When the geniuses who are wasting their talents hacking elections get around to doing something beneficial for the human race, I hope they apply their noggins to figuring out the mystery of time travel. I have five stops on my itinerary:
- June 16, 1904, Dublin, Ireland, the day described in Ulysses by James Joyce, now celebrated as Bloomsday. I want to see all the sights and come up with my very own witty and obscene internal dialogue!
- Le Chabanais, Paris, 1943. I’d pose as a high-class hooker at the leading brothel in Paris, use my bondage skills on Nazi clients and deliver them bound-and-gagged to the underground! No Nazis in my pussy!
- Easter Sunday, 1967, Elysian Park, Los Angeles. That’s the place and time of the first love-in and I want to go for the championship trophy! They did give away trophies, didn’t they?
- May-June, 1981, Bonds International Casino, New York. The Clash played seventeen gigs at Bonds during that period and I want to see every fucking one!
- Mid-1950’s, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, Chi-Town, the home of Chess Records. I’d crawl through the duct work and hide myself in the ceiling so I could watch Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Mr. Elias McDaniel create history.
I think I’d have the most fun with Mr. McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley. For one, he has a fabulous laugh, and many of his songs make me laugh. For another, his lyrics combine ludicrous hyperbole and blatant self-mythologizing, but even when he’s strutting his stuff, I get the sense that he didn’t take himself all that seriously. But most importantly, his sense of rhythm comes straight from his cojones, infusing his music with sexual power, and I love sexual power, no matter who’s dishing it out. In the liner notes for this collection, Don Snowdon emphatically validates my perception: “But make no mistake, Bo Diddley played body rock—his musical sights were set on the listener’s hips from the git-go.”
Humor, modesty and as horny as fuck. AND he had a square guitar designed specifically to avoid damaging his hyperactive private parts. Yeah, I could go for Bo Diddley.
“Bo Diddley” (March 2, 1955): Elias’ greatest claim to fame is the Bo Diddley beat, a clave rhythm that some count as “shave and a haircut—two bits” (seven eighth-notes and a rest) while others hear six eighth-notes, a rest and a quarter-note at the end of the run. I hear both, depending on how Bo is feeling it at the moment. Musical analysis aside, what sells the beat is the echo of Afro-Caribbean rhythms that naturally stimulate a rhythmic response in the nether regions, encouraging the listener to dance, shake some ass or engage in a little dry humping with a more adventurous dance partner. Bo was smart enough to make the Latin connection and milk it for all it was worth by taking the unusual step of making maracas master Jerome Green a regular in his recording sessions.
The Bo Diddley beat is prominent in this first song he recorded at Chess, with heavily-tremeloed guitar, maracas and Clifton James’ tom toms front-and-center. Bo doesn’t bother with note-picking in this piece, focusing entirely on the rhythmic potential of the guitar. The sound he manages to create through relatively primitive equipment is mesmerizing, and gives me the urge to jump onto the stage the next time I’m attending a rock concert so I can set fire to all those fucking pedal boards guitarists are enamored with these days. “Just play the fucking instrument, for fuck’s sake!” I’d scream as the security forces dragged me into the wings. Sorry, but in my never-humble opinion, technology is too often used to disguise a profound lack of musical talent. And no, I’m not an anti-technology Luddite, as my reviews of Radiohead, Devo and St. Vincent will conclusively prove. I’m just tired of lazy-ass musicians who don’t respect the craft.
This first song was his first and only #1 hit (on the R&B charts), and while we’re piling on the firsts, his first effort in transforming himself into a mythic figure. While speaking of himself in the third-person may seem pompous, pay attention to the lyrics—this is clearly a guy without the slightest tinge of pretentiousness:
Bo Diddley caught a nanny goat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat
Bo Diddley caught a bear cat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday hat
Not exactly like strolling into Bergdorf Goodman to shop for a designer mink stole.
“I’m a Man” (March 2, 1955): This all-time classic was the B-side to “Bo Diddley,” believe it or not. Bo Diddley could have retired after that single and still have become a legend.
If you’re accustomed to The Yardbirds’ treatment, you may get a little impatient with the slower tempo of the original, but I’d encourage you to get the fuck over it. The Yardbirds version is a classic rave-up where they use the structure of the original as takeoff point for the thrilling guitar-harmonica call-and-response that follows the verses, which in turn leads to the equally thrilling and positively furious high-voltage scratch-strummed build to the final collapse. Bo Diddley’s version is pure Chicago blues featuring a stellar performance on the harp courtesy of Billy Boy Arnold. It’s a piece of slow-burn foreplay from a man knows he can deliver the goods and is seriously feeling it from the base of his balls all the way up to the tip of his Johnson:
Now when I was a little boy
At the age of five
I had somethin’ in my pocket
Keep a lot of folks alive
At the age of five? Because I didn’t have a little brother, I knew nothing about little boy wee-wee sticks until I found that “erection is common among infants and toddlers” at newkidscenter.com. Here’s the scoop:
How to handle child erections. We all know that babies are curious, eager to learn more about themselves and the world. Child erections are part of his attempts to get to know his own body. Although they may make you feel embarrassed, it is important to handle these situations with utmost attentiveness and tact.
