The VH1 Behind the Music version of rock history goes something like this: Bill Haley & His Comets emerged one day in 1954 as fully formed as Athena from Zeus’ forehead, and then things steadily crescendoed through Elvis, Shea Stadium, and Yasgur’s Farm, until rock entered its bloated-purple-dead-on-a-toilet phase and everyone who was 27 died and we were left with Wings.
Pardon the reductio ad absurdum, but most cultural histories of the era don’t deviate that much from that standard script. Thankfully, the definitive corrective has arrived in Ian S. Port’s The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ’N’ Roll. Instead of a parade of frontmen and songwriters dueling it out in the charts, Port presents a ground-up account of an at-times begrudging friendship between two Angelenos who created the sound of what we instinctively understand as “rock.”
The electrification of the guitar, that beautiful if limited acoustic instrument deemed too quiet to be part of the standard orchestra, begat another phenomenon: the guitar-ification of the bass. Together, these innovations — for that is the only word — put the two instruments at the forefront of postwar youth culture, with the guitar obviously nearer to the stage and fans’ hearts. The relationship between the introverted Fender and the extroverted Paul lacks the sexy dialectic of say, Rubber Soul influencing Pet Sounds influencing Revolver influencing “Good Vibrations” and Smile influencing Sgt. Pepper, but Port convincingly shows that their respective creations underpin the entire movement toward that “blues-based hard rock” sound we associate with the genre’s heyday.
“I think it would behoove us to remember rock ’n’ roll as less like a Big Bang and more as a kind of sunrise,” Port tells SF Weekly. “And I think Les Paul was one of the first people who peeked over the horizon. As much as his career was sort of immediately dragged down by the arrival of rock ’n’ roll — because the music he played belonged to the earlier era — he was pushing that music toward what rock ’n’ roll would be.”
A longtime music editor of SF Weekly — disclosure: our periods on staff never overlapped and we’d never spoken or interacted until our interview — Port’s research is thorough and his prose is lucid. If the evanescence of the internet and the machine-like qualities of synthpop make you want to put words to that vague cultural hunger for something more tactile, more connected to physical reality, this is your book. And Port appears at the Booksmith this Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. to discuss The Birth of Loud.
Wisconsin native Lester Polsfuss endured an itinerant youth and an electrocution before executives at the Gibson guitar factory in Kalamazoo, Mich., laughed off his proposals. He barely survived a horrible car crash, too, but nonetheless collaborated with Bing Crosby to launch a tidy career for himself and his wife Mary Ford in the decade or so after World War II. Paul continued to perform in New York until late in his very long life, but outside of certain specific circles, much of his post-vaudeville showmanship is forgotten today.
Contrast him with Fender, the electronics whiz with a glass eye. “Where others heard music Leo Fender heard physics,” Port writes. Nerdier and scrappier, his factory in Orange County was so barebones that the occasionally unpaid employees had to use the restroom at the nearby Fullerton train station. The two men didn’t always have high opinions of one another, but their mini arms race set the tone and direction for American pop culture just as it was beginning to export itself worldwide for the rest of the 20th century and beyond. They weren’t unlike Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.
Throughout the book, Port reorients the received narrative. Although we think of country music as religious and anodyne, he demonstrates how rough it was (and how interlinked with early rock). With a manageable cast of secondary characters, he couches the Paul-Fender rivalry as one colored by overtones of craftsmanship versus mass-production, with maybe a little theft of intellectual property.
Famous moments like the Beatles’ February 1964 arrival in New York aren’t highlighted for their puckish press conference or appearance on Ed Sullivan, but for the “miniature trade show” in their hotel suite that would furnish them with the instruments that their sound. For George Harrison and John Lennon, that meant Rickenbacker 325s, manufactured by Leo Fender’s former partner. A year later, at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan broke purists’ hearts by playing “Maggie’s Farm” at top volume, and turning the electric guitar into what The Birth of Loud describes as a “tool for serious art.” Before this high-decibel revolution, the experience listening to and appreciating pop music was very different — but not necessarily fundamentally so. It’s just that rock consigned it to the dustbin of history.
“There’s very little cultural memory about music before rock ’n’ roll,” Port tells SF Weekly. “Or about anything. In order to talk about things before rock ’n’ roll, you had to do a lot of research to evoke how life felt and what people listened to. The kind of sweet-sounding, innocent-sounding music that people were into that we hear as chirpy and a little naive — those people were actually really crazy. They were on drugs and having affairs and running around the country being wild crazy musicians like musicians always are.”
What hurts The Birth of Loud’s momentum is a reliance on switching between his protagonists. A chapter that ends on a cliffhanger may lead to another that’s largely connective tissue. Confusingly, individuals can sometimes be referred to by their given name and their stage name in the span of a paragraph, making them sound like different people. But the narrative’s organization is otherwise clean and comprehensive, without the repetition or excessively punctilious devotion to strict chronology that bogs down books of this type. Plus, to his infinite credit, he doesn’t gin up drama where none really existed.
And on the supposed decline of guitar-based music, Port is agnostic.
“A lot of people in the guitar world kind of see contemporary music as abandoning the guitar or being hostile toward it, but I don’t believe that at all,” he says. “Sure, maybe our pop hits are no longer three-chord guitar songs with eight- or 16-bar solos, or someone in the band that goes whammy on the guitar for a while, but that doesn’t mean the instrument is any less important. I was enjoying seeing Travis Scott on SNL last fall. He brought John Mayer, who brought his guitar — and Kevin Parker from Tame Impala brought his Fender bass on. If someone like Travis Scott thinks the guitar is a useful tool, or a band like The Internet … Even at the height of the EDM craze, we had Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” with Nile Rodgers strumming on it.”
If the closing chapter to this decades-long saga may remain unwritten, The Birth of Loud is a compelling addition to the misremembered history of the time. By the early 1960s, rock ’n roll seemed to have crested. Elvis was in the Army, Jerry Lee Lewis was married to his 13-year-old cousin, and As recently as 1967, the Engelbert Humperdinck’s of the world were still putting out Top 10 singles. And as late as 1968, someone as schmaltzy as the French light orchestra leader Paul Mauriat could score a No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Rock’s dominance — which is to say, the guitar’s dominance — was never absolute. It’s only that it’s lasted so long that we remember it that way, and The Birth of Loud shows us how that happened.