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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 ...

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.

Still, let's keep something in mind: Blues is done. The Chess Records reissues are best appreciated in a historical sense. Whatever people who cling dearly to the form might claim, this genre of popular music has been thoroughly depleted. Explored, expanded upon and, ultimately, exhausted. That's life -- forms come and go. We need new cliches. Fame is fleeting. Blues may still play well as a tourist attraction, but as a wellspring, it's hacking up dust. Listening to the songs on this Chess series is the musical equivalent of marveling at a beautiful tombstone -- proof only that something was once alive.

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