- You mustn’t make the boy feel ashamed, as if he is doing something dirty. Keep in mind that your behavior at these first stages will influence his sexual outlook and behavior in later years.
- Try not to panic and don’t let the boy get over-excited. You can put him in a cool bath and try to distract him until things return to normal.
What if your baby likes to play with his penis? If you notice that your baby boy likes touching and rubbing his penis, trying to get an erection, you don’t need to worry. This is a perfectly normal child’s behavior, says Anita Sethi, research scientist at the Child and Family Policy Center at New York University, quoted by “Parenting” magazine. She assures that the boy will outgrow this habit sooner or later.
I’ve never known a guy who outgrew that particular habit, and apparently, Bo Diddley took great pride in turning the habit into a discipline so he could parade his big bulge around town. Not only does this doctor-approved citation validate Bo’s early-stage braggadocio, but confirms the wisdom of my own approach to the sight of a male erection—I always handle those situations with utmost attentiveness and tact, because if I don’t, latent male insecurity will overtake the urge, leaving him with a deflated plaything and me with an empty toy box.
As the saying goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, and Bo clearly wanted the female members of the listening audience that he was available and certifiably reliable:
All you pretty women
Stand in line
I can make love to you baby
In an hour’s time
BTW on the “in an hour’s time” bit of “I’m a Man” – I always took that to mean not that the singer will take an hour to pleasure the listener, but that he will do so an hour from now (for an unspecified amount of time) – i.e. she’s just got to wait for him! That makes more sense of Muddy Waters’ version (“Mannish Boy”), which ups the ante on all of Bo Diddley’s boasts and changes the announcement to “five minutes’ time”! Bo likes to keep his woman waiting, but Muddy prefers to strike while the iron’s hot . . .
I agree completely. There’s no way that Muddy Watters would finish a fuck in five minutes—such an act would contradict his documented pride in his sturdy companion and leave the woman unsatisfied, which in turn would endanger his reputation (yes, guys, women tell other women everything about your fuck style, in exquisite and extensive detail). Muddy’s message indicates he also makes customer service a priority, reducing the wait to the minimum time necessary to brush his teeth and attend to his armpits. In contrast, Bo Diddley makes you wait a whole fucking hour, meaning that either he needs more time to prepare his body for the upcoming competition, or he’s fucking another broad. If he’s fucking another broad, he’s also keeping an eye on the clock so he can get to the next customer within the stated one-hour limit. Unacceptable! If I saw a guy checking his watch during a fuck, that watch would wind up as evidence against me, because the frozen watch face would tell the police the exact time I murdered the worthless SOB. Offering a waiting time of one hour can be a successful marketing strategy only if the waiting time is compensated by the greatest fuck in history, a continuous cascade of orgasms that would induce a heroin-level addiction to Bo Diddley, thus ensuring a return visit to the shop:
The line I shoot
Will never miss
The way I make love to ’em
They can’t resist
Gosh, I wish I could check Consumer Reports or a well-populated Yelp listing . . . Sorry, Bo, I think I’ll have to go with Muddy, as he doesn’t have any limits to the duration of a fuck, and I need a minimum of two hours to feel all is right with the world.
“You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care)” (March 2, 1955): Bo switches to picking during the opening passage of this Chicago blues number, more notable for the instrumental passages featuring Billy Boy Arnold’s energetic harp and Otis Spann’s extended piano solo. While Otis’ fingers dance over the keyboard, Billy Boy plays an extended note that I could swear was elongated guitar feedback until the need to breathe gives him away. The sound blends well with what Otis is laying down, as his style is both fluid and captivating—an excellent demonstration of why he’s considered the best Chicago blues piano player of them all.
“Diddley Daddy” (May 15, 1955): Oh, darn. Billy Boy called in sick today. Who else we got? Hey! Does anybody here know how to play the harmonica? Who the hell are you? Did you say Walter? Geez, what happened to you? Looks like someone landed a few good jabs on your puss. You sure you can play with that missing tooth? What the hell—let’s give it a shot.
A full stable of first-class musicians always seemed to be hanging out at Chess Records, and Bo Diddley wound up featuring many of them on his records. Willie Dixon played bass on “I’m a Man,” and here Little Walter takes a break from his work with Muddy Watters, pulls a harp out of his pocket and gives us a more than a few good licks, moving from an extended moan to a series of runs that occasionally mimic a hot blues cornet. The Moonglows provide the background vocals while Bo takes another opportunity to advertise his manhood, but in a very unexpected yet charming manner. Somebody kissed his baby last night, a kiss that was apparently unwanted and left the poor girl in tears. In recounting her story, she tells him “Say Bo Diddley, you know you’re a natural-born man,” and he responds, “I say I love you baby with all my heart/Please don’t never say we’ll part.” Emotional support is a much better response than hunting down the perpetrator and beating the living shit out of him.
