Play It Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp review

Guitar geeks, you owe it all to a tap-dancing boy

Excellent, a one-hour documentary about a black box. Not a black box recorder, but a black box amplifier, because this is Play It Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp (BBC4).

There are good parts to that story. Like when Jim Marshall, who would become known as the Father of Loud (isn’t that the best name?) was finally released, aged 13, from the head-to-toe plaster cast he wore because of a terrible bone condition. His father thought tap-dancing would help to build strength in his bones.

It did. It also put rhythm into Jim. That rhythm led to the drums, the drums led to a shop in west London, and then to the guitars, and guitarists, such as Pete Townshend, who’d drop in to play them. That led to a quest for more noise, and a different, more interesting noise, which led to the Marshall amp – the black boxes stacked on stages ever since, making people with leather jackets shake their heads one way (with approval), and otologists and neurotologists in white coats shake theirs another way (disapprovingly).

There’s an excellent soundtrack, of course – an opportunity to turn the volume on the telly up to 11. And a good cast of talking heads: Townshend, Lemmy from Motörhead, Genesis’s Steve Hackett (who has the same mouth and upper lip as John Major). At the end of the day, however, this is a film about an electronic device, with anecdotes about wiring, valves, etc. “During [Eric Clapton’s] first stint with John Mayall, he was playing the JTM45 half-stack with the four-by-12 cabinet,” says Mike, the film’s co-writer. Then during their second stint, they used a two-by-12 on a 45-watt combo … or something.

In other words, a show for a certain kind of boy, the kind who knows what a JTM45 is. Not just for boys of course, although everyone in it, apart from Jo Whiley as narrator, is a boy, including most of the staff of Marshall Amplification, now based in Milton Keynes. They remember so-and-so doing this, which blew everyone away, and then Jim built this, and that changed everything, for ever … It could almost be parody itself, of a certain sort of BBC4 music documentary. This is Marshall Amp?


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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