As embarrassed as I am to admit it, Alvin Lee’s passing earlier this week caught me completely off-guard.
The truth is – even though the widespread press coverage of his death brought it all flashing back – I had nearly forgotten about him. What makes this all particularly sad, is that I suspect that a lot of other folks from my generation – the same people who grew up listening to Alvin’s work with Ten Years After, and who were as spellbound by it as I was – had much the same reaction.
“Oh, yeah…Alvin Lee. I remember him…hell of a guitar player.”
The thing is, that seemed to be how Alvin Lee actually wanted it. During their prime years as big-time rock stars from roughly 1969-1974, Ten Years After were one of the biggest rock bands in the world. And Alvin Lee’s reputation as a guitarist was the biggest reason why.
Those who really know and remember them, will also tell you that bassist Leo Lyons was every bit as incredible at his instrument, as TYA’s much more celebrated lead guitarist was at his. But Alvin Lee, well, he was the man.
Prior to their historic appearance at the 1969 Woodstock festival, Ten Years After enjoyed modest success as one of the many British bands mining the same blues-rock territory as pretty much everyone else out there.
They were just one more semi-popular band, doing the same post-Cream/Hendrix hybrid of hard rock, blues and psychedelia so prevalent at the time.
On albums like 1969’s Ssshh, Alvin Lee’s Ten Years After did the hard blues/rock thing as well as anybody else – from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, to Dave Edmunds’ Love Sculpture, to – for that matter – Jimmy Page’s then little known post-Yardbirds band, Led Zeppelin.
Yeah, those guys.
But from the moment of that stunning performance of “I’m Going Home” at Woodstock, Ten Years After broke wide open – and Alvin Lee’s name became forever etched into guitar hero legend.
The Woodstock movie was, of course, already full of incredible, star-making performances.
But outside of maybe Santana’s blazing “Soul Sacrifice,” Alvin Lee and Ten Years After were perhaps the least well known of all of those eventual breakouts. The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone all delivered their own big-time, major, historical performances at Woodstock.
But these were also well-known, already established acts at the time. Ten Years After? Not so much.
A lot of the press coverage of Alvin Lee’s death this past week has centered on the catch phrase (then popular), about how he was once considered the “fastest guitar in the west.”
In all honesty, that rings like a bit of a cliche now. But at the time, it really was true.
Prior to that history making performance at Woodstock, Alvin Lee was just another flashy guitarist in a rock and roll universe already cluttered with plenty of them. But afterwards, and especially in any credible discussion or debate about just who was rock and roll’s greatest guitar player at the time – Alvin Lee’s name comes up right alongside those of Clapton, Page, Beck or Hendrix.
The most interesting thing about this, is how people – at least until this week – no longer remember that.
The thing is, this seems to have been by design on the part of Alvin Lee himself. By most insider accounts, Lee was never entirely comfortable with the “Rock Guitar God” status afforded him following Woodstock.
Some of the postmortem reports this week, have described Alvin Lee with the usual accolades that follow such a tragic loss like “perfect English gentleman,” and as being one of the nicest, most down-to-earth guys during a rock and roll era otherwise noted as much for its excesses, as it was for its music.
In fairness, early Ten Years After songs, like their cover of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” certainly seem to run contrary to this revisionist choirboy description too.
But what does seem to be clear, is that Alvin Lee was never completely comfortable with his Guitar God status. The fact that he broke Ten Years After up at the height of their mid-seventies commercial success, likewise seems to back this up.
After signing a big-deal contract with Columbia Records following the Woodstock breakthrough, Ten Years After continued to sell out arenas for a few years. Lee’s status as a Rock Guitar hero also continued to grow stronger. Their Columbia Records debut, A Space In Time, became the band’s biggest hit, and remains a strong catalog seller to this day.
But subsequent albums like 1972’s Rock & Roll Music To The World also have more than their share of fine moments.
Outside of “I’m Going Home” though, Alvin Lee’s most remembered song is “I’d Love To Change The World.”
When comparing the two songs, the latter also best represents the contrast between what Lee was best known for at the time – the British Rock Guitar God – and how he really may have wanted to be remembered – as a more modestly appreciated songwriter.
It’s a great song to be sure.
So much so, that it has been co-opted in recent years by everyone from corporate software giants, to maverick filmmaker Micheal Moore, in order to hawk both their wares and their agendas.
The most curious thing about this – particularly from a political perspective – is that if you read into the lyrics of the song (“tax the rich, feed the poor, till’ there are rich no more”), the message could have just as easily been conscripted by FOX News types like Sean Hannity, as it was by Moore.
Either way, Alvin Lee did seem to accomplish his apparent mission of distancing himself from his then status as a Guitar Idol. You just didn’t hear that much from him in recent years.
Thankfully, in the sad event of his passing this week, he was remembered exactly as he should be.
Rest In Peace, Alvin.