“Pretty Thing” (July 14, 1955): The song that gave one of my favorite and unheralded British bands their name is a Willie Dixon number set to a shimmery Bo Diddley beat. The song is unusual because unlike many Bo Diddley beat songs that remain fixed on a single chord, Bo strays from the root in the instrumental passages, moving up to G, sliding down to F#, then a quick change to D5 before he returns to E. The lyrics are a rather conventional proposal of marriage complete with choir and the cliché “blushing bride,” but the tightly intertwined guitar, harmonica and rhythm keep you in your seat. “Pretty Thing” made it to #4 in the U. S. R&B charts, but would not be released in Britain for another eight years—just in time to fuel the British Invasion and give The Pretty Things their name.
“Bring It to Jerome” (July 14, 1955): Lester Davenport kicks this one off with a brief blast of harmonica, inspiring a long wail from Bo while Jerome Green provides what will morph into the response to Bo’s lines in the verses: “Bring it to Jerome.” What’s going on here is Jerome’s main squeeze has been seeking satisfaction elsewhere, and while Bo relates that mournful story in an aching, pleading voice, his maracas-playing pal keeps repeating “Bring it to Jerome.” The pairing seems to make little sense until Jerome takes over the lead vocal with one . . . no, two things on his mind:
All you pretty women
Bring it to my home
You don’t have to worry
I won’t do you no wrong
Look here pretty baby
This mess I won’t stand
All the other women
Say you got another man
Tsk, tsk. Mixing the need for nookie with the desire for revenge leaves everyone feeling used and abused. While this precursor of revenge porn is unlikely to end well, the song itself is exceptionally engaging, the single chord and steady rhythm mirroring Jerome’s firm intent to show that bitch a thing or two. Bo gets a chance to stretch his larynx and sing with greater range and intensity, a talent that he will put to exquisite use a few songs down the road.
“I’m Lookin’ for a Woman” (November 10, 1955): We now enter a period in Bo Diddley’s career where, according to Don Snowdon’s liner notes, “Surprisingly, Bo’s chart success stopped then for three years.” He lists those three years as 1957-1959, which may confuse readers who have been paying attention to the recording dates from the liner notes that you see here. Since recording dates never reflect release dates, I think the lack of chart success is better illustrated by noting that “Pretty Thing” was his last hit until “Say Man,” and then try to figure out what might have gone awry (commercially speaking). In this case, “I’m Looking for a Woman” features some of Bo’s best guitar work in this collection, a marvelously inventive combination of solid blues picking, tremendous bends and shimmery chords, but in the end, it’s a straight blues number without a strong hook or anything to make it stand out amidst the ample supply of Chicago blues releases during the period.
“Who Do You Love?” (May 24, 1956): The lack of commercial success of this classic number may surprise readers familiar with the popular versions by Quicksilver Messenger Service (who devoted an entire side of Happy Trails to the song) or George Thorogood and the Destroyers (with its relentless power chord attack). Wikipedia calls it “one of his most popular and enduring works.” Maybe so, but it was a certified commercial flop in 1956.
The reasons are obvious when you consider the lyrics in the context of the times. This was the Eisenhower era in America, an era defined by the color gray. Black artists were only just starting to break out of the R&B charts in the early years of rock, and the record shows they had a long, long way to go. While we think of songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Long Tall Sally” as classics, they really didn’t cause that much of a stir upon release in 1956: Berry peaked at #29 and Little Richard at #15. Pat Boone’s Wonder Bread rendition of “Tutti Frutti” crushed the Little Richard original, and his vapid version of “Long Tall Sally” almost exactly matched Little Richard’s not-quite-Top-10 chart performance. The Platters and other doo wop artists did relatively well, and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” reached the Top 10 in late ’56—but except for Elvis’ breakthrough in the second half of that year, rock ‘n’ roll was still a relatively minor player in the music industry, with white guys driving the sales numbers.
While the culture had reluctantly expanded to tolerate rock ‘n’ roll, most songs by those classified as rock artists were rather tame concerning the major topic of interest of the targeted teenage audience: how to attract members of the opposite sex. Iggy Pop’s promise to “stick it deep inside” would have caused those boys to blush and their girls to faint. That kind of sexual honesty was far beyond the capabilities of a culture where most guys would have been thrilled to make out with the girl in those wonderfully humongous back seats and maybe have a brush with second base. While you can imagine a teenage boy crooning “Love Me Tender” to his adoring sweetheart as they floated down the tunnel of love, he wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what to do with Bo Diddley’s hyperbolic display of machismo:
I walk 47 miles of barbed wire
I use a cobra snake for a necktie
I got a brand new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top
Made out of a human skull
Now come on take a walk with me Arlene
And tell me who do you love?
