A rare AC30 that once upon a time might have reverberated to the sounds of Please Please Me, From Me To You and She Loves You...
We’re chasing through the leafy lanes of the Surrey countryside in search of a piece of Vox memorabilia from the early 1960s. It’s an AC30 from the company’s highly sought after early period, and quite a valuable item in its own right. But this particular amplifier has an additional pedigree in that we’re told it was once part of The Beatles’ backline, belonging to none other than George Harrison.
Arriving at our destination, the house of Vox collector and managing director of Croydon’s Rockbottom music store, Carl Neilson, we’re shown some precious rare items from Vox’s past, including an early black panel AC100 head and a pristine 1968 AC30. One AC50 from the mid 60s is “a rare model” according to Carl.
“It was built by Triumph Electronics; Vox commissioned Triumph to build a few and this is one of them. Copper top with the diamond-shaped inputs with a valve rectifier - they usually have diodes - and it sounds better, in my opinion; it’s got a better punch to it.”
The house is, in fact, a virtual amplifier museum, full of untold treasures. In one cupboard alone, there are around six Hiwatt heads and Carl tells us that his loft is bustling with decommissioned Vox amps, awaiting his restoration skills. But it’s the George Harrison amp that takes centre stage today.
“I bought it off a guy called Chas McDevett,” Carl explains. “He was the opening act for The Beatles and, at the end of the gig it was passed onto him. George said, ‘I’ll get a new one…’ or something. I don’t know what year that was - probably 1963 or 64 or something.” Our research reveals some Super 8mm footage of the Fabs on tour in Blackpool in 1963, shot from the side of the stage by Chas himself. Clearly shown is an AC30 on a stand behind George - quite possibly the one before us now.
“It’s got a lovely, warm tone to it. It’s got a sound all of its own - it really is nice,” Carl enthuses. “Earlier this year, when Vox did the plaque ceremony at Dartford, I got asked to go down to Radio Kent and play it over the air, which was fun. It was at 7 o’clock in the morning and I had to get up at five, take it down there and play House Of The Rising Sun for them and it sounded amazing!”
Ain't she sweet
Taking a look around the amp, we can see the white panelled Top Boost mod cut into the rear panel.
“This is the Top Boost mod, which Vox did in the early 60s and they put it in the back. There’s been quite a few mods - even I made a few 20 years ago. It’s quite simple, it’s just an ECC 83 with a few resistors and a capacitor on a bit of angled metal and you just screw it into the back. Cut a hole and put it in the back, so it was easy to do. The original mod - properly engraved in the back on the white panel - has been done later; the original was four input and then they put the Top Boost in and it does sound really good.”
During the time the AC30 has been in Carl’s hands, it’s attracted some celebrity fans. “I actually lent it to Francis Rossi. We did a programme called Vox Pop, Brian May was on it and I got Francis involved. I took it to his studio because they did the filming round there and as soon as Francis heard it he said, ‘How much is it?’ I went, ‘It’s not for sale… you can borrow it’ and that was it. That was about five or six years ago. He liked it; it’s just got that sound.”
We’re curious as to how Carl’s interest in all things Vox began. “I’ve always loved AC30s,” he says, “playing through them myself with my band, playing with different bands over the years. I think the first time I ever tried an AC30 I was about 11 or 12. I lived in Bournemouth and my friend bought one, plugged in and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, this sounds amazing!’ So that was it and it went off from there, really.
“My first amplifier I built myself. I couldn’t afford a proper Vox and so I bought myself a kit amplifier from a small radio components type of shop in Crystal Palace, it was a 30 watt, metal clad amp called a Veritone 30 - a bit like a Linear Conchord - and then I just used that when I was a kid.”
The electronics bug having well and truly bit, Carl’s interest in amplifiers deepened. “Absolutely, yes. My stepfather had an electrical shop, so I was always interested in electricity - I got a buzz out of it, if you know what I mean!”
Strangely enough, Carl’s first job had a Beatles connection, too. “I went to work for Triumph Electronics when I was 15; just left school, literally the next day I was at Triumph. I told them I could wire amps up and they tested me by getting me to put a transformer in a Vox 7120 amp belonging to The Beatles and then they said, ‘Yeah, okay, you’ve got the job. You start on Monday’ and that was it. I got £4 7s 6d a week! I worked for Triumph for about a year and then I went to work for Macari’s in London - the Vox shop.”
Around this time, the original set of Vox AC30s were supplied to The Beatles. They were beige-coloured, but were returned with the request that the moptops wanted them in black. “That’s what I was told,” Carl says. The story continues that Vox subsequently started supplying AC30s in black - another instance where four lads from Liverpool changed history!