THE WEM STORY Part
a time during the late 60’s and early 70’s it was unusual to see a live show
by a major act or group that didn’t use a WEM P.A.system. Even now, the more
powerful systems in present use only differ from Charlie Watkins’ original
concept in degree – the basic idea is the same. He can justly claim to be the originator of the modern rock
P.A.system, and for most people this would be enough in itself to ensure a place
in any music industry Hall of Fame. However
this is far from being his only major contribution to it.
Watkins’ career in the music industry began long before his speaker-towers
became a standard part of rock shows and festivals of a decade.
In fact he was the first successful British manufacturer of electric
guitar equipment, with a virtually uninterrupted line of amps, speakers, combos
and accessories that dates from his entry into the market in 1954.
With the exception of his big P.A.systems, his products were apt to be
overshadowed by other major names of the 60’s like Vox and Marshall.
But Charlie Watkins was an innovator, from whose ideas other makers
derived their own successful products, and his story will fascinate anyone
interested in the origins of the British music equipment industry.
He is still very much involved with music, although his commercial
activities are not on the same scale as in WEM’s prime time in the 1970’s.
He devotes a lot of his time to his accordion playing and associated
interests, and in this as well as his business he is ably assisted by June, his
wife of 15 years. Charlie and June
were kind enough to receive T.G.M> recently at their home in a pleasant part
of South East London, and to provide us with all that we could wish for in
recreating the story of Watkins Electric Music.
would rather be considered an inventor than an engineer, and it’s true that
his engineering skill, although deserving of respect in its own right, is most
clearly demonstrated in products unique to his own catalogue.
But his beginnings in the music industry, such as it was in immediate
post-war Britain, were tentative to say the least.
Like some other famous figures in the business, they owed much to his
experiences during World War 2. “When
I was in the Merchant Navy during the war, we were away on some pretty long
trips. One of the stewards had an
accordion, and he used to sit in the messroom playing it.
I thought ‘that’s lovely – I’ll have to get one of them’.
So after a bit I got an accordion of my own, and one of my shipmates had
a guitar. We had a great time
playing together. I used to watch
the patterns of his fretboard fingering – that fascinated me.
I realised that if you could finger one chord that would give you several
others just by moving it up or down the neck. But I could also see how difficult it was to play barre
chords. I thought that if you could
fit onto a guitar, a bit like a capo, it would make things easier.
I even managed to make a couple of rough examples, as best I could with
what was available on board, and called it a String Plate.
It didn’t turn out to be important in itself, but it’s an example of
how my mind was working towards something new, even in those days”.
the end of the war, Charlie moved back to his native Balham, in S.E London, and
put his former pastime to good use. For
some months he earned his living as an accordionist, usually teaming up with a
guitarist, as in his seafaring days. But
he also needed a sideline, and in 1949 began running a record shop in Tooting
Market with his brother Reg, who would later play an important part in the
story. His knowledge of the live
music scene, as well as his own keen interest, also led him into buying and
selling musical instruments, mainly accordions and guitars, and the time came
when he preferred to hand over the record business to Reg and concentrate on the
instruments. To this end he took
over premises at 26 Balham High Road. “I
carried on selling accordions, as well as records, quite unsuccessfully – I
don’t know why, probably because of competition from people like Tom Jennings
and Arthur Beller. But I still had
this String Plate idea in my mind, and had started making a few, when one of Ben
Davis’ (.E.O of Selmer – ed) reps
came in one day and showed me one they’d started selling, only better than
mine. I only mention it to show
that, although the accordion is my favourite, I have always been fascinated by
the mechanics of the guitar – how different makers solved the problems of the
structure. Gibson, Martin and
Macaferri all had different ways of building their guitars, and you could hear
“I was also bothered by the fact that whenever I went out and did a gig, you couldn’t hear the guitar properly once there was a bit of an audience. The guitarists tried putting heavier strings on and playing with heavy plectrums to get what they called ‘cut-through’, and this worked for treble, but the sound was very unsatisfactory. Some guitars, such as Gibson, were beginning to appear with pickups fitted, and you could get contact mikes to fit under the strings, but there were no proper amplifiers available – perhaps a few small units for Hawaiian guitars, but nothing good enough to use with normal guitars. Also, guitars weren’t very widely known – people would see one in my shop and ask, how much is that banjo? But I thought it was such a lovely instrument that I wanted to sell them, and find some way of amplifying them. I went to a radio and electronics shop called Premier in Tottenham Court Road, which used to sell amp to use with contact mikes.
Using their unit as a base, I made one that I thought sounded not too
bad, an AC/DC unit. I had sold
about 20 of them by 1952, when one day I saw a piece in the Daily Mirror about a
pop-group guitarist getting killed. Being
a fatalist, I thought, its bound to be one of my amps – those AC/DC units were
quite dangerous. I sent a telegram
to the guy who was making them for me and got him to stop immediately.
