This review is part of my unofficial “Honeymoon Series,” consisting of music I heard in clubs, cafés and other places while on my honeymoon, a combination of the unfamiliar and music I thought I’d never review in a billion years.
Creedence would still be on my no-fly list if after we landed in Nice I hadn’t slipped the taxi driver an extra ten euro to make a detour to the one-hour free parking garage near the Promenade so we could get out of the car, dash down to the waterfront and get a quick look at the Mediterranean before heading home. I thought it would be a nice touch to end our honeymoon with Alicia in my arms as we took in the beauty of the sea, ending the special moment with a full-bodied kiss to ruin the vacations of any homophobic tourists in the crowd.
If you’ve ever been to Nice, you know that we take great pride in our busking culture and have been blessed with some of the best buskers on the planet. There’s a fabulous pianist who hauls his piano out a few nights a week, Peruvian flutists, some truly talented guitarists (both acoustic and electric), several more-than-competent jazz musicians and though I haven’t seen him for a while, I think there’s still a Michael Jackson imitator, complete with the moonwalk.
When we made it to a suitable spot with a good view of the sea, I noticed a busker nearby getting ready for an acoustic guitar set. I don’t know—maybe I had a vague hope that all the forces in the universe would align and he would accompany our kiss with something sweet and romantic like Andres Segovia’s “Romance de los Pinos.” Alas, right in the middle of our deep and deliberately theatrical kiss, the guitarist sprung into action in the worst possible way:
Just got home from Illinois, lock the front door, oh boy!Got to sit down, take a rest on the porch Imagination sets in, pretty soon I’m singin’ Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door
I tried to ignore it but towards the end of the kiss, Alicia could feel shaky vibrations emanating from my lips and tongue. She pulled away, the look on her face indicating that she thought I might be having a seizure. Her alarm quickly faded when she saw me doubled up in laughter.
“Why are you laughing?”
Now gasping for air, I tried to explain in language only a Trekkie would understand: “You remember that episode (gasp, gasp) where Sisko and Dukat were in the cave (gasp)?”
“There was something Dukat said (gasp, gasp) . . . ‘You have to laugh at a universe that allows such radical shifts in fortune.'”
“But what . . . ”
“I was hoping for an epic romantic moment to end our honeymoon and wound up with a Creedence song played on an out-of-tune guitar sung by a guy who couldn’t hit a fucking note to save his life.”
“Maybe it’s a sign . . . or one of those callings like they have on Manifest.”
That made me laugh even harder, but I finally pulled myself together, tossed a euro into the guy’s guitar case and thanked him for the ultimate in absurdist experiences.
I’ve had a few requests over the years to do a CCR review, all of which I deliberately ignored. I heard a lot of their music growing up and it never really grabbed me. When my dad told me that CCR was the most popular band in America at the turn of the decade, I thought he was either joking or leaning into his Bay Area bias. To my ears, their music was simplistic and eminently predictable; the bass player stuck to the root notes and the drummer did little more than keep the beat; the lead guitar was often too harsh and seemed a bit clumsy; musical innovation was off the table. Later I learned that they were a major factor in advancing the return-to-the-roots movement embraced by many American musicians (NPR claimed that CCR’s music “mythologized the American South with an exotic mixture of blues, New Orleans R&B and rockabilly”) but I thought their music paled in comparison to what the Dead accomplished with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Despite qualms and reservations galore, either fate, karma or callings led to CCR becoming part of my honeymoon soundtrack, so I thought I’d get right on it before I changed my mind.
Chronicle contains CCR’s most familiar offerings and entered the Top 20 upon release. There’s a Chronicle Volume 2 filled with minor hits, B-sides and deep album tracks that failed to chart anywhere except in the Netherlands (at number 70). Unless you’re a diehard Creedence fan, volume one should satisfy any Creedence-related yearnings you may have.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
The two tracks from their debut album are covers, as are about half the songs on the album (similar to Please Please Me and Kinks).
