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THE PROTO-ROCK HEROES PAGE
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For a certain period after the site was launched, I had been feeling some kind of obscure remorse running through my veins, a remorse that was growing and growing with every new review. Finally I realized what had happened: it was November 1999, I had reviewed more than seven hundred records on this site (and I never thought I could do half that number!), and I still didn't have a page for the guys that actually started the whole damn business. Not that Fifties' rockers and ole bluesmen were among my favourites: like every ordinary piece of late 20th century product, I would pull out a Little Richard or Chuck Berry record only on specific occasions. Whatever the intellectual-archivist might say, Fifties' music (if it's early rock'n'roll we're speaking off) hasn't gone down so well in the annals of history; at least, it hasn't been able to secure as high a position as Sixties' rock'n'roll. Oh sure, everyone who's watched Back Into The Future at least once knows Chuck Berry was the father of rock'n'roll; but how many of us would prefer to go listen to Chuck Berry rather than, say, the Rolling Stones - and that, mind you, is a band that based an entire two or three first years of their career to doing nothing but ripping off poor Chuck. Elvis may have retained his God-like status - on paper, a pure cult symbol rather than an everyday presence. Buddy Holly is mostly remembered as the first cool rocker who wore spectacles. Old bluesmen are mostly popular among... old bluesmen. Is this the passing of an epoch?
Could be. This is, after all, perfectly understandable: Fifties' rock'n'roll was the infancy era of rock'n'roll, the beginning of better things to come. It's all perfectly arguable, but on a very rough, general, even objective level, the Rolling Stones still did Chuck Berry better than Chuck; the Beatles did Carl Perkins better than Carl Perkins; and if you're gonna say that Eddie Cochran's 'Summertime Blues' is more interesting to listen to than the Who's cover version, I'll have no choice but to respectfully smack you. Let's put it this way: if the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who hadn't been absolutely sure that they could seriously improve upon their teachers, they wouldn't have bothered recording their songs in the first place - they were too smart for that.
Deep down at the bottom of it, Fifties' rock'n'rollers didn't care much about intricate, immaculate arrangements, about building up the 'rock'n'roll drive' to spectacular heights or about fiddling around with the electric guitar until it started resembling a vacuum cleaner or Mount Vesuvius. On the sonic side, production values were too thin, and LP formats way too flimsy to try to go ahead and do anything really serious with their stuff. What they did, in their own minds, rarely elevated beyond lightweight entertainment; in those days, only a loonie (although, in retrospect, a genius, of course) would consider rock'n'roll a form of art. Songwriting in those days revolved around the basic blues pattern, most of the songs being based on the same three or four chords. Guitar players were sometimes ordinary, sometimes talented and innovative, but however good Chuck Berry or Cliff Gallup or Scotty Moore could be, who could pitch them against Jimi Hendrix? And it goes without saying that the cliched character of most of the lyrics of that time is renowned (although, to tell the truth, lyrical prowess probably reached its lowest point with the early Merseybeat scene).
That said, there is one important thing to remember when you start analyzing such a peculiar epoch as the Fifties, not to mention earlier times. An epoch must be judged according to its own values, not to the standards of our times. Just as we have to put ourselves in the place of a primal person in order to enjoy some of the brilliant chef-d'oeuvres of primal art, we have to put ourselves in the place of a Fifties' teenager in order to get the most of Fifties' music. This is not as hard a task as it might seem - after all, the Fifties passed us by not so long ago. And some of that music, in fact, much of that music, still stands the test of time. All of these Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Bill Haley tunes - yes, one might not enjoy them as much as what came later, but that doesn't mean they aren't in a class of their own. For their time, this was as far out as music could ever get. For our time, it has more 'historic' value than anything else; music that was not conceived as art but has turned into art after several generations, just like habitual frescoes on the walls of Roman ruins, the ones that were just an equivalent to our standard wallpaper, have turned into art after several centuries. On the other hand, the comparison is not quite right: in the Fifties, Bill Haley and company were not just 'wallpaper'. They were energy, they were fun, they were protest and they had balls a-plenty. They were revolutionaries. And I'm really proud to incorporate those guys' material into my site, in any case.
Now the main rub here lies in that in the Fifties' LPs as a standard 'unit of measure' for music were virtually unknown. Hitmakers placed everything into singles, and only released LPs when they were big enough, often padding them with total crap (a practice that was later transmitted to some of the originally less skilled groups of the early Sixties, like the Kinks or the Hollies). Therefore, it's more or less impossible to assemble a concise and economic 'discography' of any of these artists. Not to mention that I'm really not interested in assembling a thorough collection of such records: only a madman would hunt for the entire Elvis discography, since about 80% of whatever he did after the army is atrocious beyond measure. Plus, large quantities of material from these artists are still unavailable on CD, and probably never will be, given the lack of popular interest.
So this is what I'm going to do. I'll review these Heroes as 'personalities' - let's say, based around a single record, the most representative in my collection. Since these records are always compilations, I won't give them any ratings at all (decide for yourself); I'm just going to jab a little about the actual songs and the actual guy in person. Some of them are in print and easily available; others may be deleted; others may simply be unofficial bootlegs which you won't find anywhere. To avoid any misunderstandings, I'm going to give out the complete track listing in each case; this will help you get oriented and understand what kind of record it is, especially if you're already familiar with the artist.
As for the 'Heroes' themselves, my main emphasis will be on Fifties' rockabilly pioneers; such key figures as the Everley Brothers, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran will possibly be added later. However, rock music wasn't entirely based on rockabilly, and so, I'll probably end up reviewing selected blues, maybe even jazz artists here - the ones that actually made it to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, and maybe others, too.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
BILL HALEY (AND THE COMETS)
Much too often mistaken for a rock'n'roll performer.
Album: Rock Around The Clock (TKO Records, 1992)
1) (We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock; 2) Shake Rattle And Roll; 3) Razzle-Dazzle; 4) The Saints Rock'n'Roll; 5) Skinny Minnie; 6) Blue Comet Blues; 7) ABC Boogie; 8) Caravan; 9) How Many; 10) Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On; 11) Land Of A Thousand Dances; 12) Harlem Nocturne; 13) Justine; 14) The Seventh Son; 15) Mohair Sam; 16) New Orleans; 17) Hi-Heel Sneakers; 18) Skokiaan; 19) Rip It Up; 20) See You Later Alligator
What? Who? 'Rock Around The Clock'? 'See You Later Alligator'? After a while, crocodile!
Well, no. Actually, here and now. First of all, there's totally nothing wrong with 'Rock Around The Clock'. It may not be the first rock song ever written, and it certainly is not the best rock song ever written, and, finally, it wasn't even written by Bill Haley, but, first, it is a landmark in popular history, and, second, it's just a great, entertaining piece of boogie. As for Bill Haley himself, this particular collection that I have doesn't actually showcase Bill as a rock'n'roll performer. If it's guitar-based, rip-roarin' boogie-woogie you're looking for, please visit Chuck Berry. No, Bill Haley And The Comets played a rather weird mix of styles, with jazz, country-western, blues and rockabilly elements all thrown together in a weird and - dare I say it? - extremely diverse melting pot. This here album doesn't boast a good sound quality (most of the recordings are live, anyway), but I don't care as long as I never get tired of it.
