Subculture Unsung: The JCM800

The amp that gave loud to the people?

Thursday 31st May 2018

In the 1960s and 1970s, The Who and Hendrix had used British made Marshall amps to provide their volume and legend has it Pete Townsend and John Entwistle cajoled the company to develop their first 100 Watt amps. The story goes that Townsend/Entwistle walked into Jim Marshall's London drum shop requesting something along the lines of existing models, but twice as loud (in order to hear themselves over Keith Moon's drums). The era that followed saw amp stacks grow and grow as the guitarists of the day revelled in the relatively newly discovered medium of distortion and feedback. 

Like the sunken Rolls Royces, trashed hotels, chemical excess and bizarre rider requests, the epic amp stack became part of the ego athletics that seemed to occupy many bands' attention, sometimes at the expense of their music. For some spectators, the walls of bloated speaker cabinets became somewhat laughable, a trope later brilliantly lampooned by Spinal Tap's Nigel Tuffnel and his signature 11s (one louder).

As the '70s progressed, it became apparent that rock 'n' roll would be challenged from within by the punk movement. The nature of punk and punk rock, in most of its various forms, rejected the extravagance and self-gratification of the rock bands that had emerged in the previous decade. It was a period in which recent recession had adversely affected the lives of most normal people, with electricity in short supply, let alone electric guitars and their associated equipment.

As if in answer to the needs of punk, and keen to remain commercially viable as an exporter to the US, Marshall had developed a new line of amplifiers in the mid to late 1970s. Driven by the economics of 1973-75 Marshall streamlined the production of their products with innovations such as printed circuit boards aiming to cut back on the costly manhours required to wire up the innards of each amplifier. In 1975 the company launched its 'Master Volume' series - the 100 Watt '2203' and the 50 Watt '2204'.

Compared to their 1960s born predecessors, these amps were more affordable, smaller and so crucially fitted into smaller venues or for that matter the back of a Transit van. Despite their 50/100 Watt output the configuration of the controls and electronics therein also allowed bands to dial it down a bit while maintaining the crunch and edge that many guitarists were after. Punk pioneers such as Johnny Ramone had already achieved their 'buzzsaw' tone with Marshall, and now it seemed it would be a natural choice for others wishing to channel their teenage anger through their guitars. The models available catered for different appetites, from relatively compact combos with integral speakers to the bigger cab and stack options. 

Though too late for the first wave of punk, in 1981 Marshall made the most of a new distribution deal and relaunched the two amps along with two new models as the JCM800 series. The name was reportedly made up of Jim Marshall's initials and the digits from his car number plate though later it was rationalised so that the 800 referred to the decade of the 1980s. Despite Steve Jones using a similarly powered Fender amp for much of the Sex Pistols' recordings, he became a JCM800 convert and has favoured a pair of JCM800 stacks since. 

As well as a new generation of punk-influenced guitarists, the amp found a place on stage with prominent rockers that included Iron Maiden and Guns N' Roses, at either end of the 1980s. The JCM800 pops up again when the borders between rock, metal and punk history blur. 'Fast' Eddie Clarke used one to battle with Lemmy Kilmister's huge bass sound in his years with Motörhead between 1976 and 1982. And when the aforementioned Steve Jones teamed up with members of Guns N' Roses and Duran Duran to form the shortlived and seemingly unlikely supergroup Neurotic Outsiders, the JMC800 was centre stage.

The amp's association with the 1980s metal revival and long-haired '80s hard rock is certainly the angle that many gear aficionados like to point out, not least because it likely sells a lot of guitar magazines, but the usefulness of the JCM800 wasn't just limited to heavy metal. It also became the go-to tool for making the avant-garde louder.

The second wave of punk followed soon enough, and in turn, it heralded non-conventional approaches to popular music that populated the independent charts for the next decade. Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine famously crafted much of his groundbreaking guitar sound by facing his two JCM800s straight at each other. Upon its release in 1988 the guitar sound on the MBV debut LP 'Isn't Anything' was described as "...out-of-focus guitars which are like being taken to the brink of consciousness and held there”  by Melody Maker.

Given Sheilds' status as something of a guitarists' guitarist, it's hardly surprising that others followed in the same vein. In America, Frank Black of The Pixies was one notable user of the amp through the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins followed in the early 1990s to the turn of the century. Corgan's contemporaries, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Courtney Love of Hole also used the amp on what are now surely some of the most memorable guitar songs of the late 20th century.

On the other side of the Atlantic, JCM800 users were often on the cover of the NME. From P J Harvey's earlier recordings to the Britpop era stomp of Supergrass' 'Richard III' the amp was the workhorse of distorted 'hot' guitar sounds.

As the 1990s dawned, the JCM900 followed the nomenclature of its older brother and as the new century came the JCM2000, both with new features, but neither really surpassed their predecessor. The JCM800 was born into a period of intense change, with the transistor age phasing out the valve in the electronics and music industries but it held onto its niche while other manufacturers and models came and went. Like the shared DNA of different but related species, the JMC800 played its part in giving a voice to many of the genres that experimented with guitars from the mid-seventies through to the nineties and beyond.

Loading bag contents...