RIP Jim Marshall, Businessman, Innovator, Father of Loud

Culture and politics don’t mix. That was well illustrated by the Justice Department’s dubious raid on Gibson Guitar last year. The feds raided Gibson over alleged violation of Indian environmental laws — even though the Indian government had cleared the wood Gibson had acquired there.

What happened next seems to have taken the feds by surprise. The raid generated a huge backlash. This wasn’t just any other company they were going after, but a widely beloved American cultural institution — not that a bunch of bureaucrats would know that.

By the same token, what the name Gibson means for guitars, the name Marshall means for amplifiers. The music world has lost a true pioneer, Jim Marshall, whose influence cannot be overestimated. As AP notes:

Marshall was the man behind “The” amplifier, the weapon of choice for guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend of The Who, and Eric Clapton — “The Marshall.”

The sixties superstars’ ear-shattering sounds, blasting first in small clubs and music halls and later in stadiums and arenas, relied on the basic Marshall amp for their frenzied, thunderous roar.

That was no accident. Marshall, who died Thursday at the age of 88, was not looking for precision when he and his sound engineers came up with the early Marshall amps in 1960. He said in a 2000 interview that what he wanted was raw, fuzzy power.

He said the rival Fender amp, tremendously popular at the time, produced an extremely clean sound that worked well with jazz and country and western but did not satisfy younger players searching for something different. He was looking for a rougher sound.

Marshall was a larger than life figure with a taste for single malt Scotch whiskey and Cuban Montecristo cigars. Even in his 70s, when he was already suffering from some serious health problems, he thought nothing of hopping a plane to catch an Iron Maiden concert.

Marshall’s shop was never raided (his company was based in England), but I have no doubt the backlash would have been as strong as that following the Gibson raid. After all, he was to the guitar amp what Les Paul and Leo Fender were to the electric guitar itself.