That explains the absence of crossover potential. What’s weird is that “Who Do You Love?” didn’t even make the R&B charts. Since much of the R&B audience consisted of either Southern blacks or those who had fled the South in WWII for better jobs up north, you’d think that at least some of those folks would have been delighted to hear a song loaded with New Orleans hoodoo imagery.
I rode around the town
Use a rattlesnake whip
Take it easy Arlene
Don’t give me no lip
The truth is that “Who Do You Love?” was more of an in-joke than a serious attempt to bust the charts. The guys who recorded at Chess Records were locked in fierce competition about whose dick was the longest, hardest and baddest of them all. Bo took his inspiration from Muddy Waters, who had recorded Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” a couple of years before: “I’m telling this chick . . . how bad I am, so she can go tell the cat she’s hanging with, ‘this dude is something else.’ That’s what it kinda meant, cat ridin’ rattlesnakes and kissin’ boa constrictors and stuff.”
O . . . kay . . .
As a satire of machismo, the song works. This guy is so full of bluster that you know he’s all talk and no action. It works musically as well, with Bo in his deeper he-man voice right on the border between talking and singing, letting Arlene know in no uncertain terms that he is one certified bad-ass. Interestingly, the two cover versions mentioned above play the song in the Bo Diddley beat, whereas Bo’s is pretty much non-stop backbeat drive. Maybe if he’d used the rhythm that made him famous, he might have cracked the Top 10.
Nah. Not in this era. “Who Do You Love?” was simply too much, too soon.
“Hey Bo Diddley” (February 8, 1957): I can understand why this one flopped: it’s the least interesting of the myth songs, featuring an incomprehensible story about a farm full of women and a tomboy outlier who visits the farm while armed to the teeth, makes a scene and splits. This is not the luxurious château where slaves-in-training are properly bathed, made up and summoned to serve their wealthy masters at a moment’s notice, it’s a fucking farm where you step in cow shit, pig shit and chicken shit, so even though there are women everywhere, no one could possibly get horny in such a foul environment—even a guy with a cobra snake for a necktie.
“Mona (a/k/a “I Need You Baby”) (February 8, 1957): Now we’re talkin’! The cover versions by The Stones, Quicksilver, Craig McLachlan and others simply can’t compete with the sheer passionate intensity of the original. Bo’s vocal quivers with desire, and his extended moans give me the best kind of shivers. The minimalistic arrangement of light drums, maracas and Bo on guitar clears enough space in the studio for Bo’s voice to shake the rafters while intensifying the deeply personal nature of his fantasy for the unattainable woman of his wet dreams. It is said that Bo’s heartthrob was 45-year old stripper, underscoring the point that the depth of his attraction had as much to do her unattainability as her physical assets. I don’t believe Bo ever wanted to consummate the relationship—the agonizing desire he feels for Mona is a pleasure unto itself, and there is always the fear that the reality will never live up to the fantasy. He wants to be close, but not that close:
Hey, Mona what I wanna do
Build my house next door to you
Can I see you sometime
We can talk just through the blind
Without the distance between the performer and her devoted audience of one, the whole thing would likely go pffft.
Incredibly, “Mona” was the B-side for “Hey Bo Diddley,” doomed to temporary oblivion. Since Buddy Holly found a use for the tune in “Not Fade Away,” I can’t complain too much.
“Before You Accuse Me” (August 15, 1957): Bo was a man of a thousand voices, and here he introduces his “victim voice,” a pleading cry reeking with a sense of injustice. After a nifty little opening riff, the band settles into a nice easy blues swing that eventually leads to a somewhat dissonant solo as Bo makes a game attempt at expanding his musical horizons. His efforts went for nought, however, as the single went absolutely nowhere. With his commercial appeal waning fast, he desperately needed to come up with something fresh and captivating—something that clicked with the audience in a New York second.
“Say Man” (January 29, 1958): Bo was probably open to trying anything at this point, so what the fuck—how about three minutes of barbershop bullshitting set to a Latin rhythm? Yeah, that’s the ticket! “Say Man” features Bo and Jerome trading insults centered around the mortal sin of ugliness—their own and the relative ugliness of their sweethearts. This kind of “shaming” may deeply offend the overly sensitive, humorless losers of our times who want to obliterate any signs of human discord and disagreeability, but I find the continuous parade of insults here an absolute and totally harmless hoot! My favorite passage combines a beautiful set-up with a devastating conclusion that doesn’t leave the victim feeling shamed, but ready to take it and dish it out with counteracting hyperbole:
Jerome: Ok; since you told me about my girl, I’m gonna tell you about yours. I was walking down the street with your girl.
