Sizzling Amplifiers: First Time

First time I noticed the sizzling sound of an amplifier — 

where the sound coming through the speaker sounds like its devouring the speaker itself — was as a kid watching a bootleg VHS copy of Jimi Hendrix's performance at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival. 

You can hear it clearly in the set's closer below.

But before I continue, I should make meta-mention of the format of this post. I've been thinking a lot about musical firsts. Not in terms of things like "the first time someone used a Wah pedal" or any HISTORY OF ROCK type ways. But rather, personal experiences that count as musical firsts. Like the first time a sound, or a lyric, or an album cover scared you. Or the first time you noticed a mistake left in the recording of a song. Or the first time you remember feeling the synchronicity when a song came on the radio that seemed to perfectly score that 3-minute moment in your life and you felt like you were in a movie.

These "firsts" are part of the conversations that musicians have with themselves about music. Maybe all music listeners think about it like this. I don't know. But I do know that I've talked with enough musicians over the years who can perfectly describe these firsts in their lives. Something about them gets bookmarked in your memory and occasionally something will happen that makes you think about stopping by the library of your mind to pull up what it was that seemed so familiar, so coincidental.

Anyway, I'm going to start occasionally posting these thoughts here on Growls and Shrieks. And I might even reach out to a few other musicians and ask them if they'd like the space to explore the same notion. 

Back to Jimi...

Absolutely stunningly terrible song, but that amp sound really got me. Not the psychedelic clothes, not the flashy (and fun) playing, not the notes played on the guitar, not the lighter fluid bit, but the sound of the amp itself breaking up like bits of rock just starting to scamper down a hillside before a massive rockslide buries three lanes of a highway.

Second time I really noticed this in a big way was in the audience at a Fugazi show sometime in the early 90s. I was standing mid-venue in a big church basement and the band had just gone into either the end of '23 Beats Off' or some similar improvisation (don't remember... it was a long time ago). Anyway, the guitars began feeding back slowly, and then dramatically. Felt like my head was spinning and then the room was spinning and then my head was spinning one way and the room was spinning the other way. In the center of the maelstrom was that sizzle as one of the guitar amps just started to bleed spiny dirt. 

Comes in around the 2:50 mark in this document of a live show.


It starts at the 3 minute mark on the album version and goes on a bit longer, though sounds a little cleaner than it did live and without the confines of the recording studio. Though there is an interesting bit around the 5 minute mark that sounds like someone is talking/screaming into the guitar pickups. The sizzle then picks up a bit in the background around 5:45.

That sizzle.

I feel like I've spent more than half my life searching for that sizzle. Every time I plug into an amp, I turn it up way too loud. Because that's where the sizzle lives. It lives right at the edge. Anticipating the rockslide.

I hear that sizzle in-between frequencies on the short wave. Sometimes I just pull up the Wide-band WebSDR and just explore the sizzle in the static. I also hear it in a different way in how a well placed ride crash rings out in a jazz song. I hear it in the gestures and isolation of a Francis Bacon painting. I hear it in the dislocated and cut-up voices of a William S. Burroughs dialogue.

That sizzle is my ideal sound. And, by now, it's a familiar place. Not necessarily welcoming, but known. Respected. Anticipated and maneuvered by leveraging techniques that have become habit. Like the way your mind handles a snarling dog when you know your route down the alley and know the distance between the end of the length of leash and the back of the alley wall.


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