It will not have escaped the attention of anyone who takes more than the briefest notice of the contents of this website, that I spent my formative years playing guitar in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll bands in west London. Living in South Ealing, my local music shop—where I could buy anything from a plectrum or some spare strings to a Gibson guitar and Vox Twin amplifier—was Jim Marshall’s establishment in Hanwell. He started his business selling drums, and graduated to guitars and all the paraphernalia associated with them. I well recall one evening in 1961 walking to Hanwell just to look and marvel at the blue Fender Stratocaster he had on display in his window. For the uninitiated, the Stratocaster is the Ferrari or Aston Martin of guitars, as played by Hank Marvin and Jimmy Hendrix among many others.
In 1962 or thereabouts, Jim and his team developed his series of Marshall amplifiers, the loudspeaker stacks of which are frequent sights in TV, film, and rock concerts. They are familiar, not the least reason for which being that they have the name ‘Marshall’ emblazoned across their front. It all came about because local guitarists could not get the sound they wanted. Jim’s son Terry described what happened. The Fender Bassman amplifier—made by Fender in the USA for use with bass guitars, and fiendishly expensive—appeared to have the required characteristics. Terry discovered that it had not been patented, so they simply reverse engineered the circuit with some modifications, adding a separate box with four, twelve-inch loudspeakers. The amplifier itself was based on vacuum tubes and the sound was prodigious; I permanently damaged my hearing standing for hours twelve feet from Pete Townshend’s Marshall stack in the Ealing Club. It was said that Screaming Lord Sutch, the last person of any integrity ever to attempt to get himself elected to the UK Parliament, tested the power of Marshall amplifiers by using the particular position of the shop. He got his guitarist to play a riff through one of Jim’s amplifiers, went across the street, and determined whether he could still hear the sound when a double-decker bus went past.
The amplifiers were brilliant but insanely expensive. I remember Jim Marshall explaining to me that they produced three different systems; there was an amplifier for a lead guitar at 120 guineas, one for a bass guitar at 106 guineas, and one for a rhythm guitar for I forget how much. For anyone under the age of sixty, a guinea was twenty-one shillings, or in modern parlance £1.05. At the time, the average weekly take-home pay was £12 - £14. You could buy a decent car for less than the cost of a Marshall amplifier.
Jim Marshall has passed into legend, and is up there with Fender and Gibson as one of the all-time greats of the music equipment business. His shop was a meeting place for musicians, and was the centre of gravity of the West London music scene. It was there that I became acquainted with Mitch Mitchell, who played for my band for a brief period and then joined Jimmy Hendrix. Later on I met Speedy Keen, who was also with the band for a while before he joined Thunderclap Newman and wrote and sang Something in the Air.
Jim Marshall’s shop loomed large in my personal legend, and I spent many hours just hanging about there, hoping that some of the glitz would wear off on me. And it was during those times that I became infected with the Marshall Parp. It is difficult to explain exactly what it was but I shall try. One of the assistants, a musician, would put his lips together and make a ‘parp’ sound. Not for any particular reason; it was like a verbal tic. It caught on and the cognoscenti coming into the shop on hearing a ‘parp’ would reply with the same. Musicians at large, on exchanging a parp, would know that each belonged to the Marshall 'guild'. I started parping and still do. Very few people have remarked the habit, although one friend, Paul—he knows who he is—embraced it with enthusiasm, being as taken by it as I was.
I often wonder whether anyone else remembers the Marshall Parp. It’s ironic that Jim Marshall made millions with his amplifiers and received an OBE for his trouble. But that rather childish, ubiquitous, and amusing—well it amuses me— idiocy is entirely unrecorded. Well, I have recorded it now, and it remains for me the most enduring memory of Jim Marshall’s music shop in Hanwell.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs