Robert "Throb" Young's 1989 Gibson Les Paul Standard
. . . probably. Bought from Henry Olsen, bass guitarist with Primal Scream in the Screamadelica/Give Out But Don't Give Up years, a beautiful Les Paul Standard that keeps Robert Young's legacy alive.
It's a probably, because to date we've found no video or photographic image of Robert with the guitar. Plenty of footage of him with Les Pauls, including the glitter blue Les Paul that he bought in exchange for this one, but as yet no visual evidence. The Screamadelica/Give Out But Don't' Give Up years were a hazy time for Primal Scream. At the height of their fame, and at the height of their disposable income to spend on the rock star lifestyle, so memories are a bit thin. As Andrew Perry put it in Mojo's November 2014 obituary, "At the house-crazed start of the 90s, 'Throb' embraced axe idolatry with orgiastic relish, sporting corkscrew curls and leather strides, pursuing a famously Led Zeppelin-esque lifestyle". Henry is the one who remained most tuned-in - and followed the guitar through its years as a house guitar at Ardent Studios in Memphis, until he bought it in September 2015. Irrespective of the continuing search, this is a fabulous guitar, with a wonderfully seasoned Cherry Sunburst, low action, and tone that brings "Rocks" and "Jailbird" into your front room.
Check out the story (and cliffhanger) below to find out more about the spec and history behind this fantastic guitar.
A classic Les Paul Standard of the time: South American Mahogany neck and body, with a 3-piece carved Maple top; South American Rosewood bound fingerboard; the 59 profile neck; Gibson Tune-O-Matic bridge and Stopbar tailpiece; and Gold Speed Knobs. The same build as Slash's favoured 1987 Les Paul Standard.
But there's something special about the pick-ups. From 1988 - 1990, a number of Gibsons came fitted with Bill Lawrence "The Original" pick-ups. Bill had worked at Gibson from 1968 - 1972, and returned for a brief collaboration from 1987 - 1989, designing and building these unique circuitboard pick-ups. There's a fair amount of Marmite "Love Them/Hate Them" once you dig into the forums. We're in the Love camp. Great warmth and sustain, higher than average output on the HBR-L, with bags of attack. A guitar built for "Rocks".
Like all great guitars, it carries its history on its body, with the distinctive marks and dents that come from some 30 years in the studio & on tour. All of which add to its character. What a Les Paul, and what a sound.
To top it all, it comes in a case that looks like it's not just been on the road, but has also found time to survive a nuclear winter. Better than the original brown case this would have come in, a case that has served this and other Les Pauls tirelessly over the years. It looks both weary and magical - an artefact in its own right and a testament to a guitar and guitarist's life lived to the max.
In the words of its last owner, Henry Olsen, "It really is one of the best electric guitars I've ever played, and I must have played hundreds." Amen to that!
Sometimes it's hard enough to piece together what's happened in your own life, let alone anyone else's. All those details, those "When?"'s, those "Where?"'s, those ""Who with?"'s, those "Did I really do that?"'s, those "What happened next?"'s. Unless you're one of the world's most diligent diarists or self-obsessed bloggers, personal provenance for the majority of us is a mix of the clear, the half-remembered, the lost and the later refabricated highlights. You'd be missing out on living, if all you did was documenting (note to self).
Transpose that experience to the history behind a single guitar that has gone through the hands of many fabulous guitarists, and suddenly you've got a family tree to deal with. Transpose that again to a guitarist and band that were the first to put Creation Records on the map in the 90s, and, on that platform, legendary for their tirelessly enthusiastic embrace and exploration of all avenues of the rock and roll lifestyle at just the right time, when rock & roll came together with acid house and rave . . . and you can pretty much shelve your nomination for this year's local historical society research prize.
And so it is with this beautiful 1989 Les Paul Standard. Just enough "What We Knows" to catch Robert "Throb" Young red-handed. Just enough "We Suspects" to mean the deerstalker and meerschaum pipe won't be going into storage in the near future, plus a real "Cliffhanger" at the end of the story so far. And you'll have to read to the bottom to get to that! So, to put it all in one place, this is how the story goes, with huge thanks to Henry Olsen, multi-musician and bass guitarist with Primal Scream in the Screamadelica/Give Out But Don't Give Up years, and to Andrew Innes, fellow-guitarist in Primal Scream, and adding a little bit of research of my own, as part-time detective and starstruck lover of the guitar, the guitarist, and the band.
