Sunday, November 16, 2008

Creedence Revived
As much as we wax nostalgic about all the great music that came out of the sixties, precious little of it is remembered by the twenty-first century public. Sure, the Beatles stood the test of time, and the Rolling Stones continue to limp their way into immortality. But I can pretty much guarantee you that if you mention the Yardbirds, the Dave Clark Five or even the Kinks to the average person under forty, you’ll get a blank-eyed response. American bands fared no better. Does anybody today remember Country Joe and the Fish or Quicksilver Messenger Service or Jay and the Americans?—no, people remember catchy tunes they heard on their tinny transistor radios. We remember the Doors because of “Break On Through” and “LA Woman.” We remember Creedence Clearwater Revival because of a remarkable string of hit singles.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying here, and I certainly don’t want to discount the contributions of artists like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane of the Velvet Underground. The vast majority of people may know “Sweet Jane” or “Truckin’” or “Somebody to Love”, but they’ll be hard-pressed to name the artist, much less tell you anything about them. Nor are they overly interested in doing so. It’s the songs that matter, man.

And that’s why Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Creedence, or CCR, or whatever your pet name might be for them, are still a mainstay of American rock and roll after all these years. They hit on a common chord in the American psyche, some sort of racial history rooted in the blues, the swamp, the bayou, that mythical arena of arenas where everybody shares some common ground, regardless from where they hail. The members of Creedence were from the San Francisco Bay area, not the bayou swamps they made the personification of America. They nonetheless tapped into a spirit that was uniquely American—the same restless force that birthed the blues, country and western and even rock and roll. What they pulled out of that was a distillation of where American rock began, and a portent of where it was going.

Forty years after the debut of CCR’s debut, Fantasy Records (now under the auspices of Concord Music Group) has released the six albums that comprised their career as a quartet. In essence, it’s a complete Creedence Clearwater Revival collection. Granted, there was one more album, Mardi Gras, but it hardly represents the canon of the band—the band was splintered by infighting, and Tom Fogerty had left the band, reducing them to a trio that was bored with each other. And it showed in that final effort—it was a critical and popular flop, and it was the end of CCR. All good things come to an end.

But the six albums Creedence released at a breakneck pace from 1968-70 earned the band, and particularly John Fogerty, a lofty place in rock history. The band’s eponymously titled debut, propelled by their hit version of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q,” launched them into stratospheric fame, missing Billboard’s Top Ten by one point. Another cover, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” introduced thousands of suburban kids (myself included) to a grittier, darker bayou sound, and prompted us into an investigation of the roots of the sound that CCR espoused. Another highlight of the debut is “Porterville,” a song Fogerty had written some years earlier, and considers his first “real” composition.

What makes this freshman effort important is it marks a departure, and a transition, in rock’s late adolescence from flower power to more of an everyman experience. Creedence was a band that had spent years (in various incarnations) honing their craft in clubs and bars. In the process, they built their own version of rock mythology, one more closely aligned to bar patrons than making social statements. The album largely reflects the values of a working band stretching their wings. The 40th anniversary edition of Creedence Clearwater Revival is a noteworthy remaster of the debut album, containing four bonus tracks, including “Call It Pretending” (the B-side of the band’s first single), their first recording of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” (found later on Cosmo’s Factory), as well as live versions of “Ninety-Nine and a Half” and “Suzie Q.” Former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, wrote the booklet notes, which also includes reproductions of the singles’ package art, and photos of the band at the time.

As auspicious as the debut was, “Suzie Q” barely missed cracking the Billboard’s Top Ten, topping at #11, and the second single never made the Top 40. It wasn’t until the dying days of 1968, when the band released “Proud Mary,” and its B-side “Born On the Bayou,” that the band exploded on the scene. Released in advance of the band’s sophomore album release Bayou Country, the single was a smash hit, and inspired countless covers. No less a personage than Bob Dylan declared it his favorite record of the year. Creedence were suddenly stars, and Bayou Country went platinum. The British Invasion and psychedelica were effectively demolished.

Bayou Country was more than CCR’s first major hit—as San Francisco Chronicle critic Joel Selvin says in the notes that accompany the reissue, “it announced Creedence Clearwater as a bright, vital force in rock and staked a place for what was yet to come.” Creedence had created a sound that was born of a mythical south that never existed, but resonated with the romance of a Mark Twain novel combined with a vaguely outlaw spirit. Besides Selvin’s illustrated notes, the reissue includes an extended take of the jam “Bootleg,” more definitive of the Creedence sound. It also features versions of “Born on the Bayou” and “Proud Mary” from the band’s farewell 1971 European tour. By this time, Tom Fogerty had left the band, and these recordings are interesting historically, showing a band on the verge of dissolving. While those performances represent a shadow of the band at its prime, the 1969 live jam “Crazy Otto” displays the band at its most playful.

