Guitar Song

Fire in the woods. Photo by Michael Withers

It was 1969, and America could put a man on the moon but it still couldn't record a loud rock & roll record right; "Sister Ray" bled out in blobs ("The problem was that the current state of studio art wouldn't let us do it," said Sterling later) and Blue Cheer's first two records sounded as cottonmouthed as the men who made them and the MC5 got squished into a steam whistle on Kick Out the Jams and only Randy Holden got by design what others (High Tide) only half-got by accident when he set up 20 coffin-boxy Sunn amps (each big enough to hold a full-grown fourth-grader plus his pet, his best friend, his sack lunch and several Fender Twins besides) as his own private Stonehenge in a deserted opera house and went nur-NUR-noot-noot-ker-sproioioioioioioingwith the exact same forearm muscles employed by the first caveman to ever spear a mammoth, and probably the same facial expression too.
If you ever wondered why all those hard rockers hewed so uniformly to wizards and skulls and the ridiculous vernacular of the occult, well, here: what they were doing WAS magic; the world as it existed and the guitar amps it produced were simply inadequate to their ideas, and like soldiers sieged in wartime or alchemists sent to scry up the king a male heir, they forced the impossible to work.

Everything cool and scary in the 1970s was the same simple setup: trios or quartets of lunatic longhairs who rolled triple snake eyes on the SATs but could still bully science and technology into performing beyond their means—make hot rods do things cars couldn't do, or make ergot alkaloid derivatives do things funguses couldn't do, or make electric guitars—which didn't even exist 40 years before; which were little baby animals next to B-52s and Scorpion-class submarines and polio vaccines, also all American inventions—do things electric guitars couldn't do, which was great if you were there live but unforgiving if you missed it. Which aloofness added greatly to the coolness, but still—sometimes you want to sit in your dark efficiency apartment and feed yourself to a 1-4-5 progression like a Christmas tree through a wood chipper, and until about Spacemen 3, it couldn't really happen. "All that devotion just based on records?" said Mo Tucker once. "How sad." And how true. And then it flipped over the edge in an instant, and something-Elvis-Beatles-something teen market, and all the next-gen tech specifically designed to rock out your sound with science—the "grunge" dial on the effects pedals, right—made the wizardry obsolete. Time was a bug in a computer once meant an actual bug, a lost living thing flapping blind into hot vacuum tubes; at that same coincident time, rock & roll music was fantastic. And when they got the bugs out, everything was finally possible, which was sad and boring. Later there was Warrant.

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But now the second age—pomp borrowed from Hawkwind—is upon us; wizards again ride vans throughout the land, and while the intuition is still there, how much more homework comes with it. Like a guy from Ohio once said: "I can't think/There's too much to learn!" And there is: if they wanted to re-put a man on the moon now, they'd have to find the last drooling legacy computers and the last shaky pensioners who could run them and blow the mummy-dust off all the vacuum tubes and figure out how they did it the first time. And music is the same; like James Brown said, you got to know where you're from. So Pearls and Brass are from Nazareth, Pennsylvania: "Two streets, 13 bars, nine pizzerias and the Martin guitar factory," says bassist Joel Winter, sitting in a Virginia brew-pub with guitarist Randy Huth and drummer Josh Martin. "That was like our whole lives." And they have done their homework: "I don't," says Joel, "even own a Sabbath record."

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Pearls and Brass were cheated out of some shine of notoriety—and perhaps this sense of loss informs their affection for the blues, for Robert Johnson and Lemon Jefferson, whom Joel mentions without prompting—because they were born after Nixon resigned, depriving them of the colossal achievements three young men with obvious and serious dedication to craft and attention to instinct—they sometimes swing through a riff (their term) for days, says Joel, waiting for it to flex out just right—might have won for themselves during analog times. They could have been Euclid or Dust; they could have been big overseas and retired early to positions (one each) as bartenders, pizzeria owners and Martin day-shift supervisors. Instead, they are from now, and people use something called the Internet to compare them to Black Sabbath and complain about how their music does not "interact with the moment we inhabit now" because it is so "closed and final" and "unavailable" to the "living, breathing moment" in which wieners whine long and keenly into the night about bands who don't do state-of-the-studio-art things with drum machines or keyboards or sampled bits of sound, like MC Hammer used to do. But it adds something to them that they play the music they do; that quixotic impulse to fill an opera house with amplifiers now powers this power trio from Nazareth, who play non-Sabbath hard rock to people in brew pubs in Virginia because to them it is a medicinal necessity; like Randy Holden, who wasn't even aware his opera-house monster had been commercially released (Population II), they do it because they have to and do it right because they should: "If people dig it," says Joel, "cool."

And will they dig it? Maybe if someone calls it stoner rock ("Weed, yeah, I guess that's what comes to mind on record," Joel says). But to complain that Pearls and Brass share by similar source and temperament a sound with longhair hard rock bands of the '70s misses all but the trailing edge of the point: rock & roll was a frontier, a new psychic landscape to glow over the suburbs they were bulldozing into California orange groves, and you could be an explorer and look for icebergs or you could show up a little later and dig yourself in a place to live. Both are vital: someone plants the flag, but someone else has to remember where, or else the trees creep in and it's forgotten—Roanoke rock & roll, right? Like good Martin guitar employees, Pearls and Brass preserve and master a righteous art: three kids from this tiny town, playing music with each other for about 13 years now, knocking together songs by feel and nothing else, settled by natural agreement into something loud and hard, singing by natural coincidence—since they didn't own their own PA and couldn't hear their own vocals till they recorded—about their own lives: "A bonfire in the woods—that's honestly what we used to do when we were younger," says Joel, sort of apologetically because he has explained the origin and the reason and the strange purity within his band's traditional loud rock & roll sound in six syllables and five words, and this is at 1,200 words and counting and I still really haven't done it correctly. It's 2006 and America couldn't land a helicopter on a hospital roof, but they can sure record the shit out of a loud rock record, just in time for barely anyone to remember how or why to make one in the first place. But Pearls and Brass got how and why. Like a certain caveman once sang: "I been lovin' this guitar for such a long, long time/But it's alllriiiight now."


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