Okay, yeah, I know, that’s the guy who wrote “Summertime Blues,” right?
Yeah, cool… uh… He’s that dude that 21st-century rockabilly fans worship as a deity. Inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame the second year they were open for business. Oh yeah, sure, I know the guy.
Uh, no, you don’t.
I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about this young man for decades, dammit!
Here’s the deal-io! Eddie Cochran was a Paradigm Guitar Player… Closer to James Marshall Hendrix than a late-1950s contemporary like James Burton in the Impact category.
A Pedantic Paragraph: No matter which art form, artists who single-handedly shift the direction of their field of artistic endeavor are extremely rare. There have been a small number of Paradigm guitarists over the last six decades or so. Most often cited, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, B.B. King, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen… All utterly valid. Yet, somehow, in a field that has been, and is, pored over on a minute-to-minute basis the world over, there remains someone in the shadows, who among only the true rock cognoscenti, stands shoulder to shoulder with the all of above-mentioned, Eddie Cochran.
Before we go any further, let’s retell the tale of Cute Paulie meeting Johnny Rhythm for the first time… It’s around 3:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, July 6, 1957. Paul has watched John’s Quarrymen do a few tunes at a garden party at a Liverpool church. Wanting to impress John, who is clearly the leader of the group, and just as clearly a bit of an hard-ass, Paul he knows exactly what to hit this guy with… Years later, John Lennon recalling the moment, was knocked out by the fact that Paul knew all the chords and words to “20 Flight Rock” by “everyone’s idol,” Eddie Cochran.
And right there, you have the whole story in one word. “Idol” is just not a word you can throw around. It’s worthless (false!) when you do. Eddie Cochran, the merest two-hit-wonder also-ran in his own country, the US of A, was worshipped right along side Elvis Presley in Great Britain in the 1950s. It is this off kilter fact, among other pop-culture-stew ingredients, that one can directly trace the almost total dominance of English rock guitarists from 1964 through the early 70s.
Kids learning to play guitar in England at the end of the 1950s had an enormous advantage. They were paying attention to Eddie, in particular, the hardcore kids at the time, who’d caught Eddie’s one UK tour in the Spring of 1960. Yes, that was the one he had just finished when he was killed in a taxi accident on his way to Heathrow to catch the plane back home.
Teenage boys like Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, went to see that tour, or knew someone who did. All of them down front (where any serious guitar playing kid would be) saw something utterly new, something revolutionary. Eddie’s G string was unwound. Okay, this sounds like a joke, right. But, this is, in actuality, one of the most profoundly pivotal moments in the history of the guitar. The entire course of popular music was to be drastically, tangibly, directly impacted by this one revelation Eddie brought with him from Minnesota. Word spread like wildfire.
Technical explanation: For centuries, guitars were strung with 4 wound strings (a wire with thinner wire wound around it) and 2 plain (one wire) strings, the plain strings being the highest treble strings, E and B. Normally, the 3rd string, the G, is wound, making it a tough string to bend. An unwound G instantly makes a guitar easier to play and more expressive. And, the G string is more often than not, the string that is voicing the ‘flavor’ note in any given chord, and is also often the root string when soloing.
In other words, Eddie Cochran impacted virtually every young guitar player in England in the late 1950s like a head on (yeah, maybe even Eric “Robert Johnson” Clapton), while American guitar kids were still sitting around waiting for The Ventures to arrive with their straightforward and polite guitar stylings in late 1960. Poor Eddie had been dead almost 6 months when “Walk Don’t Run” was released.
This would be enough for the Maw of History, but, no, no, no…
We’re just getting started…
You know how cool it was when, in the early 1970s, guys like Todd Rundgren were producing demos and even albums playing all or almost all the instruments, over-dubbing one after the other. Well, Eddie beat them to that trick by well over a decade; the first ever rock star to write, record, produce, and play most of the instruments on all his records. And… Eddie was doing this while he was still a teenager!
He was 18 in 1957 when he recorded his version of the revered “20 Flight Rock.” He played all the instruments, except for his pal and occasional co-writer, Jerry Capehart, thumping on a cardboard carton in lieu of a snare drum.
By the time he was 20, Eddie had already written and recorded many of his biggest hits, several of which stand today as monuments of the highest quality and purest music produced in the infancy of Rock’n’Roll.
Eddie was the first songwriter to appropriate Chuck Berry’s breakthrough observational lyric style. And Cochran was actually a teenager making his empathetic observations from inside the situation, as opposed to a smooth sly older gentleman, who wrote lyrics that a Porter or Sondheim would envy. The knowing details, laid back wit, and fully-developed vision Eddie displays in the lyrics of “Summertime Blues,” “Somethin’ Else,” “Nervous Breakdown,” “Pink Peg-legged Slacks”, are staggering coming from someone barely out of his teens.