True, Haley was a somewhat 'manufactured' performer. I mean, he wasn't originally manufactured at all, but his 'rock' breakthrough was more or less incidental, and this often leads to tragic misunderstandings. People tend to dismiss the man as something like an 'unsuccessful hipster', a representative of the older generation (he was around 30 when he got that breakthrough) who wanted to be cool among the youngsters, but was too conservative to get rid of the necktie. This results from their taking 'Rock Around The Clock' as the norm for Haley, when in reality it wasn't. What was? Well, like I said, Haley and his men played anything. Here, for instance, you'll find them doing a brisk take on some jazz-pop numbers ('Land Of A Thousand Dances' which everybody probably knows as 'na nananana'; Duke Ellington's 'Caravan'; 'Harlem Nocturne'); tearing their way through some ragged blues covers ('Mohair Sam'; 'Seventh Son'); and, of course, all the hits that immortalized Haley's name forever, starting from the title track and ending with 'Razzle Dazzle' and 'Shake Rattle & Roll' (the latter, of course, comes with 'censored' lyrics, later reprised in the Presley version). At some points you'll really be flabbergasted - Haley's backing band are anything but shy, and there are times when they start to remind me of the Mothers of Invention; unfortunately, you won't find this bizarre atmosphere on any of Haley's regular studio releases.
Plus, the Comets were amazingly professional. Just listen to that guitar! A magnificent, energizing sound, and it's all over the album. The brass also sounds great, and the rhythm section is as perfect as you would expect to meet in a professional jazz combo. Believe it or not, Haley's concerts in the middle to late Fifties really caused the same teenage uproar as the shows of Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis: he wasn't exactly the wild man of rock, but he did manage to make everything rock - as in, R-O-C-K. Not only that, Haley was a skilful and tasteful entertainer: most of these numbers are instantly memorable, and the record works on each and every level of perception, whether you want to just find your personal delight in any of the instruments or just want to shake your hips.
Out of the songs, I particularly enjoy 'ABC Boogie', Haley's joyful and playful equivalent to Chuck Berry's grim 'Schoolday'; the lyrics may be more 'correct', but the song is not any less of a classic. Man, these whistles are cool... corny, but cool. But what's that I say, out of the twenty numbers, there's not a single bad song. A couple don't go too far beyond acceptable (and the live rendition of 'Justine', with some horrendous vocalizing, may take some getting used to), but I don't skip them anyway. Remember, it's the Fifties, and songs used to be short in the Fifties...
I don't think you'll be able to really get your hands on this record (it's a strictly European release anyway), but remember, when you finally realize your collection is incomplete without a Bill Haley record, try to find something that doesn't overabuse Bill's 'mad rocking' image. Hits like 'Rock Around The Clock' and 'Crazy Man Crazy' are good, sure enough, but it's one and only one facet of this truly amazing personality. You might try looking up some stuff from his pre-1955 hillbilly days when nobody thought much of marketing him, or, even better, look for a good live recording: the Comets are well worth hearing live.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
The Creative Man of Fifties' Rock'n'Roll.
Album: 30 All Time Greatest Hits
1) That'll Be The Day; 2) Maybe Baby; 3) Peggy Sue; 4) Words Of Love; 5) Rave On; 6) I'm Looking For Someone To Love; 7) Oh Boy; 8) Think It Over; 9) Early In The Morning; 10) It Doesn't Matter Anymore; 11) Heartbeat; 12) You've Got Love; 13) Every Day; 14) Rock Me My Baby; 15) Love Me; 16) Well All Right; 17) It's So Easy; 18) I'm Changing All Those Changes; 19) Baby I Don't Care; 20) Ready Teddy; 21) I'm Gonna Love You Too; 22) Tell Me How; 23) Listen To Me; 24) Send Me Some Lovin'; 25) I Guess I Was Just A Fool; 26) It's Too Late; 27) Don't Come Back Knockin'; 28) Raining In My Heart; 29) Peggy Sue Got Married; 30) Not Fade Away
Gee, this album is a bit too long even for my tastes - maybe the more conventional and widely available 20 Golden Greats is more acceptable for the casual listener. But anyway, whoever forced me to sit through thirty songs in a row? The major throwback is that they're all so short they keep flashing past my ears before I actually had the time to really appreciate them. Therefore, I'm in no way ready to review these numbers all in a row: I'd have to spend a couple years of my life on that. Some of these songs don't need reviewing, anyway - 'Peggy Sue', 'That'll Be The Day' and 'Not Fade Away' are all-time classics which you're bound to know even if you don't know they were originally written by Buddy.
I think that Buddy tends to be a controversial figure - permanently overrated by the 'know-alls' and permanently underrated by the 'know-nothings'. Simplistic music lovers never associate Fifties' rock with Buddy: there are much more idolized figures lying around like Elvis or Chuck Berry. On the other hand, those who tend to dig deeper are bound to overrate him. There is one significant element about Buddy which no one can deny: he was primarily a songwriter, not a performer. That is, he was a performer, in that he actually performed the songs he sang without having to play the part of some anonymous Leiber-Stoller gang. But he never developed a terrific stage image (like Elvis or Jerry Lee), and, while his guitar playing technique was fairly impressive from a deeper point of view, he didn't revolutionize the instrument as it was done by Chuck Berry. No, Buddy Holly's main talent was in writing songs - and when I say 'writing songs', I don't mean just pumping out endless tired clones of the 'primal' R'n'B and pop standards. One could argue that Buddy was rock's first accomplished songwriter: he actually knew the importance of an original, innovative melody, and did everything he could to push music forward by trying to find new and new ways of creating them. From the straightforward R'n'B of 'That'll Be The Day' to the Bo Diddley-ish beat of 'Not Fade Away' to the uncompromised rockin' of 'Rave On' to the complicated guitar patterns of 'Words Of Love', Holly was the greatest experimentator among the pioneers of rock'n'roll. No wonder he wore spectacles.
That said, he did have his fair share of filler - about a good third of the songs on my collection I could easily do without. Especially strings-laiden pop garbage like 'It Doesn't Matter Anymore' or 'Raining In My Heart', recorded towards the end of his tragically short career; some people think he was moving into an even more experimental direction, but I say he was most certainly sucked in by the mainstream; his untimely death at least saved his reputation from being tarnished as were the reputations of most of his musical contemporaries. Not all the rockers are that good, either: for instance, his version of 'Ready Teddy' doesn't fit in with the general atmosphere of the album one single bit. Buddy might have been a rocker, but he never was an uncompromised rocker a la Little Richard, and that's exactly what he is trying to pull off here. No, his rockers were more subtle and moderate, concentrating on the chord changes rather than the furious beat. And his vocals? Well, he had a cool vocal style: not much of a singing talent, but at least he treated his voice as a musical instrument. The 'hiccuping' intonations on 'That'll Be The Day' and 'Peggy Sue' are legendary, aren't they? Oh well...
The most amazing thing, perhaps, and the main fact that proves Buddy's genius as a songwriter, is that he's that rare performer whose songs don't sound better even when covered by great bands or artists. Okay, the Stones might have made a somewhat more definite version of 'Not Fade Away', but that was only live, when they added the furious speed; their studio version of the song mostly recreates the original. And don't even remind me the horrible fate of 'Well All Right' as covered by Blind Faith on their eponymous record (that's the worst song on there, actually). Even the Beatles couldn't better the magnificent guitar playing on 'Words Of Love': it was so perfect in the first place that all there was left to do was to improve the production values. Which means that the guitar is brought upfront and loud in the mix, while here, on the original recording, it's mixed rather low and at times you can hardly hear it. The problem is, George Harrison is just repeating Buddy - note by note, note by note...
What you really need is a concise, carefully thought out compilation that will forever edge out the notion of Buddy Holly and the Crickets as a marginal event in rock history. This one is not perfect - like I said, there are so many songs that you simply get lost in the forest after a while, plus, the best stuff is all grouped near the beginning, and the dreck is all in the middle or near the end, so it rarely gets better. In any case, it's not available in the US: but please do me a favour and buy 20 Golden Greats or From The Original Masters or something like that and let this be your personal tribute to the greatest songwriter of the Fifties.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Missed a chance to be Elvis - for better or for worse?