Jerome: I took her home. For a drink, you know.
Bo: Took her home? (tone of concern)
Jerome: Yeh, jus’ for a drink.
Bo: Oh. (worried about what might come next)
Jerome: But that chick looked so ugly, she had to sneak up on the glass to get a drink of water. (Bo breaks into full-throated laughter)
Bo: You’ve got the nerve to call somebody ugly; why you so ugly the stork that brought you in the world oughta be arrested!
Jerome: That’s alright; my momma didn’t have to put a sheet on my head so sleep could slip up on me!
The conversation sounds natural and anything but scripted, and oh my, that laugh! I love the sheer joy in Bo Diddley’s laugh—it’s a laugh that makes you want to laugh along with him and feel the blessed healing power of laughter wash over you the same way it washes over him. And as strange as it may seem, “Say Man” turned out to be one of his biggest hits, climbing to #3 on the R&B charts and #2o on the white people pop charts, his highest ranking song ever. Kudos to Lafayette Leake for his distinctly light-hearted, playful piano-accompaniment.
“Dearest Darling” (January 29, 1958): Bo’s pleading again, but this one doesn’t work for me despite his energetic vocal because he invokes the lord as the agent that brought him and his dearest darling together. No, Bo, you did it! All by your lil’ ol’ lonesome!
“Crackin’ Up” (December, 1958): A lot of people don’t know that Bo wrote Ian & Sylvia’s monster hit, “Love Is Strange” (also recorded by Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Thunders and a host of others) because he wrote it using his first wife’s name as a pseudonym. Here he attempts to recreate the song using the same Jody Williams-style riff, with mixed success. The premise of the song is fundamentally flawed, for how could the guy who wrote “Who Do You Love?” submit to the basest form of humiliation?
I do your laundry and your cooking too
What more for a woman could a man like me do
You’re bugging me
Yeah, yeah, you’re crackin up
I don’t think she’s the one cracking up, Bo.
“The Story of Bo Diddley” (September, 1959): My favorite entry from the Bo Diddley mythology is based on an extraordinarily primitive, repetitive set of guitar chords that form the perfect background for a man who’s got a story to tell. Filled with his infectious laughter, Bo cleverly contrasts the mythic figure with the black dude who still has to pay tribute to the white man with all the power:
I was born one night about twelve o’clock (Ha-ha-ha)
I come in this world playin’ a gold guitar
My father was around stickin’ out his chest (Hee-hee)
A-now, mama this boy he gonna be a myth (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
Now, people came from miles around
Yeah, just to hear my little guitar sound
Now, some of ’em said I had what it takes
If I keep on practice I’d be famous one day (Ha-ha)
Woo, I’m a myth!
I’m a killer-diller
Early in the middle of the night
A car drove up with four headlights (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
Now, a man stepped out with a long cigar
He said, ‘Sign this line and I can make you a star’ (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
I said, ‘Now, what’s in it man, what’s in it for me?’
He says, play yo’ guitar son and wait an see’
Here I am! (heh-heh-heh,wheeee)
The girls liked me, they say, ‘It’s crazy, it sound nice, uh-huh’
There have been so many—too many—songs by rock stars about how they’ve been exploited by managers and studio heads, but most fall into the category of “the bitching of the rich and entitled.” “The Story of Bo Diddley” tells the real story—a kid dreams of becoming famous, fueled by parental expectations that he’s something special, thus creating a false bravado in the neophyte performer. The locals eat up his schtick and inflate the ego even further, setting up the inevitable deflation at the hands of the man who holds the long cigar and the keys to the kingdom. Most of the other “poor me, I’m a rock star” songs end there in a pathetic attempt to demonstrate the injustice of the system and its mistreatment of the artist. In Bo’s version, he accepts the humiliation as a simple fact of life then sings about the fabulous benefits that compensate for the loss of his special status: WOMEN! Sure beats working your ass off on the farm or playing for nickels on the snowy streets of Chicago. “The Story of Bo Diddley” is the story of a remarkably self-confident but also self-aware man who marveled at the absurdity of the system but realized that it was his best shot at having a life playing music and surrounding himself with admiring women. Is the system unfair? Yes. Does it devalue artistry? Absolutely. So what are you going to do about it? Go into victimization mode? Hey, dickhead—nobody forced you to sign the contract without reading it! There weren’t many opportunities in the 50’s for a black man to challenge any system, including the music business—Motown power was still years away. Bo made his deal with the devil and resolved to have some fun with it.
“Road Runner” (September, 1959): I have never grasped how this song could appeal to anyone, or why it was covered so extensively by Invasion bands like The Stones, Pretty Things, Zombies, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, and of course, The Animals. The road runner is such an unsexy, cute image, and personally, I always rooted for the coyote to feast on his irritating beepy ass.
