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Unite you guitar strummers of the world! You have nothing to lose but your plectrums!

There is a timeline in the evolution of British pop music, determined by the instruments and equipment available. Back in the early 1950’s when Skiffle was the latest craze the music was driven by acoustic guitars (and often cheap and nasty ones too) accompanied by home-made instruments like wash boards, rhythm poles (bottle tops nailed onto broom handles) and tea chest basses. There were no amplifiers or P.A systems in those days. To be heard you just strummed and sang louder.

The first real but rather tacky electric guitars appeared on the scene in the early 50’s, and the first amplifiers too - pumping out an ear bending 5 watts and sometimes even more! They were just about loud enough to be heard the other side of the bedroom. Many amateur guitar players plugged into Dad’s radiogram or built their own amps using circuit diagrams in magazines like ‘Practical Wireless’ and electronic bits and pieces from Lisle Street in Soho, famous both for its radio shops and the “French models” that lingered there. There were still no portable PA systems. Professional bands working in theatres or dance halls used the house amplification system. Amateur bands playing at the youth club either did without or used a tape recorder or radio to amplify the vocals.

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Then in 1958 came a rock ‘n’ roll manifestation. It was a solid guitar of sorts, with three pick-ups, a white finger board and enough curves and contours to give Brigette Bardot pause for thought. The Fender Stratocaster guitar was not only electronically advanced but it came in a multitude of colours, from Lake Placid Blue to Fiesta Red and featured a tremolo arm, known to UK guitarists as ‘the whammy bar’. Give that a tug and the notes sang like an Hawaiian guitar,. The first guitarist to get a ‘Strat’ in Britain was Hank B Marvin of the Shadows, a Flamingo Pink, gold plated number bought for him by Cliff Richard.

As the demand for better electric guitars increased so did the demand for more powerful amplifiers and exotic reverberation units like the Binson Echorec and the cheaper, UK made, Watkins Copicat which used a revolving loop of recording tape to make Grand Canyon style echoes… but there was still no sign of affordable. transportable PA systems. While the ‘backline’ was beginning to sound positively sophisticated the unamplified singers, if there were any, took a backseat. Faced with this quandary the guitar groups turned to playing instrumentals. At first they were electrified versions of old chestnuts like “Do Yer Ken John Peel?” and “When the Saints Go Marching In”, mildly toe tapping perhaps but not really distinct enough to catch the public ear until…

Early in 1960 the singer and composer Jerry Lordan was on a UK tour supporting Cliff Richard and the Shadows. On the tour bus Lordan took out a ukulele and played the Shadows a melody that he had written. Although a version had already been recorded by guitarist Bert Weedon Lordan thought that the tune was more in line with the Shadows style and they agreed.

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58 years ago, on 17th June 1960 the group went into the EMI Abbey Road Studio in London and recorded the tune, using an Italian echo unit given to Hank Marvin by singer Joe Brown who didn’t care much for its sound. Rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch used an acoustic Gibson J200 guitar borrowed from Cliff Richard. The heavy melodic bass line was by Jet Harris with percussion by Tony Meehan and Cliff Richard, who played a Chinese drum at the beginning and end of the piece. The record was completed after just 4 takes. Although everyone was pleased with the result producer Norrie Paramor preferred the flip side, an instrumental of the old song “The Quartermaster’s Stores.” Fortunately, Norrie’s children agreed with the Shadows that the Jerry Lordan original was better by far. They also liked the name of the tune - ‘Apache’!

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The record was released early in July 1960 and by Wednesday 20th July had reached 19 in the NME Charts. Over the following weeks it slowly climbed, first to 7, then to 5 and finally through the number 3 slot to number 1, denying the top spot to Cliff Richard’s latest record ‘Please Don’t Tease’. There was some amiable discussion about how the Shadow’s own success would affect their working relationship with Cliff. “If this happens again you’ll have to go”, said Cliff. “If this happens again” said Jet,” we’ll have to find a new singer!”

Inspired by ‘Apache’, instrumentals became a standard part of the rock repertoire until the arrival of the Beatles, beat groups and reasonably priced PA systems in 1962 and the melody remains as popular now as it has ever been. It has been covered and sampled by hundreds of acts from The Sugarhill Gang in 1981 right through to Fatboy Slim in 2007and Madonna in 2008/9. It has been cited by a generation of guitarists as inspirational and is considered one of the most influential British rock 45s of the pre-Beatles era. Even the Shadows admit that the foundations of their success rest upon that instrumental that they recorded in 4 takes in 1960…

“What’s the most distinctive sound of our group? We often wondered what it is ourselves. Really, it is the sound we had when we recorded “Apache” - that kind of Hawaiian sounding lead guitar… plus the beat.”

The Shadows

The Shadows

A film of The Shadows recorded in 1960 before their matching suits and their much copied trade mark ‘Shadows Walk’, four young men poised on the very edge of stardom, playing one of the greatest guitar instrumentals of all time, Hank B Marvin, Bruce Welch, Tony Meehan and the coolest man on the entire planet, leather suited, winklepicker booted and smoking, the legendary Jet Harris.

– from Martyn Day