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Behind the Curtain: Touring the Marshall Amplification Factory and Lunch with Jim Marshall in 1976
There was a movie released in the summer of 2019 titled Yesterday, depicting a world in which the Beatles never existed. Pretty difficult to ponder, right? Well, try and picture a world — or more poignantly, hear a world — without the Marshall amp. Im not suggesting that the absence of Marshalls would have anywhere near the staggering impact of a Beatles-less planet. Without the Beatles, we might still be trying to figure out how many strings to put on a guitar. Not really, but maybe.
However, I am suggesting that without the Marshall amplifier, rock music as we hear it today would have been forever altered. Imagine Jimi Hendrix plugging his guitar into anything other than a Marshall. It is impossible to picture Jimi without that phalanx of cabinets and amps towering behind him, grill cloth torn and cabinets battered and his guitar screaming like some wild bird in the night. Those images and sounds are seared into our brains.
Now rearrange that picture and substitute the Marshalls for Fenders or Vox amps. You cant do it. Now add the Who, Jeff Beck, Cream, Deep Purple, and a million other bands and guitar players to that list of cats who rocked Marshalls and you can see how rock and roll would not sound the way it does today without that 100-watt head and slanted cabinet.
Indeed, the world would have been much quieter and infinitely more boring.
In fact, you could put together a short list — a very elite, short list — with just three names on it and still be able to field a mighty impressive lineup of guitarists and groups who would forever change the face of music because they were using the tools created by this trio of wizards:
- Jim Marshall
- Les Paul
- Leo Fender (Behind the Curtain column here)
I have had the extraordinary good fortune to have met Les and Leo, and when I had the chance to spend an afternoon with Jim Marshall both in his factory and at his home in England, I was beside myself with joy. I flew to the UK in 1976 with my dear photographer friend Neil Zlozower — his extraordinary photos accompany this story — to simply hang out in London for a couple weeks. For the life of me, I cannot remember how the interview with Mr. Marshall was arranged — Im pretty certain it was not set up prior to the trip — but thank the fucking stars it was because it has remained as one of the most enduring and endearing moments of my journalistic life.
After a grueling 13-hour flight, Neil and I settled in for a day in our London hotel. I called someone at the Marshall factory — probably Ken Bran, Jims technical director and shop steward — who told us to take a train to Bletchley, where we would be met by an awaiting car.
Bletchley was where the factory was located, an hours ride and about 43 miles away from Victoria Station in London. Bletchley was an industrial community made up of some 400 factories.
Local taxi drivers jocularly referred to the place where history was made as Just a small factory on the corner. Indeed. A small factory that blew out the eardrums and minds of a million guitar players.
Ken picked us up at the train station and drove to the factory. I expected some huge, monolithic, gleaming architectural wonder. What I saw was a modest-looking brick building with a small sign above the door:
JIM MARSHALL (PRODUCTS) LTD.
Admittedly, I was a bit underwhelmed, but the nanosecond I walked through the doors my head exploded. Lying on tables and stacked in rows were hundreds of Marshalls in various stages of completion. Dozens of people sat at tables working on circuit boards, attaching handles to cabinets, screwing cabinets together, sanding, scraping, soldering and breathing life into what would become the most iconic and arguably greatest amps in the universe.
Complex machines heated cabinet pieces through a radio frequency and automatically welded connections on circuit boards, but it was obvious this was an operation controlled by human hands and not mechanical ones.
Ken showed us around and I felt like a junkie in a pharmacy, like a kid in Willy Wonkas chocolate factory. I was mesmerized and transported and visions of Hendrix, Blackmore and Beck danced in my head. Just when I thought my brain would explode, Ken took Neil and me down to a small office. There was a short, pudgy, friendly-looking bloke sitting at a desk. I figured it was an assistant or someones secretary. This sitting figure rose and started to approach us. Ken said, Steve, this is Jim Marshall. Jim, this is Steve Rosen and his photographer, Neil.
Holy shit. I had never seen photos of Jim, or if I had I didnt remember. Jim came over and put out his hand and welcomed us and thanked us for being there.
Jim Marshall thanking me for being there at his factory. It was ludicrous. I had to blink twice to make sure I wasnt dreaming.
I should have been the one thanking him for his effusiveness and his invitation to visit him here in his own Magic Kingdom.
