Thursday, 10 January 2008

Southbound Again

A week ago a rare and momentous thing occurred - I escaped! I did indeed, as Mr. Knopfler's song says, "roll across the rolling River Tyne", (well, the train I was sitting in very comfortably, having a fair stab - i.e. I solved more than 3 clues - at the cryptic crossword in that morning's edition of the Scotsman, did all the work), completely devoid of child-care responsibilities, for a 2-day visit to see friends in the fair city of York, (in England, to avoid confusion for any 'international' folks reading this), something I hadn't done for the best part of 8 years.

The first brief glimpse of the wonderfully-named river Ouse, ("ooze" is exactly what it does when it floods, depositing highly-sticky - and quite smelly - mud on the riverbank towpaths, perfect for catching unsuspecting cyclists unawares. Been there, fallen over, done the washing...), brought back swathes of memories of many early-morning hours spent in great pain and general exhaustion (enormous fun at the time, I seem to recall), occupying the bow seat of a four-man (in this instance "man" is perhaps defined best as: "almost-human masochistic loony") rowing crew from UYBC. (I get the feeling this is going to be a "link-heavy" post, not to mention tangential in the extreme - enjoy).

What feels like a very, very long time ago, I lived in York for almost four years, the first three of which were a whirlwind of competitive sport, playing music, acting (biggest laugh was appearing as a suspiciously broad-shouldered and hairy transvestite in 'Cabaret'), comedy, and in my spare time obtaining a (now practically worthless) degree. It was great to see my old mate from the prog-rock-jazz-what exactly ARE we doing?-fusion band "Mind The Gap" (as featured in October 1st's "Instant Karma"), Big Rich, and on the way over to his house from the town centre, another momentous thing sprang out and mugged me! Two in 24 hours! And I'll bet you think I'm about to tell you what it was...

...but I'm not. Not yet, anyway. A small service, again, for 'international' readers - gives them a useful insight into the uniquely British sense of "series-of-minor-disappointments-as-a-way-of-life". Instead, I'm going into travelogue-mode for a moment or two. If you read the next bit to yourself in the voice of "The Book" in "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy" (original radio series, naturally), it'll seem a lot funnier than it actually is.

York is a wholly remarkable town. Well, if you're at all interested in history, that is. Otherwise, it will seem over-crowded with gawking tourists, braying upper-middle-class "Yah" students from the south-east of England (these actually make up a small minority of the student body, but are by far the most audible, being incapable of speaking at less than 97.8db, regardless of the proximity of the person they are talking at. "Yah"s, it should be known, do not have 'conversations' with others per se. Instead, they communicate by imparting information as a series of disconnected statements, assuming the listener will realise just how dreadfully important everything the "Yah" says is, and will thus make the effort to understand them by hanging on their every word. This is not recommended practice for inexperienced non-"Yah"s, since the enormous duration required to make any sense of what is being said may cause the 'ordinary person' to be late for a pressing appointment, and instill a desire to inflict violence upon the orator, which could have unwanted legal consequences if acted upon.), and unbelievably large crowds of locals doing their shopping - no matter what time of day, or even day of the week, it happens to be. (This last phenomenon has been the subject of exhaustive study, over many years, by the university's highly-rated economics department. The only firm conclusion they could arrive at, however, is that you shouldn't go to "Betty's" for a cream tea, since it's a) permanently packed full of tourists who'll jostle your cake-rack and spill your tea, b) over-priced and not actually very good, and c) impossible, in fact, to study what the shoppers are up to while you're stuck in a tea-shop, slowly clotting your arteries and expanding your backside. If you've ever wondered what economists are actually for, well, now you know.)

If you are historically-minded, then York is fabulous. It's probably the finest weekend-break destination in Britain, to be honest. Loads of Roman, Saxon, Norse, Norman, and Mediaeval archaeology/buildings/stuff all piled-up inside 800-year-old city walls you can walk round easily in an afternoon (including stopping to see where they used to stick traitors' heads on spikes). Alternatively, if you're into steam trains, (or have small children, so can pretend you aren't while dragging them round the place), there's the National Railway Museum, although I'm reliably informed that it's low-budget-copy of the London Eye isn't worth the trouble.

And if it's musical instruments you're after, might I recommend MOR Music (although their website seems to be "down for maintenance") on Fossgate, for it is now time to reveal momentous thing no.2. On Rich's advice, I stepped inside for a brief perusal, and lo! (forget "Hitch-Hiker's", it's "bible epic" time now) Mine eyes did alight upon a guitar combo amplifier of exceeding fineness and rarity, which did bear the legendary name of "Marshall", designated "Artist", which is known unto the faithful by its number, and that number shall be spake unto thee, and it is 4203.