Album: Boppin' Blue Suede Shoes (Sun Records, 19??)
1) Movie Magg; 2) Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing; 3) Sure To Fall; 4) Honey Don't; 5) Blue Suede Shoes; 6) Boppin' The Blues; 7) Dixie Fried; 8) Put Your Cat Clothes On; 9) Right String Wrong Yo-Yo; 10) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 11) That Don't Move Me; 12) Caldonia; 13) Sweethearts Or Strangers; 14) I'm Sorry I'm Not Sorry; 15) Matchbox; 16) Roll Over Beethoven; 17) That's Right; 18) Forever Yours; 19) Your True Love; 20) Y.O.U.; 21) Pink Pedal Pushers; 22) I Care; 23) Lend Me Your Comb; 24) Look At That Moon; 25) Glad All Over
The story of how Carl Perkins wrote up 'Blue Suede Shoes', became candidate #1 for that Great White Rock'n'Roller, got caught in a car crash and lost the honour to Elvis Presley is almost legendary. If you ask me, though, Perkins didn't have a chance either way: he was far too unnoticeable imagewise to match the immaculate spectacle of Elvis, and you know how it goes - people always tend to fall for the image rather than the music. Not to mention, of course, that his bleeting voice can't hope to beat Elvis' mighty roar, and his backing band was always rudimentary, the only remarkable thing about it being Carl's funny and entertaining guitar playing itself. Elvis' arrangements were far more inventive and attracting (although it's obvious Elvis himself had little to do with them).
Nevertheless, Carl had one thing Elvis didn't have: he wrote his own songs, and in that respect he's probably the real and true pioneer among white performers - the first serious singer-songwriter in the rockabilly genre. I wouldn't call him a terrific songwriter, though: compared to Buddy Holly, he was just a second-rate Chuck Berry imitator, and his songs rarely ventured behind the standard R'n'B pattern. Even so, just take a look at the track listing for this here compilation - ain't it great? The Beatles made him popular, with their versions of 'Honey Don't', 'Matchbox', and 'Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby', all far superior to the original recordings, again, mostly due to much more creative and inventive arrangements and, of course, improved production values; I don't really know if he'd still be remembered these days without the Fab Four's help, though, as he certainly holds number one among the 'most underrated major Fifties' stars'.
This collection, I suppose, is quite all right, showcasing his early successes along with later, more moderate hits such as 'Put Your Cat Clothes On', although, as almost every rock'n'roll collection with more than fifteen songs to it, it does have its share of filler, with doo-wop stinkers like 'Y.O.U.' and 'I Care' residing next to perfect boogie numbers like 'Pink Pedal Pushers' or 'Glad All Over'. The earliest tracks, funny enough, show just how much Perkins sucked at the beginning of his career: 'Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing' is atrocious, with ear-grating country violins that completely spoil what could otherwise just passs by unnoticed as a mediocre country tune. Not that I hate countryish fiddles, mind you, but these sound more like forks scraping on a plate... yeck. Same goes for 'Sure To Fall', which is in its essence a great pop tune, but is absolutely marred by the bleeting vocals: Carl's deliveries aren't always the prettiest thing in the world, I assure you, but on this number he seems to demonstrate all the worst capabilities of his voice, and he succeeds admirably.
Of course, you can't go wrong with the classics, though: short, tight outbursts of rockabilly energy, with immaculate guitar solos and, sometimes, quite competent singing. Besides the obvious, there's also a couple of lost gems here, like the hilarious, anthemic 'Boppin' The Blues' and the sly, enthralling intonations on 'That's Right'. You just need to program this collection according to your tastes; if you can't stand sappy doo-wop, there are quite a few numbers you'll have to leave out. But, after all, the doo-wop curse was firmly embedded upon all white performers in the business (just as the generic 'soul' curse was firmly embedded upon all the black ones), so I guess it ain't fair to blame poor Perkins for all the crap he's managed to record in his life.
To conclude this review, I'll just re-state that it's perfectly understandable why Perkins is so underrated these days. His historic importance as the pioneer of white rock'n'roll is beyond any doubt, but the actual music has perhaps dated more than that of most of his rockin' contemporaries. He was talented, but not enough talented to understand the importance of recording quality product with quality arrangement and qualified production (actually, even his later output, which is represented here, sounds exactly like it had been recorded twenty years ago). He must be given credit as a significant songwriter, but as an inconsistent and not terribly entertaining performer: of all the tunes included on this compilation which I heard performed by other artists, not a single one is better than the cover versions. (I mean, there probably have been worse covers by mediocre or bad artists, but whenever a good artist took up a Perkins song, he made it sound better than Carl. Come on now, you don't want to say that you'd rather hear 'Blue Suede Shoes' done by Perkins than by Elvis? That would be pure hypocrisy). Even so, this by no means does signify that this compilation is unlistenable or anything. It's bound to give you enough pleasure if you have an acquired taste for early rockabilly. Just skip the doo-wop crap and you'll know what I mean.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Where would electric guitar be today if it weren't for this little jailcat?
Album: The Best Of Chuck Berry (MCA, 1994)
1) No Particular Place To Go; 2) Schoolday (Ring Ring Goes The Bell); 3) Sweet Little Sixteen; 4) Let It Rock; 5) Memphis Tennessee; 6) Nadine (Is It You); 7) You Never Can Tell; 8) Promised Land; 9) Reelin' And Rockin'; 10) My Ding-A-Ling; 11) Maybellene; 12) Roll Over Beethoven; 13) Johnny B. Goode; 14) Carol; 15) Almost Grown; 16) Back In The USA; 17) Little Queenie; 18) Brown Eyed Handsome Man; 19) Sweet Little Rock And Roller; 20) Rock'n'Roll Music
What do you usually do when someone gruesomely overrates Elvis in your face? Why, throw on some Chuck Berry, of course! Where Elvis stands as the definite symbol of rock'n'roll music for the casual listener, us 'experts' know better, and we proudly shake the hand of Chuck and bob our heads up and down to the frenzied beats of 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Johnny B. Goode'. And there's a good reason for that: Chuck Berry sure wasn't the first rock'n'roller on earth, but he was arguably the most significant one for the younger generation - those cheeky white guys that would go on to make 'Satisfaction' and 'Sunshine Of Your Love' and 'Stairway To Heaven' and everything else. And why? Because Chuck, as we know him, is the first rock'n'roller who truly realized the potentials of that instrument we casually call 'electric guitar'. Not fully realized - the world needed a Hendrix to do that, but it was him and nobody else who stated that rock as a genre, if it were ever to carry on, should be dominated by a plugged six-string. Where do you think the conception of rock'n'roll as a guitar-based genre stems from? From the classic intros to 'Johnny B. Goode' and 'Roll Over Beethoven' and the mad solo of 'Maybellene'.
Of course, Chuck was much more than just a pioneer of guitar techniques. He was the greatest black rock'n'roll composer of his time, together with Little Richard laying the foundations of the devil music. He was an impressive performer onstage, if you come to remember the 'duckwalk'. He was one of the best lyricists of his era: his songs were not just veiled odes to screwing little girls, but incorporated elements of social protest (think 'Schoolday'), and, of course, nobody could sing such inspired praises to rock'n'roll as he did: 'Sweet Little Sixteen', 'Reelin' And Rockin' and, of course, 'Rock'n'Roll Music' still stand as the greatest genre anthems ever written. He had a good voice, too - nowhere near as rip-roarin' and tearin' as Little Richard's, but more laid back, sly and insinuating, and in that respect he was sure far more dangerous than Little Richard ever was. No wonder they jailed him in 1961: you could tame Elvis, but you sure as hell couldn't just tame Chuck. In fact, I don't even know if Chuck ever sang ballads or sappy stuff: this compilation, one of the most impressive in my collection, doesn't give a hint at anything like Little Richard's 'By The Light Of The Silvery Moon' or the worst excesses of white doo-wop.