“Pills” (May 2, 1961): Playing the role of victim once again, Bo officially relinquishes his status as a viable competitor in the biggest dick rivalry, allowing women to assume their rightful place in the dominant position. Here his plaintive voice is directed at the figure of a “rock and roll nurse,” a practiced dominatrix if there ever was one:
She gave me thrills from my toes
For legging ache
She gave me pills from her love
But a little too late
She gave me pills for my heart
To put me at ease
The rock and roll nurse
Shook me dead to my knees
And that’s where you belong!
Bo employs a rockabilly attack on the guitar with plenty of clean notes drenched in ample quantities of reverb. By the second chorus, he sounds like he’s on the edge of laughter, indicating that the rock and roll nurse is giving him the time of his life. The last verse where he complains to the doctor is a juke move, a pathetic attempt to convince the doc that he’s still the man with the rattlesnake whip. Nice try, Bo—now bend over and take it in the ass like a good boy!
While there’s something to be said for the quality of the original, one can hardly listen to this song without comparing it to The New York Dolls’ version . . . a performance we’ll explore . . . just a sec, let me check the schedule . . . wow! . . . next week!
“I Can Tell” (June 27, 1962): Bo goes full deep voice on “I Can Tell,” throwing in an Elvis-like accent for the hell of it. After the extraordinarily interesting lyrics and good sadistic fun of “Pills,” this feels like a downer unless you focus your attention on the crisp rhythm guitar attack. What’s more important about “I Can Tell” is its placement on the 1962 album Bo Diddley—the album that followed his successful U. K. tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard and cemented his status as a rock ‘n’ roll god with all those working class British boys looking for a more exciting life than the one awaiting them in the factories. If you listen to “I Can Tell” through their ears, you can completely understand their excitement.
“You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” (June 27, 1962): This Willie Dixon song is a sixteen-bar blues played at high speed that was also featured on Bo Diddley, making it a perfect target for The Yardbirds, who recorded it live for the Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds album back in 1963. While Bo’s version is high quality, The Yardbirds win the prize thanks to Eric Clapton’s manic rhythm picking, one of the early demonstrations of Clapton’s ability to integrate deep respect for blues foundations while exploring new pathways to bring the blues to a modern audience. Frankly, the song isn’t one of Willie Dixon’s best efforts, a string of comparatives that add up to the same message: appearances are deceiving. It made a small splash in the R&B and pop charts, but wasn’t distinctive enough to pierce the U. S. Top 20.
“Ooh Baby” (September 11, 1966): Bo should have shared the billing with The Cookies, who were temporarily rechristened the Bo-ettes because some of the girls performed with Ray Charles as the Raelettes. Their parallel background vocals—not quite call-and-response, reflecting the disjointed nature of the relationship described in the song—are soulful, languorous and intensely sexy, as if they’re stretched out on a leopard-covered chaise lounge in their most revealing lingerie. During the interplay, the girls hold firm with the single refrain, “Ooh, baby, I love you” while Bo is going crazy because he can’t figure out why a woman who says she loves him wants to leave him. Hello? Fish in the pond? Never heard of a good fuck followed by a better one? His last charting single completes the descent from mythic figure to second-best-in-the-sack . . . or, if you want to take the more enlightened view, it completes his ascent from macho bullshitter to humble, vulnerable human being.
There are few early rockers who had as much influence on the shaping of the genre as Bo Diddley. To borrow from the lingo of the period, Bo’s rock ‘n’ roll was an absolute blast, the sound of a modern pied piper seducing a generation of performers and fans with good-time rhythms validating the fundamental eroticism of great rock ‘n’ roll. I love the way Don Snowdon ends his liner notes, so instead of trying to compete with perfection, I’ll let Don have the last word here:
His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection stands as the definitive collection of the creative achievements of the performer, songwriter and sonic architect who greatly expanded the rhythmic dimension of early rock ‘n’ roll in fundamental, enduring ways.
A hodgepodge of an album constructed in haste to support an upcoming American tour; a record that cobbles together the early Jeff Beck era (side 1) with the long-gone Clapton era (side 2); a collection of tracks from one of the most distinctive and original bands of the era that contains a grand total of one original composition . . . Having a Rave Up is a fucking mess any way you look at it.
Until you put the needle to vinyl and the sound comes out.
I don’t know what it was about The Yardbirds, but however disorganized, drunk or discouraged, they nearly always managed to put out great records. Their sound was distinctive from the get-go, and would get even more distinctive as they moved beyond blues band status. While eventually all the chaos would catch up with them and leave them out of sync with the rest of the music world, there is no question they were one of the most influential bands of the 1960’s, and their DNA is firmly lodged in many of the multiple genres that make up rock today.
