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Nails in the Coffin

Five decades of Chess Records lead to a blues stalemate

Once, I was puttering through some mediocre bass guitar at a party with a drummer who claimed to have spent time with Jodie Foster's Army. It was a fun if uninspired racket, until we were joined by a genial, silvering baby boomer in a blazer and cuff links. He strapped on a guitar and, hashing out an infamous lick, asked the drummer and me, "How 'bout we play 'Johnny B. Goode'?" The drummer rolled her eyes and looked faintly queasy. I empathized. The very thought of playing or listening to Chuck Berry -- or, god forbid, anything even remotely related to a 12-bar blues -- not only triggered my apathy, but tickled my gag reflex.

Why are the blues treated with such sanctimony? Sure, there are blues songs with sheer power, and I guess that without the blues we wouldn't have had the chance to listen to the Beatles or the Stones or, uh, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. But if unappreciative punks such as myself don't care much for the Chicago blues, it's hardly a scandal. Electric blues is, after all, just another form of popular music -- hardly sacred, whatever influence it exerted on rock. But to see the way a boom-er's beady eyes light up when a blues lick comes within earshot is slightly weird. Rockumentaries feature aging members of the British Invasion recalling with dewy eyes their coal-smudged English youth, when artists featured on Chess Records singles "spoke" to them from their turntables and radios. And on any stage shared by graying rock stars, there will inevitably be a turgid blues jam, full of soulful, earnest wincing and solos, solos, solos!

It's enough to discredit an entire genre of music. So what can younger listeners make of a series such as the Chess Records 50th anniversary sets just out on MCA, now that the innuendo and grit has been trumped by years of imitation, flatulence, posturing and spit, all in the name of the blooze? How can a pop brat weaned on decades of simulacrum and knockoff begin to appreciate a thoroughly scavenged art form?

Those even less attuned than me to the music crafted 50 years ago will want to know that Chess was to the blues what Sub Pop was to grunge. (There's a cheap comparison.) A pair of white guys from Chicago, Leonard and Phil Chess, started the label and recorded a lot of the Southern emigres filling the streets of the south side of Chicago. The lineup eventually included Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. (The last, though lesser known, was the label's musical director, and every bit the song-writing master that many insist John Lennon or Smokey Robinson or Kurt Cobain was.) Along with Sam Phillips in Memphis (who recorded Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and, oh yeah, Elvis Presley) and Ahmet Ertegun in New York (whose Atlantic label recorded Ray Charles, the Drifters and others), the Chess performers laid the foundation for music that, over the ensuing half century, evolved steadily to the point of sheer perfection embodied in, oh, No Doubt.

Let's leave aside the fact that these new multiple sets are just canny repackagings of MCA's original assemblings of the works of Chess's key artists some ten years ago and turn to the music. The various recordings in the Chess series provide ample evidence as to why what was once undeniably vital has become so boring. The foundation of the blame may be mounted upon the collarbones of those 40- to 50-year-olds enjoying 12-bar blues jams. For the I-IV-V chord progression in the 12-bar blues structure has become without a doubt the most overused pop music cliche of the 20th century.

The 50th anniversary retrospectives boast discs by the giants, among them Waters, Wolf, Diddley and Berry; Buddy Guy and Jimmy Rogers, two hotshot guitarists who recorded with the label; and blues belter Etta James. The series also includes two anthologies of Chess recordings by various artists from the periods 1947 to 1956 and 1957 to 1967 -- closing at the year of my birth, by which time rock had pretty much scoured the blues down, awaiting only the final hose blasts from Led Zeppelin. By '67, the world had already embraced not only the boogie-woogie riffs of early rock, but the even-more-blues-imitative British Invasion version. And the 12-bar I-IV-V progression was used by all. Even listeners not well-versed in music know this progression by heart. Here, for example, is a precis of "You Shook Me," written by Dixon, recorded originally by Waters, and later steamrollered by Led Zeppelin, as done by your typical blues performer:

First chord (Roman numeral I) -- say, E -- accompanied by vocal grimaces of a moderate sort: You know you shook me, baby, you shook me all night long.

Change to the IV -- here, A -- generally accompanied by a diminished smirk, and perhaps some resigned shaking of the head: You know you shook me, baby, you shook me all night ...

Back to the E, with a sudden bawling: looooong! You shook me ...
Up to the V, or dominant chord (B), with quick head-jerks and a spray of saliva: so hard, baby ...

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