ANY aspiring rock n roll guitar player that has strapped on a Les Paul “TV”, “JR’, or “Special” and plugged into a cranked up “Super” or “JCM” immediately realizes to this day that you are dealing with an otherworldly force of nature. Sometime in the mid 1960’s a young man from Queens, New York named John Anthony Genzale Jr. discovered that this sonic equation wasn’t like any ordinary twangy guitar. If you close your eyes picture the look on his face and the conviction well up in his soul as he grinded out snarling riffs and roaring bar chords, one can see that moment when he transcended John Anthony Genzale Jr. and began to morph into Johnny Thunders. This was something with which he could take on the world and rock n roll was about to get a serious punch in the gut. The music world would never be the same.
On another continent Michael “Mick” Rock, born in West London, was growing up during the 1950’s and 60’s in the United Kingdom feeling the impact of American rock n roll. Mick studied and read modern languages and literature at Cambridge University, not exactly the road to shooting famous glam rockers such as Queen, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, but one fine day fate stepped in on behalf of mankind and art when Mick picked up a camera in a friends room and started snapping pictures of an inebriated but lovely lady whose company he was keeping. Although Mick’s Cambridge aspirations at the time were to become a poet “because they got high all the time and seemed to get all the girls” his passion would soon become photography. Like Johnny Thunders guitar playing, Mick’s raw passion and impeccable timing would also soon be taking on the world capturing the raunchy, rough, untamed and inspired world of rock n roll through his lens. Rock n roll wouldn’t have been the same without Mick Rock “the man who shot the 70’s” and Johnny Thunders ground breaking guitar work, rich, fat and beautiful like a jagged voice. Both lead the way and inspired a generation of rebellious young musicians to pick up an instrument, take a chance and dare to be dangerous!
One of the countless young rockers Johnny Thunders and Mick Rock spoke to was Billy Rowe, guitar player and co-creator of the 1980’s glam rock band, JETBOY, and now owner and master builder at “Rock N’ Roll Relics”, a highly respected custom guitar company based in San Francisco. Billy earned his street cred the old fashioned way and was in the trenches in the early days of the 80’s L.A. rock scene and went to battle alongside fellow musicians that would ascend to the top of the mountain. Billy was like so many profoundly affected when he first heard the record player needle dig into the grooves of the “New York Dolls” and “Too Much Too Soon” LP’s. From the full throttle proto-punk boogie of “Personality Crisis” (with a cock sure David Johansson alternately howling “yeah..yeah..yeah!”and “no, no, no!” as if he was predicting the battle lines that were about to be drawn) Thunders immediately and unabashedly sets the tone for what is about to come. With his tube saturated harmonic buzz and speaker breaking Chuck Berry infused licks, Johnny Thunders rarely lets up. From “Bad Girl”, “Jet Boy” to his later Heartbreakers and solo work including “All By Myself”, I Want To Be Loved”, “China Rocks”, and the classic bittersweet “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” which has been covered by Blondie, Ronnie Spector, and Guns and Roses among others. Johnny Thunders consistently showed us how it was done and that he was an American original. Although he was never “endorsed” by Gibson (rumor has it he picked up his guitars at local pawn shops in New York for $75 or $100 at most so being endorsed would not jive with his anti-establishment attitude. It’s not unreasonable to ascertain that he easily helped Gibson sell as many guitars as Hendrix sold Stratocasters for Fender. Without question he pushed this instrument to the forefront of rock n roll history
When Billy formed “Rock N’ Roll Relics” in 2005 it was only natural he would want to pay tribute to his hero Johnny Thunders and continues to develop his most popular models based on some of these underlying principals.
The latest edition to the Thunders family of guitars is the “Thunders Rock Model”, a unique tribute to Johnny Thunders. The inspiration to create this model was born from one of Mick Rock’s photographs of Johnny, taken in 1980 during a concert featuring “Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers” at Great Gildersleeves club on the Bowery about a block from CBGB’s, New York City.
To quote Mick: “I had seen Johnny play with the New York Dolls in New York in 1972 and at Biba’s in London in 1974 and both were very memorable gigs. On this date he was still in fine form, in spite of his burgeoning substance issues. I do however remember some months later at an Irving Plaza gig where he actually nodded out in the middle of a guitar solo! He actually lost his bearings, but quickly snapped back into action as if nothing had happened and it was fascinating to watch.” Billy took the initiative to ask Mick Rock if he would like to do something special and create a tribute to Johnny Thunders. Billy’s company could custom build the limited edition tribute guitar, as seen in Mick’s photograph, and Mick could include his photograph in a 20”x24” format, signed limited edition of 25, just like the guitar. This special package would be available for collectors, fans and musicians. Mick, ever the rocker, artist and innovator replied “that would be interesting” and within a few more conversations this special partnership was born.
The guitar Billy Rowe has constructed is a replica of the “Chinese Rocks” guitar pictured in Mick’s Johnny Thunders shot at Great Gildersleeves in 1980, New York City. If you follow the Johnny Thunders legacy you will note this guitar appeared to be a favorite that Johnny played and was photographed during a variety of gigs. The Chinese characters have actually been tacked to the guitar after the fact as homage to one of the Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers recordings “Chinese Rocks”, written by Dee Dee Ramone in Debbie Harry’s apartment on First Avenue and First Street in New York City. Richard Hell, one of the musicians in the Heartbreakers was given partial credit by Dee Dee because he wrote some of the lyrics. According to William C. Kirby, T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies, Harvard University, “the first two characters, Zhong and Guo, together as Zhongguo mean “China”. The last character, shi, means stone or rock”. Whether you get your rock history from an iconic punk rocker or a Harvard professor the photograph says it all and it is pure gold. This iconic Mick Rock photograph captures a Johnny Thunders inspired moment with his head down, sweat drenched, picking hand held high ready to thrash out a loud chord on one of his trusty yellow “JR’s with a red lighted “Twin” in the background about to belch out a little more New York thunder. The RNRR “Thunders Rock Model” sounds as cool as it looks in the photograph and if it were Johnny on the downbeat it would be hard to tell the difference between the tribute and the original.
About the guitar…this undertaking is not associated with the Thunders estate so Billy Rowe set out to capture the unique essence of the instrument rather than attempt an exact copy.
The “Thunders Rock Model” is a straight forward no frills guitar that delivers whatever style you play. With this special limited edition “Thunders Rock Model” Billy Rowe wanted to create something that Johnny himself would feel right at home with. The sound that Johnny Thunders created with his guitar was special and like no one else had created at that time. It was the single coil P90 and simple layout of the guitar that allowed Johnny to express himself and not be tied down with a complex instrument with too many knobs and switches. Johnny’s sound was big and explosive and one of the coolest “dirty clean” tones in the history of rock n roll!
Johnny Thunders lived fast, hard and died much too young and though he is no longer with us in the flesh now you can put your arms around a Johnny Thunders special tribute guitar custom built by “Rock N’ Roll Relics”. This limited edition “Thunders Rock Model” guitar includes the Mick Rock signed limited edition photograph (20×24) of Johnny Thunders in action, the inspiration for this special limited edition guitar.
Johnny Thunders may have been a reluctant hero but he created brilliant and influential chaos through his music and performances. The Rock N’ Roll Relics “Thunders Rock Model” is the cue for another generation to take up the cause, carry the torch, and dare to be dangerous. Johnny would approve.