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Never Mind the Bollocks: How Les Pauls Powered the Punk Movement

Russell Hall
|
04.03.2012

Lest anyone forget what rock and roll is all about, punk rock is always there to reaffirm the music’s primal essence. Especially in the mid-to-late ’70s, when progressive music and other “inflated” rock forms were putting cracks in rock and roll’s rebellious foundation, a new generation of determined guitarists came along to put buzzsaw teeth back into the music. Not surprisingly, during that era and others, it’s been Gibson players who’ve led the charge. Simply put, nothing stokes punk rock’s ferocious energy like a Les Paul or one of its close Gibson kin.

Mid-’70s punk rock rose from the ashes of glam, with many of the genre’s guitarists citing Bowie sideman Mick Ronson and T.Rex’s Marc Bolan – both devoted Les Paul players – as prime inspirations. That was never more evident than with the New York Dolls. Formed in the early ’70s, the band’s trashy, Stones-y sound was powered by the dual-guitar interplay of Sylvain Sylvain and the late Johnny Thunders.

“Me and Johnny Thunders basically put the Les Paul Junior on the map,” Sylvain told Gibson.com, in a 2009 interview. “We called them ‘automatic guitars,’ like a car with an automatic transmission – easy to use. The Les Paul Junior had two knobs and one pickup. You didn’t need to control two volumes at the same time. It was the perfect guitar for the New York Dolls because it was stripped down – like the band was and like our songs were.”

As evidenced by the cover shot on the Dolls’ second album, Too Much Too Soon, Thunders played a 1955 Les Paul Special during the band’s early years. Later, his choice guitar became a ’59 Les Paul TV Junior, which, as Sylvain points out, had the simpler features of a single pickup, one volume control and one tone knob. The TV designation, incidentally, denoted the guitar’s color – a beautiful honey-yellow that was dazzling even when viewed on black and white television sets.

As Sylvain explained to Gibson.com’s Ted Drozdowski, it was he who first owned the TV model, which he swapped with Thunders for a Black Beauty. Sylvain later became closely associated with his trademark white Les Paul Custom.

Ironically, that very same white Les Paul Custom eventually fell into the hands of the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, another of the premier architects of punk guitar. Citing Ronson, Ron Wood, Free’s Paul Kossoff and the Dolls as influences, Jones used the previously Sylvain-owned guitar on the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, one of the most ferociously sustained slabs of music ever committed to vinyl.

“Punk was extremely selective [with regard to influence],” Jones told Guitar World, in a 1995 interview. “Much value was placed on sifting through past musical styles in order to pick out the oft-overlooked cool stuff. Some artists, particularly The Cramps and The Clash, looked back to rockabilly – the original dangerous, anti-social music of the ’50s. Also very important were the ‘one-hit wonder’ garage bands of the mid-’60s: The Shadows of Knight, Blues Magoos, Electric Prunes, Count Five and similar bands.”

Punk is often thought to be a near-exclusively male phenomenon, but through the years, such female artists as Patti Smith, X’s Exene Cervenka and Joan Jett have proved that women can roar as loudly as men. Jett, in particular, has relied on a Gibson Melody Maker to create snarling, incendiary rock and roll throughout her career. In a 2010 interview, she told Gibson.com how she obtained her first beloved Melody Maker.

“My first real guitar was a Gibson Les Paul,” she said. “Once I was in The Runaways, I saved up some money and I got this beautiful blond Les Paul Deluxe and its pickups were reversed; the treble pickup was the bottom one which made the toggle switch in the right place for my hand.”

“It’s a heavy guitar, the Les Paul, and so I was actually looking for a lighter guitar as a number two,” she continued. “One of my roadies, at the time, had worked with Eric Carmen from The Raspberries and knew Carmen had a guitar he wanted to sell. It was a Gibson Melody Maker double-cutaway, California-style, and so I bought this guitar second hand. It turns out it was the guitar that played on ‘Go All the Way,’ The Raspberries hit; that’s my white guitar.”

Jett continued: “It had lots of coats of white paint and, as I would take it to the clubs, the paint would crack. So my guitar has the most incredible cracked finish. It’s all discolored from the smoke in the clubs, so it’s like a yellowed white and it’s got cracks in the shellac … and it’s just beautiful. And now, it’s off the road and it’s in a cedar closet being kept safe.”

Many people regard punk as one-dimensional, but by the early ’80s punk bands were adding sophisticated components to the sound. This evolution was especially evident in The Clash, who incorporated reggae, dub and even ratcheted-down tempos into their music. Still, no matter the stylistic detour, Clash guitarist Mick Jones relied on an array of Gibsons to craft his distinctive licks. “My first proper guitar was a Les Paul Junior,” Jones told Gibson.com, in 2006. “[On the first Clash album], I played it through a big 4x12 cabinet … kind of raw. I also had a great Les Paul Standard, a sunburst one. And then I had a black Custom, and a white Custom. And then the big white hollow-body for London Calling. But I still play the Juniors today.”

For those whose primary music pipeline was MTV, it probably seemed that punk rock was a spent force by the mid-’80s. Dominated by skinny-tie “New Romantics” and hair-metal bands, MTV’s first generation had little appetite for punk’s raw and unfettered visual countenance. Like a simmering volcano, however, punk lived on, its cinders kept aglow by the likes of The Replacements and Social Distortion. Riding shotgun to the ’90s grunge movement, Green Day propelled punk rock back into prime-time with such albums as 1994’s Dookie and 1995’s Insomniac.

In countless interviews, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has hailed Les Paul Juniors as an indispensable component of the band’s sound. “For me, I think that Les Paul Juniors have more of a rock and roll sound, because it’s the true sound of a guitar,” he told Gibson.com, in 2006. “The sound I go for is that really punchy, midrange kind of sound. The first time I ever picked up a Les Paul Junior – the one I call ‘Floyd’ – I plugged it in and [it captured] the sound that was in my head.”

More generally, Armstrong affirms an opinion widely held by the current generation of punk rockers; namely, that there’s nothing like a Gibson when it comes to creating classic, no-holds-barred rock and roll. “I love Les Paul Juniors,” he says, “and dog-ear ’50s P-90s are the punchiest pickup ever made. It is perfect for my style of playing. They’re dirty but have great string definition. Solid-body Gibsons are the perfect rock guitars.”

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