Occupy Guitarmy and the Most Ginormous Rock Groups Ever
Tom Morello and Occupy Guitarmy

Photo: Rebecca Smeyne for MTV Hive

Occupy Wall Street’s “Guitarmy,” an attempt to assemble a 1000-person band, had its first performance yesterday for May Day in New York City, with a six-song set list featuring both traditional numbers (“We Shall Not Be Moved”) and more recent material (“World Wide Rebel Songs” by the Nightwatchman, a.k.a. the Guitarmy’s general Tom Morello). By all accounts, the group didn’t get particularly close to the thousand mark — the video below makes it look more like a few dozen players — but it made a big noise. It also continued a longstanding tradition of drawing attention with huge musical ensembles.

(Video courtesy of Rebecca Smeyne)

One of the earliest extant sound recordings is this faint, celestial seven-and-a-half-minute snatch of Georg Friedrich Händel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt,” recorded in London in 1888. At that point, sound had to be very loud indeed to register on a primitive wax cylinder, and this performance of “Israel in Egypt,” as tiny a trace of it as still exists, was as loud as music got in the 19th century: a 500-piece orchestra accompanying a 4000-piece choir.

It’s always easier to gather groups of singers than it is to coordinate people playing instruments: just last week, 40,000 people gathered in Norway to sing Lillebjørn Nilsen’s “Children of the Rainbow” together, specifically because mass murderer Anders Behring Brebik despises it.

(“Children of the Rainbow,” incidentally, is a translated cover of Pete Seeger’s 1971 song “My Rainbow Race,” which prominently features a choir itself.)

But enormous guitar ensembles are a fairly recent development. At the 1979 Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, Paul McCartney led “Rockestra,” a group of 30 or so musicians, in a short set including a version of Little Richard’s “Lucille.” Seven of them were guitarists, including the Who‘s Pete Townshend and Led Zeppelin‘s Robert Plant.

For the next few decades, composers (and former bandmates) Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca had something of a guitar-ensemble arms race going on. Chatham wrote his one-chord “Guitar Trio,” a piece that’s since been expanded to include many more guitarists, in 1977.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Chatham and Branca wrote pieces for increasingly huge guitar ensembles. Branca’s 1989 “Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven),” for instance, features ten electric guitarists and a drummer.

1989 was also the year that Chatham upped the ante with his 100-guitar piece “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See”; here’s an excerpt from a 1991 performance.

Branca’s Symphony No. 13, “Hallucination City,” was originally commissioned by the French government for Paris’s millennium festival, as a piece for 2000 guitars–a number that Branca thought was “absurd beyond belief.” The projected Paris performance never happened, but a 100-guitarist version debuted at the World Trade Center in New York City in June 2001. (I was actually one of the bass guitarists at that performance.) “Hallucination City” has been rewritten and performed many times since then in various places; here’s a set of excerpts from a 2007 performance in London.

Paris did eventually get its mega-guitar piece, but from Chatham: the 400-guitar piece “A Crimson Grail” debuted in 2005 at the basilica of Sacré-Coeur (with about 125 guitarists, but who’s counting?). The 200-guitarist version excerpted here was recorded in 2009.

Perhaps it’s easier to find guitarists who can play a familiar garage-rock song than guitarists who can follow a printed score. The organizers of “Louifest” in Tacoma, Wash. attempted several times in the 2000s to assemble a 1000-guitarist rendition of “Louie Louie.” Apparently, they never quite made it to four digits. Here’s some footage of a pretty big ensemble playing it in 2003.

Kansas City had a bit more luck in 2007, when the city hosted a group of 1,683 guitarists playing “Smoke on the Water.” Weirdly, the result sounds exactly like Guitar Center on any given Saturday afternoon. (The then-record-breaking rendition starts around the two-minute mark.)

The standing record for a guitar ensemble was briefly the 2,052-person group who played one of the songs in the Guitarmy set list — Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”–at Concordstock in California back in 2008.

That record was shattered the following year, when the Thanks Jimi Festival–an annual celebration of Jimi Hendrix’s music in the unlikely location of Wrocław, Poland–got 6,349 guitarists to play “Hey Joe” together. There doesn’t seem to be video of the world-record 2009 rendition, but this survey of the 2003-2006 “Hey Joe” jams will give you the basic idea. It’s not exactly as progressive a song as “We Shall Not Be Moved,” but Occupy Guitarmy might want to think about adding it to their repertoire if they want to build their numbers some more.

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