September 20, 2012
By Morgan Brunner
Gretsch electric guitars loomed large in the 1950s with original-era rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly; even larger in the 1960s with the British Invasion. They were certainly still around during the musically tumultuous 1970s, although you did have to look a little harder. And then the 1980s arrived.
The 1980s. That was the decade when Gretsch guitars came roaring back in ways both traditional and unexpected, as post-punk, new wave, the rockabilly revival and other fast-proliferating subgenres blasted their way to the forefront of popular music on both sides of the Atlantic. Below, in chronological order, are five fine albums you can thank for that happy development. And we’re not just talking about a Gretsch guitar appearing on a song or two—we’re talking about entire albums that are scorching, swinging, soaring and singing examples of Gretsch guitar artistry all the way through from first track to last …
AC/DC, Back in Black (1980)
Oi, you really gotta hand it to the boys from down under—not just for resolutely soldiering on after the February 1980 death of original vocalist Bon Scott with new vocalist Brian Johnson, but for doing so starting with one of the world’s greatest and biggest-selling rock albums. Ever. Period.
Indeed, 1980 seventh album Back in Black boasted more enduring hits than many ’80s acts scored in their entire careers. We refer of course to the sweaty, swaggering title track, plus other sweaty, swaggering staples such as “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Shoot to Thrill” and “Hells Bells.” As in the 1970s, Angus Young got way more camera time than elder brother Malcolm, but, also as in the 1970s, it was still Malcolm’s relentlessly perfect rhythm guitar work on his modified 1963 double-cutaway Gretsch Jet Firebird that provided the rock-solid foundation upon which AC/DC soared to even greater heights of chart-topping, stadium-filling worldwide stardom.
Stray Cats, Built for Speed (1982)
No surprise here, but you really have to remember how distinctive and phenomenally great this record sounded at the time. And how positively exhilarating it was (and still is) to hear Brian Setzer tear up a fingerboard like nobody’s business on a real fallen-from-fashion fossil of a guitar—a 1959 Chet Atkins 6120. The story goes that back then, Setzer, a huge Eddie Cochran fan, collected various Gretsch parts and pieced the instrument together himself (for about 100 bones altogether, if you can believe that). And then he used it to pretty much singlehandedly usher in Gretsch’s modern era.
The trio’s 1982 U.S. debut album Built for Speed was actually their third album; a 12-song compilation culled from two 1981 U.K. releases—six songs from Stray Cats and five from Gonna Ball, plus the title track, which was previously unreleased in the U.K. Double-whammy mega-hits “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” still swing, swagger and saunter as vividly today as they did early in the Reagan administration, and the ever-popular Setzer still reigns as the world’s foremost exponent of fleet-fingered Gretsch guitar mastery.
Bow Wow Wow, I Want Candy (1982)
We’re kind of cheating here, because this album is a compilation, but it was released during the band’s original 1980-1983 period and it has the song “I Want Candy” on it, which everybody knows and which you still hear all the time, so it counts. Bow Wow Wow’s cover of the 1965 Strangeloves hit with the Bo Diddley beat is unquestionably one of the most enduring New Wave classics ever, and you have to admit it—the infectious guitar melody played by the late Matthew Ashman on his ever-present White Falcon is still a pretty badass riff.
What a concoction this band was. To promote clothing by Vivienne Westwood, famed U.K. punk impresario Malcolm McLaren assembled Bow Wow Wow by persuading everybody in Adam and the Ants save Adam himself to jump ship in 1980 and form a new band around 14-year old singer Annabella Lwin. This included Ashman and his White Falcon, an instrument not often found in Britain at the time. Anyway, it was a natural assumption that a combination of ’60s pop and surf melodies, Balinese chants, Burundian drum beats and New Romantic fashion sense would top the charts, and that it did for a while there. Ashman and his White Falcon an integral part of it all, but, sadly, he succumbed to diabetes in 1995 at age 35, leaving behind a distinctive and influential body of Gretsch guitar work (see Billy Duffy, up next).
The Cult, Love (1985)
Second album Love is where the Cult’s singular amalgamation of swirling psychedelia, U.K. punk pedigree and Zeppelin-esque swagger really started to hit its stride and draw the kids in like Goths to the flame. And how cool is it that this hypnotically hard-hitting mid-decade hit was borne aloft on the wings of a big, beautiful Gretsch White Falcon?
Mainstream worldwide success for the Cult came with Love and its formidable pair of hit singles, “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Rain,” both of which highlight Billy Duffy’s perfectly constructed guitar work. Duffy was smitten with the White Falcon ever since he saw Matthew Ashman playing one (see Bow Wow Wow above), and in 1982, in his early 20s, he found the one heard on Love in a London shop and spent everything he had on it—£800, which is about $1,600 or $1,700 today. Now, that’s real devotion—the guy was living in an office in London (“Had to go to the local YMCA to take a bath” he said) and was pretty much broke because he’d spent his entire life savings on a Gretsch. “For me that was huge,” he said years later. “That was everything. All I had was the guitar and a good haircut at the time, and that was it. Which is probably all you need.”
Stone Roses, The Stone Roses (1989)
Many in the United Kingdom still fondly hail the eponymous 1989 debut album by the Stone Roses as one of the best and most influential albums ever made; New Musical Express praised it in 2006 as the greatest British album of all time. The Stone Roses was also hailed as a seminal element of Manchester’s part-trippy-part-hippie “Madchester” movement of the late 1980s (even though the Roses didn’t consider themselves part of it) and a major precursor of the glorious mid-1990s resurrection of British guitar music known as Britpop. And while the United States seemed to barely notice them, it’s important to note that the U.K. fervently worshipped the Roses as only the most important band in the world. Seriously—when they reunited after 15 years for summer 2012 homecoming shows in Manchester before 250,000 fans, Q magazine described the occasion by writing “It wasn’t so much a gig as a pan-generational coming together.”
Anyway, the Stone Roses’ resident guitar genius is John Squire, whose main instrument at the time of his band’s auspicious debut album was a Gretsch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman. His was not just any Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, however, but rather a seldom-seen mid-’60s variation built with a Super’Tron neck pickup (a hotter Filter’Tron, basically). This model was available only from about 1964 to 1966, and Squire put his to impeccably good use on The Stone Roses, on sparkling selections including “She Bangs the Drums,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Bye Bye Badman” and sprawling eight-minute epic “I Am the Resurrection.”