The Hofner Senator – John Lennon’s Guitar?
The Senator was bought by Helen’s dad many years before, for £15, from one of his workmates on the buses. Only their Chris learnt to play the guitar, and I think he may have had something to do with it coming apart, although in truth it seems it’s a common problem with them. Described as the ‘Workingman’s archback’ on The Vintage Hofner website, it was an affordable guitar for the nascent rock n rollers, keen to emulate their idols of the day – Bill Haley (who I’ll return to), Tommy Steele, Eddie Cochran, et al.
So, there’s a scene in waiting for brando where the two young seamen from Liverpool trade blows through their musical tastes. Without giving too much away, one favours the older style crooners, the other the emerging rock and rollers. In earlier drafts I’d written it so that they both used a jukebox to sing along to their tracks. But I had a brainwave while wrestling with the songs that the younger of the two would be ‘representing’. In the earlier drafts he sang to ‘I’ve Gotta Woman’, Ray Charles (although we pulled that as it falls later than ’53), Fats Dominoe’s ‘Aint That a Shame’, and, the first ever Rock and Roll song to enter the Billboard Magazine’s top 100 – ‘Crazy Man Crazy’, by Bill Haley and his Comets.
Now, Bill Haley was no spring chicken when his moment came, but he had picked up what turned on the ‘kids’ at his gigs, and saw that they went wild for this new backbeat. He began to ditch his country songs and turned up the bass and was rewarded with an eternal place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The song, and Haley’s delivery, may seem tame by today’s standards, but at the time this was the devil’s music and was about to change the world.
Anyway, back to the play: Sometimes, when something is wrong, when you are writing, redrafting, and working on a problem which you can’t seem to solve, it’s often an indication that the material that you have is wrong, or that you are trying to use it the wrong way, like trying to force a plane against the grain of the wood you are trying to smooth. I thought about form and content, and how something is only truly natural when you achieve a unity between them both.
Therefore, in thinking about how the two characters use the music to tell their story I realised that the younger one, Vinnie, needed to be able to tell it in the way he understands it, in the style in which he hears it and in a way that he can express himself fully. So rather than sing along to records, like Eddie, the older of the two who favours the ‘crooning’ of Perry Como, Frankie Lane, etc., Vinnie picks up a handily placed guitar and belts it out.
Because the guitar is a democratic instrument; affordable and portable, and three chords are more than enough for any song. No guitar = no rock and roll. Chuck Berry transposed his pianist’s licks onto the guitar for Johnny Be Goode, and boom, history is made. It wouldn’t have had the raw energy of the guitar if it had been played on piano (no offence meant to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. who could light up a stadium with their playing).
The scene is re-written, and fortunately the multi-talented Joe Shipman can play the guitar. But now we need a guitar, and then I remember about the one in pieces in the loft. So Carl the director and kal the sound engineer both know ‘Belgian’ John, who runs the guitar shop on Aigburth Road, and in a few days and for just under a ton, the guitar is restored to its former glory – and what a sound it has too – both mellow and raw, and perfect for the scene.
In truth though, we’re out by a couple of years. This Hofner Senator is the ’55-’56 model,and our play is set in December ’53, but I’ll keep schtum if you will too.
Anyway, back to John Lennon. They guy Helen’s dad, Ray (or Mister Ray when we need some work doing on the house) bought it off claimed that it once belonged to John Lennon. I believe him too because I bet the young Lennon would have loved to own something like this when he was 12.
You’ll hear the sound of this classic Hofner – a tangible link back to the days of rock and roll – in Waiting for Brando, and who knows, maybe the guitar will be the star.