Hello again fellow gear fiends. As your UK resident expat Tone Reporter, I felt it was my gentlemanly duty to share some discoveries yielded in my ongoing overseas vintage gear expedition. While you lot back home in America enjoy hordes of hand painted boutique pedals and the like, I am poking around dusty old guitar shops and clearing the cobwebs off some indubitably intriguing gear. For today’s swinging safari, I thought I would do some vintage amp headhunting in Old Blighty and mount up two of my favorite savage seventies heads and a proto-boutique combo to boot.
As the Samhain season creeps in and the darker half of the cycle approaches, I deemed it appropriate to shed some light on one of the most elusive lurkers in the annals of amplifier history. Enter the sharp-toothed bite of the Vampower MK1A. This is the monolithic monster emblazoned in black and gold on the cover of T. Rex’s 1971 masterpiece Electric Warrior.
Opening the chassis of this legendary amplifier reveals point-to-point wiring and a glance behind the back grill showcases the boat-anchor-heavy Partridge transformers that made the flared trousers of the day flap with fury. Though the MK1A shared many of the same technical attributes as its Hiwatt, Orange and Marshall contemporaries, the tonal and visual assets were what set Vampower apart from the pack. Designer Dave Roffey was way ahead of his time. The 100-watt power section was driven by a quartet of Brimar EL-34s in typical British amp fashion, but the preamp section revealed some stunningly original appointments. Channel one was designed for lead guitar and featured the familiar volume, bass, middle, and treble controls, but the center dial is where things get scary. The Vampower Bite control allowed guitarists to dial in distortion at any volume, predating the first master volume Marshalls by several years. Channel two was designed for bass players and sported a bass boost switch that could be used in conjunction with its own master volume control.
This unmatched tonal variation coupled with the striking, lightning bolt Vampower logo immediately attracted Glitter God Marc Bolan and the results will live on forever. To get delightfully infected by the pure bite of the Vampower MK1A, listen to T. Rex’s “Ride a White Swan.”
Harrison and Heald IC100
What do T. Rex, Dr. Feelgood, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex and The Undertones all have in common besides being some of Britain’s most vital seventies bands? They all had a strange, tubeless glowing Perspex paneled pile driver of an amp sitting atop their knackered speaker cabinets. The Harrison and Heald IC100 was the original solid-state amp that didn’t suck. It was capable of near endless headroom and could be used as a guitar, bass and keyboard amp, or even vocal PA depending on what channel was used.
Perhaps the first time the HH IC100 spoke to a mass audience was on T. Rex’s The Slider. With a little kick in the teeth from a treble booster and the sustain switch engaged on the amp, Marc Bolan achieved a hefty crunching wallop that captivated a generation of soon-to-be-Punks and new wavers. Soon after, a new champion of the solid-state sound emerged in the form of a speed-freak-gangster-guitar-slinger named Wilko Johnson. He and his band of leering Canvey Island cohorts, Dr. Feelgood, wrote a prescription for a lethal dose of dirty R&B. Wilko’s deconstructed, dry stabbing sound was achieved with his unique itching-and-scratching up-and-down strokes and aided by the immediate attack and decay that only solid-state amps could deliver. His hitman-precision percussion cut like a knife into the heart of a generation and was equal parts coke-shot blues and primal reggae-rock ruckus. Check out Dr. Feelgood’s classic album Down by the Jetty for HH tones that will scratch their way through the skin right to the bone.
Though the successful IC100 range was strangely discontinued in 1977, more hits recorded with HH amps were soon to come. The first wave of British punk rockers needed an amp that was reliable, loud and cheap-as-chips that could double as a PA in a small sweaty pub. The IC100 legacy continued into the early ‘80s with Daniel Ash of Bauhaus creating a sound akin to a skull full of nails rolling down a metal slide via his green glowing undead heads. He still uses them to this day. Spacemen 3’s Jason Pierce is yet another HH champion of the visceral vanguard of droning tonal tonnage.
You won’t see many if any HH IC100s in the USA, but if you come to England for a visit and poke around enough guitar shops, you can find them for reasonable prices.