I do have a theory: the core band (the one pictured on the cover) consisted of members who shared past life experiences as trappist monks. As such, they spent long and dreary lives in almost total silence following the Benedictine rule of stability, fidelity and obedience. Furthermore, I believe that they all came from the trappist orders that did not produce beer. All this means that these guys were primed for bashes, orgies and rave-ups from the moment they flew down the vaginal chute and landed in the mid 20th century! What clued me to their monkish origins is their endless fascination with Gregorian chants, a topic we shall explore once I stop fucking around and get to the review, which I shall do right now.
Although they didn’t write “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” they should have. The song is credited by other music critics as a turning point song that opened their collective social consciousness and led to their great hits “Shapes of Things” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” The syntax of the lyrics is a bit awkward, but the anti-racist, anti-war, anti-stereotype messages come through loud and clear. Clarity also defines Keith Relf’s delivery as he alternates between reflective in the verses and anguished in the transitions and choruses:
Can you condemn a man,
If your faith he doesn’t hold?
Say the colour of his skin,
Is the colour of his soul?
Could you say that men,
For king and country all must die?
The song also establishes why Jeff Beck became so essential to the Yardbirds’ sound: he’s a daring, attacking guitar player unafraid of exploring new sounds and techniques. His solo, supported by superb drumming from Jim McCarty and throbbing bass from Paul Samwell-Smith is what you call a “certified ripper.” Notice also the hint of Gregorian in the vocal line fade outs on the second and third verses and say I didn’t tell you so.
“Evil Hearted You” is loosely based on the Phrygian scale, which in layman’s terms means it features one of the oddest chord patterns you’ll hear in any song of that era, allowing Jeff Beck to explore rarely-fingered parts of the fretboard. The opening power chord combo of C/E/A/E is definitely off the beaten track, but the verse gets stranger with an E/C/F/B7 pattern. The effect of all this is a kind of gothic gloominess that provides a perfect backdrop for Keith Relf’s voice—one almost completely devoid of overtones, giving it a disarming detachment that he powers with a strange sense of confidence. You wouldn’t call him a great singer in the classic sense, but he’s perfect for The Yardbirds. Back to the song, it changes completely in the rave-up bridge (a rave-up is a double-time shift that The Yardbirds used quite often), going to A/E/G until the resolution. “Evil Hearted You” may be another cover, but it’s delightfully and distinctively Yardbirds.
I guess Betty Friedan must have put fear into many a male musician’s testicles during the sixties, which is the only explanation I have for two hits titled “I’m a Man.” In truth, the songs are very different: Spencer Davis’ version has ethereal lyrics that speak more about a man exploring possibilities beyond sex but is forever entrapped by his hormones; The Yardbirds took theirs from Bo Diddley, who was never afraid to put his phallic glory on display. The Yardbirds actually trim some of Bo’s more outrageous contentions in the lyrics, but the message is still look-at-my-big-dick-baby-I-can-make-love-to-you-in-an-hour’s-time.
Men! Always rushing things! An hour? Is that all you’ve got?
Getting back to the song, this is the best two minutes and thirty-eight seconds you’ll ever experience outside of a quickie. The arrangement is one of masterful builds, tensions leading to explosions and stunning precision. In the first verse, the steady beat, Keith’s offhand cockiness and the echoing harmonica are firmly established, getting your fanny into motion. You hear Jeff Beck bending a note in the background between the verses, a very subtle foreshadowing indeed. The second verse keeps the kick going until the first instrumental passage where Keith Relf takes the lead with a sweet harmonica solo that soars with assistance from Paul Samwell-Smith’s high-speed picking on the bass into a stunning crescendo before we return to the main pattern, now played a with just a touch more verve. The Yardbirds then bring down the volume, leaving a fading bass and light percussion to hold things for a few quiet seconds. Then we hear Jeff Beck bend a note, inviting a response from Keith on the harmonica, and as they go back and forth, occasionally blending but mostly engaging in call-and-response, you feel that this is what high-intensity seduction sounds like when put to music. When Jeff goes into scratch mode it’s like he’s fucking as hard as he can to get that last drop of delight out of the system . . . he even pauses for a minute like he’s catching his breath, just like a real man! M-A-N!
There’s only one way to follow that sucker (after the ritual cigarette), and nothing else complements the post-coitus mood quite like a Gregorian Chant. “Still I’m Sad” is the only original on the album, and The Yardbirds release their inner monasticism in a compelling display of monophonic rhapsody. Technically, it’s not really a Gregorian Chant, but close enough to validate my past life theory and break new ground in rock music criticism! Relatively simple in structure when compared to “Evil Hearted You,” the repeated chant combined with the faint acoustic strum and soft percussion make for a more-than-compelling listening experience.