Actually, there's just one misstep here: the album includes the infamous 'My Ding-A-Ling', a thoroughly generic and gross take on a nursery rhyme with some of the most idiotic lyrics ever put to tape ('and those of you who will not sing/must be playing with their own ding-a-ling'). Perversely, this live version was the last and the biggest hit for Chuck, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the early Seventies. People must have been totally out of their minds; maybe some magnetic field was upset or a comet was passing us by and influenced everybody's brains, otherwise it's simply unexplainable. If I were in charge of the MCA, I would have dropped it and put on a couple of classics that somehow evaded getting on here - the great car anthem 'You Can't Catch Me', for instance, or the amazing 'Too Much Monkey Business', often qualified as the first rap song ever written (the second one was Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', and I could easily do without a third). Otherwise, though, I have simply no complaints.
Mmm, perhaps a significant complaint would be that I don't really think of Chuck as that awesome a composer. Okay, he did come up with half a dozen, maybe a dozen, bona fide classics, most of them represented here: 'Roll Over Beethoven', 'Carol', 'Maybellene' (the song that started guitar rock'n'roll), 'Rock And Roll Music', 'Sweet Little Sixteen', 'Little Queenie' and, of course, 'Johnny B. Goode' (which is, of course, the greatest song ever written), who can deny the greatness of these? Archetypal rock songs, no doubt about that. The problem is, Chuck was repeating himself all the time: his pot of creative ideas was exhausted rather quickly, and by the end of the Fifties the standard process was to take an old hit and rewrite it as a new one. That's why we got all those 'sequels' like 'Bye Bye Johnny', and this record demonstrates these 'auto-rip-offs' amply: 'No Particular Place To Go' is fun, but immediately after it's over you realise that it's just a clone of 'Schoolday'. 'Let It Rock' is based on the same melody as 'Johnny B. Goode'. 'Back In The U.S.A.' and 'Sweet Little Rock'n'Roller' are basically the same song. Only 'You Never Can Tell' with its great ballroom drive strikes me as something more or less original; otherwise, I'm really starting to doubt Chuck's status as a 'phenomenal' songwriter. More like a several-hits wonder, if you axe me: if he hasn't got enough diverse songs to fill out a twenty-track greatest hits compilation, what of his less 'stellar' output? I prefer not even to think about that...
Nevertheless, even if his limitations are obvious, he more than makes up for it with everything else: the vocals are funny, the lyrics are funnier, and that guitar sound is classic, after all. Just think of 'No Particular Place To Go' and 'Schoolday' as one five minute number instead of two two-and-a-half-minute numbers, and everything will be tops. After all, such a classy song, man, why not let it bug you for five minutes or so? You gotta dig that style!
READER COMMENTS SECTION
A clear case of image and substance being as far from each other as it can get.
Album: Elvis Gold - The Very Best Of The King (BMG, 1995)
Disc 1: 1) Heartbreak Hotel; 2) My Baby Left Me; 3) Tutti Frutti; 4) Hound Dog; 5) Don't Be Cruel; 6) Love Me Tender; 7) All Shook Up; 8) (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear; 9) One Night; 10) Jailhouse Rock; 11) Treat Me Nice; 12) Don't; 13) Hard Headed Woman; 14) Trouble; 15) King Creole; 16) A Big Hunk O'Love; 17) Stuck On You; 18) Fever; 19) It's Now Or Never; 20) I Gotta Know
Disc 2: 1) Are You Lonesome Tonight; 2) Wooden Heart; 3) Flaming Star; 4) Surrender; 5) Can't Help Falling In Love; 6) Kiss Me Quick; 7) His Latest Flame; 8) Good Luck Charm; 9) Return To Sender; 10) (You're The) Devil In Disguise; 11) Viva Las Vegas; 12) Love Letters; 13) Guitar Man; 14) In The Ghetto; 15) Suspicious Minds; 16) Don't Cry Daddy; 17) The Wonder Of You; 18) You Don't Have To Say You Love Me; 19) Burning Love; 20) My Way
First, a warning: while this 2-CD compilation is excellent as a more or less representative overview of the entire career of Elvis (yes, it omits many highlights, but, after all, what could you expect? The man's been in the business for twenty years, and he was even more prolific than Frank Zappa), it is entirely Not Recommended to you if you only care about those 'golden years' when Elvis really was King - king of rock'n'roll. If that's what you're looking for, check out The Sun Sessions or, in fact, any particular compilation that contains only his Fifties' output (you can easily look this up in the All-Music Guide). My personal favourite is a French double LP called something like 'Les 40 plus grands succes' which, for me, is as perfect an Elvis collection as one could get: out of those forty songs, I hate about one or two, dislike about two or three more and go totally crazy over all the rest. Apparently, the French have better taste for Elvis than the Americans, because this here collection is, er, well, iffy at best. Representative, but iffy.
Anyway, what do I have to say about Elvis? (Hah hah hah, now here comes the moment you've waited for all my life). Certainly, Elvis is overrated. I wouldn't want to argue with that. Sure, he was a miserable songwriter - he probably hasn't penned more than a couple songs in all his life. He was a miserable player - contrary to rumours, he did play guitar on stage, but he never went before simplistic strumming. His career crashed after he got bogged down in sappy ballads, doo-wop and Sinatraesque sludge in the early Sixties, and his well-publicized 1968 'comeback' was just a carefully crafted, and, well, well-publicized stunt that impressed the stupid fans and did not breathe new hope in the more experienced ones.
On the other hand, Elvis' being overrated is an entirely different matter from, say, the overratedness of bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The latter are revered by their fans for presumably writing some of the best music since the Chinese masters of old; Elvis is certainly not revered for his music. Elvis is revered as a national hero, as a way of life, as a cultural symbol, but certainly not as a musical genius. I had a few friends who adored and deified Elvis; but it was obvious that they did so because of his image. When hard pressed about his songwriting and playing abilities, what did they have to answer? Nothing. In that respect, this deification does not bother me as much as the heavy worship that is gotten by Pink Floyd or, say, Queen in Russia. Let people deify Elvis. There is absolutely no harm in that. As a symbol of America's and the world's cultural liberation, he works quite fine. As a symbol of musical greatness - come on now, who ever took him as a symbol of musical greatness?
Not that some of the material on this here compilation ain't great, mind you. Yeah, Elvis is an untalented redneck, okay, so I admit it. But he's got a great pair of vocal cords, and at least in the early days he was saddled with some terrific material (mostly courtesy of Leiber and Stoller, but there were probably thousands of corporate songwriters hackin' at it - that's why, if you try digging deep, you'll find that even the early stuff is very much hit and miss), not to mention the excellent musicianship. Do not forget that Scotty Moore, who played on most of these early recordings, was a guitar genius; he's one of my favourite guitar players from the Fifties, next only to Chuck Berry. But his style is very different from Berry's - more 'traditional' and restrained, but in many ways, more subtle and tasty. Be sure to check out the brilliant solos on 'Tutti Frutti' and 'Hound Dog': minimalistic, but quite effective. I'd bet you anything John Fogerty was a Scotty Moore fan.
