Summer Crush on a 1938 Vega Electric Archtop
This month it’s a trip down memory lane, celebrating a crush I had one summer when I was a mere lad of 15, or there about. I’m rocking out and getting loud with my 1938 Vega electric guitar, putting on my sun block, cranking up to 11, and setting the dial to POWER POP!!!
About the song
The summer of 1977 was full of changes for me. My family was about to move from the town I had known all my life. Puberty was finally kicking in, and I swear I grew eight inches over that year. I had bought a Les Paul guitar, that I had no idea about (I thought it was French, and I would very seriously call it a le palm guitar. I wish I was joking about that). I was dreaming of having a band and practicing postures in the big ass mirror in our dining room. I had a cool tenspeed from Farm and Fleet and an old sting ray that I added extensions to the forks to build a “chopper” like the older kids had ridden when I was in grade school. Weirdly, I really didn’t want the seventies to end. And mostly, I didn’t want to grow up. I was happy with my friends, and my life, for the most part, which included a sort of Spielbergesque assortment of characters. I had a best friend. There was a precocious little kid across the street who we “looked after” and who was probably emotionally our age, though I believe he was five years our junior. And, of course, there was a cool girl in the neighborhood who hung out with us in the summer when no one was looking. Oh yeah, my friend had a dog. In fact, I’m struck at this vantage point how much my coming of age saga reads like a Hollywood script. It may be why I have such a soft spot for movies like Super 8 or the recent series Stranger Things. I lived that stuff, and it is the fodder for this song.
But that only explains the subject matter. What about the tune? The music part of this creation originated a couple of years ago after I watched a documentary about Big Star. Big Star is THE prototypical arty power pop band that defines a certain kind of cool. They are from the 70’s and are famous among music aficionados, and I, as usual, was a little slow to appreciate their charms. In my defense, I loved the Box Tops growing up (Give me a ticket for an aeroplane…), which featured a 16 year old Alex Chilton, way before he went on to form Big Star. Those of you who are not music snobs still likely know Big Star. Their song In the Street was used as a theme on That 70’s show, as played by Cheap Trick. The truth is, In the Street is the musical touch stone for Summer Crush. Listen to both, now that I’ve spilled the beans, and you will probably see the connection. Or not. I like my chromatic runs as much, maybe more, than those used by Big Star. Of course, I would kill for their chorus. Beautiful Birds like harmonic structure, which I don’t ape in Summer Crush. Instead, I give you a B section that channels Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Streets paired with a lyric evoking the Kinks’ Come Dancing. And yes, I did all this consciously. I picked the subject matter to pair with this music in order to create my own PG version of Big Star’s paean to misspent youth. Alex Chilton was an international rock star by age 16. I was just a confused kid in small town Iowa with a crush on a neighbor girl. He rode around in cars getting stoned with his friends. I rode around on a bike getting root beer with my friend and a ten year old geek in training. But oddly the emotions and music have a lot in common.
The final thing to share about this song is that it was a challenge. I had a serious block and was not making progress with the writing. I talked about this with my daughter, Musetta, and we both agreed that our amateur creative endeavors (she is a fabulous writer of short fiction) could stand a little motivation. So we agreed that if I could punch this song out, she would finish a work of fiction AND submit for publication. Perfection is the enemy of progress. Creativity requires discipline, or it just never gets finished. She is going to share her story with me tomorrow. Success for both of us!
About the guitar and the recording
The guitar is the first Vega I purchased, a 17” pressed maple laminate archtop with a pickup from 1938. The pickup is single coil and hums like crazy. I played the guitar through my Fender Showman. The Legend amplifier in the video is there just to supply an extra speaker. I’m playing through my custom 15” cabinet with a horn to handle the highs and the 12” Celestion from the Legend. I have my Fender Showman set up with only half of its output stage 6L6 tubes. This cuts its power from 80 to 40 watts, nominally. It still doesn’t really break up at volumes that won’t level the building, so I used an Ibanez Tube Screamer to put some extra hair on the sound. Drilling deeper than anyone reading this has any interest in, I set the bass eq to 10, the mid eq to 0, and the high eq to 7. Mid scoop that seems to give a sweet sound.
Recording a loud rock song was a lot harder than doing the usual singer songwriter/jazz/ solo thingy we usually do. The guitar was so loud it didn’t just bleed into the vocal mic, it dominated the sound unless I yelled directly into the microphone. Which made me sing kinda crappier than usual. So I did a vocal over dub. But that was super hard because for some reason I never count rests and never seem to do them in time. And finally, the damn input jack on that sweet old guitar flaked on us mid way through and the only way to get a sound out was to pull the plug half way out of the instrument. Which only added to BUZZZZZZ. Perfection is the enemy of progress. We finished the damn thing and it aint bad!!!!!