NB/Disclosure: I was given a review copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion.
Even though I’m American, I have a huge fascination with British rock and roll and you can easily see that in this blog. Even though rock and roll is a black American invention, I’ll always say that British rock and rollers took that music, put their own spin on it, changed the game, and made rock and roll better. Art would be nothing without cultural exchange. Art can’t be stagnant. It has to change with the times and evolve. My gateway to classic rock was The Beatles and then the rest of the British Invasion and from there, I got into all the different classic rock subgenres. British rock and roll will always have a special place in my heart whether it’s beat music, freakbeat, prog rock, hard rock, proto-metal, punk, you name it! So when I was asked to review British Rock Guitar: The First 50 Years, The Musicians, and Their Stories, I knew it was right up my alley because I am fascinated with rock history and the early years of it and how it all built on each other. I think of rock and roll like Legos, it all builds on each other. You can’t have the rock music of the 60s without its predecessors of the 50s. The 70s wouldn’t have been there without the rock music of the previous two decades, and so on.
Background on the author
Mo Foster is a multi-instrumentalist who has worked with dozens of musicians in a decades long career. Like Brian May, he started off studying science and later left to become a professional musician. Ever since he was a child, growing up in the late 50s, Mo Foster had a fascination with rock music, getting into the skiffle craze like many other British teenagers. Just like many other British musicians of the 60s and 70s, The Shadows were a huge influence, and their trailblazing bassist Jet Harris (the first British rock star to own a Fender Precision Bass) inspired him to pick up the bass guitar. In the early 70s, he was in a prog rock/jazz rock group called Affinity. Foster himself became a pioneer in the bass guitar in his own right, founding the first course in it in the UK in 1975. He also is a music producer, author, archivist, and interviewer on the Channel 4 series Live From Abbey Road.
Why review an old book? That’s because it’s a new and improved edition with better layout, more information, and more entertaining stories. British Rock Guitar was originally published in 2011, but what happened was the original publisher Sanctuary Publishing collapsed and luckily Mo Foster retained the copyright, but it took him a decade to find a new, sympathetic publisher. It’s a well organised, comprehensive look at the formative years of rock and roll with tonnes of childhood anecdotes from classic rockers. It marries the depth and breadth of a textbook with the entertaining qualities of a rock music magazine, making it a great read for the thinking classic rock fan.
As a fan of the kitchen sink approach to talking about classic rock, I’m a fan. I love that this book focuses on one of the most under appreciated eras of rock and roll: pre-British Invasion rock and roll. Why is it an under appreciated era and almost a lost era? Because it doesn’t get the exposure that rock music from 1964 onwards gets. When’s the last time you heard a song released before 1964 on the radio? Or even listened to the radio? As time goes on, what is considered “retro” is more recent. Sure, the 60s (as in mid-late) and 70s were the golden age of classic rock, but to get a full appreciation of it and really understand where the musicians are coming from, we need to look a little before that and see what the musicians’ roots are. What was their upbringing? What were their influences? What songs shaped them? That’s a question I love asking as an interviewer and one I love reading the answer to as an aspiring rock historian. How you grew up shapes who you are and what you create and it’s fun to take a look at the humble beginnings of British rock and roll, and believe me, they’re humble!
One thing I notice a lot between British and American musicians is their mutual respect and admiration for each other. A textbook example of the grass is greener on the other side. Americans love British musicians for their accents, humour, and style, but may not realise that a lot of their influences are in fact American, but with their own uniquely British spin on it. This cultural exchange was necessary for rock and roll to evolve and musicians from each side of the Atlantic learnt something from each other. What exactly did British rock stars, especially guitarists, love about America? The guitar tones and sounds and they tried to mimic them, but they were missing something, the right equipment. They loved the stories told in the music and the places described, exotic (to them) locations like California and lyrics about surfers, convertible cars, and beautiful girls with long blonde hair. They loved the swagger that these American rock pioneers had.
You’ll learn a lot from this book and one of the things I learnt is there was a post war trade embargo, where American guitars were not allowed to be imported into the UK. Back in the late 50s when rock and roll exploded in popularity, British kids couldn’t just walk into a music store and buy a Fender Stratocaster like Buddy Holly had. They had to make do with Czech, German, Spanish, and even Soviet imports that were often quite frustrating to play, especially if they were cheap.
Like in the US, there’s a lot of working class heritage in British rock and roll and if you couldn’t afford to buy a musical instrument (often on hire purchase), you DIYed it – and this was especially common in skiffle, a rock and roll precursor genre that combined jazz, blues, and folk music, where musicians would improvise and make instruments out of ordinary household items. Some DIYs were a success like Brian May and his Red Special, but most of them were flops and makeshifts until the budding musician convinces their parents that they indeed are serious. Instruments weren’t the only thing musicians experimented with or DIYed, effects for recording or changing how an instrument sounds were a common experiment and musicians even tried making their own amps. Creativity on a low budget is a skill! Really shows that musicians have a lot of talent in them besides making music.
Not only does this book talk about guitar, because Mo Foster is a multi-instrumentalist he talks a bit about drums, and bass (more of the latter), and the history of it. The first rock bands didn’t have bass guitars, but rather double basses, and the bass guitar was a game changer for its portability, sound, and ease of playing in tune. And here’s another interesting tidbit, one of Britain’s first bass guitarists was an Irish-born woman, Shirley Douglas, and she wrote a book called The Shirley Douglas Easy Guide to Rhythm and Blues for Bass Guitar, essentially the bass guitar equivalent to Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day books for guitar. John Entwistle and John Paul Jones credited this book as helping them become the bass guitarists people know and love them as.
In the last chapters of the book, you get a lot of interesting anecdotes about the business and realities of being a touring musician and session musician and because Mo Foster has experience in both, he is a good source of information on that. Let’s just say it’s not all glamorous, but it makes for a lot of entertaining stories and an interesting life. There’s also a chapter on some of Britain’s top session musicians, their equivalent of The Wrecking Crew so to speak.
As always I find that music is a small world and it always blows my mind how few degrees of separation there is in the rock and roll world. Think of two musicians and they’re either friends or they’re friends of friends. There are a lot of anecdotes from a variety of classic rockers of all walks of life, but if you’re a fan of Deep Purple (Roger Glover), Small Faces/Humble Pie (Steve Marriott, Clem Clempson), Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood), Free (Andy Fraser), The Hollies (Tony Hicks), 10cc (Graham Gouldman), and Manfred Mann (Mike D’Abo, Tom McGuinness), and of course Mo’s band Affinity you’ll especially love reading these stories since they have quite a few stories in the book. Of course, there’s a lot of information on three acts that changed British rock and roll history forever: Lonnie Donegan, Cliff & The Shadows, and The Beatles. Can’t write a book without mentioning these big names whose influence and legacy still live on to this day.
Overall, this part history book, part autobiography is a very comprehensive, informative, and entertaining look at early British rock history chock full of stories and the best thing is that they’re published for all of us to read and preserved for generations to come. The intro was thought provoking too and says something that I very much agree with. Essentially, it’s important to interview older musicians because they are essentially history books. Their stories are valuable and once they’re gone, they’re no longer around to tell their stories, so it’s important to record and preserve them. A loss of a rock star is more than just the loss of a person, it’s a loss of history.
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