American Culture

Les Paul: the man who changed everything

by Wufnik

In thinking about technological change, and our relative inability to often recognize the transformational technologies at the time they come along, consider the electric guitar. Particularly the solid-body electric guitar invented by Les Paul, who passed away Thursday at the age of 94. The NY Times story does him justice – he was just messing around and came up with this thing because he couldn’t find it anywhere. And I don’t imagine that in his wildest dreams he could have foreseen the impact it would have; certainly no one else did at the time.

But in retrospect, it’s clear that the electric guitar is one of those things that changed everything. First came rock and roll, which led to the sixties, when led to the breakdown of everything…. No, wait, first came rock and roll, which led to drugs, which led to the breakdown of everything…. No, darnit, let’s see, first came rock and roll, then came… I can’t remember.

But it’s true. The electric guitar changed everything. It made music more interesting, certainly, and the cultural landscape has never recovered. Actually, the US culture wars of much of the second half of the 20th century focus on rock and roll as much as anything else, perhaps more so. I remember my first (and only) visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We were on The Older Daughter’s college tour, which took us out to the Midwest – Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa – and it was a great holiday, one of the great family trips we took. And I remember insisting, over the bemused objections of everyone else in the family, that we should make a visit. Everyone was a pretty good sport about it, as I recall.

And it was worth the trip. For the rock and roll audience, it was interesting – most of the people we saw there would have looked completely at home in your standard Indianapolis 500 crowd. And the upstairs part, where the inductees have been enshrined, is a bit weird and over the top, actually. Of course, since so many of them are dead, maybe it’s a not inappropriate venue. (Les Paul was inducted in 1988.) But the really interesting part of the museum is the actual museum itself, which lays out, in a very serious but undeniably clever way, the history of rock and roll in America. And you realize, in a way that I’ve seen crystallized nowhere else, that the history of rock and roll in America is inextricably bound up with two other aspects of American life – race and censorship.

And both are still with us. The race thing is obvious – think of the South, changed on the surface but perhaps not underneath (given the racists they repeatedly elect to Congress and their local legislatures), and the outrage among a substantial part of the US population against Obama that is currently driving the tea party and healthcare protest lunacy. If America does permanently schism, as it shows every intention of doing, it will be over race. Which will be tragic, but perhaps nonetheless unavoidable. The censorship thing, too, is still around – fundamentalists of all stripes (who in the US are primarily, but not exclusively, Christian) will never stop trying to ban stuff, and if they can’t, they’ll burn stuff, and if they can’t do that, they’ll think of something else instead – as recently as a couple of years ago Dixie Chicks CDs were being bulldozed. The overlap between these two sets would make an interesting Venn diagram.

And rock and roll, for as long as it’s been around, has epitomized both of these conflicts. Early radio stations refused to play “Negro Music.” While it was on separate stations, that was fine – but as soon as white teenagers started listening in, civilization started to collapse, or something. But people really believed it then, and they still believe it now. Rock and roll in the US is inevitably political, in a way that it’s not in, say, Holland (which brought us one of the best rock guitarists, Jan Akkerman, who plays a Les Paul guitar too). Even in this day of corporate rock and roll, it’s still a principal outlet for the other, in Fanon’s framework, and always will be. Anyone can pick up an electric guitar and a bass and a drumkit and go to town. So the censorship thing will always be there. And who knows how long the race thing will still be around for – it may need for my generation to finally die out before America is mature enough to come to grips with it. Rock and roll has historically been one of the principal modes of attack on racism, ever since white boys like Carl Perkins first picked up his Les Paul Gold Top and came out with “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. And without Les Paul, no rock and roll as we know it.

So let’s all hope that Les Paul was greeted by a heavenly choir wearing sunglasses, all strumming away on their Gibson Les Pauls to “How High the Moon.”

Wufnik is an American who lives in London, has too many advanced degrees for what he does for a living, and has strong feelings about rock and roll.

6 replies »

  1. Wuf, thanks for letting us post this. As a (decidedly amateur) guitarist, I appreciate the linkage between Les and almost everything.

  2. I said it before and i’ll say it again. That’s a damned fine essay. Les certainly didn’t plan to set in motion the sequence of events that he did…and he had help along the way (though Muddy wouldn’t have been able to turn it up to 11 without Les)…but his invention really did change everything.

  3. Please write more…those strong feelings on rock and roll will surely produce some more fine writing.