use of  nomenclature). It’s all chit-chat between occasional highlights of actuality, of record rooms and real people. The distance the writer takes to travel between these moments of joy are as tedious to me as no doubt the miles she assures us she travelled in pursuit of the substance of this padded pillow of a book were, to her.

Takes One To Know One

As you get into the real thing, real collecting and you just are, simply, a real record collector, you see lots of odd shit. People think you’re cool, people aspire to be like you, you see middle-aged guys wearing T-Shirts with Record Deck representations on, but who don’t own an actual player, and who have placed their platters in the attic. In short you learn how to recognise others that really truly and honestly share your interest. Amanda Petrusich claims on a number of occasions within the book that she is thrilled by the acquisition of an item or two, and of missing out on some Charlie Patton tunes on Paramount and other … stuff. I’m sorry, I know it’s churlish, I know it’s bad of me, un-generous and I feel like a schmuck saying it, but I don’t buy it, it doesn’t ring true. She’s a dabbler, and a dabbler can’t have the kind of insight into record collecting that it requires to write something a record collector should read about record collecting.

It’s notable that all the endorsements on the rear of the dust jacket are by other writers, not one is visible from a collector of tunes.

Are there any redeeming features?

Not really. She writes well, it’s just that this was in essence a short article for a magazine of momentary dabblers, not a book for people who want a serious insight. It doesn’t give that, it just scrapes a bit of dust off the surface of the record (metaphor alert) and plays the first bar, before removing it from the turntable; instead of cleaning it thoroughly, playing it, inverting and then re-equalizing the RIAA curve to something akin to the original mastering, playing it through filters to remove as much top end hiss and low-end background as possible, reading on its history, digitizing it and finally cataloguing it by matrices.

It feels like a quick fix, a soundbite, and thusly a product of the present generation. No wonder they struggle to comprehend the depth of the ‘groove’. I can’t help but see with sadness the writer’s work as representative of this present generations’ struggle towards a clear vision of the ‘real’ and of the past as obscured by the ongoing Tsunami of phone Aps, social networking, online content and data management.

It was great reading about Bussard et al though.

Gretsch G5420T Electromatic, Set Up & Review


The Gretsch Electromatic G5420T an independant review

I’d set my little heart on looking the part, I had the wrap round shades, the 50s style shirts, now all I needed to complete the look was the right guitar..! Well not quite, even if there are some half-truths in there.

I have a nice 80’s JV series Japanese Telecaster, a 50s repro/re-edition.. whatever, that plays great, but a little too bright and snatchy and without the overtones of a hollow body, no trem, and it’s never going to flat pick or finger pick like an acoustic/6 string.

So I went in search of an affordable, okay build quality, name guitar with the right sound for 40s and 50s R&B and Rock N’ Roll / Rockabilly. On reading a few online reviews (though ones not published by Gretsch are hard to find; actually some of the best are on their own website forum) I came to settle on the G5420T in Aspen Green, a beautiful colour.

next.. price research..

0211I searched hi and lo in the UK and abroad for the best deal and it became quite obvious early on that Gretsch (owned by Fender) fix their prices fairly hard, and balancing the import tax on buying from the States, or the price from Germany (Thomann) or finding one in the UK, an average lower end price of £632 seemed reasonable if you wanted to find somewhere close enough you could return the guitar or walk in with it unhappy (for what reason I don’t know/yet know) at a later date. I came to rest on my local city Brighton’s GAK centre just off the North Laines. I phoned them to get the one Aspen Green G5420T they had out of the warehouse and to the shop and they were most helpful. And I arrived early on a Saturday morning to check it out.

I wanted to try it out with a heavier gauge string set on it, but they come from the factory with 10s on and they don’t re-string. Quite possibly because stringing it for a floating bridge un-initiate is a pain in the arse, but more of that later. Obligingly they provided a Blues Junior for me to play with (that’s the amp I use at home) and off I went noodling. My friend Des Day of Des Day promotional associated plc ltd. arrived to help me sort out the amp sound and give sage advice and off I went. BUT… it was no good, I just didn’t like the guitar, it felt all yuck.. no good at all. I could have wept,,.. oh well.