Robert was rarely ever seen without a Les Paul. Everyone has their own memories. Mine is seeing him with that glitter blue Les Paul locked over his shoulders, performing Rocks with Primal Scream on Channel 4's The Word back in 1994. A shot of electricity to the head and the heart. And, as Henry tells it, it was during the 1993 recording of the album that Rocks burst out of - Give Out But Don't Give Up - that he used the 1989 Les Paul Standard we see here. Those were heady days for the band. Riding high on the global success of ground-breaking Screamadelica, it's a story that's beautifully and lovingly revisited in the BBC's Primal Scream - The Lost Memphis Tapes. No clear images of Robert with the Les Paul, although in the final few minutes, a perfect example of him sitting with what could be the very guitar. In Henry's memory, Robert played it on most of the tracks on the album, and wrote Jailbird and Rocks using it. We may never know, but Henry managed to retain more lucidity than his fellow bandmates during those wild and hazy days. It's a part of the jigsaw.
As Les Paul Standards go, it's a classic Cherry Sunburst. It may have had been one of the best-sounding Les Pauls of its generation, but it didn't necessarily have all the glam and glitz for a guitarist at the top of his game and fame. So, much against Henry's advice, Robert traded it in at (now closed) Taylor's Guitar Store in Memphis for the glitter blue Les Paul that many of us remember today - the one that made the TV and live appearances as the album was promoted. That would have been back in late 1993/early 1994, just before the album was released in March 1994.
The story after its time with Robert is actually a lot easier to put together. The guitar was bought by Gwin Spencer, guitarist with local Memphis band, Mother Station. Successful locally, Mother Station never quite hit the big time, and Gwin traded the guitar to Jeff Powell of Ardent Studios, in part payment for work he had done with them. Jeff is famous for his work as engineer and producer at the legendary Ardent Studios on Madison Avenue, Memphis - the same studios that Primal Scream recorded Give Out But Don't Give Up (and the earlier Dixie Narco) - and a friend of Henry Olsen to this day. From the time Jeff bought it all the way through to 2015. the guitar became a treasured 'house' guitar at Ardent Studios, used on many sessions by artists as diverse as Gin Blossoms, Sister Hazel, Three Doors Down, and Afghan Whigs. Check out the discography at Ardent Studios, and who knows how many more of the world's great songwriters and guitarists will have played this guitar.
In September 2015, Jeff told Henry that he was thinking of selling the guitar, and Henry bought it straight away - not only because it's one of the best guitars he's ever played, but also in honour of the passing of his dear friend Robert Young late in 2014. Henry continues to compose and play, and used the Les Paul on the final section of his latest recording, as a homage to Robert. And of course he's free to use the guitar again at any point into the future!
Which brings us to the cliffhanger for this as yet unfinished story. Shortly after buying the guitar, I asked a good friend of mine to ask Andrew Innes, a childhood friend, whether he remembered it from all those years ago. Andrew's response was enviably true to the spirit of the time: "To be completely honest I have no recollection of Robert having that guitar in Memphis. That doesn’t mean to say he didn’t have it , it’s just my memory isn’t very good with regards to that time!!" The classic red herring moment - time to dust down the raincoat, put collar up to wind and rain, and begin the search for other clues. But then, late in 2018, Andrew found a grainy shot among some Super 8 footage of those Memphis recording sessions - with him playing what he thinks is Robert's guitar:
And, grainy as the shot is, the burst, bindings, mounting rings, and fretboard all tick the boxes. It's not the conclusive proof, and the search will continue. But when you add that to the story as told by Henry, it's a huge step forwards in putting this great guitar back in the hands of the great Robert "Throb" Young. The case may not be solved, but it's definitely in its final chapters.
See & Hear It In Action
Marimoto Takahiro Puts The 89 Les Paul Standard Through Its Paces: A hugely talented guitarist demos the range of tones from clean through to distorted that this guitar is capable of.
And Here's Greg's Guitars Doing The Same, But So Differently: Showing once again that the versatility and tone of a guitar goes beyond the guitar itself.
Before Slash, There Was Robert "Throb" Young: A Goldtop and a 3-pick-up Blacktop in "Jailbird"; and that glitter blue Les Paul on "Rocks". The search continues for a sighting of this 1989 beauty in Roberts hands.
Primal Scream - The Lost Memphis Tapes: A moving and insightful documentary - and detective story in its own right - with Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes revisiting Memphis (and Jeff Powell) in search of the original recording of Give Out But Don't Give Up, and in tribute to Robert Young.
Sources & Links
Les Paul Standard Spec on the Gibson Forum: Great information on the evolution of the spec through the 80s & into the 90s courtesy of some very knowledgeable contributors on the Gibson Forum.
The Original 1986 and 1989 Gibson Catalogues: Featuring, among many other beauties, the Les Paul Standard. Great contribution on the My Les Paul Forum.
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