A hip coffee bar in the seaside town of North Berwick may be a million miles away from Liverpool’s Cavern Club, or indeed the Indra Club in Hamburg, but it’s the ideal place to meet up with the unpretentiously dapper Matt Armstrong. The industrial vibe of the Steampunk Café is a happy hunting ground for the 49-year-old, who has been known to spin the house decks on a Sunday afternoon – providing a retrospective soundtrack for the weekend loungers.
But Armstrong’s record collection isn’t why we have agreed to meet up in this converted warehouse on a sunny afternoon in East Lothian. As the coffee bean roaster whirs and splutters, I make my way up a flight of steps flanked with vintage memorabilia.
Armstrong’s beloved red and gold 1959 Höfner Colorama 162
On the mezzanine floor, I find Armstrong accompanied by the charismatic George Miller, both of whom are quietly supping hot beverages while surrounded by battered guitar cases and vintage amps from the golden era. The bare floorboards and wood-burning stoves provide the perfect backdrop for the impressive assembly, which is drawing admiring glances from the intrigued patrons. If only they knew.
“Cheap, cheerful and old is where it’s at,” says Armstrong, smiling. He’s been carefully amassing his collection of vintage guitars and basses ever since he discovered the infectious buzz of Merseybeat during his teenage years.
Armstrong became unashamedly infatuated with the origins of the music that would define the decade of his birth and mould his guitar collection. “Blondie’s Heart Of Glass came out in 1978 and was the first single I bought,” he says. “The second was A Hard Day’s Night after I watched the Beatles cartoons on the TV. I remember being in bed with glandular fever and listening to The Beatles’ BBC sessions, which were being played for the first time on radio. I wanted to sound like that.”
The six-in-line headstock of a Höfner Colorama 161 dating from 1961
Armstrong would eventually fulfil his dream when he and Miller formed The Kaisers in 1992, predating their better-known namesakes Kaiser Chiefs by eight years. Far from the swagger of indie, Armstrong’s beat band faithfully embodied an era of Brylcreem quiffs and black-polished winkle pickers. The stylised look was more rock than pop and more edgy than polished, but Armstrong had found his sound.
“I couldn’t get enough of the early Beatles,” he continues. “By 1967, it had gone too weird for me. I didn’t have any pals who were into that – there was the mod thing, the two-tone thing and the new romantic thing at school, but I was wearing my little round, crew-neck jumper. I was an island by myself and I existed like that for a long time. But then I bumped into George at a party and that was it – I had found somebody else who knew what was going on!”
Armstrong has four Colorama models in total
By this time, Miller had been in various bands, but had yet to find a genre with which he could truly connect. “I had been in a rockabilly band, but got fed up of it because it didn’t feel authentic – I didn’t feel qualified to be in a rockabilly band,” he admits. “When we started The Kaisers, we kind of had a right to do that because we came from the same place where beat music came from. Beat music was, after all, British people playing American music wrong.”
Matt Armstrong surrounded by his beloved vintage instruments
With Armstrong’s passion for and Miller’s connection with beat music, the pair set about capturing the energy and sound of an era. It was a potent mix that resulted in the band releasing a string of studio albums, including Squarehead Stomp!, Beat It Up! and Twist With The Kaisers.
They toured in the US three times and recorded radio sessions with John Peel and Mark Radcliffe. “The Peel sessions felt like we were in a real band,” Miller quips.
But simply playing the music from the early 1960s wasn’t going to cut it. The Kaisers needed the appropriate tools to achieve that unmistakable raw sound. “Because we wanted to set up a beat group,” he continues, “it was natural we wanted to have the right type of guitars and the right amps.”
Armstrong had already gladly taken on responsibility for curating the instruments that had been used to create the distinctive tones of the early 60s. His first purchase, for example, was a 1963 Höfner President bass, which would be used on The Kaisers’ first record. “When I was 16, I saved up my paper round money to buy it from Reno’s on Manchester’s Oxford Street,” recalls Armstrong, who was brought up in the north west and moved to Edinburgh in the 1980s.
“It was £60 or £80. I played it in my first live shows with a covers group. It was inspired by Stu Sutcliffe. Even if it wasn’t the right model, that’s what I was thinking of.”
The Harmony 12-string H79 features DeArmond Gold Foils
Armstrong quickly moved on to six-strings, with his main studio and stage guitar with The Kaisers being a Höfner Colorama 162 in an understated red and gold colour scheme. With the pots dating back to 1959, it had all the hallmarks of a period classic, although Armstrong very nearly let it slip through his fingers.
“It was the early days of The Kaisers, and George and I went to Glasgow one Saturday afternoon to specifically look round guitar shops,” he recalls. “I saw the guitar, played it, thought it was marvellous, and then walked away. I loved it because it was so simple and robust, so I took the day off work on Monday to go back to buy it.
At the time, I didn’t think it would become the guitar I would use all the time, but it just played so great and made the right noise.” The guitar was duly snapped up for £150, but he didn’t stop there. From the cascade of guitar cases Armstrong has brought along with him, he pulls out another Colorama – this time in silver and blue.
1965 Klira Triumphator
He explains this 160, which also dates back to 1959, has just undergone a heat treatment to straighten out a bow on the neck, a fret dress and a set-up. He bemoans the paint job, which was applied by the previous owner, but commends the sound.
“It has been repainted really badly at some point, but looks OK from a distance and plays and sounds spot on,” he says. “The action could be lower, but that’s the way I like it because I play quite hard – it’s not going to break. They’re very robust.”
RSA/Selmer Truvoice Model TV8 amplifier
He continues: “Blindfolded, I couldn’t tell them apart – they’re both the same spec and the same year, so they should sound similar. I am delighted to have a spare.”