Classic Orange

Rowan, the very helpful shop assistant with side-show Bob curls and a jaunty salesman’s pitch suggested I tried the Orange version of the model hanging in the store. This was more like it, a joy to play, and someone had done a bit to set it up in store. It needed some work to get it set right but… hmmmm, thinking about it now, starting respond, good, getting in gear.. lovely but… not sure…

Des suggests market research..

With wads of cash burning a hole in my britches Des, and rightly so, decided I needed to try a few alternatives out and we left to check out a couple of second-hand places and other solid bodies. No good, the orange one was a callin’, eventually I went back and purchased.

SET UP

0161On return

Returning home, I decided to change the strings for the heavy gauge I had originally wanted to try the guitar out with, and put a set of 11s on it. If you change the strings be careful, this guitar has a floating bridge and if you remove the foam under it and/or change the strings it comes with, you will need to make sure the bridge goes back to the factory tuned position it came in. As the intonation will be out if you do change the bridge position.

I moved mine slightly while changing the strings (more of that in a bit) and so once tuned to concert pitch I gradually adjusted firstly the main bridge and then the individual adjustable bridge pieces for each string, checking note accuracy with a good quality chromatic tuner as I did so. Once I’d done that I marked the bridge position, something which may have invalidated my warranty, but which makes future string replacement a doddle compared to this occasion.

All you need do is compare accuracy on individual strings with your opened but tuned note, then at the 12th fret position (pinging the harmonic helps this too) and then with a chromatic tuner above that if you feel it neccesary. It follows that a higher pitch than is desired requires you to lengthen (though only minimally) the scale length of the string, or in the opposite case, shorten it.

Once the main bridge is as close as possible to the correct position, you can use the fine bridge adjustment to acheive a really accurate result. I worked this out, and it’s logical, but, if you need, there are step by step guides of how to do this online I’ve since discovered. You can also find some set up guides on You Tube, which are handy.

Advice on string change

Don’t take all the strings off at once!!

This will leave the bridge to urrr… fall off. I did not do this, luckily someone in the store said not to, so I changed each string one by one.

String changing on this type of guitar and with this Tremelo design is a pain in the arse. This is mainly because each string loops round a post on the underside of the tremolo and unless tension is maintained … it pings off. It took a short swearing session to bring about a practical solution. USE YOUR CAPO TO HOLD THE STRING on the fretboard once it’s on the post, this will keep it there while you measure out and clip the string to wind on the tuning head. Wind it on, and once there is enough tension in it, take the Capo off and the string won’t come off the post at the bottom behind the bridge. If you don’t do this, find another way, or you will murder your best friend through frustration. It’s a down side to be honest, surely there’s a little practicle and cheap way to overcome this design flaw?

Just as a heads up Stewart McDonald do a piece of kit called a Vibramate Spoiler that can help you re-string easier. Check out the link. I don’t know if this affects the tone, as the strings don’t on use of it wrap round the tremelo fully, but it’s worth a go if you find it hard to re-string. I for one will stick with my own little workround of the problem for the sake of an entirely imagined tonal benefit.

Ideas.. and set-up

…currently to string up with flatwound heavy gauge strings for that mid rangey plunky and smoother sounds for picking and chording respectively, good for that 40s and 50s R&B and the hick-town chunk that is truest rockabilly guitar.. (*see bottom of article for update)

017Set up

I’ve lowered the action a little more just by lowering the bridge a tickle more and it’s good, rings true and slick, the neck seems to be taking the heavier gauge strings well and there is no need for truss rod shenanigans .. yet.. I’ll keep an eye out to see if there’s any movement over time, but to be honest it shouldn’t move too much as the Rockabilly style of guitar tradition, (as it’s often finger and flat picked in development of a steel strung 6 string acoustic) calls on a heavier gauge and if their axe is designed properly for the purpose it appears to be built for, it shouldn’t ‘mal-function’.

