REMEMBER THE TIME – OCTOBER 1968 by Sharon Davis

Have you ever wondered what was stashed away in a cupboard under the  stairs in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios, that most famous of recording venues?  Silly question I know – but hope it’s grabbed your attention to read on as it’s a rather different blog this month.

Thanks to Paul Brett’s book Finding Fretless I can share the answer to the cupboard’s contents.  Drum roll please..  The Beatles stored their collection of guitars and other instruments there, all, I might add, gifted to them by manufacturers.  To be honest, it never crossed my mind that the Fab Four had so many guitars between them, and as for a ‘fretless guitar’ well, that was completely off my radar. However, this and a whole lot more was revealed during a 2020 Antiques Roadshow when it was filmed from Battle Abbey in East Sussex which, in turn, leads me to the beforementioned book.

In Finding Fretless Paul Brett tells the story of one distinctive, and rather famous, prototype guitar, together with a rack of untold historical memories charting the creation of the electric guitar that went on to be played by legendary artists including Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and our own Beatles. Or to be more precise – John Lennon and George Harrison.  The author delves into the history behind this unique instrument known as the ‘fretless guitar’ but, being an ignorant bystander,  I was still no further forward in knowing what it was. 

So here goes. I learned that the Bartell Company, based in Riverside, California, pioneered the fretless guitar, and the backstory of this iconic instrument and so many others, are detailed in Paul’s book whose far reaching research resulted in a well-rounded, compulsive read from several angles.  In simple terms then, frets are the strips of metal embedded along a guitar’s fretboard, known as the neck.  An ‘ordinary’ guitar has frets which guide the player across an established musical pattern to produce chords and notes.  By pressing down a string on the fingerboard against the fret, the string vibrates between the fret and the bridge to produce specific notes.  On a fretless instrument, the string vibrates from the bridge directly to the finger position, in similar fashion to a violin.  Subsequently, there are infinite musical differences that create a unique sound but fretless guitars are challenging to master, yet immensely rewarding thanks to the range of sound it produces.  Yeah, I know you knew that already but it’s put my mind at ease, writing it out loud so to speak.

So, this preamble brings me to my intended subject this month.  The dateline of October 1968 marked The Beatles being in Abbey Road Studios finishing off their ninth album “The Beatles”, known across the world as “The White Album”.  It was, by the way, the first on their own record label, Apple, and the first since the death of their beloved manager Brian Epstein.  In between these sessions, the group squeezed in “Hey Jude”, a stand-alone single, with no plans to include it on the new album.  Maybe they felt the lightweight feel of the song wouldn’t have slotted easily into its concept but I’m probably clutching at straws with that.

Stepping back a year to the August now.  George Harrison and his wife Pattie had flown to Los Angeles, where they stayed in a rented house at 1567 Blue Jay Way on the Sunset Strip area of West Hollywood.  The Beatles’ publicist, Derek Taylor, was joining the couple but he got lost on the complicated street route from the airport, eventually arriving late at night.  While George waited up for him, he put the little Hammond organ in the house to good use by writing “Blue Jay Way” which was later featured on the group’s “Magical Mystery Tour” EP. 

Enter Al Casey, owner of the Music Room on 1123 North Vine, Hollywood.  He got wind that George Harrison was staying in the locality and arranged for his wife to deliver a Bartell fretless guitar to him.  A month later, an advertisement for Al’s shop appeared in the Los Angeles Free Press announcing – “Bartell Fretless Guitars and Fretless Basses – George Harrison got the first guitar, maybe if you hurry you can get the second one.” Cheeky so-and-so.  Anyway, George and his six-string Bartell returned to the UK;  one went home to rest, the other ended up in the Studio cupboard.  Later nicknamed ‘the mad guitar’ by George, it really belonged to them as a group, although Paul Brett pointed out only John Lennon shared George’s interest in it.   

Anyway, back to 1968 and Abbey Road Studios which, I was lucky enough to visit a couple of times when I worked for EMI Records. To experience a humbling, yet exciting feeling, walking on such hallowed ground around this remarkable building, where even the very walls are crammed with history, was something I didn’t forget in a hurry. I’m not ashamed to admit either that I walked the zebra crossing outside, but as this was decades ago, I’m not sure now if it was the original crossing or the relocated one/s. I digress.  The Bartell was played on two tracks for certain on “The White Album”, and probably a third, but it seems the recording sessions suffered creative tensions, walk outs and flared tempers, resulting in solo tracks being recorded and passed on to the public as Beatle collaborations. Sadly, the group was slowly walking down the path of destruction which, of course, eventually led to their break up.  Nonetheless, the album shot to the top of the charts across the globe, so The Beatles were obviously still doing something right!

Moving on now… Ray Russell enters this music arena.  Respected and much sought after guitarist, record producer, composer and teacher, this talented guy was working on the music for the 1985 film Water starring the lovely Michael Caine. HandMade Films, founded by George Harrison, produced it, and it was during Ray’s tenure here that George gave Ray the rare Bartell guitar.  “The shoot was on a tight timeline, so the music was even tighter” Ray said in the book’s Forward.  “You could say we (the musicians) went the extra mile ….On the second week, Richard Dodd (the engineer) casually mentioned that George had loaned the fretless guitar to John Lennon, who had been playing it for awhile.  Hearing what I was playing, George thought I might have more use for it….I played a few notes and he said ‘You’re definitely getting more out of it than I am.  It’s doing better for you, why don’t you have it.’  And when a Beatle, especially George Harrison offers you a guitar, you just say ‘yes’.”

It goes without saying, Ray Russell lovingly cared for his precious and unexpected gift, while occasionally playing it although admitted it wasn’t easy. “It just has that sound that only this guitar has, which is so original.” However, he mastered it and played it on his album “Goodbye Svengali” released during 2006.

Years later, Ray told his pal Paul Brett the story of his Beatle gift who believed it should be told and its appearance on the Antiques Roadshow was the next move.  It was a hot July day when Ray plugged the fretless guitar into a small amplifier for a quick demonstration before chatting to the programme’s appraiser Jon Baddeley.  Satisfied the provenance was authentic, Jon valued the rare instrument at £300-£400 thousand.  “I never really thought about value, George being a mate and all that…I’m really taken aback by it.  I didn’t realise it was worth that much money” gasped a shocked Ray.

As unexpected and exciting as this valuation was, it inevitably kicked off super-major problems with insurance, storage and so on: even more so when the media jumped all over it.  Suddenly, Ray and his Bartell dominated column inches in the tabloids; he also guested on television and radio programmes, as the news filtered across the world, exciting Beatle fans and collectors alike.  Subsequently, it became clear to Ray that he couldn’t safely keep his treasured gift, and reluctantly decided it needed a new home, somewhere where it could be displayed for the public to enjoy.  Bonhams auction house in Knightsbridge was the obvious choice due to Jon Baddeley being the managing director there, so a deal was struck.  On auction day ‘the mad guitar’ sold for the reduced figure of £190,000.  Not a figure to be sniffed at for sure.

So, this is the adventure of George Harrison’s guitar gifted to Ray Russell as told to author Paul Brett for the aptly titled Finding Fretless.  After reading the book I feel I know the Bartell intimately – silly I know – yet Paul leaves not a stone unturned to ensure a captivating read.  Or as Antiques Roadshow host Fiona Bruce said “Paul has done an amazing bit of detective work for Finding Fretless, it would put Poirot to shame.”

Quite so mon amie.

Sharon Davis

(Finding Fretless is published by This Day In Music Books. Available now.  All visuals used here are with publisher’s kind permission)