Rory Gallagher, the forgotten god of the guitar

According to tradition, in an interview with Rolling stone magazine, Jimi Hendrix was asked: “How does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world? We think he replied, “I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher.” Accounts of Hendrix’s reference to the Irish blues-rock guitarist and singer abound but, to be honest, I haven’t been able to verify its veracity. What is clearly true, however, is Gallagher’s massive influence on other musicians, especially British guitarists, including some of his peers.

Eric Clapton once told the BBC that Gallagher should be credited with “bringing me back to the blues”, and early in his career, Queen guitarist Brian May not only adopted the playing style of the ‘Irishman, but used the same type of equipment as Gallagher.

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Over the years, Gallagher has influenced several iconic guitarists. And if he had not died prematurely in 1995 at the age of 47, it is likely that he would have influenced several others. Indeed, young guitarists such as The Edge from U2 and Slash from Guns N ‘Roses frequently mentioned him as a source of inspiration.

At the start of last month, a boxed Super Deluxe edition of Rory gallagher, the self-titled debut album that began her solo career in 1971, has been released. It’s a 52-song extravaganza that includes newly mastered mixes of the original tracks, alternate takes and live versions. For those familiar with Gallagher’s music, this is a treat. For others, it’s a perfect introduction to someone who was a musician and a legend to boot.

When you listen to this debut album, it’s easy to see why blues rockers like Clapton hold it in such high regard. Critics have often described Gallagher’s style as an alloy of the styles of Clapton and Hendrix. But it was perhaps the other way around: his style may have influenced theirs. It’s a style where the harsh riffs of his 1961 Fender Stratocaster meet very rhythmic phrases and where technical excellence (like that of Clapton, for example) coexists with raw emotional virtuosity (like that of Hendrix).

Gallagher was also a competent lyricist, but not exceptionally gifted, expressing the philosophy of the blues but with an urban (then) contemporary touch. In the opening song of his debut album, Laundromat, he sings: What do you think / I sleep in the laundromat / If you had to stop by you should drop my bag / But I have no clothes to clean / To put in the machine / But that was the place the craziest I’ve ever been. In addition to the searing guitar hits on most of the tracks, the album has a few surprises, such as an alternate traditional blues-style rendition of the Muddy Waters classic, Gypsy.

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Blues aficionados know The London Muddy Waters Sessions, an album released in 1972, with its distinctive poster-style cover art showing Waters in a London Bobby helmet and musicians overflowing from a London double-decker bus. It was the second in a project where British blues rockers performed with legendary American bluesmen. The first was The London Howlin ‘Wolf Sessions, where British musicians such as Clapton, Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood and Bill Wyman accompanied Howlin ‘Wolf. The Muddy water sessions had a similar star-studded ensemble, including Winwood, Rick Grech (of Traffic and Blind Faith fame) and Mitch Mitchell (of The Jimi Hendrix Experience). But on most tracks, it’s Gallagher who steals the show with his guitar hits.

Although Gallagher’s life was cut short – a heavy drinker, he succumbed to liver failure following a transplant – we are fortunate that there is a significant supply of albums under his belt, including the albums he made with his first band, Taste.

There are at least 11 studio albums and half a dozen live albums. In addition, there are several compilations, and of course, appearances with others, such as the Muddy water sessions. Taste albums have a different appeal. In the 1970s On the planks, raw blues is in the foreground, with Gallagher’s Stratocaster screaming licks, but the album is also a precursor to the music of a band who simply called themselves Rory Gallagher. There are ballads; traditional slow blues songs (not without good guitar strokes); and on the title song, a saxophone makes a surprising entry.

To truly appreciate Gallagher’s music, however, one has to look to the new box set that commemorates his solo debut. The alternate takes of the originals are nice, but the real excitement is in the list of live recordings on the album. There is a set of songs from Gallagher’s performance at the Sunday concerts which were hosted by legendary BBC RJ, the late John Peel. They play this concert as a trio – lead guitar, bass, and drums – and although it’s only six songs, it’s this minimalist live performance that best showcases Gallagher’s guitar skills. He really was a guitarist’s guitarist.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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