It was the Christmas of 1988. I was a budding guitarist who had just received his first electric guitar, a 1986 Fender Squier Stratocaster, for his 14th birthday a mere three weeks before. Prior to that, the last two years were spent toiling on a generic dreadnought acoustic with the kind of action that’s meant to either make or break a newbie on the 6-string. I suffered through my dobro/acoustic and I guess I made it.
Since I had found out pretty early that I wasn’t going to be a defensive lineman for the Warsaw Tigers middle school football team(no interest in sports, no concept of the rules, and no interest in sports), music was going to be my thing. I did try out for the football team in 7th grade and made it much to my chagrin. But after a few practices and not figuring out how to properly lace the pants or know what a sports cup was, I decided I better bail out before I crashed and burnt at our first home game.
My dad was disappointed I dropped out, as he was a jock of sorts in high school; football, basketball, and Track and Field were his things. I remember seeing his Letterman sweater for Nappannee High School hanging in their closet as a kid and thinking “Cool, dad’s got a sweater like Richie Cunningham!” Other than that, I never had any interest in sitting and watching an IU basketball game or a Redskins NFL game with him. It just bored me. I’d rather be in my room setting up battles beween Rebel and Imperial Forces soundtracked to Quiet Riot’s Condition Critical, or Van Halen’s Fair Warning. I did find it entertaining when either of those games weren’t going my dad’s way. He would come up with some rather colorful colloquialisms, especially after a beer or four.
Anyways, back to 1988.
So my dad had come to terms with me not following in his footsteps and spending my falls on the football field. He saw that the guitar was my “thing” and encouraged me to practice. He’d talk guitarists with me and music in general. Most of it I was too young to really care about, but it was nice that my dad took an interest in what I enjoyed doing. My parents weren’t novices when it came to music. They had a stack of vinyl and lots of cassettes in the house, and they were the reason I had such an interest in music. When you’re 4 or 5 years old and Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Aerosmith, and Three Dog Night are on constant rotation in the living room it’s gonna make a mark on you.
Not sure if it was me constantly going on about guys like Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, and George Lynch, but on Christmas morning of 1988 I found a cassette in my Christmas stocking. It was called White Boy Blues and had a bunch of crusty old songs by British blues guitarists. In-particular, it was Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page playing mostly with some strange looking guy named John Mayall. I looked at the odd yellow, red, and green cassette cover with a picture of these guys that were probably already dead or in an old folks home somewhere in England(or maybe Middle Earth) with a puzzled but intrigued expression.
I looked at it and gave mom and dad a genuine smile and “Oh cool! Thanks!” and set it off to the side along with the giant bag of Reese’s Pieces, tube socks, pack of Care-free Sugarless Gum, and a bottle of Brut 33 aftershave. I moved on to some sweaters, some more cassettes(that I had asked for), and the big gift was a Tom Scholz Rockman(a Walkman size amplifier that you played with headphones.)
After everything had settled down and the wrapping paper had been collected I retired to my room to perform a concert on the Rockman. After my third encore I decided to put in this weird cassette I found in my stocking. The sound was of another era. Fuzzy third or fourth generation copies from the late 60s of guys playing guitar pretty damn well. But where were the hammer-ons and monster riffs? Where were the screaming banshees and gated-reverbed snare shots? Songs like “Snake Drive”, “Freigh Loader”, and “Steelin'” weren’t chugging RAWK, they were almost jazzy and definitely blues. But not like the blues at the end of Crossroads where Jack Butler pranced around a stage in Hell like a slithering snake, but more like the kind of blues I heard in bands like The Yardbirds, Cream, and The Experience. These were bands my dad listened to out in the garage cleaning the cars or tinkering.
Of course, those three guitarists were ALL in The Yardbirds. And one was in Cream. And one went on to form Led Zeppelin. That little cassette was a masterclass in British blues and the early days of what would become heavy metal. But to a 15-year old who aspired to play like Vai, Malmsteen, and Lynch it all just sounded kind of old and geriatric.
White Boy Blues went from the cassette storage bin to a shoebox in my closet within six months. The shoebox was a collection of cassettes that didn’t get much play and were forced from their home when I needed room for cassettes that did get play. It was a holding ground for cassettes that would eventually end up being traded in at Karma Records for newer, more exciting music.
Fast forward 33 years and I’m at work going into a musical deep dive of The Yardbirds, Cream, and the first couple John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers albums. I’d always appreciated the Yardbirds, but just the usual stuff. Stuff you heard on classic rock /oldies stations. Cream? Well I’ve always liked Cream. I was just in the mood for some Bruce/Baker rhythm section and the truly last great playing from Clapton. I’d never really heard John Mayall, at least that’s what I thought until I heard a song called “Burn Out Your Blind Eyes”. As soon as I heard that tune I instantly recognized it as a song off that weird little cassette from my dad. I thought to myself “Wait. This is really good and it was on that cassette from Christmas of ’88. Maybe the rest of that cassette was just as good.” So I hit up Youtube and found a collection of songs that were from that cassette. Holy shit that album was smokin’! Blues, jazz, and the British blues scene was there in full effect.
I listened to it two or three times that day. That cassette was like a sampler platter of the best of the best from the British blues revival. Had my 15-year old brain been ready my musical path may have take a completely different turn. Instead, I gave the tape a complimentary run-thru and then dumped it into the “Loser” box like, well, a loser. I was too tapped into the 80s guitar scene then. The path was laid out for me; hair metal/speed metal, then prog, then the Beatles and Kinks, power pop, then Wilco and late 90s/early 2000s alternative, jazz, then electronic, doom, indie, then finally finding my way back to the British blues scene.
It’s not so bad, though. Discovering Mayall and that whole crew at 48 means there’s a whole new scene to get lost in for awhile. You never really miss out, you just save that discovery for when you really need it. I was so excited about this that I had to look and see if I could find a copy of White Boy Blues floating around somewhere where I could snag it. Turns out it was released on double vinyl in 1984. I found a copy for $10 and snagged it. It sounds, dirty, grimy, and cool as hell. But no “Burn Out Your Blind Eyes”. That didn’t make the vinyl pressing. Still, there’s plenty of Mayall, Clapton, Beck, and Page; as well as original Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer and the Santa Barbara Machine Head, with Ronnie Wood on guitar and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord on keys.
It’s a stellar set of tunes, and one I’m glad I finally came back around to appreciate. So hey, if you get some weird cassette, CD, or vinyl as a gift this Christmas and it doesn’t really seem like your thing, maybe give it some time. Might not be your thing right now, but maybe in a month, a year, or three decades from now it might just rewire your brain. You never know. Thanks dad.