Years and years ago, I mean, like decades, there was an advert for what was then the UK’s business listing telephone directory, the Yellow Pages. It featured an elderly gentleman going round some bookshops, looking for a copy of Fly Fishing by J R Hartley. ‘It is rather old,’ he tells the latest head-shaking bookshop owner.
Back home, his daughter – perhaps concerned about the codger’s ability to navigate his Austin Allegro between bookshops, even in those less-congested times, or maybe just looking for a bit more presence on the baby-sitting front – suggests he try Yellow Pages. Within seconds a copy has been located – think of it – by phone! The geriatric bibliophile clasps both hands round the receiver, in a transport of ecstasy similar, one imagines, to the moment he first hauled in a twenty-pounder on the end of his Old Peculiar Half-Twisted back when he was a lad.
The punchline, of course (SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to tell you the punchline of a decades-old UK advert which I’ve already given you the link to a YouTube clip of) was that the old buffer was very same J R Hartley, desperately seeking a copy of his own book in his dotage. Unlikely as the scenario may seem to any published writer (I mean, up in the attic I still have copies of sf magazines with my stories in them twenty five years back, although they are going in the Next Great Purge, I promise you) the advert did well. There was even a spoof version of Fly Fishing by J R Hartley produced for the Christmas market soon after.
Nowadays, of course, dutiful daughter would park grandpa in front of an internet connection and get him googling for his magnum opus. Google would ask him if he meant flying fish, there would be about ten adverts for hotels next to salmon rivers, and after half an hour of searching and swearing he would have found the number of a shop down the road, the very one he’d been in at lunchtime which had sold their only copy just the other day but hadn’t updated their website yet.
I was reflecting on this as I went on a cyberspace voyage of my own the other day, looking for a guitar manufacturer that, it seems, never was.
On the basis that one is just never enough, I own three working guitars. One is a Freshman 12 string that is fully acoustic (i.e. it has no onboard electronic pickups to enable it to go through an amp); a LAG semi-acoustic; and another, older semi-acoustic with the name ‘De Ville’ on the headstock. (For non-players: semi-acoustics are handy critters if you ever do play your guitar outwith the comfort of your own living room; depending on the quality of the onboard equipment and how it talks to whatever amplification set up there is at a gig, it allows you to plug in and get going the same way you could with an electric guitar.)
Here’s a couple of pictures of the De Ville. Isn’t she gorgeous? I saw her in the window of my then most local guitar shop, Sound Control in Kirkcaldy, and couldn’t resist her. She has a lovely, close action – the set up between neck and strings that tends to dictate how easy to play a guitar is – and, played with no amplification whatsoever, has a pleasant, if unspectacular sound. However, amped up, or even when routed direct into my home studio set-up, she can sound fantastic: in the headphones, she has a caramel-flavoured, throaty voice which is I think quite unusual; routed through the Vox AGA 30 amp I previously reviewed, she has a silvery, crunchy quality that meshes well with electric guitars. As I hope you’ll soon be hearing, but more of that in the coming weeks, I hope.
However much I love my De Ville and her distinctive slim, rounded rear end, though, I have to admit in my heart of hearts she’s fake. For, like so many guitars, electric or acoustic, she is a copy – in this case, a copy of an Ovation (I think the Ovation Adamas, although without so many soundholes). This is a topic I’ve long wondered about, being one of those few cases where the lawyerly part of my forebrain and my musician’s medulla both light up in interested colours when I think about it. Why is it that the guitar industry is so accepting of imitations?
In any other area of mercantile capitalism – a Louis Vuitton handbag, to take a random but frequent example from my spam filter – the official maker would be taking all steps available to them in intellectual property law to pursue the copiers, across jurisdictions, to stop them producing knock-offs. Indeed, a significant proportion of local and central government money – the tax-payers’ money, in other words – is spent on tracking down and prosecuting fake brands.
One difference, of course, is that most of the ‘copy’ guitars don’t pretend to be anything other than copies: it may look like a Fender Stratocaster, it may even sound quite a bit like a Fender Stratocaster, but the name on the headstock will be different. All the same, I’ve never quite understood how the big names like Fender and Gibson haven’t tried to enforce the design rights against other manufacturers who, almost invariably, undercut them on price.
Maybe it’s just the nature of the product. Anyone who shells out for a ‘real’ Fender Strat, for example, will tell you there’s just no comparison between the sound it produces and, say, a Squier Strat, which, incidentally, is also produced by Fender. In fact, Fender and Gibson now own quite a few names, some of which make copies of guitars made by them under the original brand name. Confusing, huh?
For me, if a guitar feels right in my hands and sounds right in my ears, then she’s a good guitar, whatever the name. Ovation, the original guitar maker in this tale, has itself an interesting backstory: it was founded by Charlie Kaman, the owner of a company which made, in the main, helicopter parts. Kaman was a keen amateur guitarist, and experimented with innovative guitar designs because, he reckoned, the conventional joins between the parts of the body, could be improved upon, as well as the potential to reduce feedback. What he came up with – a slim-bodied semi-acoustic with a plastic, moulded back that fit the contours of a human frame far more comfortably than conventional acoustics, and multiple soundholes rather than the usual single big one in the middle – was debuted by bluesman Josh White, but really got attention when in the hands of the much more mainstream country singer Glen Campbell in the late Sixties.
