ECHOES DOWN THE YEARS -- about Charlie Watkins
In autumn of 1967, my dad in his final military years was posted to Chelsea Barracks. the family relocated to Balham, in south-west London and your correspondent, then a pop-crazed 14 year old, went out in search of somewhere selling guitar strings. As I walked down Balham High Road I came to a guitar shop, Watkins Electric Music and wandered cautiously in. A bald, rather friendly sort of bloke in his mid-forties emerged from a workshop somewhere out back and asked, "What can I do you for?" I didn't realise it then but I'd just met Charlie Watkins, British audio engineer, legendary backroom boffin and the inventor of the WEM Copicat, the world-famous gizmo which gave British rock'n'roll its distinctive echo. Invented by Charlie with some help from a designer, he launched the echo unit in 1958, just in time for the beginning of British rock'n'roll.
Not wishing to bog you down in technology, the earliest Copicats were the size of a small toolbox with the incongruously camp look of 1950s vanity case. When you removed the lid and plugged it in, what you saw was a loop of recording tape going round and round over four tape-recorder heads, its tension held by a spring arm. The effect it gave was known as tape-echo. Buttons on the appliance allowed guitarists to vary the effect from a stairwell echo, or an Elvis style-slap-back, right through into a full psychedelic freakout. What the Copicat actually did, was to make even mediocre guitarists sound exotic and slightly dangerous. It was what my learned colleague Captain Sensible would describe as 'a talent booster'.
Decades after first wandering into his shop, I telephoned Charlie to ask him about the launch of the original Copicat. Typically modest, he remembered “I only made ten at first. I wasn’t sure how they were gonna do. But word must have got round. When I came to unlock the shop that Saturday morning, there was a queue. At first I thought they must have been doing cut-price veg at the greengrocers up the road. But they all wanted the Copicat! Johnny Kidd and the Pirates had the first one. Joe Brown bought one for Hank Marvin." Over in their Chertsey factory, meanwhile, Charlie's two brothers Reg and Syd, came up with the first mass-produced British electric guitar, the Watkins Rapier. With import duty on US guitars very high at that time, the Rapier's price made being a rock star now seem do-able. It was the Copicat, however, which rockers of a certain age all remember. It gave early Brit-rock its shimmer from 1958, through the Sixties and beyond. Near the turn of the Millennium, when, after many requests, he made a new run of the original analogue Copicats, Charlie said that among the first people to make enquiries after it were Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler.
Very famous rock stars knew Charlie and often prevailed upon his knowledge. In the days before really big sound-rigs, the Rolling Stones approached him to come up with a massive sound system, something bigger than anyone had seen before. It was for their historic Hyde Park concert. I was there. So was Charlie. That's him sitting up onstage, looking rather out of place among the rock aristocracy of the day
As a young teenager, on rainy Saturdays I'd often go into Charlie's shop and just hang out. He never minded. It was strange sometimes, hearing this ordinary, almost dad-like bloke talking so knowledgeably about the latest psychedelic bands. He'd say, ”That Crazy World of Arthur Brown. They're gonna do alright. Just watch.” Sure enough three months later, Arthur Brown had a massive Number One hit with "Fire". Displayed on the wall of his shop was a letter signed by all the Stones, thanking Charlie for the Hyde Park sound system. As I sometimes tell overseas music journalists, the people who made Britain great, weren't always those blokes on horses with the feathered coal scuttles on their heads. Sometimes they wore brown work-coats and had a soldering iron in their hand. Like Charlie Watkins.