Imagine a world where all pop music sounds like Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. Especially, imagine a world where all the basses are upright. Better music fans than I can, but for the uninitiated, it’s a little hard to fathom. However, The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry that Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll by Ian S. Port begins in that distant dark age and follows those innovations up the rockabilly charts and through Fullerton, California factories into the present day.
As the title reveals, the story revolves around two figures: Les Paul and Leo Fender. Les Paul’s rise to early rock-stardom largely follows his efforts to produce a sound that acoustic and hollow-bodied electric guitars cannot. For those who’ve never held a solid body guitar before, a helpful overview of the science behind needing a solid piece of wood versus a hollow cavern one introduces readers to radio enthusiast-turned-luthier Leo Fender. Fender’s hobbyist genius gave the industry high quality amplifiers, a bass shaped and played like a guitar, and the iconic Stratocasters, to name but a few. Fender has a lot of great guitars, and they take part on some of the internets best acoustic guitar lists such as this one. An excellent examination of the way guitars have evolved and shaped American music, the story winds its way from the wild cowboys who ruled the airwaves in the forties to the southern bluesman who perfected rock music through the surf rock noise and the British invasion, up to a rousing crescendo in the counterculture movement. The way that guitar designs follow and influence trends creates a twentieth-century epic, not only for music fans, but also classic car, film, and vinyl collectors.
The meat of this book really lies in the culture of guitar design and the effect it had on pop culture. Metalheads and punks might feel a little slighted by their genres’ brief cameos at the end of the book, but the story stops when Leo Fender and Les Paul go into retirement. Trying to force this into a dual-biography of Les Paul and Leo Fender felt a little synthetic sometimes, especially when the epilogue dumps more names and sources from the Gibson company who helped design the Les Paul guitar. Second only to passionate descriptions of American culture were the passages detailing the science and design behind electric guitars and rock music. The technical aspects of amplifiers and guitars continue to capture the attention and imagination of enthusiasts, but if any more science had been written into this book, it couldn’t be marketed as a history.
It’s important when reading this book to keep one hand turning the pages, and the other on your smartphone, because you will want to look up all these artists on Spotify and crank the volume. This might draw out the book, but adding an audio component only helps to illustrate the radical shift in music and culture taking place between these covers. The Birth of Loud might not be groundbreaking, but it does blend music, design, and engineering history together into a skillful and highly entertaining volume. Highly recommend.
More of author Ian S. Port’s writing can be found at his website, iansmithport.com
Four out of five stars
Page count: 340
Favorite quote: “A simple technology, radio equipment screwed into a wood-shop project, had become a tool for the most personal and most public yearnings. Nothing could be at once louder, more vivid, more chaotic, more human.”