“Suzie Q”: Lots to unpack here. First off, after letting him know I was going to tackle CCR, dear old Dad urged me via email to challenge the claim that “Suzie Q” was the band’s first hit record. “Before they were Creedence they went by the name of the Golliwogs and had a hit record called ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ (no relation to the Van Morrison song).” Sorry Dad, but according to The Airheads Radio Survey Archive, “Brown-Eyed Girl” never appeared in the top 30 charts of any of the big three Bay Area radio stations (KYA, KEWB, KLIV). “Brown-Eyed Girl” does appear on the album Pre-Creedence along with other Golliwogs and Blue Velvets releases, none of which disturbed the listening public. “Suzie Q” was most definitely the song that launched their career.
Actually, I like “Brown-Eyed Girl” a lot more than the CCR rendition of “Suzie Q,” and I like Dale Hawkins’ original even better, even with that stupid cowbell. The CCR take is boring in the extreme and John Fogerty’s lead guitar doesn’t come close to the heat generated by James Burton on the original. If for some reason you have the overwhelming urge to listen to CCR’s rendition, I suggest you change your settings to mono, as the stereo mix reflects the 60s fetish with “creative panning,” severely reducing the musical mass.
“I Put a Spell on You”: The Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original is tailor-made for Halloween parties, largely thanks to a unique approach to recording: “The entire band was intoxicated during a recording session where ‘Hawkins screamed, grunted, and gurgled his way through the tune with utter drunken abandon.'” (Wikipedia) The Alan Price Set managed to stay sober, using the organ to express the song’s essential eeriness and employing tempo changes to reflect the burgeoning madness occasioned by jealousy.
Though CCR’s take falls short in the musical inventiveness department, they do manage to match Hawkins’ raw power with a solid, heartfelt vocal from John Fogerty, an extended instrumental section with garage-powered builds and occasionally effective lead guitar riffs (particularly in the second go-round).
Only one song from their second album made the cut, but it’s a whopper. This was the point in CCR history where John Fogerty took over the songwriting . . . the production . . . the business side of things . . . pretty much the whole shebang.
“Proud Mary”: The boys from El Cerrito transformed themselves into bayou denizens for their second album, Bayou Country. They’d already explored “swamp rock” with their cover of “Suzie Q,” so in that sense, “Proud Mary” can be viewed as putting their own stamp on the genre. It certainly didn’t hurt that “Proud Mary” followed the release of Music from Big Pink and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, heralding the shift towards “down-home” music that would reach full flower with the explosion of Southern Rock in the 70s. And while “Proud Mary” isn’t based on John Fogerty’s personal experience (he’d never seen the Mississippi when he wrote it), the song has a strong connection to American river mythology, albeit on a superficial, highly idealistic level. “Proud Mary” essentially fed the nostalgic yearning for simpler times that possessed many Americans exhausted by the social tensions of the 60s.
“Around that time every amateur guitar player in the country learned ‘Proud Mary,’ and they played it to death” my father recalls. It’s certainly a catchy song with a fairly straightforward chord projection and a climactic chorus that’s designed for sing-a-longs. As I don’t cotton to nostalgia, the song has zero emotional impact on me, but I can understand how it became a monster hit.
CCR’s third effort was the second of three albums they released in 1969. Some attribute this unusual productivity to a creative hot streak; the more cynical view is that John Fogerty found a formula for commercial success and was eager to get what he could while the getting was good.
“Bad Moon Rising”: This follow-up hit did just as well on the charts as “Proud Mary,” and I imagine it was particularly popular with religious nutcakes who were convinced that the apocalypse was just around the corner. Who else could appreciate a song celebrating impending doom set to bouncy, happy, upbeat music? The biblical reference “one eye is taken for an eye” would have sent fundamentalist hearts all a-flutter. There’s no doubt that John Fogerty’s preacher-reminiscent vocal carries the song, as the other band members are completely locked into making the background music as generic and unintrusive as possible.
