When Keith Richards finally got around to starting a band, he was regarded as a blatant and cheap imitator of Chuck Berry. "I used to slavishly copy Chuck Berry," Richards recently admitted. But it was Richards' adoration for the blues/boogie style that set the stage for one of the most influential bands in the history of music and the best for the four years from 1969 to 1972.
In its barest form, the blues is an incredibly boring format, as formulaic as any form of music can be. When the Beatles looked across the water and decided that what Buddy Holly was doing to them was an acceptable, even cool perversion, a patina of credibiltiy was handed to an entire generation of cloying rock-and-roll amateurs. But while America was burning up with package tours of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Roy Orbison, England was listening and digging the true blues hard. The British wave of R&B-influenced music raged at the start of the '60s and affected pop music forever, but the essential precedent of rock and pop lies in the blues. Even today, to listen to an old John Lee Hooker record, all scratch and hiss, evokes the true spirit of rock and roll.
Bo Diddley claims, with some truth, that he was a catalyst for crossover R&B: ÒWhen I made the record Bo Diddley in 1955, it turned the whole music scene around. When I made that record, it got airplay and everybody freaked out. Caucasian kids threw Beethoven in the garbage can. Kids were hollering, 'Hey, I like that. I want to play a guitar.'" That record ended up selling 200,000 and blended the blues with a newer, more accentuated form of music that was to become rock and roll.
Today, as alternative continues to meld with pop music, the rock-and-roll pastiche takes on many forms, often freeing up the more underground sounds to ferment, even bloom. Such is the case with a growing number of blues-based alternative bands. Surgery, Laughing Hyenas and Boss Hog all hold the 12-bar in their breast when they exude their punk noise. All might aptly be called punk bluesmen and blueswomen, deconstructing the sound of traditional blues and coming up with their own expression of the oldest American music. Hyenas singer John Brannon once termed his band's sound the "soul music of the suburbs." The common denominator of the blues/alt meld is a tapping of the primitive spirituality that gives credence to the blues.
Atlantic Records thinks Surgery is an exemplary, marketable alternative blues-based band, and it's easy to see why. Scott Kleber's Mick Taylor-esque leads snake through the pounding, swampy 12-bar of the Surgery sound. Vocalist/rhythm guitarist Sean McDonnell sees a lot more blues sneaking into the popular underground bands.
"I think that it's a valid point," McDonell says. "There has been a line of bands doing the noisier blues, and it's increasing. It gets into our sound heavily. We listen to a lot of blues, we all like Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson. Scott [Kleber, lead guitarist] likes Albert King. Our new album is gonna have a lot of slower blues. It's in us."
Kleber concurs that more bands feel the blues: "Blues was the direction I took when I got better than punk rock on my guitar. When I was able to play it, I wanted to do it, because it was the next step for me.
"I went to high school in New York City, so I could see any band I wanted to. In the early '80s, there was a lot of cool stuff going on, it was the last big blues surge -- Albert King, Lightning Hopkins, just before Muddy Waters died. The music is everywhere, and some punk musicians are bound to pick up on it."
Some of the best purveyors of twisted blues have split up, been rarely documented, or split off into other projects. Pussy Galore played a draining, cheaply sick version of the blues during its contentious existence. The band made a statement of some sort, part simple acknowledgement and part overblown but apt homage to their mentors, when they covered the whole of the Stones' Exile on Main Street. The Gibson Brothers have issued several full-length releases and a smattering of singles blending traditionally influenced originals with a smattering of older blues covers. Short-lived Minneapolis band the Bastards did a nasty, bellicose cover of "Bo Diddley" on its only LP, Monticello (Treehouse).
On the other hand, there are older artists who have relied heavily on the blues for most of their careers. Most of these started messing with the blues about the same time they formed their first band, and a degree of unlearned ineptitude spawned an authentic sound.
