One man and his Strat

An enthusiastic Tony Blair has declared the Fender Stratocaster the 'symbol of the century'. Save us from middle-aged men and their rock fantasies, pleads Oliver Bennett

Oliver Bennett
Saturday 17 October 1998 23:02

At the recent Conservative party conference, Shadow Culture Minister Peter Ainsworth launched a blistering attack on Tony Blair. He called the Prime Minister a "frustrated rock star", and went on to condemn his "flashy parties at Number 10 with pop stars" as the "cringe" of a "middle- aged politican going through a phase of self-conscious trendiness".

Blair can only have fuelled Ainsworth's ire with his latest cultural dabble: to nominate the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar as the "symbol of the century". And why not? For the Prime Minister grew up at a time when every male wanted to be a guitar hero. Or, to quote the early Seventies "popsploitation" flick Stardust: "Show me a boy who doesn't want to be a rock star, and I'll show you a liar."

The net result of this collective male yearning is an abiding love of the electric guitar; the instrument that power-chorded the baby boomer generation into adulthood. Hobbying mid-life males once headed towards the garden with the secateurs, or kept a discreet train set in the attic. Now they take advantage of the quality lull when the wife and kids are at Waitrose to crank out the riffs to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Whole Lotta Love" with one foot placed rakishly on practise amp. Blair is typical: he actually owns a Stratocaster, attesting to his Oxford years with the band Ugly Rumours, and it is said that he still wields the occasional plectrum when the mood overtakes.

"It is more evidence than ever that we are ruled by the baby boomers: after all, John Major would probably have chosen a cricket bat," says Paul Trynka, features editor of Mojo and an expert on the electric guitar. It would have to be the Strat, he adds; an iconic product which is analogous to the Harley-Davidson motorbike, both sold in nostalgic "collectors editions" to middle-aged people who couldn't afford one in the first place.

"The kinds of people who buy Stratocasters now are pro- fessionals like solicitors and barristers. Kids playing in bands will buy cheaper copies." The dad-rock demographic has come of age and, instead of Am-Dram, the shires are resounding to the sound of Am-Rock.

But is the nation ready for the rockin' sound of 40-something bloke-dom? Trynka reckons that Blair's Fender-bending is slightly wince-inducing. "It will probably invite more mockery, particularly as he seems to use it as a fashion accessory. There is an excruciating photograph with Blair holding his Strat with a teddy bear dangling from it, as if to say 'I'm a bit rock and roll but I'm nice as well'." Then again, it may well be a skillful bit of image-management. Think of President Clinton's sax, which conjures the vote-catching pan-American romance of jazz, its message of racial unity and acknowledgement of African-American achievement. Blair's Strat displays empathy with the grass-roots creativity of post-war youth- led Britain, and the world class music business that has resulted from the mass energy of a million bedroom guitarists.

The PM is not alone, for the number of mid-life hobby rockers is growing. There is novelist Douglas Adams, a whiz with an "axe" as well as an Apple Mac. Then there is Ken Follett, 48, new Labour novelist and, more importantly, bassist in Damn Right I've Got The Blues, which features a journalist and literary agent in its ranks - hence the correct punctuation. They played at the launch for Stephen King's book Bag of Bones, and the 51- year-old US author stepped up with guitar and jammed along.

As a spectator of the band's form at a Brighton book launch, I can verify I was not the only one to curse as Damn jammed on and on with their bar- room brand of leaden 12-bar boogie. Credit is due, however, for they are marginally better than the terrible Dark Blues, a "band" consisting of ageing ex-Oxford University grads who regale Christmas parties with covers of songs such as "Brown Sugar", complete with the air-punching fade-and- repeat refrain of "yeah, yeah, yeah wooo".

Like Blair, these mid-life Am-Rockers are particularly keen on the Fender Stratocaster, the most iconic of all the axes and often said to be the Stradivarius of electric guitars. Eavesdrop at the River Cafe or Granita and one might hear lusty mutterings about sunburst finishes, what the maple neck means for fast fret action and the sculptural qualities of the double cutaway.

The dad-rockers share a deep personal nostalgia for the days when rock was rock, and the virtuoso guitarist was still admired. "I'm sure Blair came of age admiring guitarists like Dave Gilmour, Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Jeff Beck," says Damon of Roka's music store in London's Denmark Street. "Quite a lot of the buyers are people like him: dentists, doctors and lawyers who buy for nostalgic reasons, having grown up in the great days of Hendrix and Clapton (both great Strat men). "Quite honestly, they perpetuate the industry. They like to spend loads on a guitar, which they display in their living rooms then never use."

Indeed, he adds, this phenomenon is so widespread in the US that there is a brand of guitar made by Paul Reed-Smith known in the trade as "dentist guitars". "They start at pounds 1,500 and, from what we can establish, these dentist-types have them on the wall as if to say, 'I'm a bit of a rock and roller'." Few musicians can afford them. Those am-rockers smart enough to know that they will hardly ever pick the thing up can buy miniature Strats for the mantelpiece that stand nine inches tall.

What do the dad-rockers play when they come in-store? "'Hotel California' is top. Then comes 'Smoke on the Water' and 'Stairway (to Heaven)'." Many come unstuck, for Roka's has a sign specifically forbidding people to play these songs. "We stand on a chair and say, 'Cease playing that song!'" explains Damon.

"If Blair really wanted to suck up to Oasis, he would purchase an Epiphone," adds Damon, displaying the kind of knowledge that can't be taught at school. But his choice of Strat is right: its styling is as retro as a classic Cadillac and at 45 it is the same age as most of the dad-rockers who covet it so much. "I'm with Tony on the Strat as a design icon," says Trynka. "The generation it represents is 1940s America, when the country was at its most inventive. Its input is enormous." Strangely, neither the Victoria and Albert museum or the Design Museum have a Fender Stratocaster - surely a serious omission.

It is not just the generation who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies who love the Strat. Thom Yorke of Radiohead is an aficionado, Johnny Marr, ex-of the Smiths and Sonic Youth are more recent acts who have taken the instrument's possibilities further. "Musicians are always finding different ways of using it," says Trynka, "though the Telecaster (its sister guitar) is perhaps slightly more fashionable at the moment."

Whatever their choice of axe, a younger generation is growing up with the unique embarrassment of having rock dads, given to flailing at their Fenders and bellowing "Hello Newcastle!" to an imaginary stadium. Give them a break, for it is harmless: better that the old boys be into fret- work rather than frottage. And enjoy the notion that this may be one of the first generations where children shout "Turn that racket down!" at their parents.

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