Bayou Country showed CCR were no one hit wonder—they knew how to work a room, and they were on a roll. They released two more albums in 1969. Green River debuted in August of that year, and its title track was an instant radio hit. It also yielded “Bad Moon Rising,” which has gone on to be the unofficial theme song of every vampire and werewolf movie made since the eighties. Taken in context, though, the album shows a band restless to be more than a Top 40 band, hiding relevance in catchy tunes. That sentiment is most eloquently expressed in “Lodi,” about a singer who barely missed his gold ring.

Green River illustrated Creedence’s greatest strengths, and it also showed some of its insecurities. They were a bar band made good, after all, and they knew how to rock a room. “Commotion” and their cover of Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is the Right Time” prove that. But the band had also begun to resort to filler, and some of the lesser known tracks are more rambling blues jams at best. The bonus tracks on this reissue seem thrown together, consisting of two unfinished jams, and three uninspired live performances (as a trio) from their 1971 farewell tour. Dave Marsh, of Rolling Stone fame, provides the liner notes.

Willie and the Poor Boys, released later the same year, further solidified CCR’s standing as the hit machine of the time. More importantly, it placed the band in the center of the social upheaval of 1969. “Fortunate Son” wasn’t an anti-Viet Nam war song so much as it was a diatribe against the machinations of wealth pitted against the powerless who served in the war. It was one of the few times that CCR was overtly political, and it’s relevant to this day. “Down on the Corner,” the hit that details the everyday routine of the mythical Willie and the Poor Boys is also a sort of an origin story of CCR, and a tribute to American working bands. These two songs alone would make the album noteworthy, but it’s also a more sure-footed album than Green River, and includes polished covers of blues classics “Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields.” Bonus tracks include previously unreleased live performances of “Fortunate Son” and “It Came Out of the Sky”, both from the 1971 European farewell tour. As other performances from that tour, they’re rather flat. But the live version of “Down on the Corner” from a jam session Creedence did with Booker T. & the MG’s in 1970 more than makes up for those shortcomings. Liner notes are by NYT contributor Ed Ward.

Cosmo’s Factory was released in August 1970, and it was the biggest, and arguably the best, of the five consecutive Top Ten albums the band released between 1969 and 1970. Two singles in advance of the album’s release had already generated the requisite buzz for its success—“Travelin’ Band/”Who’ll Stop the Rain?” had been released in January, and “Up Around the Bend” followed in April. Cosmo’s Factory is, by any standards, one of the essential rock albums. It encompasses all the elements by which rock lives in one masterpiece. It seamlessly pays homage to rockabilly, blues, country and soul, melding the genres into something that sounded unique. It certainly contained some of their biggest FM hits—“Run Through the Jungle,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” and their signature cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Though the Grapevine.” The reissue also features three bonus tracks—a bare-bones take of “Travelin’ Band,” with no horns overdubs, a live version of “Up Around the Bend” from the 1971 European tour (Could they be thinking of releasing this performance as a future album?), and an unreleased version of “Born on the Bayou,” recorded with Booker T. and the MGs. Legendary Village Voice critic Robert Christgau provides the liner notes.

By 1970, Creedence was the best-selling band in the world, surpassing even the Beatles. If Cosmo’s Factory was CCR’s White Album, its successor, Pendulum, was certainly their Let It Be. The band was imploding, with the other three members rebelling against John Fogerty’s autonomy, insisting they should share some writing credits. He finally agreed, and Pendulum would be the last Creedence album he produced. It’s a disjointed affair, with band members laying down their parts remote from one another. Even at that, it produced two last gasp hits for the band—“Hey Tonight” and “Have You ever Seen the Rain?”. For the most part, though, the internal tensions of the band can almost be felt—it’s as though they’re phoning in the performances, and, in many ways, they actually were. Tom Fogerty left the band two months after Pendulum’s release, effectively ending Creedence Clearwater Revival as we think of them. While the remaining members would release one more album, Mardi Gras, it was a critical and commercial failure.

The bonus tracks on the reissue of Pendulum are lackluster, consisting of “45 Revolutions Per Minute (Parts 1 & 2)”, a promotional single that hyped Creedence’s popularity, and compared them to the Beatles. It’s a satire of “Revolution No. 9” that doesn’t quite work. The other bonus is a previously unreleased live version of “Hey Tonight,” recorded during --are your ready?—the 1971 European final tour. Joel Selvin returns to pen the liner notes.

The Creedence Clearwater Revival 40th Anniversary reissues are a handsome collection, with packaging that reproduces, as nearly as a CD can, the cover art of the original vinyl editions. The supplemental material accompanying each disc enhances the historical significance of the band’s short career, and the remastered sound is flawless. Though a case could be made for packaging the reissues as a boxed set, hearing them as individual works, and savoring them in the context of the time they were released is more satisfying. Creedence was a band based on individual songs, not concepts. They had no pretensions to art, and it’s only in retrospect that we realize their importance in the rock canon. Creedence and their mythical American South paved the way for Springsteen’s equally mythical Jersey. Mellencamp’s Midwest and countless other bands still sweating it out every night in seedy rock and roll bars.

It’s about the song, after all.