In that respect, most of the songs on Disc 1 here rule. The sappy ballads spoil the fun from time to time ('Love Me Tender', whatever you people say, is overplayed sentimental fluff, together with 'Don't'), but how can one resist the temptation of the headbanger 'Hard Headed Woman'? Or the heat and fury of 'Jailhouse Rock'? Or the be-be-be-boppiness of 'King Creole'? The catchiness and frenetic pulsation of 'Treat Me Nice'? The intoxicating rhythm of 'A Big Hunk O'Love'? These songs are all classics (together with at least a couple dozen more which are not included here), and there's no getting away from that. Yes, Elvis is overrated; but the songs rule. These early cuts amply demonstrate that corporate songwriting can be a blessing when it's placed in the right hands at the right time and for the right purposes (the Monkees are another excellent example of such a process).
Unfortunately, Disc 2 is almost as totally rote as Disc 1 is totally brilliant: it concentrates on Elvis' post-Sun years, and the percentage of fluff rises immediately. The further it gets, the worse it becomes: this is especially obvious as the songs are arranged chronologically. The first ten songs on Disc 2 are indeed hit and miss: next to dreadful embarrassments like the murky doo-wop of 'Are You Lonesome Tonight', the sacchariney balladeering of 'Can't Help Falling In Love' and the ridiculous German folk stylization of 'Wooden Heart' reside lost gems like 'Devil In Disguise' (love that infernal beat) and 'His Latest Flame' (love that acoustic pounding). Plus, I may be a weenie, but I really love 'Good Luck Charm' and 'Return To Sender' - two little poppy gems, memorable, nice and not at all appalling.
But the last ten songs are a horrendous disaster - apart from a minor 'comeback' of 'Guitar Man' and the mad lead guitarwork on 'Viva Las Vegas', there is not a single good thing to be said about them. They're so bad I honestly think the compilators simply did a suckjob on that one: I mean, yeah, Elvis in the late Sixties and early Seventies was not a pretty sight, but did he really only release such awful crap as 'In The Ghetto' or gospel fodder like 'The Wonder Of You'? Whatever. A truly unique compilation: starts out in rock'n'roll heaven and ends in banal pop hell. In fact, I rarely ever put the second disc onto the playing deck, and when I do, I always shut it down after 'Guitar Man' because only somebody with untrivial suicidal tendencies would love to hear Elvis grunt his way through 'My Way'...
It's all the more pathetic as this compilation does NOT fulfill the basic necessity of an Elvis compilation: rationally separate the dreck from the brilliance. I sincerely believe it is possible to sort out his messy Sixties and Seventies catalogue and fish out the couple dozen or so decent or even great songs that could be saved for future generations to come. Unfortunately, this work has not been done, and I doubt whether anybody really cares.
All in all, do not make the mistake of dismissing Elvis completely. Your collection is basically incomplete if you don't own at least one little compilation of the early Sun years material; and it is not because he was 'important' that you should own something like that, it's because the music was really really good. It might have been sung by anybody else: fuck Elvis, they could have picked out any ambitious young Southern redneck with a nice pair of chords and a cute butt. Don't just sit there crying 'Elvis is a manufactured doll!' First of all, this is not one hundred percent true, and second, even if it is, who gives a damn? Hell, I reviewed the Monkees on this here site and gave them a rating of two, and I could care less whether they're manufactured or not: the music is good! For further details on manufacturing and the commercial side of music, please check out my essay number two, located elsewhere on this site. In the meantime, I'll go and put on 'Heartbreak Hotel' because I'm so sad because nobody agrees with me...
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Maybe not a genuine rock'n'roller, but certainly a creative soul behind the process.
Album: Blueberry Hill/Greatest Hits (Music Reflection, 1994)
1) Blueberry Hill; 2) I'm Ready; 3) Ain't That A Shame; 4) So Long; 5) Hello Josephine; 6) Blue Monday; 7) Jambalaya; 8) Oh What A Price; 9) I'm In The Mood For Love; 10) Let The Four Winds Blow; 11) I Want To Walk You Home; 12) I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday; 13) Whole Lotta Loving; 14) Domino Twist; 15) The Fat Man; 16) Please Don't Leave Me; 17) Red Sails In The Sunset; 18) Be My Guest; 19) I'm In Love Again; 20) Goin' Home
Fats Domino wasn't actually a rock'n'roll performer. Most of the time, he was doing his stuff big band style, and his whole output reeks of jazz and jazz-pop more than anything else. However, I understand that when we're talking early stages of rock'n'roll, when it was just evolving from R'n'B which was itself evolving from a mixture of gospel and jazz, any definite and concise definitions are simply impossible. I don't think that even highly professional musical experts might prove that Fats was 'jazz' or, on the contrary, was 'rock'. But who cares anyway and who needs labels? Above all, Fats was an entertainer, and a good one at that. We all know that he influenced just about anybody: the Beatles performed his songs, him being an especial favourite of McCartney, not to mention that both Paul and John ended up recording 'Ain't That A Shame' on their solo albums, while Mick Jagger, as everybody knows, took the famous 'rap' advice - 'screw the words, concentrate on the music' (this is not a quotation) and made it one of his main mottos.
I, however, am not discussing mottos here, and I didn't set up this page to determine who was an influence on whom; I don't care for artists if their main function was 'to influence'. Thankfully, Fats' music goes far beyond 'influential', and this here CD is a superb one, absolutely listenable and enjoyable today and, I hope, fit to listen two thousand years from now in case the material doesn't give way. I'm not exactly sure about the quality of this stuff: the CD seems of a bootleg-character, and the sound is often terrible. See, this is not just 'greatest hits', this is 'greatest hits live', and I'm pretty sure it's a rather late recording - Sixties, maybe, or even Seventies. The material, however, is all classic, in fact, I can hardly see anything really important from the Fats catalogue that is omitted. And whatever be the sound quality, you always get used to it in the end, doncha? Anyway, my main complaint is that it is very hard to hear Fats singing, but after all, that was probably the main idea, right? And on the other hand, all the crowd noises only add to the excitement and the adrenaline-pumping generated by the songs.
So Fats might be 'jazz', but the main thing is that he was a great songwriter and entertainer - I would really love to see him perform live. Imagine a piano-playing Louis Armstrong with just as much playing talent and twice as much charm and audience attracting ability, and you have a vague portrait of Fats. Whether he's playing a retroish slow jazz-pop number ('Blueberry Hill', an ancient Armstrong trademark, in fact), a bit of soul ('Red Sails In The Sunset') or a lightning-speed, guts-spinning 'jazz-boogie' song ('I'm Ready', 'Jambalaya'), he's always listenable, catchy and oh so clever. The backing band is terrific - you can't get away from that brass section wherever you go. And, of course, there's the speed factor. Rock'n'roll? Chuck Berry? Nah. Nobody played as fast as good ol' Fats and his band in the old days; 'I'm Ready' and 'I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday' set a speed record for early rock'n'rollers, in fact, they set a speed record probably unsurpassed to this day, certainly not surpassed by the Ramones or these clowns the Sex Pistols. You can almost feel the wind in your face.
On top of that, Fats is a wonderful piano player. He doesn't really bash down the chords as some crazy guy of the Jerry Lee Lewis race, but gives out complicated, diverse and delicate passages instead, unfortunately, often marred by the sound quality on here. And his voice, while the words are indeed hardly understandable, is a nice, soothing one, all dribbling with sympathy and charm: just listen to his amusing 'wah-wah' choruses on 'Fat Man' or the gentle, sweet, almost sexy tone on 'I'm In The Mood For Love'. But the most amazing thing is that none of these twenty tracks sounds banal or corny, whether it's syrupy or not. Maybe it's because of the high quality of the backing band. Maybe because each of the songs has an amazing hook, sometimes more than one. Maybe it's because the songs are diverse: the only pattern that might get on your nerves is the 'slow stately ballad' type, with songs like 'So Long', 'Blue Monday' and the above-mentioned 'I'm In The Mood For Love' all setting the same lethargic atmosphere, but after a while you do start to notice that they all have distinct melodies of their own. Whatever; I just like this record very very much, together with its shitty quality, and wouldn't wanna trade it for a 'true' greatest hits package. Who knows, maybe the excitement will disappear together with the live sound? Have you ever considered that possibility?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
The Wild Man of Rock'n'Roll. Maybe not the first punk, though.