“Lodi”: Wikipedia seriously blew it on this one, claiming that the song was set in Lodi, Texas. Guess what? There are no bars, clubs or music venues of any sort in Lodi, Texas:
Lodi is an unincorporated community in northern Marion County, Texas, United States. Its elevation is 253 feet (77 m). It has a post office with the ZIP code 75564. The only business in Lodi, Texas is Lodi Drilling & Service Company Inc.
Apparently the author of that article couldn’t be bothered to look at a fucking map. Fortunately, Songfacts got it right:
Lodi is a city in California located in the central valley, about 30 miles south of Sacramento and 75 or 100 miles east of San Francisco/Oakland. Fogerty and his earlier band often performed in “nowhere towns” like Lodi . . . This song is a reflection on John Fogerty’s days with The Golliwogs, an early version of Creedence Clearwater Revival. They had to struggle for success, playing wherever they could with dilapidated equipment and an often indifferent audience . . . Drummer Doug Clifford claimed the band played a show in Lodi in their early days. Said Clifford: “There were nine people in there, they were all locals, they were all drunk and all they did all night was tell us to turn it down.”
In his bio Fortunate Sun: My Life, My Music, John Fogerty attempted to rewrite history by claiming that “the inspiration for ‘Lodi’ came from trips with his father around central California, an area of the world where he ‘felt very warm and special.'” It’s hard to square that bit of sunshine and light with Doug Clifford’s memory or the fact that he essentially blasted Lodi’s reputation to smithereens in the song. Was John Fogerty trying to make amends because he’d heard through the grapevine (pun intended) that the Lodi Mob Chapter had put out a contract on him?
Personally, I think he was an idiot not to embrace his creation, because “Lodi” is the best song he ever wrote. Unlike his wanderings down the Mississippi and into the Bayous, the song has an undeniable authenticity that every musician starting out at the bottom of the heap can easily identify with. The verse that really kills me is the last, emphasized by a key change from Bb to C (Fogerty used a capo on the third fret to make things easier):
If I only had a dollarFor ev’ry song I’ve sung Ev’ry time I’ve had to play While people sat there drunk You know, I’d catch the next train Back to where I live Oh Lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again Oh Lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again
Some years back when I was living in Seattle, I heard that the Canadian band Rah Rah was going to play a gig in one of the bars in the Ballard neighborhood, an easy trek from my place on Queen Anne. I’d just given their latest release (The Poet’s Dead) a very positive review and was really looking forward to seeing them live. The experience was a crushing disappointment—not because the band had an off-night—but because they’d traveled a long way from Saskatchewan to play their hearts out in a nondescript bar and no one except yours truly paid the slightest bit of attention to them. The crowd outnumbered Doug Clifford’s nine by a few heads, but yeah, they were all drunk and talking bullshit instead of having the courtesy to shut the fuck up and give the band a shot. I felt terrible for the musicians and gave serious thought to applying my martial arts training to the fuckheads who ruined the evening.
“Lodi” is as real as it gets, and I hope my little story encourages readers to always give musicians the respect they deserve.
“Green River”: Omigod! John Fogerty of El Cerrito, California goes full southern with a rowdy cry of ‘Y’all!” Catfish! Bullfrogs! Algae-loaded rivers! Ridiculous!
“Commotion”: John-Boy’s opening guitar lick immediately turns me off with a blast of treble overload and the rest of the song goes downhill from there. I’m glad to see him back home with all that California traffic and even happier to report that Stu Cook finally earned the opportunity to play a real bass run for a change. It’s not much of a run, but still . . .
Willy and the Poor Boys
The final 1969 release came out just in time for the holiday season. What luck!
