At the end of the 80s, the music scene was dominated as much in Europe as
in the rest of the world, by mass phenomena that fought for first place in
record sales. The lovelies Rick Astley, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna,
Michael Jackson, Wet Wet Wet, Kylie Minogue jostled for the
supersale throne with some groups - with guitar in hand- that defended rock
licks, distortion and delays: Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, U2,
or Metallica were writing their own legends.
In those years, an event that went almost unnoticed brought together nine guitarists for seven gigs in Great Britain (from 20-26 of Nov., 1988) and peaked with a brief tour of Europe. You can hardly find any news about it on the Web and it was finally left to posterity on a double live record and a handful of videos. Guitars Exchange was there.
Before a wall of Marshall screens, getting on and off stage, alternating turns for 3 hours, were Steve Howe (Yes, Asia), Leslie West (Mountain), Robby Krieger (The Doors), Randy California (Spirit), Steve Hunter (Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel), Pete Haycock (Climax Blues Band), Andy Powell and Ted Turner (Wishbone Ash), and Alvin Lee (Ten Years After). The 'nine axes' enjoyed a rhythm section that clearly met expectations: Clive Mayuyu (drums), Derek Holt (bass and voice), Livingstone Browne (bass and keyboards) and Chris Bucknall (keyboards).
The initiative all came from the record label I.R.S. No Speak, founded at the beginning of 1988 by Miles Copeland III, master of ceremonies of the night of the guitar and brother of Stewart Copeland (The Police drummer, who also took part as invited guest on the final number that closes the record). Copeland’s aim was none other than to shine light on instrumental rock in the hands of excellent musicians, giving them shelter on a record label devoted exclusively to his production. Somehow you had to protect yourself in a storm of disco, punk, New age. It was an ambitious purpose, musically valid, although financially risky: the label closed after 3 years with just 19 records produced.
Night of the Guitar - Live! was perhaps the shining moment of the adventure. Pete Haycock’s semi-acoustic Höfner and Steve Hunter’s electric Neal Moser open the record with three numbers, Dr. Brown I Presume (Brown’s notable bass solo), The Idler and Lucienne. Three pieces on records both guitarists released the same year: Guitar and Son and The Deacon respectively. It’s a mixture of rock fusion that culminates in the delicate ballad (3rd track), passing through rock that hides a feeling of urban jazz in Hunter’s piece. He authored unforgettable bits of the soundtracks of our lives: such as the introduction to Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane or the acoustic on Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, to name a couple.
To electrify the air after the ballad, we turn to Randy California and his Charvel, a brand of guitar made popular that decade thanks to high-end guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Richie Sambora, among others. After Groove Thing, a brilliant intro replete with harmonies hammered out on the neck, Randy takes charge on a version of Hey Joe in a powerful tribute to his friend and colleague Jimi Hendrix, with whom he shared venues in New York nightclubs in 1966. This was during the militant times of Jimmy James & The Blue Flames, and before the worldwide success of the lefty, before he became known as Jimi.
The fortunate fans were already set to welcome who was probably the most anticipated name on the ticket: Robby Krieger and his Gibson ES-355 from 1964- his favourite at that point in his life, the 80s, when he searched for more of a jazz sound- definitely brought the house down with a version of Love Me Two Times (The Doors, 1967) with a much ‘fuller’ guitar than the original.
And who better than Ted Turner and Andy Powell to re-establish order in the house? The bi-cylindrical engine of the Wishbone Ash, in perfect synchrony, unsheathed in a version of his classic from 1972 The King Will Come, where Turner’s fabulous Paul Reed Smith (the American brand had been making their gems for hardly 3 years) and the ‘classic’ Gibson Flyin’ V of his mate bring this guitar dialogue to life with an unbeatable connection.
It was now Leslie ‘the mountain’ West´s turn and his Steinberger, which in his hands looks like a toy. He was in top form, for sure. The two pieces that appear on the record are classics from the Mountain album Climbing! in 1970: a very personalised version of Theme From An Imaginary Western by Jack Bruce and Never In My Life.
Then, once again, after the storm came the calm, from the hands of Steve Howe and his Martin 00-18. A master class of guitar technique on Clap Medley, the only acoustic number of the night without accompaniment. Then time to switch the Martin for a Gibson ES-175 (his main guitar during the militant years of Yes) and in the company of Pete Haycock, start up Würm, a 1971 classic from the English progressive rock band.
Alvin Lee and his Tokai Signature take over in the final stretch with a powerful instrumental No Limit, in probably one of the best moments of the album. With a hard version of Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin’ together with all his mates on stage, nine ‘axes’ for an unforgettable cover of the Dylan classic All Along The Watchtower, and a final medley of the great hits, Whole Lotta Shakin’, Dizzy Miss Lizzie, Johnny B. Goode, Rock & Roll Music and Bye Bye Johnny Bye Bye. A display of skill and real passion for our favourite instrument, genuine fireworks fit to mess up any Rick Astley who gets in the way...
It was an unforgettable night. A night in which nine guardians of the guitar, nine rock gods, got together to reclaim -at the end of the 80s- a gender that they themselves made so very big and continues to be.