Mark Brend recalls the eccentric, anachronistic, mock-croc amp utilised by his teenage punk band.
In 1978 my friend Nick and I clubbed together to buy a Selmer Zodiac Twin Fifty amp second hand from Bill Greenhalgh. £50. Bill Greenhalgh was the biggest music shop in Exeter, on the left as you walked down Fore Street. It was a big shop over two floors. A room for pianos. A room for sheet music. A room for brass instruments. A drum room. The guitar room was on the ground floor, to the left of the shop as you entered. It was the sort of place where, on a Saturday afternoon, you went and tried out guitars with no intention nor means of buying one. Playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ or ‘Layla’. People still do this in guitar shops the world over. Nick and I didn’t, though, because we never acquired sufficient proficiency. He was rhythm guitarist in our band. I was lead. A notional distinction, as neither of us could do more than thrash barre chords at great speed. Strictly downstrokes only.
Selmer occupies a peculiar niche in British music history. The French parent company, dating from the 19th century, specialises in woodwind and brass instruments. Selmer UK started in the 1920s as a semi-independent import and distribution offshoot, and by the outbreak of WW2 was the biggest British musical instrument brand. By then it was producing PAs as well, and post-war began manufacturing electric organs. It had the UK licence for the Clavioline, a French-designed monophonic keyboard, one of the first mass produced electronic instruments. Joe Meek used one on ‘Telstar’. From the early 1950s it also imported guitars, including German Hofners, such as the violin bass favoured by Paul McCartney. And it began making its own amplifiers. In post-war Britain up to the late 50s – a period that encompassed the trad jazz revival, skiffle and the dawn of rock’n’roll – almost everyone played or plugged into a Selmer product. But the tide turned. As rock’n’roll got ever more popular, Selmer less so. Perhaps its ubiquity worked against it. Why would the music of youthful rebellion want an amp with the same logo as the one on your Dad’s trombone case? Rival British companies and American imports encroached. Vox, Burns, a little later Marshall, Fender, Gibson. By the early 60s Selmer looked staid.
Enter the Zodiac Twin Fifty, launched in 1964. Sturdy, solid. Clad in imitation crocodile skin, the gothic Selmer logo in big bold brass letters, a green light that winked in time with the tremolo feature. There was an unmistakable sense of trying to keep up. The faintly embarrassing groovy uncle at the wedding reception. It was a good amp, but it didn’t quite fit, even in 1964. By the time we got ours in the late 70s it was an eccentric anachronism, travailing through the netherworld that all old products must navigate before emerging into the nostalgic twilit glow of vintage status. Twice as heavy as more modern combos of a similar size. With two channels, each with two inputs, it was possible to plug in an entire band – lead, rhythm and bass guitars, and a vocal mic. And we did.
The band formed in late 1977 or early 1978, when we were all fifteen and studying for our O levels. A five piece: lead vocals, bass, drums and two guitars. None of us could play, really, and the singer was deaf in one ear. Before we got the Selmer we plugged into practice amps. Shortly before our first gig, which was around Easter 1978, we all went, one school lunchtime, to have ‘punk’ haircuts. The five of us, in school uniform, trooped into the salon and said – showing the stylists a photo of Billy Idol, of Generation X – “we want haircuts like that.” Later we all turned up, newly shorn, a little late for the afternoon lesson, slouching into the classroom like a real band. None of us looking anything at all like Billy Idol.
The band played its first gig in a church hall. It was packed. In those days in Exeter even the most inept of teenage punk bands could rustle up an audience of several hundred, no problem. Our set comprised mainly Ramones covers, plus a Chuck Berry song ‘Around and Around’. I borrowed a guitar for the gig, a home-made thing. I’m not sure why. We couldn’t get it in tune. The noise we made must have been shocking. Though not in a good sense. But we made an impact.
In the days leading up to the gig we had made mock Marshall stacks out of artfully painted cardboard boxes. While these would not have stood up to the merest glancing appraisal in daylight, they flattered to deceive in the dim stage lights of the church hall. Toward the end of the set our drummer broke into a flailing solo and – by prearrangement – somebody, somewhere turned on a strobe light. In the ensuing aural and visual disorder the rest of the band put down its instruments and made a show of struggling to lift the bogus Marshalls that stood at the back of the stage, two boys per stack. Staggering under their pretend weight, we carried them to the edge of the stage and hoisted them out over the densely packed crowd of teenagers. I recall a boy called Neil Fox, unusually tall, head and shoulders above the rest, a look of panic on his face. There was screaming, audible above the cacophonous drumming. A wave of terror swept the crowd in panicked retreat away from the stage to the back of the tightly packed room. The cardboard amps bounced harmlessly onto the heads of a few unfortunates who had been unable to escape. Nobody was hurt in the stampede, which was a miracle.
After a while Nick bought me out of our Selmer partnership. After selling my share to him I told my parents I needed to get a new amplifier, because all my friends had amps of their own by then. They never really understood my enthusiasm for music. It wasn’t as if I was doing recitals at school concerts. But they bought me my guitars and amplifiers through my teenage years, and Dad would ferry me and the gear and the band to rehearsals. These were modest but holy acts of love that opened little skylights onto heaven. We went to a music shop in Plymouth to buy an amplifier. I was 17, and by then having a day out with my parents was a rare occasion. We came back with a Peavey Pacer, either new or nearly new. This was smaller, lighter and louder than the Zodiac, and had built in overdrive and reverb. It served me well for years. Around the same time I bought my third guitar, a blond Kimbara Les Paul copy, once again from Bill Greenhalgh. This was the first half-decent guitar I owned. It felt substantial, though I never really settled with it. The Kimbara was preceded by a red Columbus 335 copy. Almost everyone I knew at the time had a Columbus or Avon guitar.
My first electric guitar had cost me £12.50. It didn’t have a brand name on the headstock but was most likely a Kay or some similar budget make. Originally sunburst, someone had sprayed it white, but the paint was peeling. It had two pick-ups and a very low action. I got a practice amp at the same time, which distorted nicely when turned up full. The first evening I had the guitar at home, I propped it against the wall and looked at it for a long time. I’d found it in a second-hand record shop called Catapilla, which was on Well Street in Exeter at the time, but which then moved to North Street. For a short while on the Well Street site it also sold a few second-hand guitars and amps. Through my teenage years and later when I was back home from university I spent a lot of time flicking through the Catapilla racks looking for treasure. And often I found it. Once or twice a year they’d have sales, album prices starting at 1p.
In 1986, when I started working at the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill, I came across albums by a band called Catapilla, on the Vertigo spiral label. They were, even then, collectable. Original pressings sell for many hundreds of pounds now. I discovered much later that Catapilla the shop was owned by Hugh Eaglestone, who had played saxophone on Catapilla the band’s first album. They were progressive jazz rock, the sort of thing my schoolboy punk rock self would have held in the highest and utmost contempt. It’s just as well I didn’t know about Hugh at the time, as in the late 1970s he supplied a very considerable portion of my teenage record collection, as he must have done for hundreds of us in Exeter. I bought the first Real Kids album from him for 99p, on the cover alone. The home cut fringes looked right. I still think it’s a classic of its type. When I was shopping in Catapilla I never knew Hugh by name. By the time I made the connection between the shop and the band the shop had closed. But I salute him now, wherever he is. Nick has still got the Selmer. I used it as a prop in a photo session for a book I wrote about unusual musical instruments, decades after I last plugged into it. They set you back four figure sums these days.