Somehow I managed to recall all those I had sold and replaced them with
safe AC-only units. That has always
been my biggest fear – someone getting electrocuted. Amps were used under the worst conditions – dark,
pandemonium, wild people bent on having a rave-up!
I gave up making amplifiers at that point and just carried on with the
in 1955 Skiffle, a hybrid of American folk and country music with a strong
helping of rhythm played on makeshift instruments such as washboards and
tea-chest basses, mushroomed into a national craze, fuelled by top ten hits from
such artists as Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Duncan’s Bluegrass Boys. “I realised that things had changed, and here was a chance
to get back into selling guitars. I
got on a plane to Germany and went straight to see Hopf, a major distributor of
guitars (best known as agents for Hofner
–Ed.), about the only place you could get a quantity supply from. Anyway, I ordered a hundred folk guitars, more or less his
whole stock – he almost fell over! When
they arrived at the shop I had trouble string them, there were guitars
everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, all up the stairs, you couldn’t move for
guitars. But I was just in time –
the following week, Ivor Arbiter went over and did the same from another
supplier. All the Skiffle players
began to come in the shop, among them Joe Brown (Joe
Brown & The Bruvvers had two Top Ten hits in 1961/62 – Ed.), and just
sit there and play. It was nice
music, a bit basic – but now I felt I had to make another amplifier, because
the Skiffle guys had the same problem with getting their guitars heard.
So I approached Arthur O’Brien at Premier, who had made the power units
for my first amps. He was interested in what I was doing, as he played the
guitar himself, so I asked him to make what became the first Watkins amp, the
Westminster. The first few came out
in simple grey-covered cases with sharp corners, like the AC/DC units.
One sample I sent out went to Jimmy Reno’s in Manchester.
Jimmy called me back, saying he liked the way it sounded, but that the
styling looked pre-war (which it did) and he had a few suggestions to make.
He told me how I could make the amp more attractive by curving the edges
with Bridges hand-router, then using saw-cuts to divide the side panels into
contrasting colour areas separated by inlaid gold string.
I realised I was talking to a genius – there wasn’t anything like
that around at the time. I went out
and got the router and made up a few cases to his idea – I did all my own
cabinet work in those days. Everyone
was knocked out and the amps started to sell a lot faster.”
this kind of success, Charlie’s ideas began to pay off, and he found himself
having to take on permanent staff to keep up with demand. Sid Metherell joined him as works manager and would stay for
30 years, turning his hand to virtually anything that needed doing.
Charlie’s brother Reg came in as cabinet-maker.
Phil Leigh became the first Watkins sales agent, opening up many new
areas. Sadly, Arthur O’Brien, who has been of the greatest value
during the development of the first Watkins amps, felt he couldn’t devote the
necessary time to Charlie’s flourishing company, and suggested looking for a
full-time engineer. The main
Charlie found was to have a great effect on the young company’s fortunes.
Purkis, a gifted and experienced electronic and electro-mechanical engineer,
joined Watkins Electric Music in 1995. “Bill
agreed to join the company on condition that he would get some support for a
project of his own, a special record player unit with continuously variable
playback speed, designed for the requirements of ballroom dancing.
I didn’t mind, in fact I was quite interested, and we actually made
about five units. But the contact we had with the people in that business
wasn’t a nice experience – they had no time for the technical side of
things, and Bill lost heart. From
then on he put a lot of effort into supporting my ideas.
I’d say he was the most interesting engineer I have ever worked
with.” The first item on his job
list was to develop a new effect for the line of amps – Tremolo, a recent
innovation, the first sound effect ever specifically designed for the electric
guitar. Being a feature that tends
to be considered “vintage”, it is now a bit neglected.
Nonetheless, a good tremolo effect is not straightforward to engineer.
A fair example is found in the Vox AC30, which has an excellent effect,
but needs three valves to execute it. Bill
Purkis designed his circuit around a single ECC83 valve, and it is at least as
good – better in some respects.
1956, the amplifier range was getting well established, with three models,
Clubman, Westminster, and Dominator, covering the needs of an increasing number
of electric guitarists. Charlie’s
creative mind was already much in evidence with the novel styling of his amps,
the wedge-shaped Dominator being perhaps the finest example.
Then came inspiration – he likens it to “a bell that rang in my
head”. It was triggered by the
account of two customers returning from Italy with a description of the system
used on stage by the singer Marino Marini to get the trademark echo effect on
his world-wide hit, “Volare”, then high in the charts of most of Europe.
It appeared to consist of a pair of Revox tape-recorders, with a long
loop of tape running continuously between them.
It took a little imagination to realise that one machine was recording
the vocal mike onto the loop, the other replaying it a split second later via
went into overdrive, and after discussing with Bill Purkis the various technical
possibilities, concluded that a condensed version of the two-machine system,
housed in a single casing, would be feasible.