Album: Greatest Hits - Finest Performances (Sun Records, 1995)
1) Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On; 2) Little Queenie; 3) Breathless; 4) Teen Age Letter; 5) Lewis Boogie; 6) I Can't Seem To Say Goodbye; 7) Great Balls Of Fire; 8) Crazy Arms; 9) End Of The Road; 10) It'll Be Me; 11) Move On Down The Line; 12) You Win Again
Who do you think actually represented the Teenage Spirit of Rock'n'Roll in the Fifties? Chuck Berry? Nay, he was a bit too professional and laid back for that. Little Richard? Too gospelish and much too weird. Besides, both were black, and these were the Fifties. Elvis? Perhaps. But Elvis was a seriously manufactured figure, and he sold out in a minute. Nay, nay, nay; the true spirit of rock'n'roll resided in that curly-haired Southerner called Jerry Lee who did 'my little boogie every day'. At one point, Jerry Lee was in my personal Top Ten performers of all time, and to this day, he's my favourite idol from the early period of the devil's music. Sloppy, drunk, braggard, self-indulgent, nasty and swaggerish, there is one truth you can't deny about him: he used to say he was the best, and that was the truth.
I mean, Jerry not only showed America and the world that you can rock out and be a teenage God when you're playing the piano. Little Richard played piano, too. Jerry showed the world that it isn't so much the instrument (which he was always great at playing), and it isn't so much the voice (which was arguably the best white voice in the business - cut that Elvis crap, please), but it's the attitude and the burnin' spirit that makes for excellent rock music and is really the most important thing in the whole business. Of course, you'll say that this sounds stupid - everybody had an attitude and enough spirit to burn. But Jerry Lee carried it out to the extreme - at least, as far as it was able to go in the Fifties. He was the Pete Townshend and the Johnny Rotten of the epoch, with one serious difference: he had no real 'anger' inside of him. His rebellion and smash-it-all-to-bits attitude was not really directed against anyone. On the contrary, deep inside Jerry was a totally ordinary, unpretentious guy who wanted to make pretty girls, have a big shiny car and a house to keep the booty in - the only thing he did was, ahem, resort to unusual measures in order to fulfill his dream.
In any case, Jerry was the Killer, no doubt about that. That ain't the problem. The problem is that this latest greatest compilation is as shamelessly short as it could be. Twelve songs? Do you realize how short this CD is? And that's the only CD issue of JLL I could lay my hands on; you don't know how much it depresses me. Thankfully, I have a couple more hit packages on vinyl, so this manages to comfort my unhappy days... If you're short on money and see this in some long forgotten used bin for something like half a cent, pick it up; if you're a bit more lucky, please buy a boxset or some other goodie that has more songs. As far as I understand, the All Killer No Filler compilation is pretty good, though it concentrates a bit too heavily on Jerry's country years. These were good, too: Jerry Lee is a tremendously underrated country performer, but still, it's his early Sun rock years that he'll always be remembered for, rather like Elvis.
Let's imagine, anyway, that this is your only Jerry Lee album in the world. In that case, if you're not charmed by the moment the first thunderesque vocals of 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On' echo throughout your room, you probably have an allergy on rock'n'roll and should be listening to Pat Boone instead. Jerry didn't write any of these songs except for 'Lewis Boogie' which wasn't that hard to write because it's just a clone of 'Great Balls Of Fire', and 'End Of The Road', which is quite good but not the best on here; however, he manages to make every single tune his own, including Chuck's 'Little Queenie'. I bet you all know the trademark Jerry Lee style: bash out the incredibly fast boogie-woogie rhythm on the piano, sing the vocals in a sly, sexually arousing tone, alternating raunchy low notes with an almost devilish falsetto, and, of course, amply demonstrate his killer abilities on the solo. The regular Sun players often assist him in the process, and Scotty Moore in person contributes guitar solos, so everything's as fun as it can only get. And, of course, 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On', 'Great Balls Of Fire', 'Breathless' and 'It'll Be Me' are timeless classics that transcend time and space with about the same easiness as a zombie transcends the walls of your bedroom. (Was that an unsatisfying metaphor?) Don't expect too much variety, though: the Sun company couldn't make a varied hit collection if the plan and the exact track listing were shoved under their nose. There are but two numbers dating from the Sixties, and they're inferior: 'Teen Age Letter' is not very convincing a rocker, and they couldn't have made a worse choice than 'I Can't Seem To Say Goodbye': doo-wop does not equal country, and bad doo-wop sure does not equal Cruising With Ruben & The Jets... Apart from that, there are a couple slower ballads which are quite fine: 'You Win Again', in fact, is one of the most well-known numbers in Jerry Lee's catalogue. I'm particularly impressed by the singing on that one: sometimes, when Jerry stretches out a note, it produces a somewhat grating effect, but more often I'm just left amazed at his impressive vocal range and, of course, all those tricks he could do with his voice... maybe it wasn't as technically gifted as Elvis's, but he certainly experimented with it much, much more than Elvis ever did.
Perhaps it's true that no studio recording can really capture the raw rock'n'roll excitement and the 'white heat' generated by JLL at his concerts (I'd sure love to see him pouring fuel on his piano and setting fire to it, as he did once or twice - and in that way preceded Pete Townshend as rock's first 'self-destructor' by almost ten years), but these Sun singles come pretty close. And the production is amazingly fresh, too; perhaps they have remastered everything, but the recording almost seems to be breathing out of your CD player. Just don't buy it: whoever wants a JLL CD with only twelve tracks on it?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
The Father of Rock Music. How's your vocal chords doing these days, Daddy?
Album: Greatest Hits (Elap Music Ltd., 1993)
1) Good Golly Miss Molly; 2) Lucille; 3) Long Tall Sally; 4) Tutti Frutti; 5) Ready Teddy; 6) Rip It Up; 7) Keep A-Knockin'; 8) Slippin' And Slidin'; 9) Jenny Jenny; 10) Baby Face; 11) The Girl Can't Help It; 12) She's Got It; 13) All Around The World; 14) Bama Lama Bama Loo; 15) By The Light Of The Silvery Moon; 16) Can't Believe You Wanna Leave
What has Richard Penniman that others do not have? What makes him special? What makes him worth a paragraph or two on the crappiest review site in existence? Why couldn't we just live on happy and fearless ever after and not give a damn about some stinkin' rock'n'roll performer, just one more out of the hundreds of performers to introduce the devil's music to the world in the Fifties... whoah, brother, not so fast. Little Richard wasn't just 'another rock'n'roll performer'. Little Richard was the first rock'n'roll performer, and if you'd put me down on my knees in the corner of the room, pressed a gun against my back and commanded me to deny the fact, I'd just tell you to beat it, bro'er, and happily die as a rock'n'roll martyr. Indeed, what Little Richard did was take the somewhat old and already stagnating musical form of R&B and wire it up - and it worked. He added the beat; added the speed; added the sexuality; added the fire; added the enthusiasm and the raunchiness - and rock'n'roll was born, in the form of Mr Penniman's earliest recordings.
