Robert Gaston “Bobby” Fuller endures as one of the great prototypes of the guitar outlaw. He was a Texas boy who died young and with his boots on, just on the cusp of fame. But he’s mostly a guitar outlaw because of his synonymy with the great rock and roll maxim, “I fought the law, and the law won,” the refrain from his band’s best known single, “I Fought the Law.”
It’s been said that after leaving their parents’ apron strings, teenagers first begin to learn about the real world from rock and roll lyrics. That’s usually understood in an abstract kind of way, but in the case of “I fought the law, and the law won,” the message is direct. You hear Bobby Fuller sing that compound sentence of cause and effect, and it becomes the most definitive proof of crime not paying that your teenage mind can fathom. This isn’t some prude telling you to do unto others, this is the hottest shot in the west telling you that he knows the score, and he knows when he’s been licked.
“I Fought the Law” (along with the Mary Tyler Moore theme) was actually written by Sonny Curtis of the post-Buddy Holly Crickets, and was covered by the Bobby Fuller Four in 1965.
Fuller, who supposedly didn’t even like to record covers when he had so many of his own songs to put down on vinyl, nevertheless cut the definitive version of this one, the version that has presumably inspired countless teenagers to stay clean and has secured a niche in the pantheon of rock and roll, inspiring myriad cover versions along the way, notably by rock and roll outlaw royalty like the Clash.
53-years on though, the Bobby Fuller version is still the definitive one.
Yet, Bobby Fuller didn’t leave this world as someone with just one rock anthem and a whole lot of potential. He left us with another rock anthem as well.
The second Bobby Fuller classic is actually an instrumental called Our Favorite Martian, a song that usually gets categorized as surf music, and as such might be one of the two greatest surf instrumentals of the ‘60s, alongside Miserlou.
Most of the classic instrumentals in the surf music canon have great melodies, but end up sounding a little whimsical, even campy. But like Dick Dale’s version of Miserlou, Fuller’s Our Favorite Martian is angsty and dramatic in a way that most two minute surf tunes just aren’t. This is a song that could inspire Sergio Leone to make a movie, a movie about the brief wondrous life and the very mysterious death of Bobby Fuller perhaps, which to this day remains unsolved.
Fuller died in 1966, just before the Sixties really blasted off and guitar players started being worshipped as Norse gods of the Counterculture. Fuller passed at a time when musicians were still relatively restrained, and music, even psychedelic West Coast outlaw music, was still mostly 1-4-5 blues progressions.
I Fought the Law, plus the surf music genre in general were both part of this clean-edge garage sound, as was the godfather of it all, Buddy Holly.
Fuller died in the summer of ’66, when the Beatles still toured baseball stadiums in matching suits, but dropped acid and got weird in the studio once they got back to England in the fall. That studio work first produced the single “Strawberry Fields Forever” in February 1967, and later that summer the Sergeant Pepper album.
The Beatles never wore matching suits again.
Fuller died right at the end of an age of innocence, just before the Pandora’s box of 1967 was busted open and Hendrix, the Airplane, the Doors and Big Brother came flying out, and rock stars were fully expected to be on acid along with everything else at all times.
The door was kicked open so wide that year that even untouchables like Charles Manson were able to crawl through and get major label interest, positive press from Neil Young, and a song on a Beach Boys album.
In 1968, nobody could tell the difference between the long-haired glinty-eyed acid-eaters who would become rock gods and the long-haired glinty-eyed acid-eaters who would become mass murderers. But they would learn soon enough.
The Sixties Destroyed Many a Beautiful Mind.
Brian Wilson was very much a contemporary of Bobby Fuller’s. Both were born in 1942 and both were gifted with “the ear” for pop music. Fuller never liked to record anything that couldn’t be played live. Wilson had a talent for using the studio to its fullest, turning three-minute pop songs into symphonies that conveyed a magical world of innocence and adolescent wonder. “A teenage symphony to God,” is how Wilson described Smile, the magnum opus he was putting together in the studio based on his track record as the wunderkind behind the Beach Boys’ slew of no. 1 hits. Wilson pursued his vision of musical perfection further than anyone else had taken it in late 1966. Other A-list rock songwriters heard Wilson’s tapes and were inspired to up their own game in 1967, the watershed year for what would be called the “concept album.” The best known example might be “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which Paul McCartney was inspired to create after hearing Wilson’s tracks for “Smile.”
The record company, however, also heard what Wilson was up to in the studio and they decided to mothball the whole project indefinitely. Wilson was crestfallen when he finally heard Sgt. Peppers and realized that the Beatles had done it first, while his own label had canned his magnum opus and taken away his producer privileges.
Wilson paid another price for pursuing perfection too passionately. This most sensitive Beach Boy flew too close to the sun in the months after Bobby Fuller’s death, and it ended up melting away part of his sanity. The Sixties destroyed many a beautiful mind.
Instead of turning on the world with their own masterpiece, Smile, the Beach Boys had to settle for populating their next album with piecemeal tracks by the likes of Charles Manson.
The Fender Twin
There’s a certain sound that a live Fender Twin tube amp makes when it’s being rolled across a bumpy floor, or when a guitar gets plugged in and one of the strings gets accidentally scratched. Sort of a quickly decaying tap-tap-tap-tap It’s one of the incidental sounds that you hear throughout Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express’ 2017 homage to the clean vintage sound of that era, titled appropriately enough, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins.
The Fender Twin is one of the heritage sounds of rock and roll. Back before there were effects pedals and preamps and Marshall stacks, the Fender Twin was the electric guitarist’s best friend. It generated a warm, rich tube sound and offered a palette of onboard effects knobs that could create what would become the signature sounds of the early rock and roll guitarists and their hooks, the sounds that would make rock and roll great and give the guitar seemingly magical powers to generations of listeners on the other end of the speaker.
Rock and roll soon established itself as a world of excess. But as amplifiers grew in bulk along with pre-Energy Crisis cars and television sets, becoming ever more specialized, many guitarists began to appreciate that you could still get the best sounds of all from this little crate that fits between two six-foot passengers in the backseat of an Impala and is loud enough to fill a whole bar with warm clean or dirty sound.
Bobby Fuller is a textbook example of someone who created his entire oeuvre with little more than a Fender Twin (afaik). Along with fellow West Texan, Buddy Holly, Fuller’s premature death at the height of his game left a glaring hole in the fabric of the musical universe. Unlike Holly, the cause of Fuller’s inexplicable death remains a complete mystery to this day.