Nails in the Coffin

Five decades of Chess Records lead to a blues stalemate

Down to the A, with a long glance askance followed by an abrupt tossing back of the sweaty locks and the adoption of a bee-stung face: Baby, baby, please come ...

Return to the E, the singer with eyes closed, shoulders shaking: hoooooome!
And at the very end, the band brings it on in with a brief refrain that runs quickly through the whole sequence of chords again, throughout which the vocalist grows incontinent or sad, at his or her discretion.

You hear this throughout the Chess Records 50th anniversary series, on tracks such as "The Red Rooster" by Howlin' Wolf, "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" by Etta James, "So Many Roads, So Many Trains" by Otis Rush and just about everything by Buddy Guy. However it came about, it was convenience that kept it going. The 12-bar offered a simple structure over which musicians who need not even have met before, much less rehearsed together, could take turns improvising. The form was as reliable as an old soup bone, and easy to spice up with personal touches, usually through soloing or singing. (The urge to solo is chronic among blues, jazz and rock artists alike, showmanship being a reliable way to please a crowd as well as oneself.)

Thus for the last half of this century, the 12-bar has been inescapable -- at first a unique and powerful forum for a culture-shaking array of blues artists, then a social nicety for jam sessions, then a fallback for entertainers more worried about impressing people with displays of flurry-fingered guitar prowess than about song structure and composition. Among the Chess recordings, this last category is typified by the works of Guy -- a highly talented string slinger, sure, but also a one-man Carnival Cruise Line among the showboats. Numbers such as "Worried Mind" have extended intros that serve no purpose but to gird Guy's endless pentatonic doodles. And then Guy's overembellished vocal lines come center stage. A lot of bluesmen and blueswomen brought dignity and meaning to the simple words they sang; Guy adorns his lyrics with so many "uh-huh"s and "yeah"s that they smother the song like flocking does a Christmas tree.

For those who grew up on punk and the like, the 12-bar soup bone is a bland fossil indeed. Today, listeners sup on riffs, which differ from chord progressions in that they're thematic as opposed to supportive. There'll always be an audience for wank, but younger audiences are more likely to be impressed by good riffs and variations in structure than all that flourish on top. As a result, those many tracks on the Chess Records series that use the 12-bar structure sound stale -- it is, after all, only one riff that the younger ear keeps hearing over and over, track after track.

Still, there's no denying that the electric blues had more going for it than just structure. A few tunes on the 1947 to 1956 and 1957 to 1967 discs, as well as on those by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Rogers, fare better for the modern ear. These are invariably either songs that eschew the 12-bar format altogether -- often never changing chords or key at all -- or that are so instrumentally sparse that the whole cause of chord structure is lost. Both of these simpler formats, by necessity, further the use of riffs: repetitive yet compelling melodies or chord sequences. It's a more basic technique, but it's got all the pluck and muscle of a Neanderthal conducting a symphony orchestra with a bludgeon. (This is good.) When the instrumental sounds aren't muddied with a lot of backup, they really breathe: Waters's shimmering electric slide and Rogers's slurred phrases almost serve more as a human voice than the guitarists' singing. Waters started with this sort of sparseness early in his career, on tunes such as "I Can't Be Satisfied," "Long Distance Call" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You" -- a song with such a beautifully stark and quiet arrangement that when Little Walter finally comes in after a couple of choruses with his eerie, distorted harmonica, the drama and contrast hint at the power that the British Invasion softies must have heard.

Similarly compelling is John Lee Hooker's "Sugar Mama" (on the 1947 to 1956 disc), a loose-measured interplay of single voice, single guitar and tapping foot that recalls the Delta blues -- the echoing, infinitely superior stuff that sounds little like today's popular music. Stalwart examples of the staying power of a good riff include "Smokestack Lightnin' " and "Spoonful" by Howlin' Wolf, as well as "Mannish Boy" by Waters. The riff of "Mannish Boy" never strays from its five-chop sequence of three chords -- and still, after all these years, is more instantly recognizable than most 12-bar blues songs. The "Mannish Boy" riff remains a lyrically entertaining pastoral full of blossoming adolescent sexuality -- or at least that's what I think Waters is talking about when he says he's picking up his second cousin and a "John the Conqueroo."

The later blues recordings in the Chess series suffer from a growing sophistication and emphasis on flaunting; the 1947 to 1956 disc is much better than the 1957 to 1967 compilation, and less given to reliance on 12-bar form. The later recordings are more prone to extended noodling, bland form and needless embellishment. Even Waters begins to sound dull and showy on 12-bar numbers such as "Take the Bitter with the Sweet," though his 1962 version of "You Shook Me" still beats Led Zeppelin's ham-handing.

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