For all of their fascination with the new and the different, it was a decision to avoid novelty that made “Heart Full of Soul” a hit that has stood the test of time. The original arrangement called for the sitar, and the results are godawful, as you can hear on this outtake. I can hear Jeff Beck saying to the group after another disappointing take, “It’s not bloody working, mates,” paying off the Indian musicians and messing with his knobs and tubes to capture the exotic sound of the subcontinent while retaining the chutzpah of rock ‘n’ roll. That left The Beatles to become the champions of Indian music with the release of “Norwegian Wood,” while leaving The Yardbirds with one of the most distinctive singles of the era. The combination of full acoustic strum with Jeff’s distortion gives the song that Eastern feel they were looking for, and the counterpoint background vocals, alternating between octave-matching and chant-like (ha!) runs up the scale, add another layer of mystery. Jeff pretty much stuck to the melody for this solo, choosing to validate the theme instead of attempting to guarantee himself a spot on the list of 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of All-Time, and he made the right choice.
Side One ends with what would prove to be a signature song of their live performances, “Train Kept A-Rollin'”. Jeff Beck takes the lead from start with that guitar-generated train whistle and a big bottom string riff that frigging rocks. Keith Relf’s double-track vocal actually diverges into two different vocal lines from time to time instead of the usual straight overdub, creating a sound that is positively manic. Paul Samwell-Smith’s heavy bass is amped up throughout, keeping the groove hot and heavy. But Jeff Beck really steals the show with a pair of solos that fucking fly. Compared to Johnny Burnette’s original, where the poor guy sounds like he’s going to have a coronary on the heave-and-a-ho lines, The Yardbirds are completely in control here. They performed a version of the song retitled “Stroll On” for Antonioni’s Blowup that’s a hoot, one for which Jeff Beck should have won the Oscar:
Side Two consists of tracks from a live performance at the Crawdaddy Club in March 1964 that were originally released on their UK début album Five Live Yardbirds (which unsurprisingly bombed—the world simply wasn’t ready for this during the height of Beatlemania). This means Eric Clapton instead of Jeff Beck, which to me (WARNING—sacrilege coming!) is always a disappointment. I think it was best for all concerned that Clapton left The Yardbirds, for while he is a precise and talented guitarist, they needed someone with a more dynamic, expansive sound for the direction they wanted to take.
The best of the bunch is “Smokestack Lightning,” where Keith Relf knocks it out of the park with an outstanding harp solo and an unusually intense lead vocal dripping with lust and booze—I know if I had been in that crowd during this song I wouldn’t have needed a partner to get my rocks off. “I’m a Man” isn’t as tight as the studio version, and I really miss Jeff Beck here. “Respectable” takes off at high-speed and never slows down—Jim McCarty sees to that with no-holds-barred drum work that must have caused him to lose a good five pounds in the process. “Here ‘Tis” sounds like it was recorded from a different spot in the room; the sound isn’t quite as a raw as the other three tracks. McCarty shines here again with a tom-pounding performance, supported by Paul Samwell-Smith’s rollicking bass. What makes this side so special is not so much the individual tracks but the gestalt of the experience—shit, man, this was London in 1964 and the revolution had just begun! I would give anything to be a time traveler and get down with that!
I have to end this review with a bit of cheating. There have been multiple versions of this album released over the years, and though I usually prefer to focus on the original work, I’m going to take advantage of the fact that “Shapes of Things” has been included on a couple of Rave Up variants. I simply can’t leave The Yardbirds behind without commenting on one of their greatest singles.
In other reviews of this period, I’ve often tried to imagine what it must have been like for a kid in the 1960’s to hear a sound that they’d never heard before coming out of a tinny little transistor radio—like the fuzz tone in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” That poor little kid must have thought the world was ending when he heard the opening to “Shapes of Things”—the building volume of that intense, rapidly picked rhythm guitar topped with grinding feedback from Jeff Beck must have felt like something powerful and ominous was about to burst through the speaker. Feedback wasn’t new, but the way Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds used it to create sound layers and strange noises coming from unlikely places in the soundscape was truly innovative. The shifting rhythms of the song, moving from the march beat in the verses to the more unhinged rhythm in the refrains, significantly heightened the drama of an already dramatic piece. The core message driven by those maddeningly wonderful sounds must have shaken the souls of teenagers of the era who were probably starting to wonder what kind of fucked up world awaited them as adults . . . or if they would ever make it past drinking age:
Come tomorrow, will I be older?
Come tomorrow, may be a soldier.
Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?
Jeff Becks’ amazing solo—-did he really play it only using the G string?—is to die for, but what really gets me off are those über-intense distorted set of chords that end the solo. That must have sounded like the world was about to explode.
Having a Rave Up may have chaotic origins, but the music more than makes up for the mess—it captures one of the greatest bands ever during their peak period. I think it also conclusively proves that Jeff Beck was the key to The Yardbirds’ success: he gave the band a singularly unique guitarist, an exploring, inquisitive mind, and a passion for excellence that raised everyone’s game. Great musicians don’t steal the show: they bring out the best in others. During this wonderful period in the mid-1960’s, Jeff Beck did just that.