One of the more celebrated scenes in Michelangelo Antonioni’s deeply complex study of ‘swinging London’ in the 1960s, “Blow Up”, shows The Yardbirds – the Jimmy Page/Jeff Beck Yardbirds – rocking up a storm in a London nightclub populated by an audience of jaded zombies. In barges the ‘hero’ (really antihero) played by David Hemmings (formerly a boy soprano featured in Britten’s “Turn Of The Screw” no less!!) in an effort to find a woman who may – or may not – be involved in a murder. Only when Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and throws the neck into the crowd do these coolly immobile punters let loose, and the always competitive Hemmings’ character beats them all to seize the smashed piece. He then runs out of the club, and casually tosses the fretboard aside. Out of context, it has no value.
The music to this finely acted scene is a song called ‘Stroll On’. This is nothing more than a version of “The Train Kept A Rollin'” originally recorded by the Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. The most remarkable aspect of this recording, both in the original and faithfully duplicated by The Yardbirds, is the malevolent fuzz tone of the rhythm guitar. It has a bass heavy resonance that sets it apart from more familiar fuzz tone recording (e.g. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”), and I was astonished when I finally heard the Johnny Burnette original to find that recording, made in the mid-late 1950s, has all – and more – of the sonic ambience of The Yardbirds’ own version.
Apparently an accident to Johnny Burnette’s guitarist’s (Paul Burlinson) amplifier had loosened a valve in the unit, resulting in an astonishing distorted electronic tone. That the band & producer had both the imagination and will to record this wildly unconventional sound is a testament to the surging creativity of prime 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Essential listening.