I’ve also raised the front pick up’s ‘pole-pieces’ which sit under the 6th string to hopefully give it some extra ‘twang’ in it’s proximity to the string. As it was slightly lacking in this when playing. I’ve yet to make a decision on shifting any of the other pick up’s set up as the sound so far works well and pleases my ear. I might experiment later.

Strangely I’ve noticed that even with the floating bridge in the correct position the rear pickup does not line up correctly with the strings! This is concerning, but it doesn’t seem to affect the sound of the guitar, so I’m not going to allow myself to fret (gettit!! fret… get it !!??).

Tonal controls

Not being used to this sort of guitar the tonal controls were exciting to me. There are independent volume controls for the two pick ups, one master volume control, and one master tone control. There are three pick up positions, back, middle and front, but with the independent volume controls I know I’m going to have fun when I get to find the time to play about with it, and not just play on it.

Downside

Simple, so far and considering the overall price, market, build quality, niche, and all that ‘jazz’.. the tremolo is disappointing. Not for the sound it makes (for it is that classic 50s tremmie wang not the ear bending Little Stevie Vai variety, but the mellow vibrato of Cochran, or Eddy), but that the Trem takes the guitar way too far out of pitch if anything but the lightest indulgence in ‘Tremming’ features in your playing.

Oddly, the tremolo takes the guitar UP in pitch, not under, the first guitar I have ever experienced doing so. Now this may be because the bridge needs a little polishing by the strings’ movement before it releases a wound string properly (I’d be interested to know if the flatwounds might fare better in this regard), nevertheless, if you end a live tune with more than the lightest tremolo at its ceasing, be prepared to re-tune while you try to keep the audience engaged, and let’s face it talking, cracking a joke and re-tuning all at once is more than most multi-taskers can take alongside performance anxiety!

Advice

If you guitar tuning gets out of shape, and particularly if you notice it’s going up in pitch, then give the offending string a nice mild yank, and this should put it somewhere nearer pitch and in tune with the other strings I have discovered.

Gear

The tuning heads/tuners and gearing could be of a better quality overall, but the guitar holds pitch fairly well, though if you’ve left it 018in case for a couple of days expect to retune. Obviously it’s a less stable guitar overall than a good solid body. The volume knobs/tone controls could be of a better quality, to be fair you’re not sure if they are chromed metal or plastic, I’m still not sure.

The paint finish is good, purfling a little boring but suitable and what grain you can see is also very plain, being ply of some sort no doubt.

The fretboard is well made and adequate and what detailing there is, is simple but neatly done.

I don’t like having a plastic nut, I don’t even know what the material is that they’re using, but it seems less dense than the Ivory or Bone I’m used to, and I can’t help think that it may be dulling the tone somehow, probably not the case at all though, but only Gretsch know.

I also wish that the pick guard / scratch plate was more easily removable so I could adjust the front pick up more easily, though maybe I’ve just missed a trick somewhere..

And that’s about it..

Overall verdict 7.5 out of 10 for impression overall
9 out of 10 for value for money
10 out of 10 for falling in love with my first hollow body

… but watch out for that tremolo, it’s a bit of a problem, though perhaps it’ll settle in.

Update

I finally go round to purchasing that set of flatwounds. These started at a .11 and including a (flat) wound third.

The results are great, easier bass runs and audible results in the ‘sounds like it should’ category. Obviously a lot of those 50s cats were using flatwounds, because it kind of just completes the sound, particularly through a nice valve amp (I set mine literally down the middle on all EQ and don’t put too much gain on the signal either.

 

p.s. Looks like this has become one of the most popular Gretsch setup and floating bridge set up sites on the web! So please post your cures and headaches here, there are hundreds looking at this page every week.