Sound Check

The term "roots" music has come to mean almost everything that's good and older than the day before yesterday, including rockabilly, swing, soul and ethnic forms such as polka, salsa and conjunto. It's almost gotten easier to just say what roots doesn't cover: music on the charts or MTV, apparently, and anything that's made significant money. But a recently released set of recordings by 1960s Texas rock and roller Bobby Fuller should make us reconsider those terms.

The music Bobby Fuller made with his band, the Bobby Fuller Four, is as great in its way -- as rootsy and thoroughly American -- as all the soul songs of the same era, and equally influential; it was the springboard for the visceral pop sound that bands such as the Ramones, the Cramps and Southern Culture on the Skids have recycled. If it also represents the first stirring of a patchwork style that eventually watered down all regional differences and gave us John Cougar Mellencamp, for a time it was a beautiful mongrel.

In the liner notes to the Fuller collection Shakedown! The Texas Tapes Revisited, critic Dave Marsh runs through the variety of styles Fuller mastered in Texas between 1961 and 1964 -- ballads, rockabilly, surf and a dead-on Buddy Holly imitation -- and concludes with what could be an epitaph not just for Fuller, who died young under mysterious circumstances, but for rock and roll. None of the other Texas bands of that era, he writes, "tried to do this many things, much less tried to record it in their parents' house." That's the essence of Bobby Fuller's story: a tinkerer hunched over his twin Ampex tape decks, as mad as Thomas Edison or Les Paul, sparking like a firefly. (****)

If Fuller is remembered at all today, it's for "I Fought the Law," his Mustang Records single that nosed into the top ten in 1966 (two early versions of "Law" are on Shakedown!); it was covered by the Clash 14 years later, and can still be heard on oldies radio. But Fuller was no one-hit wonder. Over the years, some of the material on the new two-disc set, which was put together by Del-Fi Records out of Los Angeles, has dribbled out on bootlegs, and a couple of years back Del-Fi itself released two of Fuller's original Mustang records -- The Bobby Fuller Four: I Fought the Law and KRLA: King of the Wheels -- on a single CD, The Bobby Fuller Four. (***) These discs contain a number of songs -- "I Fought the Law," of course, along with "Wolfman," "Saturday Night," "Thunder Reef" and "Take My Word" -- that are found in an earlier form on Shakedown! Fuller has been a beacon to incipient rockers, not because he did one thing well, but because, as Marsh suggests, in his unorthodoxy he represents an age when people were unselfconsciously reinventing themselves. It was a time when teenagers from landlocked El Paso played credible surf guitar, and all that really mattered was the big, subversive beat.

Many of the details of Fuller's life are recounted in the Shakedown! booklet by Del-Fi staffer Bryan Thomas. Unfortunately, his comments are disturbingly similar -- word for word in some quotes -- to an article by Miriam Linna in a 1988 issue of her small magazine Kicks. Neither Linna nor Kicks is credited by Del-Fi, or by Thomas. Linna did an extraordinary amount of research on a subject no one else cared much about at the time, and she deserves recognition for it.

In Linna's Kicks account, Fuller's origins seem thoroughly ordinary. He was born just outside Houston in 1942 and, after a sojourn in Salt Lake City, resettled with his family in El Paso in 1956, where his father worked for a natural gas company. Through his high school years, he toyed with drumming, jazz and drag racing. Impressed by fellow Texan Holly, he learned guitar and experimented with rock and roll when he wasn't working in a music store.

According to Linna, Fuller and his pals spent a good part of the early '60s hanging out at the Lobby Bar in Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Bluesman Long John Hunter was the Lobby's featured attraction, and Fuller sometimes sat in on drums. He also began issuing home-recorded singles on Yucca, the same New Mexico label Hunter used; his second effort, "You're in Love," shot to the top of the play list at El Paso's KELP, standing on the shoulders of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

Fuller formed a band with his brother Randy on bass, who joined on the condition that he could play fast songs such as Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba." While Randy liked Valens, Bobby was obsessed with Holly. He insisted his band use Fender equipment because Holly had, and liked to unwind after shows by playing a guessing game using lyrics from Holly's songs. Holly, who'd blazed a path out of Lubbock by experimenting with home-recording techniques and melding disparate styles, was a natural influence. For Fuller, he represented a future attainable by wishing, puttering and leapfrogging over the dusty El Paso present.

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