Ovations kind of had their heyday in the Seventies and Eighties, when they were used, typically, in the rock arena by poodle-haired lead singers for the acoustic bit of the show that showed they had a, y’know, sensitive side, ladeez, before handing back to the proper guitarist with the Strat turned back up to eleven. To be fair, it was also used by bona fide singer-songwriters like Lennon and Paul Simon. Kaman died in 2011 at the grand old age of 91 [check]; the Ovation brand was sold to Fender in 2007, who recently closed down the New Hartford, Conneticut facility where they’d traditionally been made, and moved production to the Far East. So it goes.
Which brings me back to Google. I’d wondered, over the years, who had made De Ville guitars. They weren’t obviously Japanese in origin, like the Kiso-Suzuki Corporation that made my – now-retired – Gibson J200 copy. My interest was piqued more recently by seeing, in that retail repository of broken hopes and dreams, Cash Converter, a De Ville Stratocaster copy. It was something like 40 quid, and I would have been tempted to shell for it if I hadn’t been put off the idea of Strats for good by Tony Blair buying one when he was Prime Minister. I mean, what was he going to do, get back together with his old Oxford Uni pals and reform Ugly Rumours? Please. And anyway, he was the lead singer.
However, the sight of the name led me to a Google journey which, unlike J R Hartley’s fulfilling quest for Fly Fishing, led only to more and more questions.
First, as always, I had to wade through all the things Google thought I was talking about. So I glanced into various blind alleys concerning C C Deville, former lead guitarist with Eighties metal band Poison, who gained the dubious distinction of being voted in at least one poll the worst metal guitarist ever; although recent revisionist historians of Eighties metal (such a tributary of academia, it seems, exists) reckon actually he wasn’t that bad at all, just that rare breed of rock guitarist who was ‘understated.’
Likewise the twinning of Fender with Deville in a number of search results soon turned out not to be proof of a noble lineage after all for my plastic-bottomed sweetheart; there’s a Fender amplifier of that name.
The sponsored sites all beckoned me in with promises of De Ville guitars for sale. They lied, of course, all of them, offering instead guitars, the aforementioned Fender amp, and, bizarrely, t-shirts of Robert Johnson at his historic crossroads doing his Mephistophelean thing. I backed out of their digital doorways at speed as they scrambled to evade my anti-cookie control and know me to the depths of my consumer soul.
What I did find of interest were a couple of discussion sites about guitars, and ‘gear’ generally. These generally took the form of queries from equally baffled De Ville owners, wondering if anyone had heard of them, and where they came from. The general consensus seemed to be that someone, somewhere, had made a wide range of Fender, Gibson and other copy guitars under this name, but had since disappeared. One theory was that, in the vast multiverse of cheap guitar manufacturers, this was just one here-today-and-gone-tomorrow outfit, probably from somewhere in Asia.
The other possibility was that these guitars were, in fact seconds, which the manufacturers were unwilling to put their name to – a bit like, in the wine industry, when there’s overproduction in a particular wine region, and the surplus is released as so-called ‘Cleanskin’ wines.
Here’s my problem with that theory: given that people have Gibson, Fender and – in my own case – pre-Fender takeover Ovation guitars, for them to all be seconds, there would have to be some sort of conspiracy between all those guitar manufacturers to use the name De Ville for their seconds. And that’s just crazy talk, isn’t it? Although, like so many conspiracy theories, there’s a big part of you wants it to be true.
To me, all these theories are missing the obvious: that these guitars, innocently sold and then sold on through the years, are actually the work of the Devil! De Ville. Devil. He’s used that before, at least in Hammer films, right? And who, traditionally has all the best tunes? Why on earth wouldn’t he be secretly be sneaking out instruments to play them?
Consider the evidence. The blues condemned by preachers as the Devil’s music. Robert Johnson goes to the crossroads. Elvis Presley, simply by swivelling his hips in a hypnotically sexy manner, invents rock and roll. The Rolling Stones write Sympathy for the Devil. Cliff Richard. Well, ok, maybe not him, but you get the picture. Although he did write ‘Devil Woman.’ Old Nick recognises that guitar-based, blues-derived, music is a great way of attracting new converts.
But something just isn’t quite right. To Beelzebub’s exquisitely musical ear, the guitars Leo Fender and the rest turn out are just too … well, just too damn good. I mean, not all luthiers are saints, but they’re at the very least nuanced characters. And some of the good in them keeps leaching into the instruments they produce. So Nick sets his infernal imps to work, a hellish production line of copies which, by being all bad, are the best you could have for the Devil’s music.
The ability to play them like the Devil comes as a separate package, I presume. Note to self: see what comes up as ‘Robert Johnson Crossroads’ on Google Maps.