Now, I'd heard a lot about these beasts - made from 1986-1991, solid-state pre-amp, valve output-stage, Celestion G12 Vintage speaker, and that they were pretty much the dog's dangly-bits-which-are-often-snipped-off. So I asked if I could have a play, given that there was no customers in the shop to drive out with my racket. Foolishly, the most-obliging staff agreed to my request, leaving me to cast about for a likely guitar with which to damage their collective senses-of-musical-decorum-and-taste. Eschewing the obvious top-end beasts (which wouldn't properly test the amp), my eyes were drawn to a cheap-but-solid looking Hamer SATFP90 (yours for c.£200 cash). If the Artist could make that sound good, then it had to be a high-quality product.

Twenty minutes later, I was completely stunned, but not just by the Marshall. I couldn't believe how incredibly playable the Hamer was, and how good a job it's "P90"s did of sounding exactly like the four-times-the-price Gibson equivalent. I'd been footling around with some bluesy-jazzy (and quite cheesy) licks to warm up, but when I opened-up the Artist's "dirty" channel, I couldn't resist the urge to indulge in late-60's sub-King Crimson widdling. Twenty minutes later, I'd terrified a trio of young "indie" teenagers, (who had, to be fair to them, unfortunately walked in on a nondescript, fairly scruffy, decidedly-not-"rock"-looking, could-have-been-their-dad guy playing weird, angular rock-jazz mayhem that they were extremely unlikely to have been exposed to before, the poor dears), and was in a state of self-indulgent-muso ecstasy. Eighteen years ago, this town was where I'd played the finest guitar I have ever touched (an orginal '56 Les Paul), and now York had triumphed again. Without a shadow of a doubt, that 30w Marshall Artist was the greatest amp I'd ever plugged into.

Now I know that'll bring howls of protest from the all-valve "purists" out there, but consider, for a moment, a couple of points. Back in the 80's, Marshall were making absolutely brilliant solid state amps (eg. 5005 Marshall Lead 12, etc), so the Artist pre-amp sounds great, and the valves are where they're needed most, providing lots of lovely output "warmth". This makes it ideal, might I suggest, for improving the horrible sounds made by all those fizzy, identikit Line6/Pod addicts, or indeed, any digital multi-effects you might choose to shove in front of it. It's aesthetically-pleasingly, unassuming-yet-characterful, doesn't weigh a ton or take up much space, but has sufficient power and flexibility (unlike some 'boutique', c.5w, 'hand-wired' - they'll be calling them 'organic' next - over-priced, single-channel studio-wonder-amps I could mention) for a decent-sized pub gig, (I wouldn't have wanted to sit next to it with the master volume at '4' ), while still being able to give you creamy distorted tones at 'bedroom' levels. Try doing that with a 4x12 half-stack...

And the best thing of all - this particular example could be yours for only £360 (in their current sale). Which is less than they usually go for on Ebay (or even the Yorkshire version, "Ee-bay-gum"...sorry). Oh, price and availability accurate at time of writing, I hasten to add - and since their website isn't functional, MOR's phone number is: (UK) 01904 646 901, in case anyone was interested in buying the thing. If I'd had the money - or even thought I could have scraped together something approaching the money - then it definitely wouldn't still be for sale.

Which leaves us with an obvious question. Why, when their 1980's solid state combos were excellent, and the "Artist" was a thing of joy and wonder, are their current "MG" and 'Valvestate' (be they 'advanced' or not) offerings so bloody awful in comparison? Where did it all go wrong? Is it simply costs vs. build quality, or have they actually lost their original circuit diagrams down the back of the sofa? Are they cynically cashing-in on their brand name by banging-out cheap, low-grade boxes, knowing that kids who know no better will buy any old pish with a Marshall logo on it? Or have they been enslaved by an evil wizard who is determined that there shall be no re-issues of any amplifier that may be deemed in any way valve-less?

I looked in their website FAQ, but it wasn't terribly forthcoming, so one day, when I'm feeling brave (they might not appreciate the question, and send some of their larger stack-moving guys round to 'educate' me), and I've done all the child-rearing-related duties, I might just ask them.

p.s. Over the years we've all, I expect, seen news reports about some daft prisoners absconding during weekend home visits, despite their only having a short time left to serve on their sentences? "Eejits", I used to think. "How bloody stupid can you get, to jeopardise your release by running off with only a couple of months' jail time to go?". Tell you what though, after those two days away, I feel a lot more understanding towards them. I'd gone for a wee walk in Edinburgh before the train home to Dunfermline was due, and I'll admit I half-begrudged every step that lead me back to Waverley station, in spite of the comfortable, internet-access and chocolate-containing flat I was ultimately bound for. "Personal Freedom", eh? As apparently simple concepts go, it's a bit of a tricky bugger, that one...

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