Jim then took everybody back out onto the factory floor. He walked us around and explained how things were done and processes utilized. So now, I was not only looking at more Marshall amps than I could count, but I was being escorted by the man, the magician, the Merlin, whose name was emblazoned on every one of them.
Honestly, it was pretty difficult to absorb. Imagine if you were a painter and Pablo had invited you to his digs and showed you how he mixed paint and cleaned his brushes. Or if you were a writer and John Steinbeck asked you to come by his Salinas pad, have a drink, and read some pages from a new book he was working on called The Grapes of Wrath.
You understand the analogies, right? This was an incomprehensible moment that had come to life. How often does that happen?
We continued to walk around the factory. Jim spent at least a couple hours showing us everything and explaining. He said hello to every worker we passed, and it was obvious by the grins on their faces that they were used to seeing the chief out on the floor where hed stand side-by-side with them working on a cabinet or soldering a connection.
After our tour, we ended up back in Jims office — the small one — and I was ready to say goodbye and thank him. Before I could get the words out he said, Would you like to come to my house for lunch?
I said, No, thank you. Ive taken up enough of your time” — OK, no, I didnt say that. Are you fucking crazy? I replied, That would be amazing.
We drove to his house, a modest affair but charming and cozy and beautifully maintained. We met his wife and sat down to an English lunch. I dont remember what we had — seems like there were steamed vegetables and wonderful English tea — but I do recall that food never tasted better. I hadnt recorded any of the conversation during our walkthrough of the factory and I asked Jim if it would be OK if we talked a bit now. Of course he said yes.
I asked him about the origins of Marshall. In-between mouthfuls, he told me, I used to listen to the groups when they were playing on 30-watt amplifiers and I had the idea that something was going to break. A big heavy sound. I had this sound in mind but I really couldnt describe it. It was like Glenn Miller — he was looking for a sound in music just like I was, but he couldnt describe it. He just had it in his head.
Jim described that sound he found as rough, hard, and distorted. It was the sound heard round the world. On the first day the Marshall 50-watt prototype amp was made available, 35 were sold. Almost immediately, mad huge artists began rocking Marshalls including Eric Clapton [while playing with John Mayall], The Who, and Big Jim Sullivan.
But it wasnt until a then-unknown blues guitar player named Jimi Hendrix started using his amps that this thing Jim Marshall had wrought was unleashed on the world. Mitch Mitchell first brought Jimi to the shop, the wood whisperer said. The first time meeting Hendrix was very funny, actually, because in those days a lot of characters would come along saying, Im the greatest. If I can use Marshalls you can use my name. When Mitch brought Hendrix round to me for the first time, this chap [Hendrix] said to me, I want to use Marshall amplification, I was waiting for the punch line all the time. He must have been reading my mind, because he said, All I want is good equipment, and I feel Marshall is the right equipment, and I want it all over the world. And he did; he bought stacks and had them in various places all over the world. Then he said, I dont want discounts — Ill pay full price– but what I want from you is good amps and service. The first time you let me down on service anywhere in the world, forget it.
On a roll, Jim reminisced some more and touched on Deep Purple and the Who. Ritchie used to come into my music store [he had a guitar and drums shop before starting the line of amps]. He actually worked in the shop. He used to pester the life out of me every Saturday. The first cabinet I built was an 8×12, and I had the top angled to give it some shape. The roadies almost went on strike, because they couldnt lift the thing. So Pete Townshend said, Suppose you cut them in half, and that was the birth of the 4×12 cabinet.
More stories followed, and Ken added technical details. Lunch under our belts, I knew it was time to make a courteous exit. Goodbyes exchanged, I thanked Jim a thousand times for giving me the chance to visit his factory and his home. I was just about out the front door when I turned and asked the question, which had been burning a hole in my brain ever since I first entered the warehouse. I told myself I wouldnt ask but too many times in my life I have fucked up by not asking and so I did.
Umm, Jim, I was wondering and if its not OK I totally understand, and Im probably way out of line for even thinking about this. But, uh, do you think it would be possible to buy an amp directly from you?
I held my breath. I had no right to ask him this and I knew it, but I couldnt help myself. A 100-watt stack in 1975 cost about $2,000, or probably a bit more. I was thinking if hed sell me one for $1,000, Id jump on it.
Breath still held, I waited for Jim to speak. Yes, sure. We can sell you one at cost. It would be £240.00, which translated to $350.00. I was stunned, flabbergasted. How fucking generous and magnanimous was that? Who did that?
