54 years ago, on 17th June 1960, the Shadows recorded “Apache”, an instrumental that introduced to the UK a new and exciting sound played on a new and stylish American guitar – the Fender Stratocaster. Like many other British musicians the Shadows were fed up with the lack of decent guitars in the UK – so they decided to import one for themselves. Whenbq. “Apache” was released in July 1960 it went straight to No. 1 and stayed there for 5 weeks.
It was all the fault of the Trade Embargo. Because of wartimebq. “Lend-Lease” and Britain’s resulting trade deficit with the USA it was virtually impossible in the 1950s to import American goods into the U.K, particularly the luxury ones like the sleek and sinuous, space age and chromium plated electric guitars that U.S rock ‘n’ roll stars liked to drape themselves with.
The Skiffle craze in Britain didn’t last long. It kicked off withbq. “Rock Island Line” in January 1956, peaked in September 1957 withbq. “Freight Train” and by September 1958 it was virtually finished, overtaken bybq. “Move It”, Britain’s first gen-u-ine, home-made, rock ‘n’ roll record. It left thousands of amateur guitar strummers and skiffle shouters wondering what to do next. The only future they could see was electric guitar poweredbq. “rock ‘n’ roll”. It was sexy and glamorous and American and it intoxicated every cash strapped teenage guitar player living in post-war austerity Britain. They drew pictures of electric guitars in the margins of their school books and dreamed up ‘rock-tastic’ group names likebq. “Rasputin and his Disputing Four” andbq. “Billy Bolt and the Lightning Strikes”. Their only problem was they couldn’t compete against the Americans. They knew most of the chords and some of them even had the looks too. What they didn’t have was the necessary equipment. The cheap acoustic guitars and tea chest basses that had worked for skiffle were no match for the sexy electric guitars and powerful amplifiers that the America stars displayed so confidently on album sleeves and in rock ‘n’ roll films… and because of the trade embargo British kids couldn’t get them. But austerity had made the kids resourceful – and rock ‘n’ roll is a powerful mistress – so they started to build the stuff themselves. With help from fathers and the experience gained at woodwork classes at school, teenagers were turning radiograms into amplifiers, army surplus throat mics into pickups, electric heaters into echo units and ironing boards into electric guitars.
“The surplus stores were selling everything from the army in those days so we bought a pilot’s throat mic and used it as a pickup and played it through the radio. We didn’t know anything about amps. In fact, I doubt if you could have even bought one then. We certainly couldn’t have afforded one.”
LONNIE DONEGAN – King of Skiffle
“I realised that I needed my own amplifier so I bought an eighteen-inch Goodman bass speaker. I had a huge cabinet built and put concrete in the bottom as I’d heard that this would improve the sound. I then sent off for a build-it-yourself Linear Conchord 30 watt amplifier to run it through. It gave me electric shocks every time I plugged it in!”
BILL WYMAN – The Rolling Stones
“I started with a radio for an amplifier…and can honestly claim to know what the original Fender catalogue smelled like.”
MARK KNOPFLER – Dire Straits
“My very first guitar I made from Meccano and fishing line – a Dalekcaster perhaps?”
GEOFF WHITEHEAD – Session musician
“Later the Quarrymen, John’s first group, would practise in his mother Julia’s bathroom, with one player standing in the bath, to get the tinny, echoey sound of amplification”
RAY COLEMAN – Author ofbq. “Lennon”
“I drooled over Fender Stratocasters, Telecasters, Gibson Les Pauls and such like. Not being able to afford all this stuff was the impetus behind me and my Dad deciding to make a guitar. The neck was an old fireplace, the rest was blockboard and oak. It still hangs in there and looks like it will just about see me out.”
BRIAN MAY – Queen
“Nobody had a proper PA system. Our singer, Sean, sang through an old tape recorder. It sounded like crap – but it didn’t matter. Nobody was listening anyway!”
RON BAIRD – The Druids
Most of the groups weren’t discouraged by the lack of adequate PA systems. They simply concentrated upon instrumentals, encouraged on their way by the hits of Duane Eddy, the Ventures and most of all, the Shadows, who wielding a cherry red, gold plated, sensuously curved, twin horned Fender Stratocaster. – the first ever to be seen in Britain – hit No. 1 on 21st July 1960 with what rock critic Jon Savage describes as thebq. “stately and mysterious” ‘Apache’. The rock floodgates were about to open…
‘Apache’ by the Shadows
Mean, moody, magnificent – and playing American Fender guitars! (Sorry about the cigarette. It’s what you had to do in those days to look mean, moody and magnificent.)
Read part 2 of Rock Around The Embargo
— from Martyn Day