Alvin Lee 1944 - 2013
Alvin Lee will be remembered for three things: triggering a short-lived fashion craze for clogs, setting a new standard in popular guitar playing, and writing one of the few politically sensible rock songs.
Lee was the lead guitarist and singer of Ten Years After, one of the most popular of the "second-wave" British hard-rock bands on the late 1960s. Ten Years After had an interesting sound, mixing 50s rockabilly (which explains the band name) and blues along with a rare and welcome touch of jazz. Like many British groups of the period, they suffered in coming up with all too much in the way of trivial or forgettable material.
The band -- and Alvin Lee -- might have fallen to the status of a trivia item if not for Woodstock. A raucous and lengthy performance of the group's standard, "I'm Going Home" which marked a peak moment in the film of the event, made the band a household name and Lee a rock icon.
The two most striking things about the performance were Lee's almost superhuman guitar playing and his footwear (those clogs, which were featured several times in close-up, with the camera almost audibly asking, "What the hell are those?") For ten minutes, Lee spat out a series of precise, maniacally fast notes in several distinct styles in a performance that remains impressive even today. After Woodstock, he became known as "the fastest guitarist in the world". For years, younger musicians attempted to outdo him. High speed remains a key metric among players even today. (Lee himself dismissed it with impatience.)
In 1971, the band had its biggest hit, "I'd Love to Change the World". Politically-charged songs were no rarity in popular music, but "Change the World" was something different. Like many other singers, Lee knew what he despised about modern life: runaway capitalism, warfare, and environmental degradation. But he also included freaks and hippies on that list as well, and the outrage of the verses was sharply contrasted by the haunting, almost wistful words of the chorus:
I'd love to change the world
But I don't know what to do
So I'll leave it up to you
Since the folk craze of the early 60s, songwriters had shown no hesitation at pointing out exactly what was wrong with the world and dictating what they expected to be done about it. In the decades since this has become a matter of cliché -- it's just the way musicians are. ("Rock stars," as Homer Simpson put it. 'Is there anything they don't know?") Think of Bono. Think of Sting, or Da Boss, or Sinead O'Connor, or Lady Gaga for that matter.
Yet here's Alvin Lee, raising his hands and saying "I don't know." Admitting that he's as confused, and puzzled, and overwhelmed as anybody else. It marked a unique moment in popular culture, revealing a sense of modesty, humility, and simple humanity rare anywhere and at any time.
The public agreed. The song became Ten Years After's biggest hit, charting worldwide.
For several years, the band remained the hardest-working group in rock music, touring the U.S. twenty-eight times, which may well remain a record. Lee broke the group up in 1974 to embark on a solo career. He maintained a low-key status for over thirty years, releasing a number of solo albums, which included some gospel and Christian material.
Alvin Lee died of "complications" to a routine operation on March 6. "I'd Love to Change the World" remains a staple on classic rock stations (though how long this will be the case is anybody's guess -- among the groups that Lee disdained were gays and lesbians). He was that rarity in any era, and one impossible to find in today's entertainment world -- a man with his head on his shoulders. We will miss him.