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Secretary of Feedback (The Electras)

August 6, 2013

Richard Nixon played piano. Bill Clinton played sax. But it was a losing presidential candidate that may have made rock n’ roll history…accidentally.

the electrasThe Electras were one of thousands of garage rock bands formed by American high school kids in the early 1960s. More than 13 different guys played in the Concord, New Hampshire, band, all attending St. Paul’s School, an all-boys academy. One of the longest-serving members was bassist, future senator, current Secretary of State, and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry.

In late 1961, the Electras recorded an album of ten songs, mostly covers of well-known rock and pop songs like “Sleepwalk” and “Summertime Blues.” Only 500 copies were ever pressed, intended for friends and family—in 2004 a copy sold for more than $2,500 on eBay. That was the only thing the Electras ever recorded…until former band member Larry Rand discovered a reel-to-reel recording of the band playing live at a dance at the all-girls Concord Academy in October 1961.

They’d taken the gig to polish their sound before recording their album. The performance went well, right up until their tenth song, a cover of Link Wray’s “Raw-Hide.” The band, and those in attendance, were pained by a sudden, loud, screeching noise in the middle of the song. The rest of the Electras looked up and realized that bassist Kerry had inadvertently turned, with his instrument, and faced his own amplifier.

Thus the guitar distortion technique now known as “feedback” was born. The screeching, droning, raw, noise became a prominent and important part of rock history, through ‘60s psychedelic rock, and into punk rock and grunge. Rand believes it’s entirely possible that Kerry discovered feedback, and how startling it could sound in the middle of a performance. (However, a lot of other guitarists were experimenting in the same timeframe, and blues musicians in the ‘40s had fuzzy sounds…as did Link Wray, the musician Kerry and friends were covering at the time of the “discovery.”)

This story made the rounds when Kerry was running for president, and an Electras reunion was planned for 2005. But even though Kerry didn’t suddenly become very busy with presidential duties, the reunion never happened. Nor do you have to pony up a small fortune to hear Kerry’s high school band. You can download the album here.

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