“Down on the Corner”: The arrangement is one of the best on the album, with greater balance between the various contributions. The calypso-ish beat is engaging and the harmonies on the chorus strengthen the narrative of four poor boys playing music for a few coins. What I really love about the song is that it reminds us that nearly all the rock stars who achieved fame and fortune came from the lower and middle classes. Whether they fell in love with music in response to the skiffle craze in the U.K. or by watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, many of those “poor boys” formed bands with “budget guitars” (like the Kalamazoo referenced in the song) and make-do instruments like kazoos, washboards and empty jugs. Yes, “Down on the Corner” is about Willy and the Poor Boys, but the subliminal message is one that every successful musician should hold dear: “Never forget where you came from.”
“Fortunate Son”: I appreciate the Johnsonian sentiments mirroring one of the Doctor’s most trenchant insights (“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”) and given his love affair with the conservative South, it was quite appropriate for John Fogerty to take advantage of his heightened standing to declare himself a die-hard liberal. What I don’t appreciate is a fairly consistent pattern in much of CCR’s music that is most obvious in this particular track: John Fogerty’s voice and guitar dominate the mix while the rest of the band is shoved into deep background. The song actually opens with Stu and Doug establishing a nice thumping beat and for a second I hope they get a chance to really show their stuff. That second of hope takes up one of the three lousy seconds allotted to the rhythm section before John-Boy’s trebly guitar kills the mood.
I see John Fogerty as a liberal in name only (a LINO!). When it came to band leadership, he was more the controlling, fascist type, a contradiction that would contribute significantly to the band’s breakup.
Dad initially suggested I review Cosmo’s Factory, “Easily their best album.” I’m glad I didn’t take his advice because I would have run out of oh-for-fuck-sakes halfway through the record.
“Travelin’ Band”: John-Boy clearly dominates this bit of straight-up rock, making contributions on saxophone and electric piano in addition to his usual lead singer and lead guitarist roles. The lyrics are a nothingburger, but damn, it’s nice to have a break from the two-guitars-bass-and-drum combination. John Fogerty’s saxophone skills won’t make you forget Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, but he’s competent enough to mimic the sax of 50’s rock.
“Who’ll Stop the Rain”: The pleasant and predictable melody would have been better served by a quieter arrangement and the complete elimination of vocal reverb and echo. Allegedly John-Boy wrote the song after taking in the festivities at Woodstock, and I gather from the lyrics that he was trying to tell us that either the United States or the whole world had been in a bad way for quite some time (hence the rain) despite the efforts of “Good men through the ages tryin’ to find the sun.” He then proceeds to blow it by implying that the good men included FDR (“New Deals”) and . . . Stalin? (“Five-Year Plans”). My guess is that John Fogerty cut more than a few history classes.
“Up Around the Bend”: Oh, fuck, cut the treble, dammitall! John-Boy seriously oversings this tune, as if going up around a fucking bend is the ultimate in orgasmic experiences. I don’t think much of the song, but I have to give the songwriter credit for one pretty good couplet:
Hitch a ride to the end of the highwayWhere the neons turn to wood
“Run Through the Jungle”: The opening is as close to progressive as CCR would ever get, but it turns into yet another swamp rock extravaganza set to one monotonous chord. Big yawn for the most part, but I do like Stu Cook’s bass on this one.
“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”: I can no longer listen to this song without laughing my head off, but I have a vague memory of singing along to it when I was a kid. As an adult, I find it more than a bit too cheery.
“Long as I Can See the Light”: This gospel-like piece confirms that John Fogerty never came close to mastering vocal subtlety or resisting the temptation to employ overused metaphors. ‘Nuff said.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”: Having already commented on this song in Dad’s 45’s (Part Five), I can avoid further damage to my eardrums by quoting myself:
Apparently Americans of this era had an unusually strong appetite for grapevines. Only a year after the Gladys Knight & The Pips version made it to #2, Marvin Gaye took his version to the top, where it stayed for three weeks. Not to be outdone, Creedence Clearwater Revival produced an eleven-minute version of the song for their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory. Their single version peaked at #46.
As it is with penises, length is irrelevant. Creedence’s version is a colossal bore from one of the most overrated bands in history, so Fogerty can put his long one back in his pants and get the hell off the stage. The only versions that matter came from Gladys and Marvin.
Rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty left the band shortly after this release, having had it with dear brother.
“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”: My snotty answer to the question is, “Yes, we saw the rain a few songs back.”
I’ll stop being a brat for a few minutes and surprise you with my favorable opinion of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” For the first time in this collection we can clearly hear the contributions of Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, and hey, they’re pretty damned good! Cook manages to create a nice clean tone without losing a bit of bottom and his counterpoint runs are absolutely superb. Clifford does a marvelous job, keeping a nice easy beat while demonstrating excellent touch on the cymbals. John Fogerty actually manages to restrain himself a bit, delivering a sensitive vocal that respects the melancholy of the lyrics and music, the latter sweetened by acoustic guitar, piano and a touch of organ. It’s clearly one of the better arrangements in the compilation, along with “Down on the Corner.”
Mark Deming of All Music (whom I’ve always classified as an idiot), came up with one whopper of a lyrical interpretation: “. . . the song is about the idealism of the 1960s and about how it faded in the wake of events such as the Altamont Free Concert and the Kent State shootings, and that Fogerty is saying that the same issues of the 1960s still existed in the 1970s but that people were no longer fighting for them.” I double-triple-quadruple dare you to find any support for that nonsense in the lyrics. Fortunately for the field of music criticism, the Wikipedia author of the article rightly called bullshit on Deming:
However, Fogerty himself has said in interviews and prior to playing the song in concert that it is about rising tension within CCR and the imminent departure of his brother Tom from the band. In an interview, Fogerty stated that the song was written about the fact that they were on the top of the charts, and had surpassed all of their wildest expectations of fame and fortune. They were rich and famous, but somehow all of the members of the band at the time were depressed and unhappy; thus the line “Have you ever seen the rain, coming down on a sunny day?”
“Hey Tonight”: Ouch! Cut the fucking treble! I think this song is sadder than “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” because it sure doesn’t sound like John Fogerty put a whole lot of effort into its composition or performance.
I’d never heard these songs because Dad never bought the album. The reviews of the album were unrelentingly harsh: “The worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band,” opined Jon Landau.
In response to accusations of dictatorship, John Fogerty offered the two remaining members a more democratic arrangement where each would contribute an equal number of songs on the album. Both Clifford and Cook knew they weren’t ready for such a sudden change in the modus operandi and suspected a more sinister motive behind Fogerty’s sudden embrace of democratization: a ruse to break up the band so Fogerty could go solo. And that’s exactly what happened. The two songs on the compilation are both John Fogerty compositions.
“Sweet Hitch-Hiker”: “A classic John Fogerty stomper” according to one biographer. I would add “with not much feeling and a lousy narrative.”
“Someday Never Comes”: A promising story about parental abandonment dissolves into ambiguity when what the song really needed was a parting shot of insight. I’m not sure what John-Boy was trying to do with his voice, but to my ears he sounds like a guy who had more than one for the road.
Creedence may not be my cup of tea, but I even I can’t deny the fact that their songs had legs and reach. My encounter with the busker wasn’t the first time I stumbled across their music in France and I’ve heard their songs on muzak tracks in more than a few EU countries.
As for John Fogerty, he faced a choice that every leader faces: should I command or should I collaborate? The problem with collaboration is that it takes time and trust whereas command simplifies decision-making and is more likely to produce quick results. I get the sense that John Fogerty was sick and tired of playing in Lodis, pissed off that the draft forced him to waste time in the Army Reserves and was understandably anxious to get his music career going. His choice to run the whole show certainly led to the band’s eventual demise but also played a major factor in CCR’s success. It’s highly unlikely that people would still be listening to Creedence today if John Fogerty hadn’t been a demanding prick.
And say hey, even if he was an asshole during the Creedence years, it’s really hard for me not to like a fellow Giants fan who happened to write and wrote one of the greatest baseball songs of all time!