If you're familiar with Little Richard's hits already, you'll see from the track listing that this is really one superb compilation. It does omit a few high points in addition to featuring several low points ('By The Light Of The Silvery Moon' is a stupid late-period pop ditty that should have never made it on here), but for the most part the songs on here are all stellar. In fact, I can hardly think of any other album in my collection, including hit compilations and everything, where your brains would be smashed and smashed and smashed by such a vicious onset of boogie sound - nine times in a row, before the somewhat gentler, but cutesy 'Baby Face' finally gives you a break before the other headbangers. And what songs, my God! 'Good Golly Miss Molly'! 'Lucille'! 'Long Tall Sally'... stop it, I have already typed down the track listing, no need to repeat it again in all entirety. Every single number - a gem. Every single number - a timeless classic, covered by dozens, if not hundreds, of other artists. Catchy as hell. Firey. Dripping with energy. Excellently performed and recorded. Wow. You haven't lived if you haven't heard this.
Now, frankly speaking, it's very easy to see that this is only the beginning phase of rock and roll. These songs are rarely guitar-based: the main instruments are still brass, and if I'm not mistaken, you only get a guitar solo on 'Bama Lama Bama Loo', which is a relatively late minor hit for Richard, recorded in 1964 and supposedly featuring Jimi Hendrix, again, if I'm not mistaken. So the instrumentation hasn't yet caught up with the change in genre, and I know people (my younger brother, for instance) who really dislike the use of brass in straightforward rock'n'roll performances. Now this is a controversial point, but I do agree that sometimes it gets tiresome. On the other hand, the brass can go to hell: it's the voice, that lionish roar that really sets hearts on fire. Nobody's been able to beat the 'primal' Little Richard scream yet - no white boy has such powerful lungs and immaculate vocal cords. Some of these songs have been recorded in better versions afterwards, but nobody beat the vocals, although John Fogerty came really really close on his version of 'Good Golly Miss Molly'.
Actually, now that I think of it, I usually prefer these songs done by other artists - every time that it boils down to arrangements and instrumentation, at least. I like CCR's version of 'Good Golly Miss Molly' better because of Fogerty's magnificent guitar workouts; I like the Beatles' classic version of 'Long Tall Sally'; the way Elvis did 'Tutti Frutti' and 'Ready Teddy'; the way Lennon did 'Slippin' And Slidin'; the way the Animals did 'The Girl Can't Help It'. All of these later covers have one thing in common: they emphasize the arrangements, making them more complex, diverse and technically entertaining. Yet none come close to capture the very essence of them, because the essence lies in the 'primal scream' that only Little Richard was gifted with. Clearly a powerful R&B singer, he was one of the few, if not the only, black R&B singer to make a painless transition into rock and roll, and there can hardly be anything more exciting and jaw-dropping than a first-rate R&B singer converted to rock'n'roll. If you don't believe me, just try listening to 'Jenny Jenny'. Ever heard that one? With the most stupendous, ear-shattering vocal workout in rock ever? Where it's even hard for Richard himself to keep up with the self-imposed pace so he ends up swallowing syllables? If, one sunny day, you find out that you can sing like that, too, try lifting up the Statue of Liberty. Maybe you'll be able.
In any case, out of all my early rock'n'roll collections, this one seems to be the most consistent with the least filler (oh, if you don't count the minuscule Finest Performances of Jerry Lee Lewis, of course, but it's so tiny I hardly notice it at all). 'By The Light Of The Silvery Moon', 'Can't Believe You Wanna Leave' (generic slow R&B; get the hell outa here, no brilliant singing is gonna save that one), that's about it; all the other songs are winners. A perfectly crafted collection; if you find something even remotely approaching the track listing grab it immediately before it runs away. After all, he's the father of rock'n'roll. Who wants to have all the sons and no father? That would be orphanage!
READER COMMENTS SECTION
The dude that gave the Rolling Stones their name. Oh yeah, played some nifty songs too...
Album: The Blues (Elap Music Ltd., 1995)
1) Forty Days And Forty Nights; 2) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 3) All Aboard; 4) Rock Me; 5) Rollin' Stone; 6) I'm Ready; 7) Standing Around Crying; 8) She Moves Me; 9) I Feel So Good; 10) Mean Red Spider; 11) Goin' Home; 12) Baby Please Don't Go; 13) Train Fare Blues; 14) So Glad I'm Living; 15) She's All Right; 16) You're Gonna Miss Me; 17) Close To You; 18) Stuff You Gotta Watch; 19) Diamonds At Your Feet; 20) You're Gonna Need My Help
Time to get down to some more old bluesmen, I guess. I betcha everybody knows something about Muddy Waters, but pretty few people have actually heard him, right? So had I - I didn't pick up this dusty little CD until a couple of years ago, and boy, am I ever glad that I listened to my conscience and brushed aside all my doubts about how that stuff is just generic blues and how everybody in the rock camp had already bettered him anyway. Nadah. I'm not saying Muddy rules supreme, either: sometimes his minimalistic playing and old croaky voice really get on my nerves, but this probably depends on the mood. Normally, this is a very good collection showcasing Muddy in his prime: most of the recordings are real real old, some dating from as far as the late Fourties. Naturally, the sound quality is crappy, but in Muddy's case it only works for his advantage: I shudder at thinking how Muddy could have sounded sometime in the Eighties, for instance. Ever imagined Muddy rapping to the accompaniment of high technology synthesizers, samples and electronic beats? Uh... pardon me, I'm getting carried away.
What do people know of dear old Muddy? He's called 'king of Chicago blues', though many in this world would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Chicago and Delta styles today - oh dear, where is this poor world of ours heading to. He composed the song 'Rollin' Stone' which gave the world's greatest rock'n'roll band its moniker. He recorded some weird tunes in the Fifties and fizzled out in the Sixties. And, of course, if you say 'I like Muddy Waters', you're going to be respected in elite society.
Other than that, though, Muddy did quite a lot. He was one of blues' most distinctive singers - while this is not very obvious on the more 'upbeat', bouncy tunes on here ('You're Gonna Miss Me', which, by the way, was ripped off by corporate songwriters for both 'That's All Right' and 'My Baby Left Me'), the slower tunes often give me the creeps. Just listen to the menacing growl of 'Rock Me', the dark, gruff tone of 'Rollin' Stone', the dreadful 'ha-ha' on 'Close To You' and the Zeus-style roaring on 'I'm Ready' and you'll understand why none of these songs ever charted and never had any hope for charting: they're so 'uncomfortable' and basically 'evil' in their essence that Muddy was probably the worst curse for traditional America before Elvis and Jerry Lee came along. He was a mean and powerful guitar player: actually, he pioneered the use of electric guitar in blues, having switched to it from slide in the mid-Fourties, and, even if today his playing may sound dated and far too clumsy, it still produces a strong effect: what about the cute little riff on 'Rollin' And Tumblin' and those trademark electric blues solos all over the place, the ones that have been reproduced by numerous blues and blues-rock players for an endless amount of times since then? Listen to Clapton playing his Unplugged show and you'll see he's still copping the same licks.
Primarily, though, Muddy was a first-rate composer, and certainly far from limiting himself to the standard blues pattern. I mean, a lot of these songs are just your standard blues numbers, especially at the end, where uninspired ditties like 'Stuff You Gotta Watch' and 'Diamonds At Your Feet' sound quite generic and I usually just skip them. But more than half of the tunes all have something special for them to be distinguished from the 'average stuff'. 'Rollin' Stone', for instance, has a really weird, twisted, ragged melody, which sometimes leaves me in doubt as to whether there's really a melody, but I don't care - I'm just amazed at that diabolic guitar 'cacophony'. 'Rollin' And Tumblin' is one of my favourite blues tunes ever - and that awesome riff was indeed invented by Muddy, not by Jack Bruce or Eric Clapton. 'All Aboard' is a terrific train-imitating blues, with Muddy impersonating a railman as he lets off steam and imitates the whistle with his harp. 'Rock Me' is perhaps the dreariest, scariest, most devilish music ever got before, well, before the Rolling Stones. That dark guitar tone, 'satanic' harp lines, and Muddy's terrifying, slow, mocking vocals combine to produce America's worst nightmare - 'I want you to rock me/'Til my back ain't got a bone...'. You know something's not right here when you remember that Jim Morrison employed exactly the same intonations for 'Cars Hiss By My Window' on L. A. Woman, and that something is a death threat to traditional morals and the middle class culture in general... sorry again, I'm a bit digressing, but I'm just saying the truth, ain't I? 'Standing Around Crying' is a masterful tour de force - the slowest blues ever possible, dreamy, lethargic, with a magnificent 'crying' harp duelling with the furious guitar picking, totally fascinating. And believe me, there are other great tunes on here, too: I just wouldn't want to describe all of them. After all, it's a compilation, and chances are that you don't have any of these songs on your personal compilation of Muddy Waters. Although, if your compilation omits at least half of this material, you'd better get yourself a better one.