Nick Cave has had an ongoing affair with the blues since his days with the Birthday Party, due in no small part to the rollicking sneer of Roland HowardÕs guitar. But Cave went so far as to issue an entire record predicated on the blues in his vision: Kicking Against the Pricks (Homestead). Cave and the Bad Seeds covered Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, and delivered heartfelt versions on most attempts. The second Bad Seeds LP, First Born is Dead (Homestead), features a Blind Lemon Jefferson cover, and the whole project is an ode to the blues of the American South. Other heat-hazed tunes on the record are "Knocking On Joe," a dissipatively delivered blues sung from the view of the incarcerated, and, in homage to Elvis, "Tupelo."
The first Gun Club LP, Fire of Love (Slash), merges the influence of Robert Johnson, Son House and Charlie Patton with a guitar-as-weapon approach. Gun Club even covers Johnson's "Preaching the Blues," turning it into an ode to the idol of singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The record is pure, messed-up Delta blues, with Ward Dotson's gritty guitar blazing over Pierce's moans. Fire of Love has been recently re-released by Slash, which sees the re-emergence of the blues as a heavy influence on contemporary new music.
Kleber makes the important point that a lot of the noise that gets pegged as blues-influenced is really closer to unstructured experimentation: "I think a lot of these blues-based punk bands came out of the dissonant thing, not with the actual conscious idea of playing the blues. They play along the lines of Beefheart, or even the first Alice Cooper LP."
While the term "alternative blues" does sound like some intern-invented catch phrase, the idea is valid. Fact is, the blues have been encroaching on modern music for a while, and now more than ever, a form of messy, jaded blues expression is making itself known through the work of bands like Royal Trux (Neil Hagerty, ex of Pussy Galore, is the band's guitarist, and Kleber calls Trux the most authentic of the ragged, noisy-style bands), Railroad Jerk, and any project that involves or has involved Jon Spencer, which list includes Pussy Galore, Pontiac Brothers, Boss Hog and his current band, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
The Blues Explosion recently released Extra Width (Matador), a disk with debts to many forms of blues, from the Booker T and the MGs influence to Funkadelic to Sonny Boy Williamson imprecations. Spencer recorded part of the album in Memphis because, he explains, "that's where a lot of our influences have come from -- the Stax sound, Sun Studios stuff."
"Ever since I started listening to rock and roll," Spencer continues, "the kind of stuff I liked best was very, very simple, the crude stuff. And I think the best blues is that way. But when I hear of a band described as a blues band, or a club called a blues club, I think it sounds pretty boring. What most people's idea of a blues band is is pretty lousy music. To me, if you can just set up and play, and make people dance or feel good, you're doing it right."
Mike Bagley, a new music programmer at community station WMNF in Tampa, says there is a resurgence of dirty, simple rock and roll. "A lot of the older New York bands are into the older blues, and bands like Royal Trux are big fans of the bluesier Rolling Stones stuff. Yes, I think there is a big movement towards that form of music, especially in the bigger markets. I think it's a situation where the artists have exhausted themselves with what they've done previously. In the instance of the Blues Explosion, Jon Spencer has always played close to the blues, like with Pussy Galore, but now it's more stripped-down."
It's a grand idea, that a whole wave of musicians is bent on drawing from a tradition that has paved the road for some of the best music ever made. The feeling that there is some gravitation toward the past, without the urge to replicate, is gratifying. And that past is one in which sounds were transposed with the inaugural wave of recording technology. The emotion was what counted when the music was being documented. Not coincidentally, lo-fi recording is a prominent feature of the new blues
Kleber says, "I'd hate to think of anybody fucking up the blues intentionally. I don't believe it is a conscious thing, but more of a blend of punk rock and the blues, because for so many people like myself, punk rock is the first line of musical reference, then comes that secondary influence. Right now, for a lot of people, that influence is the blues."
"Any of the good bands," Spencer concludes, "what they're trying to do with the blues kind of music is to get back to the rawer, pure stuff."
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays at 9 p.m. Thursday, December 2, at the Shimmy Shack, 4216 Washington Ave. $5. Call 863-7383 for more info.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.