Like Buddy Holly, the only other true guitar/writer/singer/producer giant of the time, Eddie also was writing using the immemorial 1 – 4 – 5 chord sequence in ways that did not use the the standard 1 – 4 – 1 – 5 – 4 – 1 blues sequence (even if you know nothing about music, you can hear what I’m referring to just by humming a blues to yourself). Virtually every one of Cochran’s masterpieces utilizes those same three chords. Yet, he arranged the changes in ways that made the music new and fresh. A serious trick!
Eddie was blessed with looks that really were in Elvis’ league and his persona was much closer to Elvis’ than the justly legendary Buddy Holly. While a deeply hard-ass gun-carrying Texas cat in ‘real life’, Buddy presented himself as safe as a vanilla shake. Eddie’s voice, lyrics, publicity shots, all had an authentic brooding bad-boy quality to them, almost akin to James Dean.
Eddie was also a wicked years-ahead-of-his-time lead guitarist. Remember that unwound G string? While none of his hits ever contained a moment where it would make sense to cut loose, there are b-side and album tracks that exist where, if we’re gonna be honest, he tears contemporary guys like James Burton and Scotty Moore and Link Wray to little bitty shreds. I’ve been playing guitar for over 45 years. Trust me, Eddie C (almost viciously) wipes the gol-dern floor with all of them.
He may well be rock’n’roll’s first-ever ‘techie gearhead,’ too. I have never seen another photo of a modified guitar as early as Eddie’s Gretsch 6120 with a Gibson P-90 pickup in the neck position. Les Paul had dozens of prototypes at his disposal. This was an 18-year-old kid swapping electronics in his electric guitar in 1957. And, by the way, he was on the money. P-90 pick-ups are awesome!
Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey were particularly enamored with Eddie’s Flamenco strumming on his hit, “Three Steps To Heaven,” an otherwise corny track that featured the strum that Townshend would utilize to its fullest advantage in “Pinball Wizard.” “Here For More”, the b-side of “The Seeker,” and Roger’s best songwriting effort, was essentially an excuse for Pete to do Eddie’s “Heaven” strum every 10 seconds. Whenever Pete threw that Eddie strum into a song on stage, Roger inevitably would turn to Pete and smile knowingly, Pete smiling back. I saw that happen several times from my front row vantage point over the years.
Another viscerally important Cochran factor… The big bold chunky chug and feel of Eddie’s rhythm tracks. Up to that point, there was simply no music recorded with the rhythmic drive and leaning-into-the-beat feel of tracks like “C’mon Everybody,” “Somethin’ Else,”, and “Jeannie Jeannie Jeannie.” Eddie’s production emphasized the mid-and-low end range thus adding an extra oomph from the bass guitar and drums. One can hear that precise feel in songs by the likes of The Who, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin (another Cochran cover-band!), one more little gift from Mr. Cochran.
In the Spring of 1969, Jeff Beck released his second album under the name, The Jeff Beck Group, “Beck Ola (Cosa Nostra)”, featuring Rod “The Mod” Stewart on lead vocals. It is a milestone album by any critical aesthetic analysis. Cueing off of Jeff’s first solo LP, “Truth,” “Beck-Ola” was the first true blend of Flash Blues Metal and Outright Funk. Every cut is brilliant, with Jeff playing some of the wildest lead guitar ever committed to a recording process. While every track has scorching guitar throughout, there is a riff on “Hangman” that just totally destroyed me as a budding guitarist. It was the first thing I learned off that album. I sat in my room for a weekend getting it exactly right. For several months, I’d whip it out whenever I jammed with someone and it always dropped jaws. “Show me that riff, Binky! Now!”
About five years later, someone in England got around to releasing the recording of the one live show Eddie Cochran did for the BBC just weeks before his death. Among all these great BBC performances, Eddie did his version of “Milk Cow Blues” (the solo on the this, and his original recorded version, will curl your toes!). About two-thirds of the way through the song, in between vocal lines, Eddie whips out a deadly deadly lick. Guess which one? And I mean, THE EXACT LICK, complete with the psycho vibrato on the last note… Yep, Jeff Beck’s transcendent “Hangman” riff… nine years before Jeff got to it.
So, why do I know all this?
Well, the first time I ever heard the name Eddie Cochran was out of the mouth of Roger Daltrey at the Village Theater in July, 1967. He announced that The Who were gonna do “a new one for us, but, it’s an old Eddie Cochran number called ‘Summertime Blues’… .” They went into their completely over-the-top slamming version of this very famous song that I’d somehow never heard before. I spent the rest of my 14th summer bashing those three chords in that “Summertime Blues” sequence every day, all day.
Eventually, just the way I discovered Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, through the Rolling Stones, I did the same with anyone The Who were covering. That led me to Eddie in late 1967. Hunting down his albums in New York back then was almost impossible. Now, of course, there are all kinds of videos of Eddie Cochran up on YouTube that you can check out. By all means, do.
I leave you with this… Know that much of the music you love sounds the way it does because of a teenage guitarist who delivered unto us musical gifts of a lifetime and then “left the building” six months shy of his 23rd birthday.
Source: The Huffington Post