Of course, those who don't tolerate electric blues as a genre (and yes, there's a lot of people like that in the world), don't need no Waters, be they muddy or not. But in any case, there's no denying the tremendous importance of the man for twentieth century music in general. This ain't rock'n'roll by any means: this is pure blues. But if you ask me, this is where rock'n'roll has its beginnings as a serious, protesting kind of music. Because, unlike Fats Domino or Little Richard or lots of other performers in the business that actually were rock'n'rollers or at least came pretty dang close, Muddy wasn't just a laughing, smiling, clown of an entertainer. You can't dance to 'Standing Around Crying', after all. You gotta feel it, you gotta enjoy it as music, not as fuel for your feet. You gotta get that passion for the dark and the weird and the sensitive and the emotional and everything. In my opinion, this is the side that rock'n'roll was entirely lacking throughout the Fifties, and it only got that side after British bands started to get a bit more serious. Which, of course, couldn't have happened if they didn't have good old Muddy Waters right there beside them to rely upon. Rest in peace, Muddy.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Sell your soul and see what happens.
Album: The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 1990)
CD I: 1-2) Kindhearted Woman Blues; 3) I Believe I'll Dust My Broom; 4) Sweet Home Chicago; 5-6) Rambling On My Mind; 7-8) When You Got A Good Friend; 9-10) Come On In My Kitchen; 11) Terraplane Blues; 12-13) Phonograph Blues; 14) 32-20 Blues; 15) They're Red Hot; 16) Dead Shrimp Blues; 17-18) Cross Road Blues; 19) Walking Blues; 20) Last Fair Deal Gone Down;
CD II: 1) Preaching Blues (Up Jumped The Devil); 2) If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day; 3) Stones In My Passway; 4) I'm A Steady Rollin' Man; 5) From Four Till Late; 6) Hellhound On My Trail; 7-8) Little Queen Of Spades; 9) Malted Milk; 10-11) Drunken Hearted Man; 12-13) Me And The Devil Blues; 14-15) Stop Breakin' Down Blues; 16) Traveling Riverside Blues; 17) Honeymoon Blues; 18-19) Love In Vain; 20-21) Milkcow's Calf Blues.
If you thought Muddy Waters' recordings sounded cracky and old, take a listen to this. Johnson's recordings are probably not the first ever examples of recorded blues, but there can hardly be any doubt that the very expression "Thirties' Blues" is destined to bring the guy on your mind.
Not that this double CD compilation, supposedly collecting every known Johnson recording he ever made during his short life, isn't an exhausting listen. Twenty nine songs that certainly all 'sound the same' (with a few minor exceptions), and that's only about half of it: most of the songs are present in two different versions, apparently dating from different 'recording sessions', and furthermore, arranged in a rather strange way - the two parallel versions are always juxtaposed, so that you gotta sit through most of the songs twice in a row. For my money, I would have thought it'd been a far more reasonable thing to separate the sessions and put all the duplicate versions on a separate CD - thus, the listener could always select the version that suited him best and not have to program his CD all the time. What comes to mind, then, is that the second outtake is in most cases the more 'crackling' one, and thus, less listenable, so maybe the guys at Columbia thought that separating the outtakes would result in people always listening to one CD and always missing the other. Or something like that.
In any case, any complaints about the track juxtaposition can't obscure the actual quality of the songs and the CD. We all know the story of Robert Johnson, of course - king of Delta blues, one of the, if not the, most important figure in pre-electric blues, the one who certainly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his remarkable playing, singing and composing talent, and consequently died at the age of twenty-seven, supposedly poisoned either by his girlfriend or by a jealous husband. Not everyone knows, though, that Johnson also revolutionized guitar playing - in our days, nobody will even raise an eyebrow at that, but it is generally acknowledged that Johnson invented the 'boogie bass line' that liberated him from the necessity of having a backing bass player to play his blues. Hear that? The 'chug-chug-chug-chug' line that holds up the rhythm all the time while Johnson 'weaves' the melody lines around it? Hard to believe, but that 'chug-chug' line hasn't always existed. Somebody actually had to think of that style of playing. And it wasn't Lindsey Buckingham, oh no.
It's almost funny to realize how many of these songs have been appropriated by legendary artists and bands later on. Too often, it's kinda difficult to perceive the huge potential of the song, at least, from a 'modern ear' point of view. Is 'Love In Vain' a beautiful song? It hardly stands out from the rest on here; just a typical lost love blues, like so many others. Took the Rolling Stones to add an ultra-clean, near-baroque acoustic guitar line and a touch of mandolin to demonstrate the marvels you can achieve with this raw material. Or, for instance, take a listen to 'Cross Road Blues' - a detailed and serious listen will certainly confirm that when Cream took over the song, they almost preserved the melody: that gruff looping riff that carried forward the song is actually present in Johnson's playing, but it's hidden deep under his staccatos and under the poor quality of the sound.
In other case, though, Johnson's followers have been more kind - Cream's version of 'Four Until Late', for instance, minus excessive arrangement touches, sounds exactly in the same way, and for 'Stop Breakin' Down Blues', the Rolling Stones tried (and succeeded) to preserve the original spirit of the song. Don't get me wrong, though: all the songs on here are great in their own way, not the least because of the very vibe that's preserved in them. Ooh, that vibe. The crackle. The wicked nasty voice, going to a half-assed roar or to a gentle sly falsetto when needed. The 'boogie bass line'. The lyrics - this is where you'll find the 'squeeze my lemon till it runs down my leg' line that produced such a strong impression on the young Robert Plant ('Traveling Riverside Blues').
Of course, it's all highly formulaic: all the differences can usually be tracked down to differences in lyrics and in the exact type of melodic accompaniment Johnson selects for a particular track. There are just a few exceptions, most notably on the first CD - 'They're Red Hot', for instance, is a fast playful jazzy tune that stands at odds with everything that surrounds it, and 'Last Fair Deal Gone Wrong' is more like a cute folksy shuffle with some odd, almost dissonant chords accompanying the verses. You can see the huge influence on Dylan, too, by the way - 'Come On In My Kitchen', for instance, was re-written by Bob as 'Pleding My Time' on Blonde On Blonde, including the borrowing of the line 'somebody got lucky'. Or on subsequent bluesmen - as was correctly pointed out here in the reader comments by Fredrik Tydal, Muddy Waters took 'If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day' and reinvented it as 'Rollin' And Tumblin'.
Overall, it goes without saying that 2 CDs of this material can be really wearying, and the running order of the tracks is amazingly stupid; non-hardcore blues fans would do much better to try and track down a more reasonable collection if it exists (and it should). But it's still excellent that The Complete Recordings have been put out - it's so rare that Thirties' artists get a full-fledged respectable treatment like this, and it ensures that Johnson's recordings, all of them priceless beyond words, won't be lost to future generations.
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