The cooking temperature climbed as Bill’s talent for creating compact
yet effective electro-mechanical structures condensed the relevant functions of
two 15-kilo studio tape machines into a 12” x 8” one-hand portable unit.
It got hotter yet when three replay-heads were fitted, using a selector
switch to get various combinations. The
smoke-alarm went off when a feedback circuit was added, allowing the replay
signal to be re-recorded and replayed again, creating a variable echo repeat
facility. Charlie knew he had his first real winner.
“I had a sample unit shop, to see what the demand might be like, and
meanwhile we got busy and built 100 units.
I called them Copicats. The
day I had planned to put them on sale was a Saturday, and normally there would
be a queue up the street waiting for the grocers’ shop on the corner to open
– they sold their stuff cheap to clear it before the weekend.
I went to open up, and the door burst open with the press of customers
– this time the queue was for me! I
remember selling the very first one to Johnny Kidd, who wore a patch over one
made good use of it – Johnny Kidd & The Pirates had a Top Ten single in
1959 with “Shakin’ All Over”, where Mick Green’s guitar has Copicat all
over it – ed.) Those first
hundred units sold that same day”
I added some circuitry and made the Mark 2, which was probably the best one
ever. I used a Garrard gramophone
motor, which cost 12 bob (about 60p, or £6
in today’s money – ed) and Marriott tape-heads at 7/6d each (40p,
or £4 today) – pricey for those days!
The mystique of the Copicat really comes from a bit of bad engineering
that went into it – I am not going to say what t was.
But every firm that has tried to produce their own version would do it
faithfully until they came to that art, and couldn’t bring themselves to do it
as badly. I am a terrible engineer,
and they must all have wondered what I was doing and tried to improve it: but in
doing so they lost that special quality”
Copicat, Tom Jennings’ AC30, and the Fender Strat were really the three main
elements of the 60’s sound. The
Meazzi, Binson, and Vox echos that came later were all based on my original idea
of a handy portable echo. I sold so
many of them that they paid for my first factory in Offley Road, which I bought
in 1961. That put an end to all the
outwork, and I ended up employing about 40 people there.
Also, around this time, my brother Reg, who had been doing the boxes and
woodwork for the amps, fancied a go at making guitars.
I wanted to be the first maker in this country to have a solid-body
guitar, so Reg started making them at a workshop in Chertsey, along with some of
the cabinets when it got busy. We
didn’t quite make it to having that first solid – Dallas (John
Dallas’ company, later Dallas-Arbiter – ed) beat us to it by about a
week with their Tuxedo solid, designed by Dick Sadleir, who had written the
first tutor I had used to learn the accordion!
We ended up making three models, the Rapier 22, 33, and 44, with 2, 3, or
4 pickups. We also had a
guitar-organ, which I patented – Vox had a disagreement with Arthur Edwards,
who had invented the segmented-fret system they used on theirs, and I got mine
patented first. (Vox introduced
their guitar-organ in 1965 – ed). But
it was a commercial disaster, none of them really sold – spectacular
technically, but after a while the problems began to show.”
was selling lots of guitars – Bell’s of Surbiton had 10 a month on order,
and other dealers were doing much the same.
But he wasn’t making much money – he couldn’t even afford to run a
car. I said he should make a deluxe
version of the Rapier 44, and charge way too much for it – which he did, it
was called the Circuit 4, and it outsold the less expensive ones, it was a
lovely instrument. He got himself a
car, and another factory, but he was so careful and conscientious, and would
never charge enough.”
the close of the 50’s, Watkins Electric Music was a force to be reckoned with
in the music industry. It was a
one-stop supplier of amps, echo chambers, and guitars, with new lines appearing
as fast as Charlie and Bill Purkis could come up with them. Amps such as the HR30 and bigger cabinets like 2 x 12”
Starfinder, designed to provide for the bass guitar as well as increased power
for 6-string guitars, offered a challenge to the established Selmer company as
well as to the comet-like rise of Jennings Musical Industries.
In 1961, Charlie Watkins could count his firm among the Big 3 of the U.K.
music trade. But there were
troubled waters ahead, as powerful forces for change began to make themselves
felt both in the music and in the technology used to create it.
Al Charlie Watkins’ considerable ability and resources would be needed
to survive in them.
THE VOX AC30 BRIAN MAY SPECAIL
The Chasis Pictured is one of Brain May,s PCB Marshall product Vox ac30,s modified By David Petersen Ampaholics amp tech and author of "The Vox story" published by Bold strummer .
The aim of this specially-modified amplifier is to keep as close to the standard vox circuit as possible while improving its reliability to the standard required by Brian Mays highly developed playing style.This does not mean that the original ac30 is unsuited to its purpose,more than the demands placed on it by Brians sound simply weren,t envisaged when it was first designed.Nor have they been effectively addressed by further evolution, whose aim has been primarily to keep the amp within acceptable limits of manufacturing costs.
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