I thanked him, thanked him, thanked him and he said a letter with details would be mailed to me. I received the letter a few months later, sent payment and was told to pick up the amp at the port of San Pedro.
My brother and I drove down to San Pedro, which was about a 45-minute ride south of Hollywood and undertook what would turn into a nightmarishly complicated and utterly confusing 4-hour ordeal. Just locating the San Pedro/Long Beach harbor complex is a daunting task. It is a monstrous complex and as we were still years away from cellphones and GPs, simply finding the place was a major success.
We drove in and were confronted by containers and boxes and offices and not a clue where to begin. We randomly entered one facility, which was akin to a warehouse with a desk. A very officious looking dude with a clipboard asks, We need to see forms 1A and 3C as well as your customs clearance documents, port authority papers and tax papers.
My brother and I look at each other in total bewilderment. The war has started. Um, I dont have those papers. This customs geek looks at me with pity and disdain as in, How can someone be so stupid. I feel sorry for you, dude. He points his finger out the door and I follow his extended digit and see another office across the way. We take our leave and enter the next building and politely ask for the required forms but its not that simple. No, not by a longshot. There were questions to be answered. Why did you need form 1A and form 3C? Is there some problem we dont know about? Are you sole executor of this merchandise? Are you an American citizen? Are you from this planet? Were you sent to destroy us?
I exaggerate of course, but not much. I didnt have a clue what he was asking but tried to strike a balance between playing dumb, which was easy to do because I didnt have a fucking notion what was being asked of me, and acting like I had the whole thing under control. On the fly, I let loose with descriptions and dates and what sounded like informed responses in the hopes of walking away with those vaunted papers. I watched my brother standing by my side maintaining a look of serious interest while I knew inside he was muttering, Oh, god. Dont let us get arrested for customs fraud.
My brief discourse over, I wanted patiently for the office dudes comeback. I figured he was going to kick us out at best or call in security at worst. But he ducked beneath the counter and grabbed a bunch of forms, stamped them and handed them over.
I was incredulous. VOA had worked. Voice of Authority. Act like you know what youre talking about and people will believe you know what youre talking about. Politics 101.
We walked back to the first office and gave the forms to the original guy. But that was not the end of it. Oh, no. There were more questions to be answered. How much did you pay for the amp? What is the true value of the amp? I tell him, I paid $250.00 for the amp, which of course was a fucking lie. Its just some old, used music stuff that isnt worth anything. If he insisted on opening the boxes and certainly he was empowered to do that, I would be really screwed. One look at the amp and cabs and you could instantly see this was brand new and was worth decidedly more than my declared value of $250.00. Still, I didnt want to have to pay a shitload in customs fees. I waited for the command I assumed was coming: Open those boxes but all I heard was, OK, pay $35.00 in fees.
I handed over the money. He directed us to a third location to pick up the amp. My brother and I were incredulous and figured at any moment we were going to be tapped on the shoulder, stopped, and taken to an interrogation room. We found the third warehouse, which was no small feat, and picked up the amp. The head and two cabinets — slanted and straight — were in cardboard boxes about the size of refrigerators. Huge. Monstrous. Behemoths.
We started loading the boxes in my Dodge Dart and they wouldnt fit. The head fit on the backseat but the two cabs were fucked. Eventually we wedged them in the trunk and tied the rear hood down with some rope we found. I started the engine as quickly as I could and we raced out of there. Bats out of hell. Neither of us could begin to process what had just taken place during those four hours of madness, but were both certain that red lights and sirens will be visible and audible at any moment. Total ignorance was exactly the approach called for. I was a master of that.
I remember taking the amp home and tearing open the boxes and setting up the stack in the front room of my little Hollywood Hills guesthouse. I pulled out my guitar, plugged it in and cranked up the volume. I knocked pictures off the wall, scared the shit out of my cat and almost blew out my eardrums. What a fine, fine moment.
I had the audacity to ask for a second stack sometime later and Jim sold that to me for the same price. What a sweet and glorious man. Jim passed on April 5, 2012. That one hit me particularly hard.
James Charles Marshall left an astonishing legacy behind him. He was a revolutionary of the first order and some 58 years after first founding Marshall Amplification, the world still stands in reverence of the things he created.
I was but a brief blip on his radar and count myself immeasurably lucky to have met the man and broken bread with him.
July 20, 2022