Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Scotty Moore, 1931-2016: Last Stop On The Mystery Train

Look at this snapshot above. It's impossible to imagine what it must have been like to have been in this photograph: At the eye of a hurricane called "rock 'n' roll," called "Elvis Presley," whipping across the world, obliterating The Old Ways. And you're standing there, stoic, creating the idea of "rock 'n' roll guitar." as your boss is creating the idea of a "rock star." You're just hanging on for dear life, pulling notes out your ass, trying to be heard over thousands of screaming teenagers. 

I keep finding myself saying Scotty Moore invented my job. It's because, as a musician in The Hormones, I always see myself as a lead guitarist. I keep forgetting I write most of the songs, plus I sing lead and front the band - so, Scotty created half my job. His boss created the sexier half of my job. But as Keith Richards has pointed out, "That should have been a band. They should have been the Beatles." Well, no, Keith - someone had to create The Beatles jobs'. And yours' too, for that matter....

And Scotty Moore did. To have heard him tell it, he was winging it the whole time, grabbing bits from Chet Atkins, Les Paul, and various blues guys he never really named. But he's flying by the seat of his pants, pretty much inventing these solos on the spot. Scotty was inventing rock 'n' roll guitar. Yes, he had some help there: Chuck Berry, Cliff Gallup in Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins. But Scotty is rock 'n roll's first guitar hero, drawing the blueprint because he had none, most of the time unaware of what he laid down on tape and scrambling to remember on the road with Elvis, frequently having to come up with something new. Notoriously, he never could figure out what he'd done on "Too Much," and self-effacingly described this genius break as "primitive psychedelia":

Every approach we take to this day, Scotty was there first. Think of the classic, overdriven rock 'n' roll guitar tone, and listen to Scotty on all those Elvis records: He knew you had to take a Gibson guitar and a tube amp, and crank that amp all the way, until the tubes and speakers are screaming. Mind you, that was likely a result of trying to be heard above auditoriums rammed to the gills with shrieking teenage girls, but.... And just listen to "Hound Dog" - this track is the definite birth of the powerchord! It also sounds like the Ramones, 20 years early.

Scotty Moore created history.Everything we do now as rock 'n' roll guitar players, he was literally there first. He forgot more than most of us had to learn, and he never played anything short of what was perfect for the song. Now he's gone, reunited in the afterlife with his old boss, and Bill Black back on doghouse bass. Lucky afterlife. 

R.I.P., Scotty Moore.

See also Folk Music Fireball, my detailing of Elvis Presley's 1955-56 gigs in Austin for The Austin Chronicle.