Kiss – Alive!
The cover says it all: coloured lights, dry ice, flash bombs and Kiss in all their gaudy glory. But behind the greasepaint, spandex and platform heels, there lurked a ferociously good rock band, as proven by every one of the 16 songs on Alive!
By 1975, Kiss had three studio albums under their belts, so they could cherry pick the best songs for a storming live set. Controversy still continues about how much was really recorded “live”, but the simple truth is the versions of the songs on Alive! have a raw drive and power to them that the studio versions lack and, while the band’s lyrics straddle the divide between sexy and sexist, there is an enormous sense of fun to the music: the band clearly love the songs they are playing and are hungry for a greater audience, and this infectious combination of good times and relentless ambition is the core of the album’s appeal.
So, how did the album help shape The 109s’ sound?
Hearing the way Stanley, Simmons and Criss combine their voices on the album convinced me that harmony vocals were going to be at the heart of The 109s’ sound. The album also influenced my guitar-playing in a number of ways: the dual-harmony lines in “Watchin’ You”, the funky counterpoint in the verses of “100,000 Years”, the succession of riffs and dynamics that brings “Let Me Go, Rock ‘n’ Roll” to its epic conclusion.
And then there are the solos. While Ace Frehley is far from being my favourite guitar player, he plays a no frills style of lead guitar that is relatively easy to learn, and from which fledgling guitarists can easily lift licks to add to their own palette.
I know I certainly did.
AC/DC – Powerage
An often overlooked classic within the DC canon, Powerage is the last album made with the Vanda-Young production team and, for an AC/DC album, contains a fair amount of experimentation. Check out the wandering bass on Gimme a Bullet (one of the few DC songs to lack a guitar solo), The Stones-style stomp of Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation (which comes complete with a maracas-and-handclap percussion section) and the slow-burn blues groove of Gone Shootin’. The album also contains two of the band’s heaviest songs in Riff Raff and Up to My Neck in You.
The influence of AC/DC is all over The 109s’ music, especially in the way we structure our guitar solos: although it may appear AC/DC solos are all about Angus Young’s showboating, listen a little harder and you’ll notice how the entire band contributes to the dynamism and excitement of the solos, often switching from staccato notes to open chords halfway through to add drive, or providing a subtle shift in the chord pattern.
Hopefully, listening to the music of The 109s carefully, you’ll hear the same techniques being used (Cut Me Loose being a prime example).
The Big Muff – another classic FX pedal, and a key component to my studio sound. The Big Muff is quite simply the best, most aggressively fun distortion pedal out there and an essential for anyone looking to achieve that classic, creamy late ’60s overdriven sound.
I love my muff. For starters, the range of different tones I can produce from it is awesome, and the separate volume knob means I can really give my solos a boost – that was until Damian (The 109s’ singer and rhythm guitarist who stands opposite and facing my amp at practices) complained that every time I clicked on the Big Muff, the resultant sonic boom was like “being kicked in the stomach” – which was a pretty accurate description of the feral bellow a Big Muff at high volume produces. This is why I only really use it in the studio now as, like Jurassic Park’s T Rex, the Big Muff requires careful handling. (Damian’s incipient tinnitus was also another deciding factor.)
There are two versions of this pedal – a small compact one and a giant, 1970s’ replica stomp box. Guess which one I chose.
First and foremost among the pedals I use, it has to be the wah wah. And if you’re going to use a wah wah, it has to be the Jim Dunlop Cry Baby – simple, elegant, classic, and the wah you hear at the beginning of Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Good enough for Jimi, baby, good enough for me . . .
As a young man, I was very fussy about using FX pedals. Everyone else around me in the early ’90s seemed to be hacking away at guitars drenched with chorus and delay and dozens of other effects (used, I suspect, to hide the fact they didn’t have the determination to develop their technique through 8 hour-a-day practice sessions) so I set my face to the wind and determined to use no pedals at all: vibrato, palm muting, pick up switching and clean/crunch amp channels would be enough for me.
But from studying Hendrix’s technique I quickly realised a wah wah was going to be essential. There’s a reason the pedal has an onomatopoeic name, as its sound is so organic it almost ceases to be an effect pedal and becomes an extension of the guitarist’s imagination – I, like many others, mouth the wah sounds I make as I play them.
So be it providing that funky edge to clean, muted strings, or adding some trebly scream to a high bend during a solo, the wah wah is my go-to pedal.
Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power
Ever heard of James Williamson? If you’re serious about rock guitar, you should have. In the first six songs of this 1973 album, Williamson takes rock guitar into a highly original, hyper-aggressive direction which foreshadowed the Sex Pistols by three years while effortlessly surpassing every punk guitarist that followed in terms of technical ability. I can’t think of any other guitarist who created such an influential sound in a single album.
First, there are the album’s rockers – “Search and Destroy”, “Raw Power” and “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell”. Williamson’s slashing chords are linked by riff runs played on the low strings which create a lead/rhythm hybrid that is far more accessible to a student of guitar than the dense webs woven by Hendrix, and in many cases, is far more driving and dynamic.
Then there are the slower songs, some played on acoustic guitar, where Williamson’s genius really shines as he takes the dirge-blues of “Gimme Danger”, “I Need Somebody” and “Penetration” and creates guitar lines that sound like nothing that has come before or since, mixing open strings with unusual chord voicings.
OK, so the last two songs on the album are almost unlistenable, but then The Stooges always had an avant-garde, art-rock noise edge to them. But as Johnny Marr said, Williamson ‘has the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being as studious, and the swagger of Keith Richards without being sloppy’ – the first six songs of Raw Power more than prove this.
Iron Maiden – Killers
Some might be surprised by mention of this album as an influence, as The 109s’ music is clearly not Heavy Metal.
However, the songs on this album (the last recorded with original singer, Paul Di’Anno, who sang without the operatic warble of Bruce Dickinson) have a rawness, power and vitality to them that The 109s definitely try to emulate. Maiden were also one of the first bands to resurrect the (then) lost art of dual harmony guitar lines, which The 109s also use judiciously to add colour and substance to their songs.
Finally, the songs on Killers contain some amazingly dynamic changes in tempo and rhythm, and this is something that nearly every 109s’ song contains – we decided early on that we wanted to break free from the shackles of conventional song structure and really explore the skill of each musician in the band.
Up the Hammers!
Smashing Pumpkins – Gish
I have always been extremely fussy about my musical tastes, and as a young man refused to listen to anything recorded post-1975.
Gish changed all that. From those first ringing F# chords of I am One, this listener was hooked. Over the course of the album’s ten tracks, Billy Corgan did everything I wanted to do with the guitar: brilliant riffs mixed with melodic, powerful lead guitar lines; interesting guitar tones and textures; and the brilliant use of a truly brilliant drummer. Corgan is a great guitarist and songwriter, but the real heart of this album lies in Jimmy Chamberlin’s ferocious drumming.
So, what did The 109s learn from this? As a guitarist, Gish showed me how to take influences from the classic decades of early rock and contemporise them. Corgan also uses a technique where riffs are played on the fifth and third string, sliding the resultant octave up and down the neck to create a distinctive, thick sound – you can hear that technique all over The 109s’ music.
Finally, Gish drove home the truth of the saying that a band is only as good as its drummer: it was no accident that the first musician with whom I got together when starting The 109s was not a singer or bassist, but the best drummer I knew, and the interplay between Steve Collings and I is still the aspect of the band’s music I most enjoy.
Top Tracks: Rhinoceros, Snail, Tristessa