In fact, Armstrong has three spares, including a semi-hollow red Höfner Colorama 161 with a single pickup and a six-in-line headstock from 1961. It also needs heat treatment, so will soon be clamped and straightened, but boasts a more refined look. Pragmatic as ever, Armstrong says the upgrades are just for show. “They were trying to make it look more expensive than it actually was,” he says.
His fascination with the Höfner Colorama goes deeper than simply a need for authenticity. The guitar also encapsulated what The Kaisers were, and what they weren’t. “There isn’t a famous player associated with the Colorama, so I could go out on stage and nobody would think I was trying to be George Harrison. It was great to reinforce the fact that we weren’t trying to be The Beatles.”
In sharp contrast to the modesty of the Colorama, the Klira Triumphator, from 1965, is all about making an impression. The red rhino skin-style textured vinyl on the body gives it a glamorous, exotic appeal that prompts a sharp intake of breath when it emerges from its case. If the glitz and the glamour of Las Vegas were ever embodied in a guitar, this would be the result.
Japanese-made Vox VG6 with a 17-watt 1959 Watkins Dominator
It was played on stage by Miller – also known as Kaiser George – who admits to selling it to a pawn shop to keep up payments on a saxophone. As custodian of all things 60s, Armstrong rushed in to save the guitar, which he bought for £90.
“I love it,” says Miller. “It’s kind of cheap-feeling, but fun to play. And it is great for rhythm. Some guitars, you can’t really play that choppy style on, but this one has a bounce. A lot of guitars that Matt and I like have a banjo element – that rhythmic quality, and percussive sounds. We’re not interested in Jimi Hendrix-style guitars with loads of sustain.”
As if to prove it, Miller brandishes his custom-built ‘Kaiserette Guitar 2’, which became a staple of The Kaisers’ set-up and key to their sound. Its 21-fret maple neck and sparkly pickguard disguise an instrument tailored to Kaiser George’s exacting and atypical standards. “If the guitar is too easy to play, you’re not going to sound like a teenager playing it. It’s kind of important that you don’t sound too fluent,” he says. “When beat music becomes too expertly played, it loses everything that it is about.”
Armstrong’s dedication to sourcing authentic instruments also extends to amplification and his beloved Selmer Zodiac 30, which sports a worn-in silver and black finish with a mock-crocodile-skin cover and a central light that flashes in time with the onboard tube tremolo. Pushing out 30 watts through a pair of Celestion G12 alnico speakers, what’s not to like?
“It sounds as amazing as it looks,” he says, “and blew a Vox AC30 right out of the shop when I tried them side by side. Both were £99. I was 17 at the time and negotiated a lift home in the back of a van as part of the purchase from Second Gear in Macclesfield. It was one of my best purchases ever. And certainly one of the heaviest!”
Armstrong poses with his Zenith Josh White acoustic
He is also the proud owner of a 1947 RSA/Selmer-Truvoice TV8. “It smells great, probably my best smelling amplifier – and sounds lovely, but doesn’t have a very safe circuit in the earthing department,” he concedes. “Electric John [John Phillips – The Kaisers’ guitar and amp fixer, from Rosslyn] suggested it was never to be used in conjunction with any other electrical equipment! I think I bought it from Live Music, but had to promise not to hold them responsible if I plugged it in!”
During their heyday, The Kaisers had a complete and seemingly unshakable Selmer backline that toured unfailingly. Armstrong says he experienced only one valve failure in about 200 shows. Considering the £99 price tag of his main amp, the Selmer Zodiac, that represents quite a return on his investment.
The charismatic and ever-reliable Selmer Zodiac 30
“It is a different world now, where you can research a particular model online,” he says. “Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was possible to bump into a guitar or amp in a junk shop that you didn’t even know existed, but liked the look of. You could take it home for a reasonable sum and thump it on stage the next night. It was more happenstance than planning.”
Today, Armstrong performs as a singer-songwriter adopting the onstage persona of ‘Troy Fridge’ and using a Japanese-made Vox VG6 that emulates the Gretsch Country Gent. His instrument was actually unbranded and carries only a Marconi badge because it was removed from a radiogram and added to the headstock.
He dates the guitar to 1969/1970 and pairs it with a 17-watt 1959 Watkins Dominator, which features two elliptical speakers in a v-shaped cabinet. “It has been severely meddled with,” he admits.
Armstrong’s Kaisers bandmate George Miller with his custom-built Kaiserette guitar
Armstrong also confesses to owning a couple of “newish” guitars, as well as some “posh” marques, but none compare to his Zenith ‘Josh White’ acoustic, which was bought by his father in 1961 from Boosey & Hawkes in London. The German-made guitar was the catalyst for Armstrong’s love affair with music.
“It was left in the family home when my parents divorced, so I picked it up and it all started from there! I busked with this guitar all the way through college. “My dad was a folky – a skiffler, but my brother played it with a metal plectrum and scratched it. So in the wisdom of my youth, I painted it white.”
Armstrong owns six acoustics and upwards of 30 electrics. Many more have been stolen, discarded, borrowed or donated. He describes his current collection as an “embarrassment of riches” stocked with examples from an era that changed popular music forever.
Beat-boom sounds and no mistake
Many of the guitars in Armstrong’s collection were inexpensive to buy; chanced upon in a second-hand shop or in the darker recesses of a local guitar store. Most were purchased before the advent of the internet and eBay. All are charming, characterful and distinctively authentic.
“Sonically, they sound right,” Armstrong concludes. “They survived because they work. If they didn’t, they would have been binned a long time ago. They have a history, they look attractive and they all have a story. Most importantly, they make the sound that I want to hear.”